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Somewhere to call their own

Somewhere to call their own
The ruins of a home built with care and attention to detail, Photo Credit: Brijesh Patel

An Anglo-Indian settlement that was meant to be a special place - remained only a small town with a special history

Ian Jack
April 28 , 2014
25 Min Read

About 1500 feet up in the Chota Nagpur hills, in eastern India, there lies a sprawling monument to racial fears and racial fancies, and to an idea of nationhood that shimmered temptingly in the year between the two world wars and then vanished leaving this as its only trace. It has an odd name: McCluskiegunge. Several place names in India share this conjunction of West and East: McLeodgunge, Frasergunge, Daltongunge, Tollygunge. Usually they are named after some British district collector or military officer who, in the days of empire, benefited his patch of Indian countryside by building a road or a canal, or by simply being perceived as a decent man deserving a memorial (the word ‘gunge’, or ‘ganj’ in Hindi, means a storehouse or market). McCluskie, however, was not a British official nor any kind of white man doing good. He had Indian as well as Irish blood, and this remote place in the hills was built as a settlement for his kind of people. ‘Anglo-Indians’ is the official name, though for a couple of centuries they felt the spittle of other descriptions: half-breeds, half-castes, mixed-bloods, cheechees, Chutney Marys, those with a touch of the tarbrush.


Had history worked out differently, McCluskiegunge might have become the capital of their small Indian state and McCluskie honoured as the Herzl of Anglo-India. That was the idea. Like the Jews, McCluskie’s followers saw themselves as a wandering people, reviled and abused. Like the Zionists, they wanted a homeland and a redoubt; as the publicity for the project described it, the site promised ‘a natural fortification offered by a chain of hills’. But that grand, perhaps even mad, ambition was never realized. Today McCluskiegunge is a scattering of bungalows strung together by a dusty road and divided by a railway line. Steam locomotives haul a slow passenger train up from the junction at Barkakana twice a day. At night, the sound of drumming echoes across the scrub from the tribal villages nearby. There are many poisonous snakes. Electricity is uncertain. Cautious residents, before they snuff out their candles, spread a little carbolic acid on the floor at the side of their beds as a defence against kraits and cobras.


I first went to McCluskiegunge a dozen years ago, drawn as much by the name as the fact that my wife’s aunt and uncle had bought a bungalow there, where, during the Calcutta holidays, our uncle would take his rifle and hunt wild pig while our aunt worried about the snakes and made marmalade. Under clear night skies we drank rum and water and listened to my mother-in-law and her sister singing the Bengali songs they had sung from childhood. McCluskiegunge was their idea of a rural idyll, snatched from the acrid turmoil of metropolitan Calcutta, and I too came to be captivated by it, less because it was a wilderness (the reason it appealed to the Calcutta hunters) than because in the middle of the wilderness there were small pieces of Europe, of Britain, which had somehow got marooned.


Whichever way you came, by train or by road, everything suggested a passage out of westernized, modern India. Calcutta was fewer than 300 miles to the east, but the overnight railway journey took fourteen hours and a lot of shunting. Long before Barkakana Junction was reached the reassuring, fertile fields of the Bengal plain had slipped away; the morning view from the carriage window showed raw hills where children chased goats among the rocks. The forty-mile drive from Ranchi, the nearest town, was no easier; the metalled road eventually gave way to a rutted track. Taxi drivers who had picked you up at the airfield would curse and want to turn back.


And yet at the end of these journeys lay not the unknown but the known. Two churches, the remains of a fountain, well-kept gardens, houses labelled Retreat, the Hermitage, Hill Cottage and (of course) Dunroamin. Inside these houses, elderly Anglo-Indians kept to their old ways.  They made rose cookies, plum cake, guava jelly, spiced beef. They had clocks that chimed mournfully on the hour, and pictures of Constable’s England and jokey mottoes on the wall: ‘I am the boss in this house — and I have my wife’s permission to say so!’ Several of the men had retired from the railways. Mr Jim King’s proudest possession was a photograph of the locomotive which had hauled King George V to the Delhi durbar, driven by his father. Mr Noel Ramsbotham, another old driver, liked to revive a more painful memory. He had been hit by the Bangalore Mail in 1932. Oddly, he had been stretched out asleep on the main line at the time. ‘She saw me and whistled up,’ Mr Ramsbotham would say over his evening drink, ‘but by then it was too late.’ And if you asked these men how they were, they would reply, ‘Oh, pulling along, pulling along’, as though they themselves were engines, like those created by the Reverend Awdry.


The women wore frocks and (in the cool season) cardigans and socks. They were kind and lively. ‘Have some more plum cake,’ said Mrs Rosario. ‘Try my guava jelly,’ said Mrs Thipthorpe, who in McCluskiegunge was known as Mrs Tip-Top, perhaps because of her home-cooking or perhaps because the name was easier to say. Many of their children had emigrated. Photographs were passed around: Conrad in Romford, Tyrone in Ontario, brown men in white countries trying to adjust to the ignorance of the indigenous population, who thought they were simply immigrant Indians — strange people with strange customs — when in fact they had reached their literal fatherland and could drink and swear (and down plum cake) as well as the next man.


Few people in McCluskiegunge saw their racial origins as problematic or any irony in describing Britain as Home. They seemed easy in themselves. The one exception was Miss Dorothee Bonner, who lived in a bungalow near the level crossing and had retired from the executive ranks of the Imperial Tobacco Company in Calcutta rather than from some hick railway town. Miss Bonner was grand and fierce, with a face that resembled Somerset Maugham’s and a penchant for trousers and sécateurs. Her house had the most melodious chiming clocks, her garden some of the finest roses. She presided over the McCluskiegunge burial board — and burying people, her fellow board members agreed, was one of the great concerns of McCluskiegunge. Alone among her fellow Anglo-Indian settlers, she had visited Europe and there, in London and Paris before the war, she had discovered something about herself. She would think of her roses and say defiantly: ‘I am hybrid, and here among my fellow hybrids is the only place I can feel at home.’


Not much is known about Timothy Ernest McCluskie, other than that he rarely visited McCluskiegunge and certainly never lived there. In his photograph he looks a dandy — bow tie, moustache, rimless spectacles — but the people I met in McCluskiegunge were post-war settlers and had never seen him. Eventually, nine years ago, I traced his eighty-year-old-niece, Mrs Gladys Meredith, to her flat in Calcutta. There was a now-familiar motto on the wall: ‘I am the boss in this house…’


What kind of man had her uncle been? ‘Oh,’ said Mrs Meredith, ‘very jolly and jovial, though he wasn’t much of a drinker. A convivial sort of fellow. And very fair-complexioned, Dutch-looking. There was hardly a tint in him.’


His father was an Irish railwayman, a platelayer on the Bengal–Nagpur line, who had adopted and then married a Brahmin outcast girl from Benares. The couple moved to Calcutta, where the platelayer died of grog, and his wife, so Mrs Meredith remembered, grew into an old Indian lady who chewed cheroots. But their son did well, first in insurance and then as a small-time share and property dealer. He was generous. His niece recalled how he would hire a paddle steamer and take parties down the Hooghly to shoot tiger and crocodile. In his house in Calcutta there were preserved in a frame on the wall the contents of one crocodile’s stomach: anklets, bangles, beads and human teeth. His wife, a Portuguese woman much older than himself, played the organ in Calcutta’s Anglican cathedral.


In this way he became a luminary of Anglo-Indian society, a member of Bengal’s Legislative Council, and a friend of the most powerful politician and lobbyist the Anglo-Indian community ever produced, Sir Henry Gidney.


Gidney was a military surgeon, another son of an Irish railwayman and another dandy. With spats and a monocle and an orchid in his buttonhole, he would take to the dance floors of Indian clubs and hotels and there present his audience with what his biographer described as ‘a fascinating exhibition of the Argentinean tango’. Womanizing made him notorious — there were jokes about his ever-changing series of companions, always described by Gidney as ‘my nursing sister’ — but, as Gidney was fond of pointing out, ‘God never intended one’s wedding bells to be one’s funeral bells.’


Like McCluskie, he was also a big-game hunter, with a Calcutta flat bristling with tigers’ heads. Together these two men, with their possibly over-romantic view of the open-air life, arrived at the idea that the best way to save their community was to convert engine drivers and ticket clerks into a hardy race of pioneer farmers.

 

Gidney’s first scheme ended in disaster. In the early 1920s he proposed that the Indian government should subsidize a mass exodus of Anglo-Indians to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the tropics of the Bay of Bengal, which they would colonize as coconut growers under the protection — the natives were reported to be fierce — of a conscripted Anglo-Indian army and navy. Doubters pointed out that since the fourteenth century, malaria had killed off almost every attempt at settlement; just to make the islands reasonably healthy by draining the swamps would cost several million pounds. But Gidney put his faith in the coconut crop. Lord Leverhulme, the Lancashire soap king (and always something of a sucker for uplifting schemes in unlikely places), had promised he would take every bucket of coconut oil the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could produce; and that, Gidney estimated, would yield £4 million a year.


A committee was formed and in 1923 twelve Anglo-Indian ex-servicemen sailed from Calcutta as the colonizers’ advance party. Three of them soon died on the islands, and the others returned after a year. For Gidney’s critics it simply confirmed an old racial prejudice; crudely, that Anglo-Indians were a useless bunch of dreamers who lacked stamina and organization.


Other, more realistic schemes of migration were proposed — to British Guyana, to British East Africa, to New Zealand (thought, alone in the white empire, to be free of racial prejudice). But Gudney persisted with his vision of a separate Indian homeland. In London in 1931, as the Anglo-Indian representative at the Round Table Conference called to discuss the political future of India, he urged that the community be given 200,000 acres; an area slightly larger than the Isle of Wight, and one acre, more or less, for every Anglo-Indian in the census.


The government rejected this demand, but McCluskie in the meantime had found a site. After thirty months spent prospecting throughout India for land that offered what he called ‘the Three Rs’ — Road, River, Railway — he had persuaded a raja in Chota Nagpur to lease him 10,000 acres near a station then called Lapra on the newly built loop line from Barkakana. Gidney ridiculed the idea — Lapra seemed to him remote and barren — and the two men fell out. McCluskie persevered on his own and formed a cooperative society, the Colonisation Society of India Limited, through which Anglo-Indians could buy plots at Lapra and set themselves up as smallholders. He wrote in the prospectus: ‘I present a complete scheme to my people…where they make a home and grow into nation by unity and co-operation.’


Sitting at his desk in Calcutta, McCluskie presented Lapra as a kind of Eden. The climate was excellent (‘with breezes reminiscent of Darjeeling’), the land fertile. Almost anything could be grown or reared: fruit, tea, vegetables, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and poultry. Nor was remoteness a problem: the loop line down which coal trains trundled from the Bihar coalfield would soon be converted into a new trunk route between Calcutta and Bombay. And the site offered scope for almost limitless expansion; another 200,000 acres were available for settlement, if and when the society wanted them. Anglo-Indians were told that this was ‘the most historical move of the community, fighting for its very existence and solving its own salvation in its darkest hour’. Success would bring ‘the respect and admiration of the world’. Apathy and failure would mean ‘contempt and ridicule’. 


The response was heartening. Anglo-Indians across the subcontinent bought shares. The society monthly magazine, the Colonisation Observer, printed lists of shareholders, and there was hardly a railway town between Baluchistan and Burma without at least one inhabitant who had invested his savings. Soon the Colonisation Observer was publishing photographs of colonizers in the act of colonizing. Men in sola topis and baggy shorts posed outside tents or half-finished bungalows, sometimes resting on their axes. Such scenes (the captions implied) gave the lie to the racial stereotype of enfeebled dependence on the white boss class. A verse from Longfellow was quoted:


In the world’s broad fields of battle,

In the bivouac of life,

Be not dumb, like driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!


For the foundation ceremony on 3 November 1934, the settlers erected a triumphal arch of home-grown vegetables. A crowd of 300 watched as a memorial fountain was unveiled, and then sat down on benches to eat salmon mayonnaise. Speeches by Anglo-Indian notables made the usual exhortations. Anglo-Indians should give up smoking and drinking; clean living, thrift, education — these were the watchwords. They should breed dogs and rear cattle. They should ‘try to meet a large part of India’s needs of ham, bacon, chilled turkey and pickles’. This was their big chance. As the Reverend P.E. Curtis wrote in a letter read to the assembly: ‘The Jews rejected both their leader and his message and they are still a wandering, homeless nation, scattered, persecuted and reviled. Shall we not take a lesson out of their book of history? Shall we not make every endeavour to prevent such a fate befalling us by the rejection of our leader and his message?’


The crowd apparently took this to heart and by popular vote decided that from that day on Lapra would be known as McCluskiegunge, in honour of ‘our noble founder — Old Mac’. Whether Old Mac was there to hear this tribute is unclear; the ambiguity of the Colonisation Observer’s report suggests that he was not, that he was relaxing in his Calcutta flat with a whisky and soda. He died there the following year.


McCluskiegunge as an ideal survived its founder’s death. Sir Henry Gidney took over the role of the colony’s father figure; the settlers even planned to tempt him to come and live among them by building him a house, Gidney Castle, in a section of the colony to be known as Gidneytown.  Sir Henry wasn’t tempted, though by 1936 almost 400 of his followers had bought land. A school, a bank and a clubhouse opened. A Roman Catholic and an Anglican church were built. A dentist, a doctor and a baker arrived. A cannery began to produce tinned fruit. To read the Colonisation Observer for those years is to see a heartbreaking portrait of people who thought they had given history the slip. People might say that Anglo-Indians would never take to pioneering conditions, wrote an editorial, ‘but we know better’.


Not for long, however. Certain basic drawbacks of McClukiegunge began to take their toll. The place lacked water, but paradoxically had plenty of black-water fever; the loop line never carried the promised Bombay expresses; farmers faced difficulties both in growing and marketing their crops. And then there came the familiar note of self-doubt and racial despair. History had not been shaken off, after all. There was something wrong, the Colonisation Observer decided, with ‘the mentality of the settlers’.


What the magazine meant by ‘mentality’ was demonstrated by the complaints and dissension in its own letter columns. Racial antagonism broke out against the so-called ‘pseudo Anglo-Indians’ — Goans and south Indian Christians — who had been allowed to buy land (‘Let this evil be stamped out by insisting on proofs of European parentage on the father’s side’). Anglo-Indians might be trying to think themselves into a new role as an Indian people or tribe, but evidently paternity (no matter how distant or humble) remained the sole criterion for membership. In the Colonisation Observer’s etiquette column, Mr Query asked if it was proper to eat a sandwich with one’s fingers. And Professor Owl replied: ‘Yes, if you can do so gracefully; if not, use a fork.’ Those were the benefits of Europe, the small things that might set McCluskiegunge’s pioneers apart from — and above — a population which could scoop entire meals with the skilful use of its right hand.


By 1940 the game was up. No more than a fifth of the society’s share capital of 500,000 rupees had been subscribed; only 6800 acres of land had been sold; there were only about a hundred settler families left. The great majority of India’s Anglo-Indian workers had clung, perhaps wisely, to their jobs in railway yards and footplates and telegraph offices, and of the few who had answered McCluskie’s call many were sucked back into Calcutta by wartime wages. The Colonisation Observer published its last issue in 1942 and by the end of the war the cannery and shops had closed. The Colonisation Society itself persisted and even tried to liberalize itself by removing, at Indian Independence, passages in its charter which were offensive to Indians. But it too collapsed, after a bitter Anglo-Indian wrangle, in 1955.


McCluskiegunge became a place to which people retired — Mr King, Mr Ramsbotham, Miss Potter, Mrs Tip-Top — and then died. When I first went there, in 1978, only a couple of dozen Anglo-Indian families survived. That year, for the first time, the Indian priest at the Anglican church had conducted the Christmas service entirely in Hindi, not a word of English spoken. That was reasonable; the congregation now contained far more Christian tribals than Anglo-Indians. But, of course, there were complaints to the bishop.


McCluskiegunge is a chastening place to think about race. A separate racial identity did not seem to have been the solution for Anglo-Indians, but then what was? Perhaps, as a group, there was none. After the British quit the Indian subcontinent, many of them emigrated and many of those who remained simply became, as individuals, one more kind of many kinds of Indian. And yet the feeling of superiority hardly died away. It remained a defence; to lose it was to lose Europe and get lost among the mass. You let your side down. This had happened to some people in McCluskiegunge. There was the perpetual drunk who lived in a tin hut behind the Roman Catholic chapel. And then there was Kitty Taxeira.


I first heard about Kitty from Mrs Tip-Top. ‘She’s a good-looking girl is Kitty but terribly wild. She goes to the station and sells produce. It’s sad. She got mixed up with some tribal fellows and now she walks about barefoot and all, and only speaks to her mother in Hindi.’


Mrs Tip-Top was right. When I saw Kitty at the station she did indeed look pretty and wild, with her loose hair and bare feet, like a browner version of one of Russell Flint’s dancing gypsies. She hawked little oranges to passengers who passed money out through the bars on the carriage windows, and then, in the long gaps between trains, helped some tribal men to brew country liquor in a drum at the foot of the signal post. She and her mother lived in a bungalow called Woodlands high up on a tree-covered hill to the south of the station. There was no road to the house and the trees completely obscured it; even old McCluskiegunge hands tended to forget it was there.


On the final day of my last visit I decided to walk up this hill. I took the path east from the station, past the pink spoil-heaps of locomotive cinders, and then followed it south up a sloping field of red earth until I reached an unkempt orchard of lime, guava and mango trees. This was Mrs Texeira’s land and in the middle of it stood the ruin of her bungalow, Woodlands. There was only a little glass in the windows and the holes in the asbestos roof had been stuffed with rags. Kitty’s mother, Marjory, took me into the parlour, where goats were nuzzling some old wicker chairs and the floor was strewn with leaves. A Winchester shotgun lay upright in one corner.


‘Mine,’ said Mrs Texeira. ‘You need it in these parts.’


She was old, poor and undernourished, as tattered as her bungalow. She wore a ragged blue cardigan and white crepe stockings on her stick-like legs. At first she seemed half-mad with bitterness and despair. The tribals had put a spell on her daughter; the Bengalis who wanted to buy her land were cheats. It was providence that I had come, she said, because I could answer two questions. Was the river Euphrates really drying up? And when was Halley’s Comet next expected? I said I didn’t know (though apparently, thanks to dams, the Euphrates isn’t the river it used to be).


‘Revelations,’ she said, ‘it’s in the Book of Revelations.’ She was waiting for the end of the world.


We talked for an hour or two and Mrs Texeira sucked on her bidis, her cheap Indian cigarettes, and grew calmer. She was pleased by my interest in her ornaments. There were still a few pictures and books. On the wall hung a tinted photograph of a couple in smart European clothes holding a baby—the woman with bobbed hair and a neat white blouse, the man in a blazer and white flannels. That was Mr and Mrs Texeira and the infant Kitty. On a shelf stood copies of Little Women and What Katy Did, crisp with age and white-ant holes.


Mrs Texeira saw me looking at them and quoted from As You Like It

And so, from hour to hour

we ripe and ripe,

And then from hour to hour

we rot and rot,

And thereby hangs a tale.


Mrs Texeira’s tale was this. She was born Marjory Roberts in 1912 in a hill station, Shillong, and baptized in the Welsh Presbyterian chapel in the Assamese town of Guwahati. Her grandfather, a Welshman, had served in the East India Regiment. (She had preserved his discharge papers; he was the only link to that other civilization which murmured from her walls.) During the war, she had worked as a nurse in a military hospital and there had met her husband, who as the son of one of McCluskie’s pioneers had brought her to this lonely house on the hill. Here Kitty had been born and her husband had died — buried, so Mrs Texeira said, without much regret. She sucked on her bidi. ‘The marriage was a misalliance. My husband was a waster.’


But by now in her conversation she was almost cheerful. The undertow of her every sentence said: my birthplace is an accident, the world to which I properly belong lies elsewhere. She recited the names of cheeses — Camembert, Roquefort, Edam, Caerphilly. She spoke lovingly of kippers and lemon sole. And once, hearing I was from Scotland, burst into ‘Ye Banks and Braes.’


We walked together through the trees and I shook her hand on the edge of the mango grove. ‘It’s been so nice to meet you,’ she said, ‘so nice to talk to my own kind for a change.’


Down at the station I saw Kitty again. ‘My daughter,’ Mrs Texeira had said with a shake of the head, ‘is a perfect little tribal.’ Now she was preparing a basket of oranges for the evening train and joking in Hindi with the brewers of county liquor. She seemed to have made her peace — perhaps not with India, which is too large and complicated an idea, but at least with that small part of it where she was born.


Extract from Ian Jack’s Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977–2012 (Penguin/Viking, Rs 599). Published with permission from Penguin Books India.



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