Adam Antony Sinclair has fond memories of Christmas in Podanur, the Coimbatore neighborhood where he grew up in the 1980s and 90s. It was an innocent age, and at night Sinclair and his friends would go door-to-door singing Christmas carols with the aroma of vindaloo, mince balls cooking in coconut curry and cake wafting out of kitchens.
“It was a close-knit community, and everyone who lived there—Anglo-Indians, Christians, Hindus or Muslims—would welcome us. At Anglo-Indian homes, we’d get cake,” says Sinclair, who played hockey for India at the 2004 Summer Olympics at Athens and the Doha Asian Games in 2006.
39-year-old Sinclair, whose paternal grandfather was Scottish, describes Anglo-Indians as “athletic and easy-going.” The community has produced some famous sportspersons, such as the 1983 World Cup hero and now BCCI president Roger Binny, hockey legend Leslie Claudius and athlete Norman Pritchard, regarded as India’s first Olympic track and field medalist. However, Pritchard’s place in Indian sports history continues to be debated since both his parents were English. And while he developed as an athlete in Kolkata, his entry at the 1900 Olympics held in Paris was, according to many accounts, as a representative of British India.
What is not under debate, however, is the Anglo-Indian community’s sporting passion and prowess which seems to have rubbed off on non-Anglo-Indians too.
MM Somaya, former captain of the Indian men’s hockey team, grew up on Spence Road in Byculla. The working-class central Mumbai suburb had two ‘railway colonies’ that housed the many Anglo-Indians who worked for the railways. Somaya was thus surrounded by Anglo-Indian children and coaches. His hockey mentor at St Mary’s School in Mazagaon was an Anglo-Indian by the name of George Page who had played for the Western Railways. There were several sporting talents from the community on the playground on a daily basis. Coming into contact with people like Page, a jovial old maven of the sport, and competing with Anglo-Indian boys made Somaya realize how much stronger he had to get. He put in the work and went on to reach Olympic heights.
“I owe Anglo-Indians a lot for the initial part of my career,” Somaya says. “Playing with them toughened me up. Sadly, many of the players who were really good at the school-level either migrated or couldn’t pursue the sport for some reason. But they had such natural athletic ability.”
It was common for Anglo-Indian boys to excel at multiple sports, especially athletics. Roger Binny was a javelin thrower before he decided to pursue cricket. He was also good at hockey, discus throw and jumping events. Young Binny was quietly ambitious. Friends and acquaintances recollect him waking up at five every morning for cricket drills in Bengaluru’s Benson Town.
We remember Binny today for being the highest wicket-taker—18 in total— at the 1983 World Cup and for being a handy batsman. But thanks to his athletic past, he also pulled off some fine catches, like a low caught-and-bowled off Martin Crowe in Australia during the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup of 1985.
The trend of taking up one sport but then making a name in another can also be seen in the case of Leslie Claudius. He was a footballer who, one day, while watching a hockey match in Kharagpur, was roped into the game. The teams had been a player short, and former Indian captain Richard ‘Dickie’ Carr (who was also Anglo-Indian) asked Claudius to join. He went on to achieve such feats at the sport that till date, Claudius is one of only two Indian hockey players to have four Olympic medals, Udham Singh being the other.
Sports and music were choice careers for early Anglo-Indians, Sinclair says. Partly it was because of an inherent Western influence, and to some extent, it was due to their laidback nature that stopped them from pursuing more academic vocations. Thirdly, it was because they were not always well-off. Sports and music gave them outlets for their angst and an opportunity to be good at something.
In Sinclair’s case, most of his classmates at Stanes Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School in Coimbatore were well-to-do. Sinclair, the son of an oil-rig worker, was among the few who came from a humble background. But he could still study at the prestigious school because he did not have to pay the fees owing to his Anglo-Indian status.
“Till my generation came around, Anglo-Indians did not take life too seriously,” Sinclair says. “We never bothered with saving for the future. We’d live in the moment, share whatever we had. Also, everyone had four or five kids. It would be tough for our parents to run a home on one modest salary. In school, we couldn’t engage with the rich kids. So sports became our outlet, our source of joy, our chance to do something.”
Like Binny, Sinclair had his eyes set on his goal very early. By 12, he had made up his mind that one day he would participate in the Olympics. This determination was nurtured by his school, which had a great sports culture, as well as by his family. The Olympic triple jumper Henry Rebello was Sinclair’s grand-uncle. Dinner table conversation was always about sports, says Sinclair.
“With so much knowledge and experience of sports in the family, it was easy for me to chart out a course for myself,” Sinclair says. “How to train, and how to train wisely… The roadmap was clear. Everybody would guide me on what had to be done and what had to be avoided.”
Making it to the Olympics was a proud moment, even though India did not fare well in Athens. “I did feel like getting to the Olympics itself was an achievement. There’s nothing better than wearing the tri-colour on your chest,” Sinclair says. “As a community, too, everyone was happy for me.” But only for a while. It is not the Anglo-Indian way to make a big fuss about things. “After a point, it’s like, ‘Ok, you played at the Olympics, good for you. Let’s move on’,” Sinclair says with a laugh.
Somaya too has experienced this trait of the Anglo-Indian community—of carrying themselves lightly, and of being warm towards everyone.
“We were a conservative South Indian family on Spence Road in Byculla,” he recalls. “Some of the names of people in my lane were Melzer, Dunne, Potter. There were Anglo-Indians and Christians. They were outgoing in their personalities. Interactions with them helped us come out of our shell.”
One of Sinclair’s peeves is the stereotype of Anglo-Indians being irresponsible and wayward. He insists that most of his community members indulge in moderation and would never make fools of themselves. “You will rarely, if at all, see an Anglo-Indian making a scene on the road,” he says. “They will have a drink or two at home, have a nice conversation, and that’s about it.”
Luckily, stereotypes are melting away in the new world. A higher number of mixed marriages also means that their homes are culturally fluid places. For example, Sinclair’s wife Vyshali, an ex-fan of his, is Malayali.
“She comes to the church and I go to the temple, there is mutual respect on both sides,” Sinclair says when asked about the cultural assimilation at home. “Our kids go wherever they want to. Everyone is open-minded. They understand that ultimately, it’s love and peace that keep the world going.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Fleet of Foot, Free in Spirit")