The Anglo Indian Community in Calcutta - An Eroding Identity
Anglo Indian. Two words, two countries merging to form a fractured identity. When two disparate cultures come together they do not merge seamlessly like two rivers at a confluence. The jagged edges are still evident in the outline of a community that was born out of the marriage of the mighty British Empire and India. The colonizer and the colonized -parties to an uneasy alliance. The following work is an attempt to look at the lives, the professions, the aspirations and through all of this at the identity of the Anglo Indian community in Calcutta . I say Calcutta and not Kolkata because the city will always be Calcutta to them in the same way as Christmas will always be Bada Din and not Durga Pujo and Cliff Richards is music and not Nachiketa .
The perspective I have taken is drawn mainly from two films on the community, 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)- That poignant tale of Violet Stoneham by Aparna Sen and the more recent Bow Barracks Forever(2008) by Singer, Director Anjan Dutta on the 140 Anglo Indian families that eke out a derelict existence in a tottering building that used to be barracks for American soldiers during WW2.
The community that has to its credit so many firsts is still looking for their own elusive El Dorado. This is my humble attempt at trying to peel off a few dusty layers to try and reveal the true character of theses proud and gutsy people.
The term Anglo-Indians represents people who were of mixed blood descending from the British on the male side and women from the Indian subcontinent (including the countries now known as Pakistan and Bangladesh) on the female side. It has now of course expanded to include the further generations of the original Anglo Indians.
Numerous British officers, soldiers and civilians in the service of the British East India Company (henceforth the Company) and later of the government of Britain in India, in the course of the colonial period entered into domestic relationships with Indian women. Some have credited the British East India Company's 'deliberate policy of avowedly encouraging inter marriages' between their employees and local women with 'officially bringing the Anglo Indian community into existence' (Anthony 1969). Others have suggested the role of Christian missionaries in promoting matrimonial links ( Bower 1939)
What needs to be appreciated is that these relationships whether formal or informal, consensual or exploitative, resulted in the birth of children and in the creation of a hybrid race or Métis population. Over generations Anglo-Indians intermarried with other Anglo-Indians to form a community that developed a culture of its own. Anglo-Indian cuisine, dress, speech and religion all served to further segregate Anglo-Indians from the native population.
36, Chowringhee Lane - Violet Stoneham is the epitome of what Aparna Sen sees in the reflective world of microcosm of 'self-interest' and personal gain than the sufferings of a lonely woman in quest of warm human company .The movie is Sen's view of the Anglo Indian community through the strong , resilient portrayal of a 60 year old English teacher whose life is a study in abject loneliness . Whose cat Sir Toby and senile brother are the only 'living' characters in her museum-esque clockwork life. It's the introduction of her former student Nandita and her boyfriend Samaresh into her life that bring back some of the laughter and cheer that had so long been gone from her life. The pair who had been using her place for their tete e tete's slowly drift away once they get married and have no more use for her or her place leaving the pall of loneliness to encompass Violet again in its stony reserves.
Bow Barracks Forever - According to the director of the movie Anjan Dutta "All characters( in the film) are based on real people. They live very violently. Beat each other up violently. Make love violently". Though the film reinforces some of the stereotypes that have come to be associated with the community it also does show a glimpse of their lifestyles, their trials and tribulations through the eyes of a dozen odd characters who represent the 140 odd families living in the derelict old red brick building. Many of its Anglo-Indian residents still feast on pork vindaloo, listen to Engelbert Humperdinck on the few remaining turntables, and swap tales on lazy afternoons sitting on their slatted verandas. It shows a cross section of people who occupied a kind of no-man's land between the Indians to whom they felt superior and the British whose customs, clothes and language they imitated but who never really accepted them as 'social equals'.
Anglo-Indians were specifically recruited into the Customs and Excise, Post and Telegraphs, Forestry Department, The Railways and teaching professions due to their fluency over the English language and the ease of the British in dealing and communicating with them. Sociologist Hedin suggests 'nearly all Anglo Indians could be called 'low white collared' class' (Hedin, 1934). With subsequent generations of Anglo Indians the divide which was initially based on paternal rank grew into a divide based on occupation, wealth and standing. However in a sort of betrayal from their 'fatherland' the Company issued a number of orders prohibiting the appointment of Anglo Indians to high ranks in the civil services and the army. It was a case of British India realising that there were significant gains to be made from India and it made sense to exclude the burgeoning number of Anglo Indians from patrimony to avoid any future claims as heirs.
Once the British left India it led to a mass exodus of Anglo Indians who feared retribution in nationalist India for their British parentage. In the 1950's and 60's there were further waves of immigration to UK and other nations of the Commonwealth mainly fuelled by relatives who were doing well and sponsoring the crossing over of those left behind.
This faraway dream of English shores has been explored in detail in both the films. Violet who has stubbornly stuck on even after repeated implorations by her niece Rosemary finally crumbles at the gnawing loneliness towards the end and contemplates moving away. In Bow Barracks .. Lilette Dubeys character Emily keeps talking to her sons answering machine in England in hope of his response , in hope of his paying for their passage from the grim dirty existence. Rosa's character looks on wistfully as one of the families migrate to Australia and is almost desperate to get away.
In the last couple of decades the community was dealt another wave of discrimination this time from native India. Violet's passing over by a 'more qualified' native lady to head the English department at the school and her demotion from teaching Shakespeare to teaching grammar to younger kids is almost synonymous with what was happening in all other areas where Anglo Indians were employed. A few professions that did open up were the type which needed lower qualifications and skills, music, hospitality and aviation to name a few. In Bow Barracks .. Bradley shatters his moms utopian dream of England when his pent up angst comes through and he says that the best he can do is "become a waiter at Park Street". Musicians, stewards and waiters, secretaries and air hostesses were increasingly becoming the typecast of the Anglo Indian.
The last few years has seen some changes for the better with higher education levels and opportunities in the ITES industry.
Strictly as represented in both the movies, there has been a change in the lifestyles of the community with the gradual downgradation of their professional and social status. From living in 'large railway quarters with servants an all...' to having to squabble with the milkman for payments. From dances and proms and revelry with the finest wine to little Christmas gatherings and local liquor.
The lonely lifestyle of Violet brings to the fore their alienation from a lot that surrounds them. Emily as the strong matriarch in Bow Barracks in her conversations with her son's answering machine betrays the same insecurities. The drunken brawls , the proverbial lowlife existence all reek of a glorious past that has fallen into decay as if caught in a time warp. A frightening dream sequence in 36 Chowringhee... where Violets recalling her youth reminds me of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens Great Expectations. Still dressed in her wedding gown surrounded all around by the rot and decay of a wedding dinner that never quite happened. Its almost representative of the lower middle strata of the community and their life here in India. Like a dream gone awry ,distorted and abject in its absurdity.
There are exceptions of course with people like the O Briens making it big from the very same place. Their passport being their education. Here too we can see a sinister British hand in turning an erudite community into a low brow blue collared one. The British employed 'lads as young as in the sixth standard of about 14 years of age with no more than the knowledge of the three R's was able to easily get employment in the Railways or the Telegraph'.(Weston,1939). So in the pursuit of their colonial ambitions the British laid low the basic right to education of a community which gave India quite a few of its premier educational institutions.
Violets collection of classic LPs as also the musical affiliations of Bradley and Peter in Bow Barracks talk of a central theme in their lifestyles..music. The flavour is distinctly rock and roll. They have stuck on stubbornly to the Frank Sinatras and the Elvis Presleys and the Cliff Richards while the rest of the world has moved on.
Food is another binding factor in the community with almost each household laying claim to some delicacy as a forte. Like Emilys and Violets cakes and wine and Aunty Rosas 'keema curry' its a small but significant token that keeps the community together.
A community in limbo
All the characters in both movies are looking for a way out of their current dreary existence. Violet wants out from her loneliness, her brother wants out from his restrictions, Emily wants out from her jaws clenched survival into a life of retirement, Annie wants out from a wife beater husband, Peter wants out of constant penury,Rosa wants out from the place and the low standard of living while Bradley wants out of a typecast life that awaits him and take his musical ambitions forward.
The community's representation in both the movies as in real life is like that of a freeze frame from one generation caught in another. They are still undecided on what is home for them. Here in India where unless they are educated there's no future for them? Or out there in foreign lands where they would never get the same status as the others. The constant pursuit of happiness seems to be the undoing of this community leading to tensions and frustrations which manifest themselves in the violence of their lives.
And yet there is hope of a very stoic matter of fact kind on display among the ruins... like the irate Emily berating Annie for leading her young son Bradley astray with a romance and in the same breath offering medicine for Annie's son, like Rosas running away with the insurance agent and then coming back repentant to her husband, like Bradleys standing up to be counted against Annie's husband , like the community's stand against the Municipal corporation to save their home and the most poignant Violets reciting Shakespeare to a mongrel as she walks away lonely on Christmas eve.
For a community that is sometimes called the 'saddest product of the British Raj' life goes on.The only community in India which in spite of its numbers doesn't have a particular state that it can call home. Article 366(2)" of the Indian Constitution defines an Anglo-Indian as "a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established there for temporary purposes only". Today, there are an estimated 200,000-400,000 Anglo-Indians living in India, most of whom are based in the cities of Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, and Mumbai. Anglo-Indians also live in Kochi, Goa, Pune, Secunderabad, Visakhapatnam, Daund, Lucknow, Agra, and in some towns of Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. (September 2007). Does a community that's been around for close to 250 years and still are in significant numbers still deserve a colonial albatross around their neck? Isnt it an irony that they have never had an elected representative in the House of Parliament with 'nominated' representatives to do their nominal duties? These are questions that are part of the daily existence of a proud community that has given India some of its proudest institutions in the Railways and the numerous schools and colleges they set up. There are still people from the community who we meet everyday doing their duties with a smile and Frank Sinatra on their lips hiding away the pain of a meaningless existence.
This essay has been an attempt at trying to look at the lives behind the made up joie de vivre , most of it through the eyes of the directors of the two movies . As this fledgling community flounders on towards an uncertain future what comes to mind is a question of their identity eroding away with every disgruntled one leaving India or an even more disgruntled one stuck in a job he doesn't like in a life he doesn't like.
Children of Colonialism - Lionel Caplan
Online reviews for 36,Chowringhee Lane and Bow Barracks Forever