Anglo Indians of Calcutta
The Anglo-Indians, children of mixed marriages, were called the wheels, the cranks, the levers of the Empire building machinery. In the modernization of India they were the pioneers. The Anglo-Indians have a tradition of being punctilious in work, meticulous in appearance and gregarious and lively in food habits, speech and customs.
Anglo-Indians children of mixed marriages, loved and cherished, reared to speak the languages of the ruler and the ruled, their linguistic proficiency and swarthy complexions were utilized to advantage in war and peace, in trade and acquisition in the early days of the East India Company.
Their religion, dress, customs and eventually manners and more, identified them with the British. In turn they were accepted, them with the British. In turn they were accepted and rejected according to the political whims of the Directors in London.
There was no escape from Mendel’s Law. The fair sibling climbed high on the ladder while his black brother had to remain on the periphery of the enchanted circle.
The Anglo-Indian is an original Calcutta. He is as old as the city itself. Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta, was the father of three daughters by his Indian wife.
The early settlers left their womenfolk at home and so in the 17th and early 18th centuries, it was not uncommon for the Englishman to marry an Indian wife and adopt Indian ways. His children inherited his fortune and were sent home for education.
The name Anglo-Indian was coined to describe an India-returned Englishman. It was not until the early 20th century that the word came to denote the mixed or Eurasian population in India.
At its peak, the community in Calcutta is said to have numbered 50,000 far outnumbering the English population in the settlement. In the 18th century, Britain was at war on many fronts in Europe and in the New World. England’s country born children threw in their lot with their fatherland against warring Nawabs and Rajahs. They were an indispensable part of the British army.
After the mulatto uprising in San Domingo in Haiti, country born children were barred from retuning to England for education and a few years later a ban was imposed on their appointments in civil, military and marine services. Indian society did not accept the phirangi, and so anglo-Indian history is fraught with many vicissitudes. Wealthy Eurasian indigo planters, zamindars and merchants bequeathed large endowments for the education of the weaker sections. In the crash of 1833 and again during the slump a century later, many lost their fortunes and their jobs. It is to the community’s credit that they realized the needs of the time and set up educational institutions to equip their children for other jobs.
In Calcutta, the British prepared boys for jobs as uncovenanted hands in upper subordinate positions. With their political strength growing in Bengal the British saw the need to use the Eurasian as a go-between.
The opening of the Suez Canal brought the Fishing Fleets to India and mixed marriages were now frowned upon. Their usefulness over and the Empire establish the British pushed those very same country born who had defended the Union jack during the 1857 mutiny with untold valour, into privileged posts with no future. And so the Eurasian abandoned enterprises in favour of secure government service and this was a contributory cause of his economic decline.
The Anglo-Indian officer in the Railways-India, Custom, Police or Port Commissioners had a tradition of being punctilious in work and meticulous in appearance. In the modernization of India, the Anglo-Indian faced the perils of pioneering. He surveyed the unknown terrain, treacherous hills, malaria infested marshes and dangerous jungles. He supervised the laying of railway tracks, of planting telegraph poles, and of building housing colonies in way out areas. Rightly have Anglo-Indians been called the wheels the cranks, the levers of Empire building machinery.
Generations of discipline born in the schoolroom and the sports field, bred an esprit de corps in the Anglo-Indian. Many a steam locomotive was manned by a father and son team. They took pride in the tip top condition of the engine and its split-second punctuality, so much so that one could set one’s watch by the Indian Railways.
The Customs Officer with his colleague in the Port Commissioner’s worked hard and played hard. Leslie Claudius and Pat Jansen were Olympic hockey players and retained the gold for India in the 1948 Games. Claudius was a member of India's generation of hockey that won Olympic gold in 1948, 1952 and 1956 and silver in 1960. He was the first hockey player to have competed in four Olympics and also the first to earn a hundred international caps. He captained the Indian team for the first team in 1959, with Dhyan Chand, often considered India's greatest hockey player ever as the coach, and led them to the second place finish at the 1960 Olympics in Rome
When Claudius walked into the smoking-room of the Bengal Club in 1990, heads turned in admiring recognition. An all-round sportsman, Claudius remembers fondly how he learnt to play football in his own backyard with the chokra boys. Quite by chance and at the instance of another hockey giant, Dickie Carr he became an Olympic hockey player. He is wistful about the changes in the sports world he knew so well. Nobody cares now he says, thinking of the spontaneous warmth of the pat on the back by a spectator for a game well played.
The pride of the Calcutta Police was its Anglo-Indian Sergeant contingent. These tall hefty lads were prominent on any parade or display astride their red Harley Davidson motorcycles. The story goes that the legendary Ronnie Moore ate his breakfast standing, off the mantelshelf in the Lal Bazaar mess so as not to crush his white satin jean uniform! Many a policeman has dined out on the Sergeant Evans story. The greenhorn sergeant on duty found a car wrongly parked on the main street outside the famous Firpo’s restaurant and tea-room. Not satisfied with booking the offending chauffeur, he summoned the owner. Fairweather said the gentleman, I don’t care if you are Fair weather or foul weather, reprimanded Evans. My orders stand. The next morning Mr. Fairweather, Commissioner of Police, congratulated and commended Sergeant Evans.
The academic qualifications required for the reserved posts were low, as a result of which few Anglo-Indians aspired to higher studies. Their ambition was stifled, though there have been and still are a few members of the community who rose to the rank of Deputy Commissioner of Police, Member Railway Board and Post Master General. Some have been successful in the legal and medical professions.
Monsignor Barber, a true Calcutta Anglo-Indian, sits back in his chair with a cigar in his room at the Sacred Heart Church in Dharamsala-the gift of a Portuguese lady, Dona Pascoag De Souza. He chuckles over the good old days of his boyhood with characteristic sense of humours. His father was Assistant Value in the quasi government Calcutta Improvement Trust, frequently acting as Chief, but he knew that though he was worth his salt, he would never get the job. The situation changed radically after independence.
Monsignor Barber tells of the Indian Defence Force (IDF) of the First World War. Jocularly nicknamed the "I don’t fight" corps, the men were recruited entirely from the Anglo-Indian community under the British officer. He may have been only a lieutenant, but he thought he was a Major General! The Monsignor’s Uncle Carmody who later rose high in the railways with seven others ran the German railway in Africa. When the boys returned home, they had to beg for jobs.
In search of nostalgia, Father Horace Rosario S.J. proved a treasure trove of oral history which he recounted at length in the parlour of St. Xavier’s College on Park Street. Living within themselves, the community developed certain characteristics manifested in the Church, the club and the Boarding School.
Sunday mornings, well dressed families - the women until two decades ago sporting hats, gloves and veils - make their way to their parish church on foot, in rickshaws, in cars and taxis. The majority of Anglo-Inidans in Calcutta today are Catholics.
After Mass, they visit each other’s homes and stay on for a lunch of kofta curry and yellow rice.
A gregarious, fun-loving, musical and convivial people, merriment with lots to eat and drink are a part of the Anglo-Indian life-style. Baptism, first holy communions with all due reverence are celebrated with one big bash at the Grail and Rangers Club. This is the bond that holds the community together, says Father Rosario.
The Railway Institute in the mofussil and the clubs in the cities were an important aspect of their culture. Unlike British clubs, these were never male preserves, but very much a family haunt. The Calcutta Rangers Club founded in 1896, is one of the premier Anglo-Indian Clubs in the country. In sports, the club has nurtured some of the finest hockey, football and basketball teams. The major events in the Club’s social calendar are Housie Nites, and the Balls - Easter, May Queen, Independence Eve and New Year’s Eve. In the days gone by, reminisces one old resident, live five piece bands would play for Rs.30/- a night. Young and old jived, jitterbugged and rock and rolled with gay abandon. In his time, Cedric Coutts sang Charmaine in his charming baritone. Those were the days Scotch whisky was eight annas (50p) a peg. Endless plates of potato chips and bottles of tomato sauce were on the house. Apart from social activities, the Calcutta Rangers Sweep donated large sums to local charities
Boarding schools were another adjunct that catered to the itinerant Anglo-Indians who sent their children to Darjeeling, Nanital, Hazaribagh and Asansol. Organized games were compulsory. Children played all games and became all-rounders.
Boxing was a favourite sport and many were the fans of Kid D’Silva of Calcutta.
Because of the transferable nature of his job, the Anglo-Indian did not think of building his own home. On retirement, Calcutta was the home base for many. They rented houses, flats or rooms in Dharamtalla, bow Bazaar, Ripon Street, Royd Street and the small lanes off Free School Street, once called Colinga which is still their stronghold. The building may be shabby and decrepit, but the home is always neat. Windows are curtained and sheets are aired regularly. Émigrés to Australia have taken this habit with them. The vase of flowers on the teapoy was always freshly filled and the mali (gardner) with his basket of blooms was as regular as the rotiwala (breadman). Plastic flowers are more practical today.
Warm and hospitable, the Anglo-Indian housewife kept an open house. No guest could leave without having had a boxwall’s curry puff or a slice of cake.
Each family has its favourite recipes for prawn curry, vindaloo, jhal frazie and the all time favourite alu chop (potato rissole) to which the individual bawarchi (chef) adds his particular flavour.
Chrismas is the greatest day of the year. Preparations for Barrha Din start months ahead with the bottling of kala jamun (Indian blackberry) wine in summer. From October, the durzees (tailors) of Ripon Street and Madge Lane, the latter named after a well known Anglo-Indian family who owned the land on which stand the New Market and Globe Cinema, are busy cutting and stitching the latest fashions from Vogue magazine. Granny’s amra pickle and Aunty’s chutney are sunned. Finally the baker arrives to take away the cake-mix rich with fruit and spice to bake into a dozen or more portions for family and friends.
Frank Anthony’s mother sent him a dozen bottles of the Anglo-Indian special liquor and Milk Punch at Chrismas every year until she died. It was not unusual for a railway family to come to Calcutta for their Christmas shopping on the sales of their year’s collection of newspapers. They like so many others still make New Market their second home for the pre-Christmas weeks, buying presents, window shopping and munching on hot gram and Nizams kathi rolls which have followed the Anglo-Indian to Australia. Rosycheeked children, home from their boarding schools in the hills were happy sucking sticks of red and white barley sugar. Parties at home inevitably ended with a sing-song of old-time favourites round the piano-Roll Out the Barrel, When Irish Eyes are Smiling sounding lustier as the evening wore on.
Like their food and some of their ways, Anglo-Indian speech is a synthesis of English and Hindustani. In an accent and lilt entirely his own the young Anglo-Indian teases, Fatty Fatty Bomba Lati, ate up all the ghee chapatty, Inty Minty Papa Tinty, Tan Toon, Tessa, count Anglo-Indian children playing ring games. But the dialect as it may be called, was caught by Bobby Kokka in a 1960s Air India advertisement. She was a Dum dum blonde. To her Calcutta was Cal, Darjeeling was Darj and men to her were something that only came at the end of her sentences-until she went Idle wild.
And it was the Anglo-Indian girl who first volunteered for the job of air hostess. She led the way for the emancipated woman outside the home. In Calcutta they were the first among women to take up careers. As teachers they are the back-bone of the English medium schools in the city. Many a Calcuttan fondly cherishes and owes a debt to this great institution - from principal to Nursery Teacher. In nursing, it was the Anglo-Indian woman who lit the lamp. Some are remembered as dedicated Matrons of public hospitals. In the world of entertainment, the beautiful sloe-eyed girl, product of a happy mixture of East and West, was top of the pops. Calcutta claims Merle Oberon as her own an Marie Wilson visited her city last year with a jazz group from Australia. The army of Patsys and Glorias kept the manually operated telephone lines in Calcutta alive and alert. The smart, efficient Anglo-Indian secretary was a most valuable asset in merchantile offices. Many, like Betty Catchick, Anne Lumsden and Jenny Paes carried this efficiency and dedication to work on to the playing field. Anne Lumsden was the only woman to win the Arjuna Award for her contribution to hockey. Jenny Paes, on the eve of her departure for Wimbledon to watch her son Leander, recalls her eventful career in basketball and her nine triumphant years as the ICI champion in the Office League matches. Her eldest daughter Jackie sometimes accompanied her and was the team mascot. Marie, her younger daughter followed in her mother’s footsteps and last year won the mot valuable player award in the Inter-Club tournament. She has taken up sports medicine like her father. Jenny Thompson nee Godfrey Writes from England, I often think about the interclub and inter office matches played on the Chowringhee maidan. There was always such enthusiasm and excitement not only amongst the players but with all concerned, including the spectators. The experience and enjoyment I attained from these past years will never be forgotten. In his Oxford University Press office, the West Bengal MLA Neill O’Brien thinks back to 1967 on the Eddie Hyde Memorial Quiz, the first quiz competition in Calcutta. From small beginnings in a Parish Hall, quizzing has now become an All India pastime. The O’Brien boys are all three champion quizzers but father remains the Master Quizzer and Quiz Master. Mother, Joyce O’Brien at her desk at the All India Anglo-Indian Association, is a hot-line to help for many an SOS.
With Indian independence in 1947, the Anglo-Indian community felt insecure and there was a mass exodus of those who wished to leave. Those who remained were accepted as an Indian community. Not all agree that the job situation has improved, but there are many more opportunities. The Administrative and Defence Services hold Anglo-Indians in high positions.
Those who left Calcutta are fondly remembered, as is Johnny Mayer, the poor boy who half a century ago learnt to play the violin at the Calcutta School of Music from Philippe Sandre and played to dress-suited audiences at the Calcutta symphony orchestra concerts in the New Empire Theatre. A break at the Royal Academy of Music was the beginning of a very successful musical career.
From England and America, from Australia and Canada they come to visit the city of their birth. The younger generation come in search of their roots. Letters remain a link. Remembering happy times, Pat Beatty, Eva Deefholt and Patty Lord, erstwhile basketball players now in Australia write, we still value the many friends we made.
They have reconciled themselves to the changed times. A "live for the day" philosophy is evident in the octogenarian members of the community.
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