A community that has become a state of mind.
An Anglo-Indian these days is almost a state of mind. Many who became part of the community’s diaspora after India and Pakistan gained Independence in 1947, never declare themselves as Anglo-Indians, seemingly eager to disappear into their host societies in the Anglophone countries of the West.
However, there are enough who care about their unique heritage to try to preserve and celebrate it, and have done so with international gatherings every three years: in the UK in 1989; in Canada in 1992; in Australia in 1995; and last year in India itself, officially in Bangalore and with a spirited follow-up in Calcutta, home to the largest population of Anglo-Indians through the centuries.
The much-anticipated Bangalore gath-ering was a thorough disappointment. It was racked by disagreement among rival Anglo-Indian groups within India, and the spirit of celebration so visible in Toronto and Perth turned joyless and sour. The 300-or-so delegates from abroad came to the reunion awash with nostalgia, believing this would go down as the most important reunion. Instead, they found dissension and a startling degree of uncaring for poorer host-country participants among the Anglo-Indian elites of India. Fortunately, Calcutta turned out different.
When Anglo-Indians get together in cities like Toronto, the discussion turns to the best parts of the good old days in India—evenings at the club, the company of friends, dinners and great food, memorable parties, incomparable dance bands, and the general solidarity of a community centred on the church or social club. Forgotten or glossed over are the difficulties: the clerical, subordinate or mid-management jobs that seemed their destiny; the promotions they saw going to the British in pre-Indepen-dence days and to ‘full-blooded’ Indians after 1947; the contempt and ridicule they often faced from both the British and Indians because of their mixed race.
There were and are outstanding exceptions. Many Anglo-Indian families can point with pride to members who rose to the top in branches of the civil service, in education and even in private business. But the fact is that the majority stumbled against a thus-far-and-no-farther hurdle. One reason was education. Anglo-Indians had a highly developed system that gave them the finest high school education, but strangely very few went on to university. That was partly because the jobs in which the British had quotas reserved for them—such as in the railways, the post and telegraph, the customs and the police—did not require university degrees. For whatever reason, the
Anglo-Indian parents undervalued higher education and rarely pushed their children beyond high school.
Of course, the fate of the Anglo-Indians was tied more to the fortunes of the British than anything else. During emergencies when the British needed the services of this most loyal group, they prospered, and as the crisis invariably blew over, they suffered. In this sense, the best thing that may have happened to the community was loss of the self-serving patronage that British rule gave them.
With the British departing from India, many Anglo-Indians felt betrayed and abandoned. Many decided to leave, and those who departed on the heels of the British went mostly to Britain. Later waves went to Australia after it dropped its whites-only immigration policy in the 1960s, and to Canada and the United States.
It is difficult to put hard figures to the Anglo-Indian populations since so many of them do not declare themselves as such in their rush to become part of the white host-societies. But it is believed that more Anglo-Indians now live outside South Asia than within, perhaps as many as 350,000, with fewer than 200,000 remaining in India and Pakistan. Those who ‘got away’ built on the survival skills they had acquired at surviving as a buffer community between the ruling British and the resentful Indian mass.
There has been little research done on the community in North America, but in Australia Adrian Gilbert has made an important study of Anglo-Indians settled there. He found that Anglo-Indians in Australia (and this probably applies to Canada as well) are doing better socially, educationally and economically, than in Britain or, indeed, India. As Gilbert puts it, India and Britain are both stratified societies, but in Australia, Anglo-Indians are “just another immigrant group that had to establish themselves”.
The situation for many of those who did not ‘get away’ is far from satisfactory, with prosperity, as ever, tied to education. There are Anglo-Indian slums in Madras and Calcutta, with Tiljallah, outside Calcutta on the way to Dum Dum airport, being perhaps the most badly off. At the other end of the scale, of course, there are better-educated Anglo-Indians who are prospering in business or in management positions.
The good news is that Anglo-Indians in the diaspora have begun to show increasing pride of community. The Internet has made a significant difference, with many websites which make it easier for Anglo-Indians to stay in touch. The younger generation, it seems, is more eager to learn more about their heritage and to discuss ways of preserving their most uniquely South Asian culture. Best of all, perhaps, they have begun to contribute to various relief funds for their less-fortunate members back in India. Which makes one hopeful that the next reunion, to be held in Auckland in 2001, will not be marked by the rancour witnessed in Bangalore.