Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Anglo In Me

As far as everybody else was concerned I was an Anglo-Indian. A “tesuwa” - a derogatory term for Anglos which has origins in older Hindusthani and Bengali.
My non-Christian friends and acquaintances were hard pressed to believe that a name like “Patrick” coupled with the distinctly Bengali surname “Ghose”, who had a father named Sydney Ghose and a sister, Sharon Ghose, were in truth, not Anglos. In fact, even today, there are many ignorants who believe that an Indian with a Christian sounding name who professes Christianity must, by default, be an Anglo-Indian.
Those who believed and accepted this so-called anomaly in nomenclature became my close friends, while the rest stayed and strayed on the fringes of my attention span. So I grew up in a khichuri – a kedgeree – of cultures; a background as diverse as it was holistic. In later life, I can sincerely claim that I am a 'pure' Indian, as opposed to being a Bengali, a Punjabi, a Marwari, a Gujarati, and so on, ad infinitum.
Since I was mostly unidentifiable by way of culture, and my mother tongue Bangla was as easy on my tongue as was English and Hindi, I soon realised I had attained a freedom that others perhaps strived for, stuck as they were in the box of community and cultural identity. This of course chagrined my mother no end as she attempted to thwart such insidious thoughts by teaching us advanced Bangla, and insisted on my being tutored in Hindustani classical music and Rabindrasangeet vocals while I also actively participated in the church choir, even as my sister was sent for Bharatnatyam dance classes and learned Bach and Chopin too on the hired piano.
The building, and area we lived in contributed greatly to the sense of cosmopolitanism. Our apartment building, 'Palace Court', was owned by a Muslim. In this imposing old complex of sixty spacious two-bedroomed flats, lived families originating from the entire spectrum of ethnicity from all the states in India, as well as members of the Armenian, Chinese, Jewish, and Parsi communities, not least of all being the Anglo-Indians. I also remember one or two of the flats were usually occupied by foreigners working in some concern or the other based in Calcutta.
It was Calcutta then. Not Kolkata. An insensitive re-naming the city does not deserve. Calling it Kolkata does no justice to the others who have also made this city what it is, what it was, and what it will be. Kolkata is only what the Bangla language names it. Just as Hindi speakers call it “Cull-cuth-ta”. An occasional south Indian lapse would say “Cullkoota”. Everyone else called it Calcutta. Besides, there was never a Kolkata in history.
Early years of a Protestant Christian upbringing within a home that was always proud of its Bengaliness, yet broadly accepting of all cultures, communities and creeds, gave me a sense of what being really Indian could be. Our home life was liberal, but well disciplined. It straddled with ease our dual ethnicity, core moral values, and a tacit acknowledgement of rebelliousness that went back a few generations on both my mother and father's side. Quality education, often mistakenly referred to as 'extra-curricular' by others, was given equal importance: music, the fine arts, a quest for knowledge and better understanding, a love for the mysterious and unknown in both the natural and supernatural realms of life, the need to serve the community without gain or profit, the joy of a deep-rooted, unconditional love, all these made me and my sister what we are today. I have every expectation that my daughter too will show similar signs of upbringing.
That was written with no intention of contesting or being in conflict with the ways my friends, and others I have made the acquaintance of since, were raised. Even when I see the differences and don't care for it. Because my upbringing was also about tolerance. Perhaps I sound smug and conceited, but again, that is not true. I was also taught to love the life that one had, regardless of spiritual promises, in all its fullness. Depression, doubt, anxiety, sorrow, were but temporary phases that needed to be gone through to experience what the better stuff was really all about. The only sure thing was death. Everything else was what you made of it.
And this last point is where the Anglo in me comes to the fore. I have always thought this community of people exemplary in the way they lived for today, for the moment. As if genetically imbued with the clarity that comes from certain extinction. They were already a dying race of people, a sub-race if one wants to quibble, even as they were born into the history and culture of the Indian subcontinent, to which they contributed in no mean way. They wanted to achieve immediately, tomorrow was too late. I learned too from those who could be considered exceptions to this rule.
They were, even in those days for me, a community programmed to self-destruct. Those who stayed on in India from choice were already achievers of the highest order and therefore found no good reason to immigrate. Today, having merged into mainstream Indian life and ways, they are hardly distinguishable from anyone else but for their Christian names and their achievements, and their proud but largely ignored proclamation of being Anglo-Indian. Self-destruction as a community unit.
Those who emigrated for whatever reason have absorbed and inculcated the desired ways and life of the country they chose to make a new life in. Once again, self-destruction for the Anglo-Indian identity. They are also the ones who perpetuate nostalgia but ignore ground reality.
And the ground reality are those left behind with no choices, or few and far between. Abandoned without pride in identity, marginalised from mainstream India, with nothing left to look forward to but irregular charity from Church and overseas philanthropy, these Anglo-Indians are going to destruct anyway.
But that was not what fascinated me. That was more like a back-of-the-mind awareness. What really fascinated me was their love for the good life. The good life was not what might today be associated solely with the accumulation of wealth for its sake. The good life was the love of good food, music, good clothes, good times, whatever was affordable within their means. And the means was not always in concurrence with the reality of their bank account! This again sounds very superficial and you may say does not do justice to the Anglo-Indian, but to me they seemed to be having a better time with less than many I knew who wailed about not having a good time because they did not have more.
I remember Horace, a purveyor of fairly good, illegal narcotics, who told me one day, in a drawling voice made husky by cannabis, 'They keep giving birth to Christ and killing him off every year so that they have an excuse to feed me and my kids for free with rice and dawl, men! So why should I change my name to Harish?' This was said in response to a stoned enquiry from a non-Anglo who was impressed by Horace's fluently spoken Hindi and Bangla and had asked him why he didn't change his name. And Horace answered me knowing my first name, thereby enveloping me in a mutual and common identity. In any case, non-Anglos in the area and many of his clientèle, would refer to Horace as Harish. Identity was useful and useless, depending on where you sat. A dualism even had advantages if you played it right. But being marginalised was not what the Anglo-Indian wanted.
In church was where they came into their element. It boosted their sense of identity which was intrinsically woven into the religion. The church, charity work, teaching and nursing as vocations and not as mere sources of income, the performance of music, community work, tithing, all these things made them memorable not as fulfilling of duty, but as doing it for the love of it. That though was for the advantaged. The disadvantaged benefited from this, and often took undue advantage. And that is how it is everywhere.
It was while participating in church activities, and often in school, when I realised what it felt like to be marginalised. It was a dim awareness, but a significant one nevertheless. I would understand its implications much later in life. In church, when political undertones and overtones, especially during diocesan elections or committee discussions to organise group activities happened, I witnessed how the majority of the non-Anglo congregation would intentionally start creating ethnic groups – AIs vs non-AIs - to gain power and influence opinion. Despite all things being equal in the eyes of God, very few of the Anglos had the wealth, social position, or a wider political influence to make a difference in the way things happened or were done, even if they had a solid argument for it. It was not that the Anglos were above and beyond politicking with equal fervour and passion, it was just that their numbers did not give them the edge.
In school too, a similar scenario was enacted in multiplicity all over the playing field, the classrooms, and I now know, the staff rooms and quarters. We began to have less and less AI students and teachers. Their voices and presence were diminishing and none of us actually noticed too much.
In all these situations, I was pretty close to my Anglo-Indian friends and so I got a picture of the other side. Many of their parents and relatives were deeply affected by the trauma and agony of their marginalisation. The talk of immigration to Australia, the UK, Canada was avidly intensifying, and did lead to large-scale exodus in the 60s and 70s. To an outsider all this may seem so petty or insignificant, but church was a small community within the larger population spectrum, and it was important for every member to keep it that way. It was a sense of common identity, a shared conviction. Among some Anglos, the threat of 'Bong' (read Hindu) domination was a form of extreme paranoia. Many were convinced that the Bengali members, the majority of whom had no Christian names, were really Hindus, wolves in sheep clothing, who wanted to “take over”.
Down the years, I see that their paranoia seems to be partially justified, except for the fact that religion played no important role in it, other than to be paid lip service. Many of those Bengalis and non-Bengalis but not Anglo-Indians, gave scant regard to either Christian or Hindu tenets and core philosophy, and simply became political animals who wanted power and the potential accumulation of wealth through loopholes in the system and outright corruption. Not very different from our countrymen who were not Christian churchgoers, yet who also claimed an indemnity within their own religious beliefs and sects.
Yet there were still fairly large numbers who remained. These Anglos have slowly become what their forebears would not have wanted: integrated into the mainstream. It seems to be a natural sort of justice brought to the rough British experiment with genetics in the 17th and 18th centuries. The same can be said to be true of children of Anglo-Indians who emigrated and were born in the adopted country of their parents. This subsequent generations, without much knowledge or feeling for India other than a second-hand nostalgia of their parents and grandparents, have also become integrated members of the communities and citizenry of their country of birth.
It is also important to note that today many Indians (here I am distinguishing them from Anglo-Indians for the purpose of this commentary), do not any longer prioritise ethnicity, community, caste, or creed in our daily lives. Other class distinctions have arisen, mainly brought about by the consumer culture of globalisation but that is not of importance in this context. An essential “Indian” identity has begun to come about. My argument is that this “Indian” identity is the natural successor of the cosmopolitanism of early independent India which was prevalent in cities like Calcutta (not Kolkata).
Perhaps the evolving of my “Indianness” took a different route and employed a different method. I do know that apart from the upbringing my parents gave me, the Anglo-Indian community was intrinsically responsible for such an acute understanding of my identity. And from the Anglos who remained behind, I have learned to seek and find satisfaction in my life in India, never looking for it on foreign shores, as others who were not of Anglo-Indian heritage from earlier generations did, as did my peer group and subsequently thereafter, but who were never really marginalised like the Anglos were.
Perhaps the Anglo in me is the Indian in me. Perhaps there is no difference.


Anonymous said...

Patrick Sanjivlal Ghose or Lalu as many of us know him as is absolutely right in what he is saying in this blog.
I, Bobby Roy (a Hindu by religion passed on to me by my parents but basically a non-believer) also had similar experiences - what with a name like Bobby (you're a Christian???) ad to top it - is that your real name??? - how come??
this is a female name (much publicised after the Raj Kapoor movie -Bobby because unfortunately Mr Kapoor did not bother to check the spelling for Bobby - male, and Bobbie - female).

Having lived on Theatre Road, close to Park Circus where a large Anglo Indian population lived, we were in touch with them and their familes(with many happy memories), today I find that like Patrick rightfully says - they self-destructed and the miniscule population left behind in India at present are no better.

Most of early day Cal musicians were Anglos (Pam Crain/Loius Banks etc) who entertained us then and still do, but we hardly find musicians of their breed nowadays barring exceptions like Lew Hilt.

Anyway, here's to them and may their breed flourish instead of diminish.


Quintessence of Ether said...

A very poignant message, Patrick. There is more substance in this commentary than any history book on Calcutta (not Kolkata) could ever teach me.
For someone who has lived a life infused with mixed identities (of others and my own), its been a long (and for the most part enjoyable) road working things out for myself (am I a Bong? a Guju? Canadian? Indian? A firang in my own place of birth?).
My sense of identity has only strengthened in past years, having never been able to depend on the collective identity of a particular group of people. With that said, I've always been a butterfly (a social one, that is), never needing to stay long in one bed of flowers, but always taking the best of everything to my next set of hosts, always ready to share, always ready to learn.
In many ways I relate to Anglo-Indians much better than most other Indian communities, and I only now understand why. And most certainly there is a huge similarity in their nature to live an "extra-curricular" life so that a well-rounded individual might come out of it all, much like your own upbringing, and mine also.
I digress now, but I just want you to know that I inherently understand this desire for identity, and looking for it in one's own community. After all, that is why I am back in India..and in Calcutta, this melting pot of race, religion, cultures, colour and community.

rama said...

Many thanks for this reflection. Calcutta's cultural elite can never be thankful enough for what they received from their Anglo-Indian school teachers and classmates.

BTW, your menyioned your sister Sharon - I think she may have been a classmate of my sister, Sita, at LM(G).

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Now that you make me think of it, I see the 'anglo' in me too and in all my friends! Beautifully written, Lalu. (btw, you failed to mention your 2 other names-Lalu and Sanjiv! Adds to your Indian-ness!)

kalyan said...

Patrick's exploration of the Anglo-Indian identity is something most of us who have lived in Calcutta(not Kolkata}and with a Christian missionary schooling,can easily identify with.I for one am personally indebted to their contribution to my education as I recall all the quaint and dedicated "Ms.Stonehams" who helped lay a foundation upon which most of us have constructed our proficiencies.
True that the community have self destructed and still are,butI really wonder if it has been as much as their own doing as it has been ours the non-AngloIndian Mainstream Indian Brahminism. AS Patric says so correctly.."Tesuwa" a very unfortunate name given to them out of sheer ethnic spitefulness.Maybe they have had thae largesse of heart or noreal choice and lived with it but I agree with you that our association with them has also taught us a great deal of a wider Indian Identity that we now see emmerging as the global village looks like a definite possibility.
Its a great piece Patric

Kalyan Gupta'

p@tr!(k said...

- hey bob! absolutely man!

- Q of E: rohini - thanks for the insights!

- jo! thanks for visiting! am sure the anglos will be happy with what you say!

- gupt!! like i told bobby - absolutely!
thanks all!

p@tr!(k said...

rama - many thanks for your comments. is your sister sita venkateshwar? if so, yes, she was my sister's classmate at LMG and i knew her well too. ask her about 'inherit the wind'.

Jayanta said...

Patrick, touché.

Memories from school (DBPC) flashed across... teachers, friends, their friends, ad infinitum. The AIs... I owe them a part of my entity... of what I am today..."I HAVE THE GOOD LIFE"

I fervently acknowledge the AI community's significant contributions towards my taste of good food, my choice of eclectic music, my hangouts, my religious tolerance, Pot, VBS, and of course my induction into Calcutta's "SHAHEB PARA" (sudder street ya bugger).

The community's contribution to the world in general is myriad and diverse... Sir Ben Kingsley, Vivien Leigh, George Orwell, Ruskin Bond, Frank Anthony (did you know that he is one of handful who pioneered and commissioned the ICSE examination system) Englebert Humperdink, Nasser Hussain (you would have never guessed that one) Russel Peter... look at that list man.

Lalu da, Thanks again for the treat. It was excellent reading... keep them coming less far and more frequent. ciao


PS: Is the Bobby Roy same bloke from the Bobby-Shukla couple Who were Shomu's friends as well.

p@tr!(k said...

jayanta: it's good to know so many others who have been deeply touched by the anglo-indian community in so many diverse and interesting ways. thanks for visiting. and yes, they are the same bobby-shukla!

Robin Sengupta said...

I read a little of ‘The Anglo in me’ & was able to relate.

With Dad’s side of the family I always felt like ‘the half breed’.

With Anglos – I always felt like ‘that Bengali bugger, men!’


Sharon Ishika Ghose said...

Not to forget that our parents were once seriously considering getting
me married to a good Anglo Indian boy becuase they wondered where they
would find another "Indian" boy who would put up with my liberal ways
--read "smoking" and "drinking" !!
If I sometimes have a wicked sense of humour its because of the AI
friends we had as a family. If there's one thing I wish I had more of
---it would be their intense ability to bypass depression. To laugh it
There is as much Anglo in most Indians today as there is Indian --only
it isnt the Anglo we recognise. Its a mishmash of American and global
which is alien and repulsive. The only antidepressant a good AI needed
was a Sunday at the races and a party to follow. I can't help thinking
that there would have been fewer prozac prescriptions had they not
left us.

Sina said...


it was a pleasure to read about your Anglo-Indianness and helped me to understand you and certain cultural circles in Indian society much better.

Keep it up!


p@tr!(k said...

sina! - how nice to get a response from berlin. and thanks so much!

paul verma said...

Dear Lalu,
Congrats on the article. Unique, insightful, brilliant. I hope it's shared widely with Indians both at home and abroad. By the way, a great line "As if genetically imbued with the clarity that comes from certain extinction." Resonates, (if not somewhat sadly) with me on a cultural and individual