Monday, January 28, 2013

Of Longing and Belonging

By Swapan Dasgupta

Once upon a time, the great newspapers had a separate department devoted to obituaries. Known in the profession as the ‘morgue’, it was a treasure house of long-forgotten information on people, many still relevant but most who were once famous.

Sadly, as with other good things we inherited from the British, the media has dispensed with obituary writing. Remembering yesterday has become an unaffordable indulgence. This may be why the death of Leslie Claudius, a former hockey captain and winner of four Olympic medals (Gold in 1948, 1952 and 1956, and Silver in 1960) found perfunctory mention in the sports pages.  

Mercifully, Claudius died in Kolkata—one of the few cities that values sport above its economic well-being—and his funeral was well attended by people who fondly remembered one the golden boys of the maidan. Since his death also coincided with a week-long reunion of a global fraternity of Anglo-Indians, it also brought back memories of a time this small community was such an integral part of a Kolkata I identified with.

India has always had a self-image of being extremely accommodative and inclusive towards all those people who made it their home. As the erstwhile capital of the Raj, Kolkata in particular was extremely welcoming to every community that came to the city in search of both refuge and fortune. At the time of Independence, it boasted of small communities of well-heeled Parsis, Armenians and Jews, struggling Chinese, and impoverished relics from the exiled courts of Awadh and Mysore. Additional colour was provided by oddballs that included White Russians and Afghans.

Binding them together in a small perimeter around Park Street and around the docks in Kidderpore were the Anglos who were entrusted with the subordinate departments of the government—the police, railways, telegraph, customs and the port.  But most important, the Anglos were the backbone of the city’s non-Catholic, English-medium schools. Anglo-Indian teachers were highly regarded for their English language skills, their commitment to discipline and their love of sport.

Fiercely loyal to imperial rule and full of love and admiration for a ‘mother country’ they had never experienced, the Anglos were sandwiched between two conflicting forces. They were decried by the ‘pukka sahibs’ for their chi-chi accents, their ‘native’ food, their social pretensions and barred from membership of ‘Whites only’ clubs. At the same time, they were mocked by the natives for their ersatz Englishness and their blind opposition to swaraj. Till as late as the mid-1960s, unreconstructed Anglos could still occasionally be heard cussing “bloody Indians”.  

There were many groups that found themselves in a quandary after Independence. Most of them, like the ICS, army and the police, were co-opted and even honoured. Of the 3 lakh-strong Anglo community many chose to depart to a grim post-War Britain. Those who stayed didn’t face any witch-hunt. But they confronted something more devastating from the new masters: social condescension. This in turn strengthened a ghetto mentality.

Yes, they were tolerated and even granted Constitutional protection—the only community given reserved seats in the Assemblies and Parliament. But their true worth as dedicated teachers, outstanding sportsmen, pillars of the hospitality sector and good citizens with exemplary values were never appreciated. It was this sense of not being wanted that explained the outward migration of Anglos to Australia and Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, there are only 1.25 lakh Anglos left in India. In the normal course their numbers should have been more than six lakhs.

In their new homes Anglos found a better material life—would a Merle Oberon or Cliff Richard have acquired the same fame in India?—but India was that much poorer by their departure. As a country we wilfully cut ourselves off from skills and an inheritance that would have enlarged our collective experience.

As someone who benefited incalculably from my Anglo-Indian teachers in both the classroom and the playing fields, I am glad the community is finally being accorded some recognition and, most importantly, respect. We may have lost most of them to other nations but it is still important to send out a clear message, at least to their children: India is your real mother country.

Sunday Times of India, January 27, 2013

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