Meet up with an Anglo-Indian and you are sure to experience the feeling that you have come across someone who is friendly, kind, and soft-spoken by nature. They are a community that has overcome all sorts of hurdles and obstacles and made a name for themselves in various walks of life.
Dignity of labour is second nature to Anglo-Indians. They work hard at their jobs, big and small, and also party hard, being gregarious and fun-loving by nature. Singing and dancing are the cornerstones of the life of every Anglo-Indian who loves good music. Whether it is Government jobs or private enterprise, politics or sport, the armed forces or entrepreneurship, Anglo-Indians have earned a name for themselves. And, of course, their service in the field of education and their indissoluble link with the Indian Railways has been well documented.
And yet who is an Anglo-Indian? Not many can answer this question accurately as Barry O’Brien points out at the start of this book, which is a magnum opus of sorts when it comes to telling the story of a community. Every angle of the Anglo Indian’s life is examined, historically, politically, and culturally.
After five centuries of ups and downs, twists of fate, and turns of destiny, the Anglo-Indian community is firmly established in its chosen homeland - India. The community has contributed beyond measure to the nation’s school education system, its soldiers and officers, teachers, and sports stars have captured the imagination of millions. The Anglo-Indians’ love of yellow rice and ball curry, five-tier wedding cakes and single-minded faith, rock ’n roll, and railway institutes are well known. However, stereotypes and romanticised notions of the community aside, who really are the Anglo-Indians and what is this community all about? O’Brien provides the answer in this well-researched book, while the pen sketches at the end of nearly 300 prominent Anglo-Indians underline the contribution made by the community in various fields.
Labour of love
The social, cultural, and political history of the Anglo-Indians in India and the diaspora has never before been told in such a comprehensive, clear-eyed, and engrossing way. The book is a labour of love and enjoyment and could well be the best account yet of one of India’s most remarkable, if enigmatic communities.
O’Brien is obviously knowledgeable about the subject but he also has a flair for writing. This comes from his background – a sports journalist for Sportsworld magazine, a social commentator, and columnist for The Pioneer and The Telegraph and a pioneering author of school textbooks for leading publishers. In recent years, O’Brien has been deeply involved in the affairs of the Anglo-Indian community. He began his work at the grassroots level three decades ago and was nominated to represent the community in the West Bengal Legislative assembly (2006 to 2011).
Since 2001 he has been a governing body member of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association (founded in 1876) and its president-in-chief since 2016 when he was unanimously elected to lead the organisation. What keeps the dynamic O’Brien’s batteries charged is his hands-on involvement in two homes for the elderly besides staying connected with the 63 branches of the Association across the country.
O’Brien gives a ringside view and with his finger firmly on the pulse of the community delves deep into the heritage, culture, way of life, literature, social mores, and sheer dynamism of the community. He particularly excels in relating delightful tales connected with the Anglo-Indians’ relationship with the railways, about their food habits, mixed marriages, the pioneering role of Anglo-Indian women, and the various traditions associated with the lives of Anglo-Indians. All the same, he also takes a very serious view about the hurdles and obstacles the community has faced and how it has been let down by successive Indian Governments despite assurances.
Future and fate
The Anglo-Indians have largely been a reactive community driven by circumstances and hugely influenced by other people’s decisions and directions. Their future and fate have not always been in their hands alone and that has been an Achilles’ heel that has stalked them down. Often, they have sat on their hands waiting for others to solve their problems or for the direction of the wind to change. As the author points out, even when they got their act together, it wasn’t really together. Disunity the bane of the community kept the cracks visible and the fissures deep. But O’Brien ever the optimist points out, ”today, while differences remain, fractures are on the mend and disunity only a speed breaker.’’
As a sports journalist for more than half a century, I have been fortunate to interact closely with several Anglo-Indians. At Sportsworld, where I served as Chennai correspondent from 1982 to 1994, I interacted regularly with David McMahon and Andy O’Brien (Barry’s elder brother) in Kolkata, the head office. The affable David was probably the nicest man I ever met having all the qualities of the quintessential Anglo-Indian. Harry MacLure, film-maker, illustrator, and editor of Anglos in the Wind in Chennai is another soft-spoken Anglo-Indian who couldn’t do a mean thing if he tried. And, of course, in a professional capacity, I have interacted with several Anglo-Indian sportsmen, most of them hockey players, and found them to be friendly and polite.
In recent times, Anglo-Indians have started leaving India for greener pastures abroad or perhaps because other family members are already settled there. The community’s population is thinning leading people, some genuinely concerned, some genuinely pessimistic, to ask, “How long will the community last?’’ But O’Brien continues to be optimistic. “Wherever I go, I meet more and more Anglo-Indians striving, surviving, thriving. Yes, we are small. And scattered thin. But far from dying just yet. Some of us are living well, some better than ever before, and some to fight another day. But alive we are. As is our culture, our language and our gallant spirit. Alive and kicking!’’
(The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of several books)
About the book
The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a community
by Barry O’Brien
Published by Aleph Book Company
Number of pages: 538 pages.
Price of the book: ₹999.
Click on the link to check out the book on Amazon.