Anglo-Indians: Lending An Urbane Touch

The Anglo-Indian community denotes a small English speaking minority which boasts of a mixed ancestry of both British and Indian. An Anglo-Indian’s British ancestry is usually bequeathed paternally. Today, the community has shrunk further in number with many of them migrating to United Kingdom or to erstwhile British colonies like Australia, New Zealand and Canada after 1947. The exodus continued throughout the fifties and sixties and by the late nineties a sizeable chunk had settled elsewhere. Yet Kolkata remains home for the vast majority of them where they return every year to celebrate Christmas or spend time with their near and dear ones.

Over generations, the Anglo-Indians married within the community to evolve a distinct cultural identity of their own. A distinct cuisine, dress, religion and language- all helped them to maintain this identity and segregate themselves from the native population. They also established a school system focussing on English language and culture and have social clubs and associations to organise parties and dances during festivities including Christmas and Easter. Factors such as having their own education system, religion and Anglo-centric cultural ethos helped the community to bind together.

Prior to independence, Anglo-Indians were exclusively recruited for jobs in Customs and Excise, Post and Telegraphs, Forest Department, Railways and as teachers. In fact there were a number of Anglo-Indian sergeants and officers in Kolkata Police who formed the heart and soul of the force. However, employment opportunities dwindled after independence leading to migration.  Today, the younger generation are working in call centres by the virtue of their fluency in speaking English. The Anglo-Indians are no longer confined to certain areas like Ripon Street, Elliot Road, and Park Street but have spread to Khiddirpore, Picnic Gardens and Behala.

But it is Bow Barracks, a locality in the central part of the city which is synonymous with Anglo-Indians and their way of life. Bow Street Flats, popularly known as Bow Barracks was built for the soldiers of the World War II. Later, it was handed over to the Kolkata Improvement Trust (KIT). The Barracks consists of seven blocks of one, two and three roomed flats with distinct architecture. They were originally provided for Anglo-Indians by the KIT and that the flats were a big success.

Eddy Augustine, the Superintendent of Birkmeyer Hostel belonging to         Dr. Graham’s Home of Kalimpong, says that many of the Anglo-Indians whose families had migrated are keen to return to the city. His wife Joanne who also runs a catering business says that every winter many non-resident Anglo-Indians from the city return home to take part in the Christmas celebrations. The Anglo-Indians of Kolkata have the best Christmas celebrations in the whole world, the couple claimed proudly.

At Bow Barracks the celebration starts from December 23 and continues till January 1. The buildings are decorated with lights and streamers. A huge stage is erected in the middle of the road to provide a platform for the week long musical performances. Cakes and wine (grape and ginger) are made in huge quantities at each home. A dance competition is also organised where residents across age groups participate and enjoy themselves.

Many relatives of residents of Bow Barracks who are currently in Australia, England, Canada and the U.S. come down to join their family in the celebrations. And that’s not all. The magic of Christmas, definitely, spreads far beyond the residents of the Barrack. The lesser privileged people (children and the elderly) from the close vicinity of the locality are invited to be part of the celebrations. And no guest visiting the Bow Barracks during this season goes back without having the cake and wine.

There are both social and religious aspects to the festivities organised by the local Anglo-Indians through different associations like the Anglo-Indian Association and the Calcutta Anglo-Indian Service Society (CAISS).  While the Midnight Mass and other various services are held at the different churches, the social activities are organised at Rangers’ Club at Maidan, the only Anglo-Indian club in India. A significant part of the religious aspect is the choral music, performed by various city based choirs; choirs from outside are also invited to perform like the one from Dr. Grahams Home which is organised by a leading member of the community, Michael Robertson.

The Anglo-Indians from the city, are particularly proud of their cuisine which is unique to Kolkata. Mouth watering dishes include Yellow rice with Ball Curry (with meat balls), Jhal Frazee and Pepper water (a dry dish of meat fried with pounded spices, stir fried potatoes and eaten with a gravy, made of tamarind and spices), Pork vindaloo, Pantras (a cutlet made of flour with minced meat stuffing), Beef or Pork booni. This is followed by desserts of different kinds like fruit salad, bread pudding, caramel custard etc. Some of these exquisite dishes are on the offing at the celebrations of the World Anglo-Indian Day on the 2nd of August. The celebrations are followed by a dance and the next day a family picnic is organised.

Despite the fast changes witnessed by the city, the Anglo-Indian spirit has been retained which is visible during the Christmas or New Year celebrations when the entire stretch between Park Street and New Market are decked up and people irrespective of the religion or class make it a point to be there and participate in the festive spirit. The contributions of Anglo-Indians in inculcating English education among generations of Kolkatans cannot be undermined as well.  The significance of this community can be adjudged from the fact that despite its small size it is represented by a nominated member in the Legislative Assembly.

A number of Anglo-Indians from the city, like Olympian Leslie Claudius and Pat Jansen have contributed immensely to hockey. In fact old timers rue that the absence of Anglo-Indians have contributed to the downfall of the game in the city. Famous teacher-poet, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio was also an Anglo-Indian. More recently, the O Briens are known to the city and outside as master quizzers. And you must have fond memories of Anglo-Indian teachers if you had studied in one those old English medium schools in the city. Film directors like Aparna Sen have sensitively portrayed an Anglo-Indian school teacher, Violet Stoneham in her classic, 36 Chowringhee Lane.

Together with the Parsees, Jews, and Armenians, the Anglo-Indians have helped to create the Kolkata psyche, points out Anjan Dutt, the actor-musician-director who has paid tribute to the Anglo-Indian community through his films like Bow Barracks Forever and music. According to him, Anglo-Indians contributed in shaping up the notion of “good life” among the ordinary masses of Kolkata,  bringing in a cosmopolitan outlook, night life, the attractions of Park Street, western music, new styles of dressing and food, which was neither British nor Indian but Anglo-Indian.

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