Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane realistically depicts the story of Anglo-Indians left isolated in post -Independent India. Perhaps Merle Oberon, the talented actress, was a unique case in the history of Anglo-Indians0. Surely no other Anglo-Indian gave herself a false identity so elaborately in order to pass off as an upper crust pucca memsahib.
Perhaps no other Anglo-Indian so tormented herself to that end. Perhaps no other Anglo-Indian woman adopted such methods to rise to social eminence. But her tragedy, though of an extreme kind, was the tragedy of a community whose members spanned two very different societies. Neither accepted them.
The British, convinced of their racial superiority by virtue of their success as builders and rulers of an empire on which the sun never set and as pioneers in the world of science and technology, treated them as inferiors; a shade above other Indians, but inferior all the same. The Indians too treated Anglo-Indians as inferior, though they were in awe of the white man. On the surface, this might appear surprising. But it was not. The Indian parent of an Anglo-Indian in most cases came from the lower social strata. And, that was enough to condemn the progeny in the eyes of caste-conscious Indians. Of course, the British or the European parent too might have come from a similarly lower background.
But that was not as relevant for Indians. As education spread, upper caste Indians did remarkably well. This could also have strengthened the prejudice against Anglo Indians who for some strange unexplained reason tended to take jobs with technical requirements such as those on the railways.
The Indian Constitution recognizes the Anglo-Indian as a citizen of mixed Indian and European descent. The term was used to describe Britons in India between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. But in the 1911 census, they were for the first time officially recognized as a specific community by the British. The Government of India Act, 1935 identified an Anglo-Indian as “a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is a native of India.” The community was listed as a minority in the Constitution in 1950.
Renowned Anglo-Indian leader, Frank Anthony, writes in Britain’s Betrayal in India: Story of the Anglo-Indian Community: “At the time of Independence there were estimated to be 200,000-300,000 Anglo Indians in India… after over fifty years of steady exodus from India the population of Anglo Indians in India is estimated to be less than half that number now. “
British historian Arnold J Toynbee observed that in Independent India survival was the Anglo-Indian’s primary challenge both from the early masters and later from the Indian counterparts. Naturally, a generation of Anglo-Indians left India in the post-Independence period for UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia in search of employment and security. It happened first just after 1947; further, in the early 1960s during the period when there was an atmosphere created for the promotion of Hindi as national language which could reduce their chances in jobs. However, there was the “family reunion wave” in the 1970s that accentuated the exodus.
Those who remained in India continued to hold good positions especially in defence, education, administration etc. and tried to get assimilated. The women too took initiative for jobs. The boom in the service industry opened up different frontiers for them.
Admittedly, they could integrate well after Independence. They are recognised as industrious and hard-working people which made them the backbone of certain civic sectors. They continued to enjoy reservation in civil and military jobs. However, most of them were concentrated in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Kochi, Banglore, Chennai and Kanpur. It has been estimated that around 40,000 of India’s 200,000 Anglo- Indians live in West Bengal, the largest concentration of the community across the country. Their proper representation in Parliament has always been guaranteed. They have tried to push the Anglo- Indian Welfare Bill which is yet to take any concrete shape.
The Anglo-Indians outside India gradually became part of the native culture, as the younger generation tended to merge into the mainstream of their adopted countries. Those living in India underwent the same kind of assimilation — getting married outside the community and thereby accepting the indigenous culture. They have today integrated in society in custom, language and social interactions.
The empire however produced not only the Anglo-Indian but also the Indo- Anglian. The Indo-Anglian was the product of the meeting of two cultures and not of two races. He too was an alien in both worlds – British as well as the Indian. At home, nowhere, as Nehru put it in his autobiography. The British treated him too as an inferior. For them, the successful Indo-Anglian was an upstart not worthy of being admitted to their clubs and swimming pools.
And for the successful they coined a term of contempt — the babu. But the other Indians did not treat him as an inferior. Once in a while he might get excommunicated for violating a caste rule as Motilal Nehru did by crossing the sea but otherwise he was in good shape. Often the Indo-Anglian had a job or a calling which gave him a good income which was unusual those days. He enjoyed respect too. In fact, a successful professional – a barrister or a doctor, or even a professor – achieved social recognition.
Indo-Anglians emerged as a distant category in our society. Commonly described as the English-speaking elite class, they emerged as a cultural class with their own distinct set of behaviors and preferences. Of late, the Indo- Anglian identity is evolving as the numbers of this class are swelling. The term has now also been used to denote literary creation in the English language by many Indians who use the language as a medium of creative exploration.
Unlike the Anglo-Indians, Indo- Anglians are a fast-growing community in our country. They are clustered throughout the affluent sections of urban India, predominantly speak English and not the tongues they grew up with. Unofficial sources presently estimate their number at about 400,000. Their rapid growth certainly has significant implications for society, business and governance as well.
When the British finally left, the Indo-Anglians took over from them. The transplant was quite a success even if not a complete one. What a contrast with the fate of Anglo-Indians. While the identity of Anglo-Indians may fade into the mists of time, the Indo-Anglian community is certainly here to stay.
The writer is a former Associate Professor of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata.