On August 2, the Anglo-Indian World Day was celebrated in pockets in India and abroad. A member of this community recalls his gradual discovery of one of India’s smallest minorities
mid day logo
Doll-Rice… what is it? It looks like daal-chawal. This innocent observation from a friend in response to my utterance after seeing the contents of my lunch box was perhaps the first realization that I was different from others. As an impressionable eight-year-old, this was the only version of the pronunciation of this staple that I had heard used by my parents, uncles, aunts and cousins. I remember coming home that afternoon to ask my mom why we pronounce it differently. She smiles: “We are Anglo-Indians [AIs]. That’s how we heard it from our parents because they did the same from theirs. We are a little different from others. And with that one line, my curiosity has been piqued enough. Over the years I kept throwing all kinds of questions [often of the silly kinds – like ‘Why can’t we have our own country?’] to my mother, who would go to great lengths to give logical and simple explanations. “We are a mestizo community, with ancestral roots in Portugal, France, Holland or England that emerged due to several waves of migration over the centuries from Europe to the Indian subcontinent. We adopted western ways and customs, including an anglicized speech while speaking the local language, be it Hindi or the regional language of the state in which the community had settled. Remember that English is our mother tongue,” she explained. This is a fact that I have repeatedly found a challenge to convince people. My Portuguese-sounding last name made matters worse.
After independence and countless waves of immigration to other countries over the past six to seven decades, Bombay now finds itself with relatively tiny numbers. Till date, IAs are a dot in the presence of other Christians, like the Goans, Mangaloreans, East Indians and Malayali Christians. And yes, we do not qualify under the generic label that every Catholic in town has – “The Macs”.
The revelations and discoveries became more pronounced each time I visited the homes of relatives in Madras [never Chennai for AIs]Kerala, Bangalore or Cal [Short for Calcutta; never Kolkata] for our summer or Christmas holidays. During these holidays, it would be banal to hear: “My daughter, eat your rice doll now; there is curry and foogath for dinner. Such names for a special preparation of meatballs and vegetable stir-fry sounded so sneaky that I often found myself laughing under my breath. “Child, was your father as online as Uncle Herbie?” I remember being puzzled by this question from a family friend after Sunday Mass in Madras. “Why does she want to know if my father was working on a PC?” It was my doll-rice moment. I gave him a sheepish nod before heading for safer waters. Later, when I shared this encounter with my older cousins, they informed me that it was a term to represent anyone who worked on passenger or freight trains in any capacity. So they were “on line”; here, the line represented the railroad. After all, the community has largely served the Indian Railways. Railroad settlements were known to house some of the largest groups of AI.
There were plenty of such delightful phrases and words I heard on these trips – ‘chokra boy’ was used for a bum, ‘slippered’ meant you were getting a beating and a motormouth was called a ‘rubber gob’. “. As I became familiar with this unique lexicon, I also realized that the community had a cool sense of humor and approached life in a “Que Sera Sera” way.
But it also opened my eyes to creeping generalizations; this carefree and bindaas attitude had its downside. It became fodder for mass consumption, as films like Julie and Bow Barracks Forever brought the community to the cleaners with biased portrayals – of “loose” or “fast” women, drunken fathers, and diehards who loved England and were desperate to leave India. Such cinematic depictions made it easier to summarize the community about which very little was known. In fact, their contributions, through education, health, the armed forces, literature and the arts, music and sport, in particular, have been exemplary. It would take at least five more Bombaynama columns to scratch the surface.
Fortunately, as the internet boom has reached our shores, awareness seems to have improved. Over time, more correct factual information has become readily available; community members began to reconnect on social media groups. This sharing, whether it’s nostalgia, music, or recipes, has helped make even non-AIs more aware of the origins and rich heritage of Anglo-Indians. Recently, on August 2, the Anglo-Indian World Day, it was heartening to see all sorts of booming information superhighways, as well as virtual encounters in railway settlements and major cities.
The only thing that went wrong was probably a song and dance session, with a jive set of Elvis Presley or Shakin’ Stevens. I’m pretty sure that too must have happened in homes in India and abroad, followed by a spread of prawn pulao, curry dumplings and devil’s fries, and bread pudding for dessert. What is the devil’s fry? I can almost hear you ask. Find this Anglo-Indian, and you will have the answer!
Fiona Fernandez, editor-in-chief of the Midday Chronicles, savors the sights, sounds, smells and stones of the city… wherever ink and envy take her. She tweets @bombayana
Send your comments to [email protected]