On August 2, World Anglo Indian Day was celebrated across pockets in India and overseas. A member of this community reminisces her gradual discovery about one of India’s tiniest minorities
Doll-Rice…what is that? It looks like daal-chawal,” This innocent observation of a friend in response to my utterance after seeing the contents of my lunchbox, was perhaps the first realisation that I was different from the rest. As an impressionable eight-year-old, it was the only version of the pronunciation for that staple that I had heard being used by my parents, uncles, aunts and cousins. I recall returning home that afternoon to ask my mother why we pronounced it differently. She smiled, “We are Anglo Indians [AIs]. That’s the way we heard it from our parents because they did the same from theirs. We are a bit different from the rest.” And with that one line, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued. Over the years, I would keep throwing all kinds of questions [often of the silly kinds – like ‘Why can’t we have our own country?’] at my mother, who would take great pains to offer logical, simple explanations. “We are a mixed-race community, with ancestral roots either in Portugal, France, Holland or England that emerged due to several waves of migration over centuries from Europe to the Indian Subcontinent. We adopted Western ways and habits, including an anglicised speech while speaking the local language, be it Hindi or the regional language of the state that the community had settled in. Remember, English is our mother tongue,” she explained. It’s a fact that I have repeatedly found a challenge to convince people about. My Portuguese-sounding surname compounded matters.
Post Independence and the countless waves of immigration to other countries over the past six-seven decades meant that Bombay is now left with comparatively minuscule numbers. Till date, AIs are a speck in the presence of other Christians, like the Goans, Mangaloreans, East Indians and Malayali Christians. And yes, we don’t qualify under the generic tag that all Catholics in the city have -- ‘The Macs’.
The revelations and discoveries would get more pronounced each time I visited relatives’ homes in Madras [never Chennai for AIs], Kerala, Bangalore or Cal [Short for Calcutta; never Kolkata] for our summer or Christmas breaks. During these holidays, it would be commonplace to hear, “Girl, eat your doll-rice now; there’s ball curry and foogath for dinner.” Such names for a special meatball preparation and a veggie stir-fry sounded oh-so-devious that I often found myself chuckling under my breath. “Child, was your father also on-line like Uncle Herbie?” I recall being stumped by this query 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 her a sheepish nod before scuttling off to safer waters. Later, when I shared this encounter with my older cousins, they informed me that it was a term to represent all those who worked on passenger or goods trains in any capacity. So they were ‘on line’; here, the line represented the railway track. After all, the community has served the Indian Railways in a big way. Railway colonies were known to be home to some of the biggest clusters of AIs.
There were many such delightful phrases and words that I’d hear on these trips – ‘chokra boy’ was used for a good-for-nothing, ‘slippered’ meant you were getting a thrashing and a motormouth was called ‘rubber gob’. As I familiarised myself with this unique lexicon, it also realised that the community has a cool sense of humour and approached life in the ‘Que Sera Sera’ way.
But it also opened my eyes to the rampant generalisations; this happy-go-lucky, bindaas attitude had its flipside. It became fodder for mass consumption, as films like Julie and Bow Barracks Forever took the community to the cleaners with skewed portrayals – ‘loose’ or ‘fast’ women, drunken fathers and diehard folk who loved England and were desperate to leave India. Such cinematic representations made it easier to sum up the community about which very little was known. In reality, their contributions, across education, health, the armed forces, literature and the arts, music and sport, in particular, have been exemplary. One would need at least another five columns of Bombaynama to skim the surface.
Thankfully, as the Internet boom reached our shores, the awareness seems to have improved. Over time, more factually correct information became easily accessible; members of the community began to reconnect over social media groups. This sharing, be it nostalgia, music, or recipes, has aided in ensuring that even non-AIs got more conscious about the origins and rich legacy of Anglo Indians. Recently, on August 2, when World Anglo Indian Day was observed, it was heartwarming to witness all kinds of information highways in full flow, as well as virtual get-togethers being held in railway colonies and big cities.
The only thing amiss was probably a song-and-dance session, with a jive set by Elvis Presley or Shakin’ Stevens. I am pretty sure, that too must have happened across homes in India and overseas, followed by a spread of prawn pulao, ball curry and devil fry, and bread pudding for dessert. What’s devil fry? I can almost hear you ask. Find that Anglo-Indian, and you’ll have the answer!
mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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