Some corner of a foreign field

Better times beckon for India’s Anglo-Indians

Anglo-Indians

DRESSED in a floral tea-dress, at a retirement home for Anglo-Indians in Kolkata, Rita McDonald, who is 85, is a poignant reminder of Britain’s two-century rule over the Indian subcontinent. Like many Anglo-Indians, members of a Eurasian community spawned during the Raj, she eats bacon and eggs for breakfast, speaks precise English and, though she has lived all her life in India, knows little Hindi or Bengali. Yet her home, hung with yellowing photographs of Queen Elizabeth and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, is thick with tales of poverty and loss.

Recent decades have been tough on Anglo-Indians, who are defined by the constitution as Indian citizens of European paternal ancestry. Many can date that ancestry to the 18th- and early 19th-centuries, when British employees of the East India Company tended to come to India without wives, and found local women to fill the gap. Such intermingling became less common after the great mutiny of 1857. Yet its legacy, a class of educated, English-speaking and loyal Eurasians, was crucial to British rule. Anglo-Indians manned the customs, telephone exchanges and railways. Mimicking the grander seclusion of their British masters, they lived apart in purpose-built railway towns, disdaining their Indian colleagues. “All the Indians wanted to be Anglo-Indian,” said Malcolm Booth, an 83-year-old officer of the All India Anglo-Indian Association.

But after the British quit India in 1947 the Anglos lost their privileges. They are still guaranteed two seats in India’s parliament, yet public funding for their schools was stopped in 1961. Few could compete in India’s new, non-discriminatory job market. Many left for Britain, Australia and Canada. The Anglo-Indian population fell from perhaps 500,000 in 1947 to fewer than 150,000 today.

Those who remain fear for their culture. Their youngsters, like many in India’s urban middle-class, are marrying outside the community. They speak Hindi and prefer kulfi to spotted dick. Yet many are also thriving, thanks to rising demand for Anglophones from India’s booming services firms. Brightening, Mrs McDonald remarks that all of her grandchildren remaining in India have found good jobs in call centres. “They’re good, call centres,” she says. “Many people have found jobs there.”

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