They introduced themselves to me via 240 watt speakers belting out Elvis on a Sunday afternoon. I was eight. It wasn’t Christmas yet, but the new neighbours were whooping it up. Harold jived with Aunty Nattie who at 82, was quite a Helen, while bottles of rum emptied themselves into throats gone dry from singing and boisterous cheering “Hit it Nattie, yea aunty Nattie’.
Every weekend was a noisy one. The furniture in their living room was moved to create dance space. They celebrated everything. Ray passing his exams, Ray failing his exams, Cheryl’s new boyfriend or Alan’s new goatee. They brought home a turkey at Christmas even if it meant subsisting on Pepper Water – a spicy curry – for a week. Which they happen to like anyway. They grow up on it. That, and chilly fry and meat ball curry.
That’s where I got my first definition of Anglo: ‘To be Anglo, is to party.’
I didn’t know then, that they were a microscopic Indian community. That a ‘phirang’ name like Lee Bruce, Ryan Foxx, Caroline O’Connor, Robin Frantz didn’t necessarily mean you were a distant relative of Tom Alter. That somewhere down the line, they were half English, babies of colonisation.
In a strange way, the British are officially responsible for the 400 year old Anglo-Indian Community. Back in the 1700s, men of the East India Company, missed the companionship of women of their own kind. Delighted by our desi damsels and blessed in their mission by British powers-that-were, many formed ‘alliances’ (legitimate or otherwise) with Indian women. In the wink of an Englishman’s eye, the youngest of the Indian races was born.
Soon I realised it was just a corollary to a more earnestly cultivated philosophy: “Live for today”. It included dressing to Vogue, never mind the starving bank account. To quote my Anglo aunt “Yeah my bag’s a Gucci, now let’s find some cash to put in it.” The code is always Western. An Anglo woman wearing a sari is as likely as the British coming back. A frock it’s been. A frock it is. The older generation still trot out like the colonial British. Some grannies still wear braids around their hair, look-a-like Jennifer Kendalls in 36 Chowringhee Lane.
My second big enlightening on Anglos came soon. When my neighbour’s granny came to stay. When I heard sentence after sentence festooned with four letter words. Still in primary school, I began to believe that the ‘F word’ was actually an adjective, and was awe-struck by the its versatility. Now I know it’s a fundamental part of Anglo grammar. Along with ‘swine’ and ‘bitch’. Granny Cathy, she considerately saved “You pig fart” for polite conversation.
Like almost any other Anglo, her father was an Irish soldier who fought in Burma, now Myanmar. She refused to call it Myanmar, proud of the days of the Raj, when “we got our sodden selves a penny worth of respect’. She was light eyed, fair skinned, blond. That was another way to identify Anglos. Though some are dark, the times when a mutinous Indian gene bullied the English one into surrender.
Though their great grandfathers fought in the wars – under Clive at Arcot, in the front line at Plassey – many Anglos profess to be ‘lazy bustards’. Once, you would’ve found them working railway cantonments, army camps and police barracks or as secretaries and air-hostesses. ‘But honestly Joe, I’d rather hit the hay.’ They’d rather be the first ones on the dance floor or helping the nearest pub expand its profits.
I’ve heard warnings not to marry ‘The Spendthrifts’. But they have a family bond so tight-knit, you’d be warm and comfortable if you tangled in it. ‘Of the same stew’, they stand up for each other. Even half-cousins in Dublin who they’ll probably never know, but take in and share their last pint of ‘imported’ whisky hidden at the back of the cupboard. Speak ugly of another Anglo and they’ll shut you up with a creative stringing of four letter words to make your ears hum. I’m told they inherited these epithets from their forefathers, soldiers, who swore like soldiers often do.
Smiling in the face of the cussing though, is a lilting accent and an English wreathed in ‘please and thank yous’ and an eh? at the end of every question. An inflection picked up, most probably, from their Irish forefathers. Older folk have a quaint custom of addressing you as “my girl or my child” sweetly indifferent to the fact that you’re old enough to have your own. But it’s their Hindi that tickles, spoken like Englishmen would. An Anglo colleague, who orders her food from the corner Udipi, instructs quite sternly ’Humko oopar bhejo.” Which in Hindi does not mean “Send my food upstairs” but, loosely translated, “Send me up to my Maker.”
There’re only about 200,000 of this jolly race left in India. Mostly in urban Calcutta, Bangalore and Bombay, in pockets like Byculla and Mazgaon. Many have married into other communities or migrated. Taking their pound parties and reunions with them.
Today, constitutionally, Anglo-Indian denotes being of British, or European and Indian parentage. To me, it still means ‘to party’.
(published in the Sunday Times Of India, in the column, ‘Communities’, a Sunday feature.