In the neighbourhood of Bow Barracks in central Kolkata, where most of the city’s Anglo-Indian community live, repair and maintenance work in ongoing in full swing. It is Christmas season and Angela Govindraj, 56, a local community leader who has lived in the Barracks all her life, is overseeing the preparations. The festival is the largest and most important celebration for the community and perhaps nowhere in the city is it celebrated the way it is done in Bow Barracks.
“This is the last Anglo-Indian colony in Kolkata,” says an exhausted Govindraj, reclining on a bed in her two-room apartment in the Barracks one afternoon, days before Christmas. Organising the nine-day festival is not an easy task. Govindraj says she has been busy with the preparations for weeks, her mobile phone doesn’t stop ringing and she has not had the chance to shower all day.
Until two years ago, Bow Barracks, a block of red brick buildings in the heart of the city that was originally built to serve as an army garrison for British and later US troops in Calcutta, was facing persistent threats of demolition by the city government. For two decades, the local administration has wanted to replace the century-old apartment-block style residential neighbourhood with modern construction. The residents and local activists rebelled, and the demolition plans were shelved.
Realising the uniqueness of celebrations in Bow Barracks, the city government has been investing in celebrating Christmas in this Kolkata neighbourhood with immense fanfare and has roped in residents of the Barracks and prominent members of the Anglo-Indian community to give their festival initiative more visibility.
Last week, Parliament passed the Constitution (126th Amendment) Bill and removed provisions for the nomination of Anglo-Indians to Lok Sabha and certain state Assemblies, with Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad claiming the community has only 296 members in India. These figures were called inaccurate by the community and Derek O’Brien, issued a lengthy speech in rebuttal. Though the community’s numbers are dwindling, by no means are their numbers as low as that claimed by Prasad, say community leaders in Kolkata.
Shane Calvert, MLA and member of the West Bengal State Minorities Commission, told indianexpress.com that a reason behind this was because no government body has conducted a proper study to get accurate figures of the strength of the community, spread in 13 states across the country, where there is a large concentration of Anglo-Indians.
Melvyn Brown, 75, has spent close to two decades documenting the history of Kolkata’s Anglo-Indian community. On Christmas Eve, Brown spends a quiet evening in his first-floor apartment in an old colonial mansion-style building on Elliot Road, one of the handful still left in that stretch of the city.
“Now there are only two to five Anglo-Indians in the Bow Barracks,” says Brown. In the past decade, the community moved to the neighbourhood of Picnic Garden, in south Kolkata. The area of Elliot Road, Park Street and Ripon Street was an Anglo-Indian neighbourhood, where members of the community lived in rent-controlled accommodation in old colonial mansions. While some emigrated abroad, others moved to Picnic Garden and Behala.
According to Brown, many Anglo-Indians relocated to new neighbourhoods because property developers and neighbours would entice them with offers of large sums of money and the prospect of modern accommodation in compact flats elsewhere in the city, prompting them to make the move. “Ten, fifteen years ago, Rs 15 lakh to an Anglo-Indian family was a gold mine.” Word spread in the community and people began moving out to the new neighbourhoods in droves. Only a handful of families continue to live in central Kolkata today.
The Anglo-Indian community developed as a result of the operations of the British Raj, where the father was European and the mother Indian. The East India Company went to the kings of princely states in the Indian subcontinent and offered their expertise in weapons training and warfare, and took advantage of the inter-kingdom rivalry and mistrust. Brown says the Company then sought permission from the princely states and called in British soldiers to the subcontinent to provide military training to armies in the princely states, all of which happened years prior to the start of the First World War. “They were called ‘Yellow Boys’ because they would wear a yellow scarf around their neck and sometimes, they were called Tommy soldiers,” says Brown.
These Tommies, a slang term for a common soldier in the British Army, were spread across the country, including in southern states, and went on to marry local women and had children with them. They formed the first group of Anglo-Indians.
“The British were conniving,” says Brown. The East India Company officials went to Queen Victoria to explain to her the merits of encouraging inter-marriage between the British in India and local women. “They said that the Anglo-Indian children would control all the work for the British Empire and they would understand the Indians better than (the British) because their mothers were Indian,” explains Brown.
Over the decades, with the encouragement of the East India Company, the Anglo-Indians began to rise in ranks within the Company and found success in various fields like the Indian military and the tea business. One of the biggest contributions of the community has been their role in the establishment and management of the Indian railways. But the community’s meteoric rise stirred panic among the Company officials, says Brown, who felt that the Anglo-Indians needed to be taken down a few notches to remind them of the superiority of the Company officials.
Calvert is originally from Kharagpur, a railway colony, an approximately four-hour drive from Kolkata, and his parents still live in his hometown. “The Anglo-Indian community was always associated with the railway colonies,” says Calvert. Today, a concentration of Anglo-Indians continue to live in the railway colonies of Adra and Asansol in Bengal. “The railways were run by the Anglo-Indians. A lot of them joined the railways because their parents were in the railways and they knew nothing else but to join the railways. All over the country, in Madras, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, you had Anglo-Indians managing the railways post Independence.”
The influence of the Bow Barracks over the Anglo-Indian women in Kolkata during the Second World War is significant, says Brown. Although Bow Barracks had been developed as an army garrison in Kolkata, the soldiers began spending time with young Indian and Anglo-Indian women and Anglo-Indian families started to grow in the Barracks. The small cubicle-like one and two-room army accommodations inside the Barracks were redone to accommodate the expanding families. A few years prior to and during the Second World War, the mix of soldiers became even more diverse with the arrival of the Americans and other Allied powers.
The instability that followed the bloodshed of Partition and the subsequent Independence of India caused concern among the Anglo-Indian community. Those who could afford to pay for transcontinental travel for their families, fled in droves to the UK, Australia, Canada, the US, while the middle-class and impoverished in the Anglo-Indian community attempted to find their place in a newly-formed nation with uncertainty of their status. “They were afraid that Indians would think that (Anglo-Indians) reminded them of the British,” says Brown. This Indian community is thought to be the only one whose mother tongue is English.
Those fears were misplaced, says Brown, because the community had always been a part of the social fabric of the nation. Anglo-Indians were sought after for the English language skills and got good jobs in big companies. They were stenographers, typists, telephone board operators and found socio-economic stability in the new India.
Glen Myers, 72, who lives just outside the Barracks, has lived in the neighbourhood for four decades. “We have a lot of people who go abroad,” says Myers who has witnessed the changes in the city and his community over the decades. The younger generation who can leave Kolkata, flee to other cities in India and overseas at the first chance they get.
Dulcie Oliver, 85, lives in an old-age home for Anglo-Indians in the city because all her relatives now live overseas and she never married. “My father was in the railways so we were mostly up-country in Kanchrapara”. Sitting in the gardens of the 123-year-old Calcutta Rangers Club, she watches more sprightly members of the community jive and dance to the strains of old
numbers like ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ sung live by Christopher Lobo, an Anglo-Indian musician in the country.
The Calcutta Rangers Club in the Maidan area of the city, is one of the few social clubs that were established exclusively for the community and a week before Christmas, Anglo-Indians who live in old-age homes in the city have been invited for lunch and singing and dancing.
“In those days everyone joined the railways and the telegraph. There were many dances and people would come from Calcutta to celebrate Christmas in Kanchrapara. The American soldiers were there and there were many Anglo-Indian families,” reminisces Oliver. She took a secretarial course after finishing her studies and worked in Calcutta till she retired.
Oliver remembers growing up with classic Anglo-Indian dishes like pepper water (a dish of tamarind water mixed with cumin, garlic and other spices, eaten with rice or with cutlets), jhaal frezi, vindaloo and mulligatawny. These dishes are usually not found in the city’s restaurants these days and only those with large families stick to preparing them using traditional recipes in family kitchens, mainly due to the extensive preparation involved.
In the decades past, carol singers and “poo-poo bands” would travel from street to street in the city, playing Hindi and English numbers on bugles, guitars and trumpets and the bands would have names like ‘Rose-Cookie Gang’ and the ‘Santa Claus Gang’. The name ‘Rose Cookie Gang’ comes from a traditional Anglo-Indian fried cookie prepared during Christmas time, made using flour, eggs and milk, shaped like a flower, giving it the name ‘Rose Cookie’, similar to the Acchu Murukku found in south India. “They were all Bengalis boys wearing uniforms and hats with gold braiding in the poo-poo bands, and we would go down to the streets and dance,” Oliver says with a smile. Christmas in Kolkata evokes a sense of comfort for her.
“Anglo-Indians from all over the world come here to celebrate Christmas. It is very lively. There is more life in Calcutta during Christmas. Nowhere in the world is Christmas celebrated like it is here,” she says, distracted by the dancers inside the covered shed of the Calcutta Rangers Club.
The “poo-poo bands” don’t traverse the streets of the city with their musical instruments anymore and dances are limited to social clubs or inside homes. For many older Anglo-Indians in the city, reminiscing about the golden years is the best that they can now do.