Entering the crumbling mansion of the Lawrence D’Souza Old Age Home here is a visit to a vanishing world.
Breakfast tea from a cup and saucer, Agatha Christie murder mysteries and Mills & Boon romances, a weekly visit from the hairdresser, who sets a dowager’s delicate hair in a 1940s-style wave. Sometimes, a tailor comes to make the old-style garments beloved by Anglo-Indian women of a certain age. Floral tea dresses, for example.
“On Sundays, we listen to jive, although we don’t dance much anymore,” Sybil Martyr, a 96-year-old retired schoolteacher, said with a crisp English accent.
“We’re museum pieces,” she said.
The definition has varied over time, but under the Indian Constitution the term Anglo-Indian means an Indian citizen whose paternal line can be traced to Europe. Both of Mrs. Martyr’s grandfathers were Scots.
Like most Anglo-Indian women of her generation, she has lived all her life in India and has never been to Britain. But she converses only in English. At school, she said, she learned a little Latin and French and enough “kitchen Bengali” to speak to servants.
Before 1947, when the British left India, Anglo-Indians — also known at the time as half-castes, blacky-whites and eight annas (there were 16 annas in a rupee, the official currency of India) — formed a distinct community of 300,000 to 500,000 people. Most were employed in the railroads and other government services, and many lived in railroad towns built for them by the British, where their distinctive culture, neither Indian nor British, flourished.
But today that culture is fading fast, with Mrs. Martyr’s generation perhaps its last torchbearers.
No one is certain how many Anglo-Indians live in India today; they were last counted in a census in 1941. Intermarriage and successive waves of emigration after Indian independence are thought to have reduced their number to 150,000 at most, said Robyn Andrews, a social anthropologist at Massey University in New Zealand.
The children and grandchildren of those who stayed have become increasingly assimilated, marrying Indians without European ancestors and adopting local languages.
The president of India appoints two Anglo-Indian members of Parliament each session to ensure that the tiny community has political representation. The culture lives on, somewhat, in Anglo-Indian dishes like country chicken, a tangy dish seasoned with garlic and ginger, and pepper water, a spicy tomato-chili sauce, ladled on rice with meat on the side.
Barry O’Brien, an Anglo-Indian lawmaker in West Bengal’s State Assembly, said most Anglo-Indians were Christians, but he acknowledged that there were no longer enough of them to fill their own churches. He said the distinct Anglo-Indian lifestyle, so faithfully adhered to by people like Mrs. Martyr, would probably not outlive them.
“It’s going to be gone, completely, within a few years, and with it, a unique memory of the British in India,” Mr. O’Brien said.
The culture dates to the late 18th century, when British employees of the East India Company began to marry Indian women in substantial numbers and have children. By the late 19th century, as more British women migrated to India, cross-cultural marriages dwindled. But by then, Anglo-Indians had achieved a privileged, if curious, place in Indian life.
Though their lifestyles were more British than Indian, Anglo-Indians rarely mixed with Britons as equals. The British generally looked down on Anglo-Indians, who tended to consider themselves superior to Indians.
Some confusion persists among Anglo-Indians about what it means to be British. When asked what food she likes, Mrs. Martyr replied: “Oh, English, like you eat in England — curries and cutlets. And some Indian food, like dal.”
In some respects, Anglo-Indians tended to be socially progressive, Mr. O’Brien said. By the early 20th century, he said, many Anglo-Indian women worked outside the home, at a time when few middle-class Indian women did. They established an English-language education system, financed by the British, and a vast network of social clubs.
“All the Indians wanted to be Anglo-Indian,” said Malcolm Booth, 83, the honorary general secretary of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association. Portraits of dark-eyed, pale-skinned men in suits hung on the walls of his Delhi office, where, dressed in 1950s-style paisley-patterned suspenders, he sipped tea.
A former railroad engineer, Mr. Booth defines Anglo-Indian more strictly than the Constitution does. He regards Goans with Portuguese and French ancestry as pretenders, even though the constitutional definition, once used to ensure job quotas and other privileges for Anglo-Indians, accepts any European ancestry on the father’s side.
Along with educational and social benefits, Anglo-Indians received preferential pay during British rule, according to Mr. Booth. In the 1940s, he said, a British train engineer earned around 300 rupees a month, while an Anglo-Indian would earn 200 and an Indian 100.
The demise of the British Raj was a shock from which the Anglo-Indian community took decades to recover. Many of the better off and more highly skilled left for new lives overseas. Those who stayed lost the privileges to which they had become accustomed. Government financing for separate Anglo-Indian schools, for instance, stopped in 1961.
After hiring quotas for Anglo-Indians were abolished, their inability to speak Hindi and other Indian languages took a toll on their employment opportunities.
The poverty and isolation that resulted still haunt Anglo-Indian retirement homes like Mrs. Martyr’s, an atmospheric, once-grand building whose residents are far from affluent, paying $65 a month to live there.
Today, though, the fortunes of younger Anglo-Indians are generally rising, Mr. O’Brien said. Their English skills and what Ms. Andrews, the anthropologist, describes as their “Western bearing” make them attractive employees for multinationals and Indian outsourcing companies.
“You go for a job interview in a multinational with a name like O’Brien, and, well, it all flows pretty easily for our children these days,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Samuel Moses, a recruitment consultant with Catalyst Consulting Services, an employment agency in Calcutta, agreed. “It’s their fluency in English that makes it easy for them to get positions in multinationals and customer care positions in call centers,” he said.
Greg Francis, a 30-year-old Anglo-Indian from Calcutta, where his forefathers worked on the railroads, works for I.B.M.’s call center division in Gurgaon, a high-rise satellite city on Delhi’s edge where many multinationals have their headquarters where he trains Indians on dealing with Westerners. “They need to learn a lot,” he said.
His life is good, he said, but he could not shake the idea that his people’s best days were in the past.
“I feel kind of homesick for those old times,” he said, “although I never knew them.”
~ Mian Ridge