There’s nothing fancy or intriguing about the title of Barry O’Brien’s book, The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community. Yet, in the short period of time that I carried the book around while reading it, I noticed that people who had not even heard of it before had three distinct reactions on seeing the title.
Reaction No. 1 was of delight. ‘Oh, Anglo-Indians! They’re so much fun! I bet you’re thoroughly enjoying this book!’
Reaction No. 2 was similar, but tending to nostalgia. ‘Oh! Anglo-Indians! Such fun! Those were the days!’
Reaction No. 3 was of one of mystification. ‘Anglo-Indians? Why do they need a book? Aren’t we all the same?’
It’s Reaction No. 3 that O’Brien addresses in his book, which is essentially a history of the community from the time the Portuguese arrived in the Indian subcontinent in 1498 to the time ‘The End’ was typed on the manuscript in early 2022. And from the very first chapter of the book, almost every word is a revelation.
For example, I learned that the mixing of South Asian and European bloodlines that created the Anglo-Indian community was deliberate. The Portuguese encouraged their soldiers to marry local women and settle down in India so a mixed race people would emerge who could engage easily with Indians on Portugal’s behalf. Other European countries seeking their fortunes in India noted this and copied it, including the British. And thus a whole new community was born whose motherland was India and fatherland a European country, and who went through five hundred years of ups and downs, depending on how racist the colonisers, the locals, and the people of the community itself, felt at different times in history.
Equally revelatory was the way the Anglo-Indians came together as a community. First, it was to demand their rights from the colonisers, who, as years passed, became rather white supremacist in their attitude to the mixed race they themselves had created. Next, as India’s fight for independence from the British grew stronger, the community had to decide with whom its loyalties lay: motherland or fatherland. Eventually, as we all know, many remained after Independence, while just as many left. And it is those who remained who then, in a way, created the India most middle and upper class Indians are familiar with today: through their schools.
I’m writing this review in English, you’re reading it in English, yet we’re both Indian. Chances are high that you and I both went to what is called ‘a convent school’ or at least, a convent-inspired school. Many of these schools were set up by Christian missionaries, but rather than religion, their focus is on a well-rounded education. These are Anglo-Indian schools and that’s a huge contribution to the nation from a very tiny community.
The book covers much more than the things I’ve described, of course. It is as comprehensive as any book about any community can be. I have just two warnings. 1. Those who expect it to be a bunch of fun memories of times gone by will mostly be disappointed, though the last third of the book almost makes up for that with its focus on the characteristics of the community. And 2: You’ll get your dose of nostalgia in the first two-thirds of the book — the historical part — because as fascinating as the information is, it reads a bit like a textbook, bringing back clear memories of trying to stay awake during history classes on hot summer days at our Anglo-Indian schools.
My many naps notwithstanding, I loved this book. I think you will too.
The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community
By Barry O’Brien
pp. 568, Rs.999