Only a handful of Anglo Indian families remain in Austin Town, but many are still proud to call it home
In November 1974, a young Marian D’Cruz left the Anglo Indian neighbourhood where she grew up in Austin Town to emigrate to Australia. She was, by her own admission, really poor at the time, and left in search of greener pastures. In November 1996, after making a life for herself in Sydney, tragedy struck: she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It took two operations and fifteen years of therapy for her to fully recover, but once that period was over, one thought was foremost in her mind — that she return to walk around Austin Town, the place where she was born and brought up.
Much has changed since Marian left Austin Town close to 40 years ago: many of the brightly-coloured houses there now have inscriptions in Arabic or rangoli patterns at the entrance, as if in defiance of the blue boards in the area that say ‘Anglo Indian Block’. The open grounds where people once gathered for a game of cricket, badminton or tennis on Sunday mornings, or for a coconut shy, have been replaced by manicured parks with walking tracks and mounds of garbage.
“It used to be so clean,” says 81-year-old Ronnie Andrews, lamenting the current state of his neighbourhood, “There was not a puddle in sight.” He moved to Austin Town at the age of eight, at a time when the lines between the Anglo Indian and Tamil sections of the locality were far more distinct. Sixty years ago, he married Hilda Sandon, who didn’t like Bangalore when she first arrived in 1944 — it was too quiet for her after the bustle of Rangoon, where she was bred — but she soon settled into the friendly neighbourhood that was to be home to at least four generations of her family.
Christmas at the Andrews’ home was celebrated every year in typical Anglo Indian style: rose cookies, coconut rice, ball curry and chicken roast were among the items on the menu. “Christmas used to be such fun,” says Ronnie and Hilda’sdaughter Patricia. “Everyone would be in new clothes, and there’d be carol singing.” Others in her neighbourhood remember the potluck Christmases during which a few families would get together to celebrate under the same roof. Song and dance was a huge part of their lives, as were parties.
“Aunty Molly was a fantastic dancer,” says Patricia, who describes how she and her sisters would wait to see their fashionable neighbour all dressed up. “She and Uncle Ken used to do the waltz, and she would wear a flared Dolly Parton-style dress, with matching accessories and pencil heels.” The fabrics then in vogue among the women in Austin Town were satin, taffeta, ‘twinkly nylon’, and plenty of lace, procured from the Commercial Street and Shivajinagar areas.
With the passing of time came the inevitable changes in the neighbourhood: some of the Anglo Indians in the area migrated in the 70s and 80s to the U.K. and Australia, and new neighbours moved in. Others sold their homes because of the escalating land prices and moved to different parts of the city, leaving just a handful of Anglo Indian families in the neighbourhood. “The changes were so gradual, they just crept up on us,” says one resident of the area, who did not wish to be named. For her, the differences sunk home when she realised there was a stigma attached to being Anglo-Indian. “There was this misconception that we’re all parties and games,” she says; and others from the community agree that the stereotype of Anglo Indians living a carefree life with a predilection for alchohol and little emphasis on education has been a difficult one to shake off.
Whole lotta shakin’
Nevertheless, time hasn’t dulled the community’s enthusiasm for music or dance. Kevin Weidle, who lives with his wife Rene in a bright purple house near Austin Town Park, works in the marketing section of an engineering company. But on weekends, he puts on his dancing shoes and teaches people how to do the jive, cha-cha-cha, waltz, quickstep, and foxtrot. There has to be a dance at any Anglo Indian do, he says, particularly the jive and the waltz. The ‘birdie dance’ and the ‘hokey pokey’ are also staples, as are the line dances that are practically compulsory at weddings and parties. Kevin’s children, six-and-a-half-year-old Kristen, and Brett, who is nearly five, love dancing with him; it’s clearly in their bones.
Not everyone who left Austin Town feels the strong connection to it that Marian D’Cruz did: in an email from Sydney, she speaks of “roots” and a “hometown” — words that even residents in the area are hesitant to embrace. But if you walk through the neighbourhood, with the tinkle of piano keys or sound of a guitar in the air, and the elderly ladies in floral-print dresses, you’ll see why many are still proud to call it home.