We may be a David in size but we have made a Goliath contribution: Barry O’ Brien

Barry O’ Brien on the Anglo-Indian way of life, and why India owes a great debt to this community, especially in the field of education

Updated - October 14, 2022 02:09 pm IST

Published - October 14, 2022 09:03 am IST

“The community may be small but by any estimates there are still several lakhs of Anglo-Indians who are proud citizens of India,” says Barry O’ Brien.

“The community may be small but by any estimates there are still several lakhs of Anglo-Indians who are proud citizens of India,” says Barry O’ Brien.

In his social, cultural, political and historical biography of Anglo-Indians, a “small community with a large heart,” Barry O’ Brien takes in its sweep the roller-coaster ride it has faced over five centuries in its chosen homeland, India. “We may be David in size, but we have always been a Goliath in our contribution to society, particularly in the field of education,” says O’ Brien, talking about his new book, The Anglo-Indians — A Portrait of a Community. Edited excerpts:

‘Since the middle of the 19th century till now, the greatest contribution that the Anglo-Indian community has made is in the field of education, particularly school education.’

‘Since the middle of the 19th century till now, the greatest contribution that the Anglo-Indian community has made is in the field of education, particularly school education.’

Why do you think that one of the oldest and largest communities of mixed descent in the world is loved and ridiculed, written about and written off?

In pre-Independence days, the community was not considered European or British, and it was also alienated from the native Indian community. It was trapped in the middle, caught in no man’s land. It was misunderstood; people did not know enough about the community or where it was headed. This lack of trust between the British and the Anglo-Indian community on one hand and between native Indians and the Anglo-Indians on the other had made it feel that it belonged nowhere. Thankfully, post independence, the community has been embraced by new India and it is far more comfortable and part of the mainstream.

You write that you were shocked to find that many in the community were “colour conscious and prejudiced”, but this is a thing of the past, isn’t it?

Well, the community was definitely colour prejudiced as I mention in the book. Even within the same family I have heard many people talk about discrimination; obviously over the years that has disappeared. However, I have also said that may be in a few families it still prevails — I refer to them as being “in the closet”.

Post-independence, what could the Indian government have done differently for the community? Why do you consider the withdrawal of the provision for nomination of Anglo-Indian representatives to the Lok Sabha and State assemblies an act of “betrayal”?

The stakeholders, leaders of the community, the various organisations — the All-India Anglo-Indian Association, founded in 1876, for instance — no one was consulted as to why this nomination was being withdrawn. It was a bolt from the blue and that is why the community feels betrayed. The States too were not taken into consideration. In January 2017, when we were invited for a meeting by the government, we were told that the various challenges we faced and our suggestions would be looked into. Then the bombshell came in 2019, that there aren’t enough Anglo-Indians to be represented (296 according to the census of 2011). The community may be small but by any estimates there are still several lakhs of Anglo-Indians who are proud citizens of India, and there are many who are still fighting the odds and need assistance, care, and opportunity. We would like the government to reconsider, but it is not listening, unfortunately.

Education, cuisine, sport, writing: the community has made stellar contributions to society. What do you think is its greatest contribution and legacy?

Without a doubt, since the middle of the 19th century till now, the greatest contribution that the community has made is in the field of education, particularly school education. Millions of leaders in all walks of life have been to Anglo-Indian institutions. If you look at the past, the armed forces, particularly the Air Force, and the Railways, there have been huge contributions in both.

How has the Anglo-Indian community coped with the ride? Why do you feel a State to call its own would have been beneficial to the community?

The community has come out stronger for all the knocks it has taken over the centuries. It is an extremely gallant and courageous community; we don’t give up easily. We are pretty tough. So we may be a David in size but we have made a Goliath contribution. In hindsight, instead of giving us job reservations for 10 years and giving us two seats in the Lok Sabha and one seat in the State — our seats were politically hijacked especially after the advent of coalition politics — it would have been perhaps ideal if we were given a small State, our own little Goa or Sikkim. It would have been a huge struggle for us in the beginning and we would have needed government help, but it would have become an education and entertainment hub, and this would have been better for the country and the community.

You mention it in the book (page 433), but please tell us about your favourite Anglo-Indian lunch; and would Christmas in Calcutta be Christmas without the community? What is the community’s contribution to the cities of Calcutta and Madras?

Well, I love food and it’s difficult for me to choose but I would go for dal rice which many Anglo-Indians would still pronounce ‘dol’; sausage fry special from Park Circus and Entally in Calcutta, and potato mash or aloo bharta with onion and chillies; and a beef and pork jalfrezi.

As for Christmas, I have spent an almost white Christmas in London and a burning hot Christmas in Perth. They are wonderful places, but there’s nothing like a Calcutta Christmas. We may have a fake tree, not very good looking holly, but the only reality is the warmth and the feeling of Christmas that has to do with the city of Calcutta. Whether you are in New Market, or you are at a confectionary, at Nahoums or Flury’s, or partying at the Rangers Club or at the Dalhousie Institute, or you are going for a midnight choir service at St Paul’s… the Anglo-Indians are at the heart of it, and ensure every other community is involved. The contribution the community has made in terms of schools, culture, it goes way beyond the community itself. Many people I spoke to said being in touch with the Anglo-Indian community made them more spontaneous, and they seemed to get more out of life. The two cities of Calcutta and Madras owe a great debt to my community.

The Anglo-Indians — A Portrait of a Community; Barry O’ Brien, Aleph, ₹999.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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