Society

The view from sunset boulevard

For a brief hour on a crowded evening, you could almost relive that greatly-loved, but slowly-vanishing world of Anglo-India. As part of Madras Week celebrations, the Press Institute of India had organised a screening of The Anglo-Indians of Madras — A Fading Presence, an in-house production of Anglos In The Wind (AITW), the Chennai-based international magazine for the community.

Played to a crowded audience, the documentary, directed by Harry MacLure, editor, AITW, and Richard O'Connor, Superintendent, Customs, was more than just an attempt to evoke nostalgia for a time and people fast becoming a memory. It also threw the spotlight on how this vibrant community has merged into the mainstream without losing its identity, and has enough fire to see it through the next few decades.

Urged by city chronicler S. Muthiah, Harry MacLure, who produced the documentary and sketched the lovely vignettes featured in it, says, “In the pages of the AITW quarterly are stories of how we once were... But, the magazine also looks at how we want to take the community forward. There was a time when Anglo-Indians needed no help in finding spouses, but now we have a bureau that has facilitated 45 marriages. This is a sign of the changing times.”

Unlike MacLure, who grew up in Tiruchi and settled in Chennai, O'Connor spent his childhood in the Anglo-Indian hubs of St. Thomas Mount and Royapettah. O'Connor, who also scripted and researched for the documentary, found himself traversing the city’s old Anglo-Indian haunts as the story’s narrator.

A human legacy of colonialism in India, the term Anglo-Indian has changed over time to now denote people of mixed lineage dating back to a period when European powers moved from commerce to conquest and intermarried with the natives. “A people”, as the Anglo-Indian novelist Allan Sealy wrote, and O'Connor quotes in the documentary, “who spoke their father’s tongue and ate their mother’s salt”. The community that thrived during the Raj, manning the Railways and playing a significant part in education, post and telegraph, airlines, medicine, sports and entertainment, was left in a twilight zone when the British exited in 1947.

Within the next four decades, Anglo-Indians migrated in droves, mostly to Commonwealth countries, and were remembered only in sepia photographs and the ebbing memories of those whose lives they’d touched. It was in search of the last of them who still continue to call Chennai home that Nicholas Moses’ camera pans on.

The narrative begins in San Thome, once home to the city’s Luso-Indians (Portuguese and Indian ancestry), who lived in garden houses and “adapted to speaking English once the Portuguese faded from the colonial scene”, according to Prof. Eugenie Pinto.

Surnames such as Pereira and Demonte now live on in the misspelt boards that point to roads that run along the coast. “A life of gentility, fraying at the edges,” as N. Kumar, a resident of Leith Castle Road, puts it.

O'Connor travels to the congested streets of George Town, through the quaint house of Keith Rodrigues of Ashok Leyland, who has lived here for 60 years, and says a bandwagon during Christmas is as rare as the sparrows that populate his house. He stops to chat with Charlie Sequeira, an auto driver, and Dennis Andrews, who heads the Anglo-Indian association here.

Felix Daly of Royapettah, an HR professional, speaks about their memorable get-togethers; drummer Maynard Grant on the community’s impeccable sense of music; Dr. Bryan Peppin of Pallavaram on the iconic houses of Veteran Lines; Sudhin Prabhakar and Eva Fonceca on Perambur’s Foxen Street residents; Gwen Gamble on being the grand matriarch of St. Thomas Mount; and Robert Gomes on the vestiges of a glorious past in Royapuram. While the story is as much about a sense of loss, it also finds a silver lining in the neat grid-like streets of Madhavaram, where the community continues to flourish, somewhat.

“While the older lot ask where all the Anglo-Indians have gone, the younger generation questions who is an Anglo-Indian,” says O'Connor. “We didn’t have the tenacity to hold on — it’s almost led to us becoming a footnote in history.” MacLure says AITW hopes to make more documentaries through crowd-funding on other Anglo-Indian centres across India.

The documentary ends with Madras-born singer Engelbert Humperdinck crooning ‘The Last Waltz’, as the Royapuram Railway Institute, once home to many an Anglo-Indian festivity, is demolished and a train pulls out of the station. As O'Connor concludes, perhaps “it’s time to move on”.

(The documentary will be screened again on September 3, 5.15 p.m. at Four Frames, 30, 5th Cross Street, Lake Area, Nungambakkam.)

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 9:23:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/The-view-from-sunset-boulevard/article14620031.ece

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