Madras Miscellany Society

The Anglo-Indians gather

The 11th edition of the World Anglo-Indian Reunion will take place in Chennai next year, from January 7 to January 13

It will be the biggest reunion of Anglo-Indians when they gather around 2,000-strong in Madras from January 7 to 13 next year in what will be the 11 World Anglo-Indian Reunion. The first was held in London in 1989 and was born out of an exchange of ideas between Sheila Williams in Canada and George Hillier in London which they shared with friends.

Since then, despite all the politics in the community, the Reunion has been successfully held every two-three years, attendance growing every year despite those still committed to it, wherever they be, an ageing lot. During this period, the community has gathered “to meet and greet” in Toronto, Perth, Bangalore, Auckland, Melbourne, Perth and Toronto again, Calcutta and Sydney. Madras has been slow off the mark, but now led by Harry MacLure of Anglos in the Wind, Richard O’Connor of Customs and their team of volunteers, the first formal birthplace of the community (Surat and Machilipatnam were what might be called ‘passing blows’), has got its act together and is drawing up plans for the best Reunion ever.

But before a word on those plans, a person to be remembered, for pushing India’s case to host these Reunions from time to time, warrants mention. JA Farnandez (‘Joss’) of Dunlop’s Madras retired in Bangalore and became the Anglo-Indian MLA there. Attending the first Reunion, he argued that the 1998 Reunion, the fourth, be held in the ‘motherland’, India, to mark the completion of 50 years of Independence and that it should be held there from time to time in the future. Bangalore would host the first one, he offered — and found himself in 1997 leading the team that organised the 1998 event. It was there too that Les D’Souza thought of bringing out Anglos in the Wind “to be an international voice of the community and a library of its history”. Three years later, further identification of the community took place in New Zealand when it was decided that August 2 would be celebrated worldwide as Anglo-Indian Day.

The Anglo-Indians gather

Anglo-Indian Reunions, however, are not all about those perennial community favourites – natter about the past, song and dance, food and drink. There are always some sessions devoted to serious issues. ‘Camaraderie on the Coromandel Coast’ will feature discussions on Anglo-Indian books and authors, A-I torch-bearers, and contemporary A-I research. There will also be a symposium on issues facing Anglo-Indians, particularly in India where there are still families needing help, and a photo-exhibition on the community.

The last word on all this is from Maureen Currie of Perth who says, “Chennai or Madras, call it what you want, India draws us home and we’re still up there for the last dance. See you there.”

Murder in envoy’s house

Journalists Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Arabian Consul-General’s house in Istanbul, may be hogging the headlines today, but it reminded me of events 50 years and more ago when I haunted the surroundings of a diplomat’s house where a murder had been committed. That it was the Ambassador who had allegedly killed his wife made the case not only more sensational but a matter for discussion to this day in International Law.

The tragedy in Colombo unfolded at around eight on a Sunday morning in 1967 in the house of Sao Boonwaat, the Burmese Ambassador, and the victim was his wife Shirley, an Aung San Suu Kyi-type of beauty, a vivacious, good-time woman who was seen almost every day partying and then vanishing into the night. I knew both, the Ambassador who was always willing to discuss the Chettiar presence in Burma (my forefathers being part of it), and Shirley, who, whatever her morals, was a lovely, warm-hearted woman who always had time to chat and laugh with you, whoever you were. A more tolerant husband than San Boonwaat you are unlikely to find. But there’s always that last straw…

What really happened at the Ambassador’s residence is not known for certain to this day. But what I pieced together for a foreign news service I was ‘stringer’ for in Colombo was that persons working in neighbouring buildings saw a woman in a nightie run screaming towards the gate. A man following her rushed past her, got into a car and was driven away. A second man following them, waving a gun, caught up with her and dragged her back into the house. Shots were then heard from within. Shortly afterwards, a fire was seen in the back garden and by it three Buddhist monks. Later, a hearse drew up with a coffin and drove away with it after a while followed by the Ambassador and his family, the monks and some of his Burmese staff. A cemetery recorded a cremation.

Meanwhile, the police, alerted by the neighbours, arrived on the scene but were denied access, Burmese officials stating it was Burmese territory. But they informed the Ceylon Foreign Office that the Ambassador’s wife had died, that a doctor had certified that it was due to cerebral haemorrhage, and that she had been cremated at the main local cemetery. All Ceylon Government requests to investigate these goings-on were denied with claims of diplomatic immunity. But within a week, a high-ranking Burmese Government team arrived and flew out the Ambassador, promising action when they got to Rangoon. What happened there is not known to this day, but the grapevine has it that Sao Boonwaat was tried and pardoned after a mild sentence or acquitted. One of Burma’s most promising foreign affairs experts then vanishes from the scene.

My report after the murder footnoted with identifying the man who had fled the house that early morning as being a Ceylonese bandleader whom Shirley had kept for a year in her house as her ‘toy boy’, even as she played the field. It had been only a short while before her death that the Ambassador had managed to oust him from his home. Only to find his wife was still in touch with the musician.

Make of that what you will, but it was the second murder I covered for an international readership; the first was of SWRD Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister of Ceylon and once my billiards mentor.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 3:48:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/chennai-anglo-indians-reunion/article25473605.ece

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