History & Culture

Anglo-Indian footprints on the railway track

Ever since the first broad-gauge train chugged from Bori Bunder to Thane on April 16, 1853, the Anglo-Indian community has been involved in every aspect of the Railways. “We were quintessentially railway men and possessed all the qualities to be recruited. We were cut out to be in the Railways, and the fascination for rails is in our genes,” says Noel Thomas, who retired as Divisional Mechanical Engineer from the South Eastern Railway in 1999, after 43 years of service.

Beatrix D’Souza, former Member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and the Lok Sabha, says, “Our community is identified as the railway people; we have held it with honour and devotion to duty, and at times with valour and glory.” The Anglo-Indians made a significant contribution to the Railways in India during the first 100 years, and nearly every Anglo-Indian we may come across has an ancestor who was in the sector.

 

Harry MacLure, editor of Anglos in the Wind , a quarterly magazine for Anglo-Indians across the globe, whose father was an engine driver, grew up in Ponmalai Railway Colony in Tiruchi. “While men from our community took up posts as engine drivers, guards, linemen, pointsmen, foremen and station masters, the women also worked hard as matrons, nurses, teachers and secretaries in the Railway hospitals and schools,” says MacLure. “Our women, who were homemakers, held the fort bravely when the men were away for long on duty,” says Thomas.

MacLure says that the community was territorial and clannish, and therefore stayed in and around Railway colonies and did not migrate to other parts of the city. We still have them living in areas such as Perambur, Vepery, Ayanavaram, Pallavaram, Royapuram, Madhavaram, Santhome and St Thomas Mount. “There are 35,000 Anglo-Indians living in Chennai, and this is higher than in Kolkata and Bengaluru,” he says.

“I grew up within the sight and sound of trains and tracks, and in fact, life was a schedule of arrivals and departures,” observes Thomas. He goes on to say that the Railway institutes played a significant role in the community. “Railway people’s life was not all sweat, blood and tears. The institute was symbolic of the spirit of entertainment, and it was resonating with song and dance. We were also passionate about sports, especially hockey.”

Today, there are very few Anglo-Indians in the Railways. The Government changed its recruitment policy during the ‘60s and no priority was given to Anglo-Indians. “Those days, none of our boys studied beyond Fourth or Fifth form, but were immensely talented and were sure to get a job in the Railways. We were not over-qualified, but had just the right attitude and skills. These young men were willing to work hard, be posted anywhere in India, were shy of politics, did not join the union, and kept away from disruptive activities. Most importantly, they not only kept the wheels of the rail moving, but also the economy of the country,” says Thomas.

 

Rocky Brass, who is due to retire in three months, joined the Southern Railways under the sports quota. “I was a boxer and joined as Khalasi, and due to good performance, I was promoted. Today, I work as a guard at Chennai Central,” he says. He is the recipient of three awards given by the Indian Railways for commendable performance. A well-known boxer in Tondiarpet area (where his father was a policeman), Brass had represented the State at the National level. “Between 1979 and 1989, boxing was at its peak in the city, and I was part of Crusaders Boxing Club,” he says. Both his sons are boxers, and he plans to reopen the Club which he was part of, and train many youngsters.

“The Railway platform was our stage for stellar performance for many generations. But once the recruitment policy changed, our attitude also changed, and we started opting for other careers,” says Thomas.

Passion for sports

A lot of Anglo-Indians who worked for Southern Railway were popular sportsmen who represented the country.

Marcus Doyle was a pole vaulter, who worked with the ICF.

Russell Vanderputt played hockey for Southern Railway.

Kenny Philbert was a cricketer and he is a cricket coach now.

Rocky Brass, a boxer, works as a guard

Doll and Bandicoy?

Pepper water, rice, beef fry with devil chutney is a typical dish of the community. The unique flavour of pepper water is derived from beef stock added to it. Buffath, a Christmas special dish, is a spicy gravy with fish, duck or pork and vegetables. Trotters (paya in Tamil), made with goat or sheep trotters, is a common dish eaten with appam or hoppers, which is sold even today on roadside stalls in Perambur. Kuttie pai (little bag in Tamil) is a tedious preparation of a goat which has died in the womb, and is rarely ever made these days. Foogath is nothing but South Indian-style vegetable stir-fry (poriyal).

On the silver screen

The Anglo-Indian community has appreciated the recently released Tamil film, Taramani , directed by Ram. In the film, the character of Andrea Jeremiah, a member of the community herself, has been realistically portrayed. Harry MacLure says, “Andrea Jeremiah in Taramani plays the role of a feisty Anglo-Indian single mother, who doesn’t mince words and calls a spade a spade. Her powerhouse performance lifts the simple love story to a more complex character study. An Anglo-Indian herself, Andrea goes beyond cultural stereotypes and has portrayed the character as strong-willed, confident and above all feminist — everything that a young Indian woman should be today in modern India.”


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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 11:42:57 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/anglo-indian-footprints-on-the-railway-track/article19509566.ece