Getting the Scoop on Anglo-Indians
by Mea Kaemmerlen
Thursday, March 10, 2005
I’m a big fan of the writer George Orwell. He’s best known as a political satirist (“Animal Farm” and “1984”). He grew up in England (“Coming Up for Air”), lived the penniless writer’s life (“Down and Out in Paris and London”) and was part of the British colonial network (“Burmese Days”). An Anglo-Indian, he was born in India in 1903 and died in England in 1950.
All very coherent, except for one thing: What the hell is an Anglo-Indian? A Brit born in India? Or an Indian born when the sun never set on the British Empire?
Neither. It took two long cups of coffee with Blair Williams of nearby Monroe Township to put me straight. This is one passionate man, and he’s putting that passion towards educating me, you, and the rest of the world about Anglo-Indians. He writes books and articles, encourages and publishes the books of others, speaks to groups, and runs a 'not-for-profit' organization to support destitute Anglo-Indians in India.
He set me straight about one thing right away: 'though Plainsboro and East and West Windsor have particularly healthy Asian-Indian populations, and 'though our state has the third largest population of Asian-Indians after California and New York, there may be only five or 10 people in New Jersey who are Anglo-Indian. And less than 500 in the US.
All right. Let’s get down to it. Who are these Anglo-Indians and why does Mr. Williams care?
Because he is one, 'though only 2nd generation - many Anglo-Indians are 7th and 8th generation. By definition, an Anglo-Indian has one male European progenitor - usually British but sometimes French, Spanish, Dutch and so on. This progenitor might have lived in the 18th century, when the British East India Company first came to India, or in the 20th, as is the case with Williams. His English grandfather came to India with the army in 1905, married a Portuguese Anglo-Indian woman and had a son. Following tradition, the son married an Anglo-Indian woman, and they had a son, Blair. He married an Anglo-Indian woman whose heritage originates from a Muslim princess and a Lord Gardner. The Anglo-Indian designation is passed down through males.
At the peak of the 1860-1947 English occupation, 500,000 Anglo-Indians served as a useful and efficient buffer between the layer of British rulers and the general population on the Indian continent. They worked for the British, running the railroads, customs, and other government services.
They were a world unto themselves. "As a boy, I thought the world began and ended with Anglo-Indians," says Blair. "We thought only we and the British existed." He adds, "Today this feels totally strange, unbelievable." They spoke English, had Western names, were Christian and had their own schools, clubs and other institutions. "One thing we didn’t take on was British cooking," laughs Williams. "We ate curry and rice, but with a fork and knife."
Like the "untouchables", the Anglo-Indian community is outside India’s caste system.
Williams' mission is two-pronged. First, he feels the Anglo-Indian image needs correcting. "We were never accepted by Indians or the British and thus have been maligned and stereotyped." In reality, he says, as a hybrid community under the British, Anglo-Indians had a unique, healthy culture. To that point, his publishing company has just published "Voices on the Verandah - an anthology of Anglo-Indian Prose and Poetry."
Second, he wants to help the Anglo-Indian community in India. With the loss of their guaranteed jobs when the British left in 1947, half of India’s Anglo-Indians emigrated to England, Australia and Canada. Those who stayed fell into hard times, and many are living in poverty today.
Williams, who has lived and worked in the US for 30 years, resolved to help his people and formed CTR, Inc., a publishing company whose proceeds go directly to Anglo-Indians to help with shelter, necessities and education.
To learn more, contact Blair Williams.