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Susan van Dongen

Susan van Dongen

 

Lost Generation

by Susan van Dongen
TimeOFF (A PACKET PUBLICATIONS WEBSITE )
Monday, July 25, 2005
 

Anglo-Indians seek to preserve the culture of the diaspora.

I was born in British India and had an Anglo-Indian attitude as such.

I speak only English. I went to English schools and colleges.

The first 16 or 18 years of my life, I had very little contact with Indian India.

They're not the last of the Mohicans, but Blair Williams and his wife Ellen are some of the last members of a "tribe" on the verge of extinction.

"You're looking at the end of the Anglo-Indians," says Mr. Williams.

Although the outgoing, expressive man says it with a smile, he speaks a sobering truth. Anglo-Indians, people of mixed European and Indian descent, are dwindling in numbers. Fewer and fewer "authentic" Anglo-Indians exist in South Asia or elsewhere, because they're spread out all over the world, meeting and marrying people from their adopted countries. The 60-ish Mr. Williams remembers India when it was still a British Commonwealth, before independence in 1947, when the British "packed up their polo sticks . . . and went home to Blighty," writes Anglo-Indian author Margaret Deefholts.

In order to preserve the memories and culture of this diaspora - and to undo some unflattering stereotypes - Mr. Williams has overseen the publication of several books, including 2004's "Voices on the Verandah: An Anthology of Anglo-Indian Prose and Poetry" (CTR, $15). Edited by Margaret Deefholts and Sylvia W. Staub, it's a collection of writings created solely by Anglo-Indians and their children, chronicling their memories of India as well as experiences adjusting to life and culture away from their homeland.

The ethnic group has its roots in the British soldiers and government personnel who settled in India as long ago as the 1700's. Before the Suez Canal, the journey was so long, once the Brits got there, they stayed. The British government urged the men to marry Indian women, since few English women would make the ocean journey, or could adapt to the heat of the sub-continent.

While their language, religious and educational background was European, they developed a style of life that was neither British nor Indian. Mr. Williams notes a few well-known Anglo-Indians including pop stars Cliff Richard and Englebert Humperdinck, and actress Merle Oberon.

"At one time, our population was over half a million," Mr. Williams says. "We run the spectrum from very dark to very light in coloration. And many of us have moved into either the British mainstream, or the Indian mainstream."

Born in India, he is the grandson of a British soldier who came to the sub-continent in the early 19th century and married an Indian woman. Mr. Williams only vaguely remembers the times of Lord Mountbatten, Mahatma Gandhi and the drive toward Indian independence.

"I was born in British India and had an Anglo-Indian attitude as such," Mr. Williams says. "I speak only English. I went to English schools and college. The first 16 or 18 years of my life, I had very little contact with Indian India. Then I joined the railways through a public service exam and that's where I got completely enmeshed in India."

Like himself, many Anglo-Indians found employment with the network of central government services set up by the British - civil services, communications and railways.

He adds that the British liked to have Anglo-Indians in these government positions, reserving a good number of jobs for Anglos, especially in the railways.

"The British were the managers, the 'officers,' and the Anglo-Indians were 'sergeants' - the middlemen," Mr. Williams says.

When India did become independent, Anglo-Indians feared retribution from Indians. The Anglos had had the upper hand for so many years - looking down a little at non-English speaking Indians. Now, with the British gone, their power base was also gone. There were fears that the newly empowered Indians would retaliate.

India has changed greatly over the decades, but Mr. Williams says in the old days Indians held both Anglo-Indian men and women with disdain. The Anglo women adopted Western clothing and diet, worked outside the home and were able to go out dancing or to cocktail parties. They also married for love - not through the arranged marriages that were prevalent with Indians. Anglo men were much like British and European men, as far as clothing, diet and language. And there were no taboos on flirtation, dancing and drinking.

"Therefore, Anglo-Indian women had this reputation for being loose," Mr. Williams says. "And the men were stereotyped as drunken bums. Which was untrue of course, but once a stereotype is in place, it's hard to undo."

Popular literature and even scholarly studies have not presented the Anglo-Indian community in a favorable light. At best, Anglo-Indians are given a patronizing, one-dimensional portrayal. At worst, the view is biased, sensationalist or derisive.

"Before the last generation of Anglo-Indians born in British India fades away, the need to document our stories and our way of life thus assumes paramount importance," he writes in the preface to the anthology. "To that end, we have (my own) 'Anglo-Indians: Vanishing Remnants of a Bygone Era' (CTR, 2002), Margaret Deefholts' 'Haunting India' (CTR, 2003) and now 'Voices on the Verandah.' Another book, 'The Way We Were' is scheduled to be published by CTR in 2006."

'Voices' was compiled from an international literary contest, sponsored by CTR and open exclusively to persons of Anglo-Indian ancestry. With 22 stories and 29 poems, 'Voices' features works from India, the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Germany.

CTR stands for Calcutta Tiljallah Relief. It's a U.S.-based charity dedicated to helping Anglo-Indians in India. With branches in Canada, the U.K. and Australia, the fund provides monthly pensions to 150 destitute seniors in Calcutta, 75 in Madras and 20 in Bangalore. CTR also educates more than 100 needy children across India. Since publishing costs are borne privately, the gross proceeds of all book sales go to CTR.
 

Blair Williams in full flow . . . . .

Blair Williams in full flow . . . . .
"You're looking at the last of the Anglo-Indians."

"During the Anglo-Indian community's middle-class exodus from India to countries in the British Commonwealth, many of the less fortunate were left behind, caught in India's transformation from a British colony to independent sovereignty," Mr. Williams says. "Anglo-Indians, especially senior citizens, continue to struggle for basic subsistence."

A resident of Monroe, he was an officer in the Indian Railway Service for 15 years before immigrating to the U.S. in July 1976 - in time to celebrate this country's bicentennial.

A retired engineer with AT&T, Mr. Williams has embraced writing and publishing and the work with CTR, but also finds time to teach engineering at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn.

His technical skills were sought-after in the U.S., good fortune for an Anglo-Indian - or anyone - wanting to move to this country.

"It was very difficult to come to America," Mr. Williams says. "England would have been easier for us to get into, same with Australia and Canada. But not so with the U.S. Because of this, there's not really much of an Anglo-Indian community here. Everyone is spread out."

One thing from his Indian ancestry that has settled in permanently - British blood or no - is the love for Indian spices and foods.

"We eat hamburgers and American food, but we love to go to Indian restaurants," Mr. Williams says. "It's that way all over the former British commonwealth. Even in England, curry and rice has replaced fish and chips as the national dish."

Blair Williams will give a presentation, "Anglo-Indians on the Verge of Extinction," at the Monroe Library, 4 Municipal Plaza, Monroe, Aug. 20, 2005, 2 p.m. For information, call (732) 521-5000.

 

 

To learn more about anything that appears in this article, contact Blair Williams direct.

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