New Book Spotlights Anglo-Indian Community in Astonishing Detail

‘Britain’s Anglo-Indians’ by Rochelle Almeida

London: Many Anglo-Indians from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were among their 50,000 community members from all parts of India who left for Britain in the years following Indian Independence in 1947. They looked forward to a better life in what they fondly regarded as the ‘Mother Country’.

How these mixed race folk, spawned by British male white colonialists and Indian women, fared in their chilly new environment 5,000 miles away is the subject of a fascinating new book entitled ‘Britain’s Anglo-Indians’ by Rochelle Almeida, who charts their story in astonishing detail.

The British had cosseted the Anglo-Indians in India, especially the fair-skinned ones, by giving them good jobs on the railways despite some of them not progressing beyond the primary education provided by railway schools. Many, however, did pursue higher education, some going all the way to attaining the coveted Senior Cambridge qualification of those days. Most Anglo-Indians assumed they would continue to be pampered by the British in Britain, hence the rush to leave India, the exodus starting soon after 1947 and continuing until the early 1960s.

So how did Anglo-Indians fare in their so-called ‘Mother Country’? In a word, badly, at first, and their depressing experiences are crisply captured in this book. They were made to feel unwelcome, discriminated against on racial grounds for jobs, accommodation and day-to-day encounters, and frequently advised to “go back to wherever you came from”. Advertisements read: “SORRY, NO COLOUREDS.” Almeida writes: “First Wave Anglo-Indians in the UK made the startling discovery that their fluency in English was inadequate in their attempt to integrate initially. To really ‘attain’ excellent communication skills in English… they needed to fake British accents or acquire phony upper-class ones…”

A 72-year-old Keralite Anglo-Indian woman whose family came to Britain from Cochin in 1954 said: “Two months after arriving in the UK, I responded to an advert in our local paper for a steno. I went for the interview and did well. I took their tests and passed with flying colours. But I wasn’t given the job. I told my sister to apply for the same position as we were equally qualified and had the same years of experience in Cochin. She did. They did not even make her take any tests. She was offered the job on the spot. Was it a coincidence that I have dark South Indian colour based on my Malayalee grandmother’s skin tones while my sister is white-skinned like our Welsh grandfather?…”

Quotes like this, on every aspect of frustrating life in Britain for Anglo-Indian migrants inthose early days, appear frequently in this superbly written book.  Here’s another from a 76-year-old retiredengineer who arrived in Britain from Chennai in 1958: “…In the 1950s, being an Anglo-Indian immigrant meant either not disclosing your Indian origin, disguising it as best you could or bluffing your way through a more desirable national origin.”

Here’s a retired man, aged 67, from Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka: “In the UK I learned how to change my children’s nappies (because there were no servants), how to bathe them, how to help with their homework. My wife had to go to work so that we could make ends meet. I pitched in with housework. My cousins in India would have been horrified to know that I took out my own rubbish and swept my kitchen floor. I even learned how to cook a curry.”

What Anglo-Indians did not know, as Almeida reveals, is that neither the British nor Indian authorities had wanted them to leave India, and put various bureaucratic obstacles in their way.  Even their own Anglo-Indian leaders, Henry Gidney and later Frank Anthony, gave earnest speeches pleading with Anglo-Indians to stay behind in India and help develop the land of their birth, but to no avail. Anglo-Indians had mistakenly thought the ‘Quit India’ demonstration, mounted by freedom-yearning Indians, was aimed not only at the British rulers but also themselves.

An enormous amount of research, in the UK, was carried out by Rochelle Almeida, clinical professor of global cultures in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University. The chapter headings indicate the size and scope of the project undertaken by Almeida, a Mumbai graduate, who is also an author and freelance writer.  Headings are: The Impact on Anglo-Indians of the British Nationality Act of 1948: Interpretation, Analysis, Critique / Immigrants, Refugees or Both?:  Migration Theory and the Anglo-Indian Exodus; / Competence and Competition / Conflict and Clash / Adjustment and Accommodation / and Assimilation and Integration; plus a lengthy chapter headed ‘Conclusion’.

She ends with an optimistic quote from a first-generation Anglo-Indian immigrant journalist who comments on their general view of Britain today: “Life is so very different and wonderful from what it was when we first arrived here, around 60 years ago, with our bizarre misconceptions, culture clashes, sensitivities and chips on our shoulders the size of the Taj Mahal. We are now more mature and happier than we have ever been.”

Rochelle Almeida’s absorbing book, ‘Britain’s Anglo-Indians’ is published by Lexington Books USA (price US$100), contact: www.rowman.com