Barry O’Brien: A buffet treat on Anglo-Indians

Interview with the quizmaster, educationist, motivational speaker, and author.

Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:15 IST

Barry O’Brien: “I think there is a good balance in the The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community between what is ‘serious’ and what is ‘fun.’”

Barry O’Brien: “I think there is a good balance in the The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community between what is ‘serious’ and what is ‘fun.’” | Photo Credit: VIPIN CHANDRAN

Barry O’Brien’s recently released book, The Anglo-Indians: A Portrait of a Community, comes at a time when this microscopic community has all but disappeared: today, they are almost indistinguishable from other Indians in their speech and attire. Dispersed all over their fancied “home”—the UK, the US, Canada, and the Antipodes—Anglo-Indians today struggle to keep their beleaguered identity intact. In Kolkata, which once had a thriving Anglo-Indian community, they have been pushed further south from their enclave around Park Street.

O’Brien, a Kolkata-based Anglo-Indian himself, has not flinched from telling us the bitter truths about these nowhere people who were necessary to keep the Empire functioning but were still looked down upon by the British, their steadfast loyalty notwithstanding, and who were regarded with suspicion and disdain by Indians for the same reason. In this interview, he fields questions about his book and his community. Excerpts:

First, let me congratulate you on mustering the courage to hold a mirror up to yourself and clearing the many misconceptions we generally have about the origins of your community. What made you do it?

Thank you. I think when you write a book honestly, you’ve got to write the truth… that’s what made me do it! As an Anglo-Indian, I am very proud of my community, but as an author I had to write an honest, hand-on-my-heart account, “warts and all”. So, that’s what I did.

I began with the origin of the community: it was a deliberate and successful attempt, first by the Portuguese and then, to a much larger extent, by the British, to create this community of mixed blood that would be loyal to them. In fact, from time to time, they would offer money or other incentives to British men to marry local women, though it is also true that not all of them officially tied the knot.

How long did you take to sort out so much material? How did you get hold of such a wealth, considering that we Indians are no good at record-keeping?

I started researching the book in 2017. It took almost five years to complete. I was helped by my eldest daughter, Zasha, who is the scholar in our family; my wife, Denise, helped me a lot in researching the pen sketches, editing, and giving the book a structure. But most of the second half of the book is from the top of my head. I have been deeply involved with the community since I was a teenager, and a lot of what I saw, what I observed, what I am experiencing is mentioned in the book. Some people I have named, some I have not. I think there is a good balance in the book between what is “serious” and what is “fun”—the social, cultural, and political history balanced with the present: who we are and how we live today and a touch of the future.

Several prominent people, including Ruskin Bond, have called it a “labour of love”. To be honest, it is! I put everything into it—so, I would say, it’s a book researched over a lifetime.

My sources were many. I read almost every book of consequence about the community, besides magazines like The Review (which goes back almost a 100 years), and Anglos in the Wind, published and edited by Harry MacLure. I also consulted several books on the British Raj, the Railways, comprehensive websites like BharatRakshak, and more.

Anglo-Indians have won a prodigious number of medals for bravery on battlefields after Independence. This may come as a revelation to many readers. Why this collective amnesia about their contribution?

There have been so many fighter pilots from our community, officers in the army and the air force—less in the navy—many in the police force, who had served the nation. I felt that somebody needed to actually count the numbers of those who have been honoured by the nation. It was quite a difficult task… but I don’t think it was “intentional amnesia”. Somebody just had to bring it all together and make everybody more conscious, more aware of these facts. That’s all I did.

““Anglo-Indians excelled at hockey, football, athletics, and boxing. It came to them naturally. From the 1980s onwards, an entire generation suddenly realised that they had to finish school, move on to higher studies, and compete for jobs.””Barry O’Brien

There are hardly any Anglo-Indians left in the schools they had established. How do you feel this has impacted the teaching of English?

There are still many Anglo-Indian teachers, but yes, they are far fewer in number than before.

However, two or three generations of non-Anglo-Indian teachers who have studied in our schools are now teaching in them. So I don’t think the teaching of English has been affected too much, certainly not in our Anglo-Indian schools.

I think the standard of English in many non-Anglo-Indian schools has really improved over the last 30 or 40 years. What is also interesting is, as I have mentioned in my book, that in spite of the government’s encouragement to “study in your mother tongue at the primary level”, even in the Hindi heartland, in States like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the State governments have in recent years started English-medium schools. I’ve mentioned the figures in my book—a startling statistic.

You have dug so deep and delved into the history of your people. Although the details are of great value to researchers, lay readers may find it a bit tiresome. Did you intend it to be a compendium?

That’s a really good question. I didn’t intend to go so deep into the community’s history but while writing, it just happened—though I have absolutely no regrets. I think it’s a wonderful thing that happened and I thank the publisher, Aleph Book Company, for giving me so much freedom—the book was originally planned to be much slimmer.

Having said that, yes, you’re right. There are many readers who would actually skip those chapters and go straight to the post-Independence sections: “Those Who Left”, “Those Who Stayed”, “The Way We Were”, “The Way We Are”, “Railways”, “Sport”, “Cuisine”, “Faith”, “Family ‘n Fun”.

I have had quite a few readers and stalwarts of the community like Beatrix D’Souza, ex-MP and MLA, saying that they are reading it in parts. She has put it quite beautifully: “Barry’s book should be treated like a buffet—I keep visiting it from time to time… and each time I feel prouder of being an Anglo-Indian.” Dr Lawrence Jenkins, a retired professor from Bengaluru, says almost the same thing in his review on Amazon—that he thinks it’s a good read and he keeps picking it up from time to time and reading it in parts.

I think that’s perfect advice for readers: don’t read it at one go; pick and choose from the buffet.

I loved the section on the colourful Anglo-Indian lingo, which was once so much a part of our lives. Since it is rarely heard now, do you not think something ought to be done to preserve it for posterity?

n fact, right through the book I have used Anglo-Indianisms. By that I mean not just words and phrases originally coined by us but also words that we use very often—our turns-of-phrase. These are in italics; plus, there is the section you refer to, on Anglo-Indianisms. It has been very well received.

Yes, this will in a small way help preserve it for posterity, as will several other works of fiction and non-fiction that have been published over the last couple of decades, especially by publishers like CTR Publications, US, and Anglo Ink, Chennai.

A still from Mahanagar. Vicky Redwood, who played the role of Edith Simmons, is behind Madhabi Mukherjee, who played the protagonist, Arati. 

A still from Mahanagar. Vicky Redwood, who played the role of Edith Simmons, is behind Madhabi Mukherjee, who played the protagonist, Arati.  | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Given your knowledge of Bengali and the fact that you have not shied away from discussing pejorative terms that were once used to describe Anglo-Indians, I was quite surprised that you have not included the word “tyans”, which even Sukumar Ray used in his nonsense verse. Was it deliberate?

No, it wasn’t deliberate. It featured in my notes but just got left out… an oversight!

Anglo-Indians once excelled at sports. Now that Roger Binny is the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), do you feel it was wrong of the Anglo-Indians to give up on sports?

Anglo-Indians excelled at hockey, football, athletics, and boxing. It came to them naturally. From the 1980s onwards, an entire generation suddenly realised that they had to finish school, move on to higher studies, and compete for jobs. There was a clear drift away from playing sport, except at a recreational level. So I don’t think there was or is any room for regret. Yes, there are still some very talented boys and girls who play serious sport, and they need to be nurtured. But they are the exceptions; the rest are far keener on focussing on their education and building their careers.

Of course, we are very proud of Roger Binny, and those who read my book will know he is the second Anglo-Indian to head the BCCI. The first was Anthony D’Mello, who didn’t make it as a cricketer but played a key role in setting up the BCCI—he was its founder-secretary and second president.

I was a little disappointed that you have left out the Bengali film Saptapadi in which the iconic heroine played by Suchitra Sen was an Anglo-Indian, Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, and certainly Merle Oberon. Was it an oversight?

No. I thought about including a few paragraphs on films in which the protagonist is an Anglo-Indian… but there were far too many to mention—in Hindi and several regional languages, and I had already overshot the word limit by quite a bit.

However, I have mentioned Anglo-Indians who acted in films, including Vicky Redwood who played the role of Edith Simmons, the protagonist Arati’s colleague, in Mahanagar, as well as Merle Oberon and others, in the pen sketches and the section on fashion, films and showbiz in my favourite chapter of the book, “Anglo-Indian Women—The First to Step Out”.

Soumitra Das is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.

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