England! Here we come!
by Rudy Otter
We first generation Anglo-Indian migrants felt a surge of excitement at leaving India in the 1940s and 1950s and coming “home” to England—a home we had never seen before.
Only one thought filled our minds. “Thank goodness we are getting away from that smelly, dirty India and all the flies—chee! No having to learn Hindi now, boy! No danger of our children having to marry Indians!”
I don't know what sort of reception we expected to receive in England all those years ago. Perhaps we expected crowds of English people to be waiting at Tilbury docks or Southampton, ready to garland and smother us with hugs and kisses, and shrieking: “Welcome home! How lovely to see you all again! Our own dear kith and kin!”
The reality was somewhat different in those far-off days. No welcoming parties, no hugs or kisses, nothing at all. Within a very short time it became clear to us that we were somehow not welcome here—which came as quite a shock.
English people scrutinised our brown faces and tried to make sense of our flat, machine-gun chatter with clusters of sentences uttered in a single breath and unexpectedly ending in “no” or “men”—as in: “You're going out, no?” Or “What's the time, men?” They found it all very confusing—quite justifiably in my opinion.
“Why have you Indians come to England?” some would ask curiously. “Why don't you go back to India?”
Calling an Anglo-Indian an “Indian” in those bygone days was like calling Enoch Powell black! It made Anglo-Indians furious! Indignant! Apoplectic!
At the time, few of us could afford to buy houses right away, and shop-window advertisements offered “rooms to let” in these startling terms: “Sorry no Jews, Irish or coloureds.”
We were stunned. In India, the English knew only too well who we were and how we differed from the Indians. (Hey! We were fanatical supporters of the British Raj!). British army officers socialised with Anglo-Indians at railway institute dances, played hockey with us, visited our homes, ate our food and generally gave Anglo-Indians the impression that we were every bit as British as fish and chips. So how come the English, in England, in those bygone days, were suddenly smitten by a stroke of amnesia when we Anglo-Indians returned “home” to live among them?
It is easy to speak with hindsight (more than 52 years in our case, since arriving in England) but the truth is this: the English people who associated with Anglo-Indians in India were “officers”—the upper class—and they spoke ever so “stylishly”, as we used to say.
By the time we migrated to England, those upper-class bosom pals of ours had already retreated to their rose-fringed cottages in picturesque Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Where did most of us settle? Mainly in industrialised, smog-enshrouded London and the Home Counties, among the English working class. As far as they were concerned, anyone from India was an “Indian”—a premise then totally unacceptable to us ultra-sensitive souls.
Prejudice against Anglo-Indians and West Indians steadily swung the spotlight away from two previous targets—the Irish and the Jews—who must have breathed a sigh of relief strong enough to topple the Titanic.
Anglo-Indians, disillusioned at not being accepted, attempted to play their trump card by proclaiming their “European” ancestry: French, German, Scottish, Welsh, English, Dutch, Scandinavian. Many of us (me included) were particularly proud of our Irish ancestry—a joy, alas, not shared by the English. In fact, none of our ancestral claims impressed them. They just hoped we would “go back”. It was, I suppose, a logical English reaction, but it just did not wash with us.
Rejection by the English gave Anglo-Indians an identity crisis. Every Anglo-Indian family in those bygone days would huddle around their meter-hungry electric fire in rented rooms, and have long, soul-searching discussions along the lines of: “If a chicken were born among goats, how could it possibly be regarded as a goat?” In other words, if Anglo-Indians “happened to be born in India” how could we, why should we, be regarded as Indians? It was outrageous!
In those days we consoled ourselves by getting together at a flurry of Anglo-Indian dances organized in London districts like Ealing, Acton, Greenford, Wembley, Hayes, Osterley, Chiswick, Hammersmith, Harrow, Streatham, St Pancras, Croydon (then our spiritual home where vast numbers of Anglo-Indians lived), and Purley. Convoys of coaches would bring isolated communities of Anglo-Indians from places as far away as Somerset and Southampton.
Anglo-Indians took the opportunity at these dances to boast about how “wonderful” it felt to be “back home in England” and unfurled their long, narrow payslips bearing details of their best week's wages (grossly inflated with overtime which was then abundantly available) and tried to pass it off as normal pay!
Occasionally, much to their delight, many Anglo-Indians were mistaken for various other nationalities. “Oh yes,” they would beam, “I am from Malta/Greece/Turkey/Spain/Italy/Portugal or wherever—but from India? Oh no! Definitely not from India! Do you mind?”
Our family had been living in England for six months back in 1952 when an Anglo-Indian friend and myself met a recent arrival from India. He had been here only a week, obviously not long enough to have experienced the English unfriendliness that many (but emphatically not all) Anglo-Indian migrants had encountered.
“We Anglo-Indians,” the happy newcomer asserted, “did ourselves a huge favour, men, by leaving India and all those Indian chaps shouting ‘Quit India!’. We are home now ... here among our own kind ... the English ... our blood brothers...”
My friend and I exchanged discreet smirks. The poor fellow, we knew, would soon be in for a shock.
Four months later we met the same guy. He seemed to have lost his smile and bounce. In fact he looked drained, distressed.
“Hullo!” we said. “How are you getting on?”
He shook his head. “Oh, what to tell you, men.” He spoke slowly, weighing his words. “Er - England is not as - ah - ...we seem to have little in common with...English people...no servants...all the housework...life...just a routine...work then home, work-home, work-home. We are...not...happy here. We are - er - going back to India next month.”
Very sad. Somehow his English “blood brothers” had failed to come up to his expectations. Ahhhh!
Quite a few dejected Anglo-Indians were in the same boat (and probably ON the same boat) as himself, bound for India. But many had a change of heart and returned to England to live happily ever after as our day-to-day relations with the English steadily improved. We got to know one another better at work as well as socially. Now, in the year 2004, I am delighted to report that life in England is wonderful for Anglo-Indians, couldn't be better.
So everything turned out for the best, no?
* Rudy Otter is a retired Anglo-Indian journalist and columnist. The family migrated to the UK in 1952 from Daund, a G.I.P Railway town near Pune, Maharashtra.
(Reproduced by courtesy of CONTACT, quarterly magazine of The Asian Chaplaincy of Hammersmith, London, UK.)