On Pakistani Anglo Indians

Hoisted from the archives:

(I first published this piece in June2011.  It appears to be popular and has been frequently commented on.  I am not able to republish the old comments (if there is a way, and any one knows it please let me know). The earlier article wih comments is here)


My old Ajmer friend Duncan Cruickshank pointed me to a column about Pakistani Anglo Indians published by the Pakistani columnist Masood Hassan.  I have included large extracts from Hassan’s piece from “The Anglo Indian Portal” below.

Hassan’s column makes a good lead in to a series of posts I plan to publish about Pakistan, Afghanistan and the  Raj’s “North West Frontier”.

We old “Anglo Indians”, despite the manifold characteristics of our “Stockholm syndrome”, understand the infinite complexity of the cultures in which we once lived, and the “races” (as we “British” called them) which created the rich blend of cultures on the  subcontinent the world eventually called “India”.    We do not easily divide the world into “bad guys” and the rest of us.

We understood India during the days of the Raj in the deepest way possible — the survival of our families depended on it.  We adapted to the multiple shifts of British policy, and most importantly, we survived.  We were “Shape Shifters” par excellence.

Hassan, a native Pakistani I presume, beautifully describes the “Anglo India” of the last days of the Raj.   He (corrrectly) sees the joy and frivolity which were an essential part of Anglo Indian life.   He almost certainly cannot understand the Anglo Indian angst of the days he so fondly remembers.

My parents  were part of the era he describes.  They were, and I know they suspected they were, “whistling past the graveyard”.   Powerless to change the vector of history, they did their best to “keep their chins up” and provide a happy environment for their children.  For us Ajmeri children that environment was defined by our parents affiliations and our schools and clubs.  The “Railway Shops”, the “Post and Telegraph”, St Mary’s Convent, St Anselm’s, and the Railway Institute were the foci of our lives.

Here is Hassan:

Those Were The Days

It is hard to believe that Pakistan was once a gentle country. It is even harder to believe that some of the most wonderful people lived here. … A friend passed me an interesting short article about the Anglo-Indians who lived and worked in what is now India and Pakistan. The Anglos are long gone swallowed up by the mists of time, driven out from here to fend for themselves. But in their extinction lies a bigger tragedy.

The Anglo-Indians were fun people. But more than the singular expertise they brought to the jobs that became traditionally their forte, they added a swing, vibrancy and a sheer joy of living spirit to our society that in many ways epitomised the new, fresh spirit that was Pakistan. That was then. Now it’s a fading sepia tone picture. Those of us who grew up with them, watched with considerable sadness as family after family left this country to go and live in alien climes. There was nothing left for them. They were wise in retrospect. Look at our bestiality towards our minorities. But while the Anglo-Indians were here, they gave us a unique gift. The joy of living and of being alive.

The Anglos were a British creation … more English than Indian in their thinking, a defensive ring around British interests and way of life. Many experts believe that had it not been for them, the British Empire in India would have collapsed. Ethnically engineered, they were the only micro-minority community ever to be defined in a country’s constitution and yet the irony was that they were a race without a country!

The Anglos were no ordinary people. In India and later Pakistan, they virtually ran the railways, post & telegraph, police, customs, education, nursing, healthcare, import/export, shipping, tea, coffee & tobacco plantations, coal mines and gold reserves. Thus Anglos became great teachers, nurses, priests and doctors and the girls, debonair, confident, skilful became the best executive secretaries, special assistants and office managers. There was no one to match them.

But it was their colourful and vibrant approach to everyday life that was so infectious about them. Like all small communities, they segregated into enclaves that were all their own. The Anglo-Indians were truly spirited people, fired with a zest to work and party hard. …

The Anglos were superb musicians and dancers. The floors (toba, toba) were full on Saturday nights, Sunday afternoons, jam sessions – and other handy occasions – sometimes they didn’t even need to have a reason. At the hangouts, Karachi particularly and Lahore catching up all the time and Sam’s in Murree, the Anglo-Indians could set a floor on fire as they jived, jitterbugged, rocked & rolled, swung, waltzed or shook sensuously to Latin-flavoured mind-blowing melodies. And it was on the dance floors that you saw girls who could break your heart with just a look, hair tossing, laughing their pretty heads off as adept and handsome male escorts took them through the paces.

The Anglos congregated in special areas within the cities where they made warm, inviting homes. In Lahore, they were behind The Indus Hotel on The Mall, in the environs of the railway colony and in residential areas where family names like D’Souzas were as common as Mohammad Iqbals today. In Karachi names like Preedy Street, Elphi were synonymous with them. Wherever they were – they were not very affluent, but you were always welcomed with a cold beer, a quick shot if it was nippy and at Xmas time, the special cakes made to order with each family guarding its secret recipe passed from generation to generation. …

…The 1972 laws enforced by ZAB to please the fundos (fundamentalists) broke the spirit of all of us, particularly the Anglo-Indians. Bars, discos, clubs all shut down in fear. Suddenly hosts of musicians and other artists had no livelihood. “Tolerance went up in smoke,” recalls one sad person. Came 1979 and the evil Zia and the coup-de-graceforced the Anglos to escape, migrate anywhere they could go. They left by the droves, never to come back. The clubs died, the dance floors uprooted, the many services they offered fell by the wayside. In driving out this small community, we dug our own graves. We rapidly became soulless, grey, hypocritical and boring. With them gone, an integral part of decent civilian life was snuffed out. Guns replaced guitars. The scorched landscape that we inherited, now mocks us. Laughter has changed to anguish. Pakistan may be a ‘hard country’, but it is also a barren and desolate land.

One gentleman of the fabled ’60s sums it all up in one line: “Those days are gone. They will not come back.”

Quite an epitaph, wouldn’t you agree?


Nehru’s Speech on the evening of Gandhi’s assassination

In my previous post written on the the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence, I remarked:

Here is the podcast of Nehru’s Independence night speech  “Tryst With Destiny”  as  “…at the midnight hour..” he announced the Independence of India.  You may note the well cadenced, Harrow and Cambridge educated, “Brown Englishman”, orating a carefully prepared speech.   

Four months after Inedpendence Day, on January 30th 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in the compound of Birla House in Delhi.  A few hours after the assassination, Nehru, climbing on the gates of Birla House,  delivered the superb, extemporaneous, emotional short speech below.   Continue reading “Nehru’s Speech on the evening of Gandhi’s assassination”