M3 Features

Exploring Anglo Indians in Kolkata

January 3, 2014

“Serendipity!” Robyn Andrews pronounces the word and flashes a smile as she describes the birth of her book, Christmas in Calcutta: Anglo Indian Stories and Essays. “It’s quite true actually, I went to India for a holiday and fell into a research topic,” she informs.

Writing was certainly not on her agenda, as Ms Andrews made her discovery of India tour in 1996, starting down South and later finding her way to the East. When she reached Kolkata, it was late December; the city’s festive spirit in general and a community’s in particular made a lasting impression on her. Good enough for her to come back again and again, and capture its essence and much more in 200 plus pages.

Years of research

Taking the Yuletide spirit as a metaphor, the author went on to explore the life and times of the Anglo Indian community in her book. “In the city of millions, roughly 30,000 Anglo Indians can easily be overlooked most of the year. However at Christmas, it is difficult not to notice them. As I began my research, what I read about the community indicated that this was a social group who was currently in serious decline, with a prognosis of eventual death.

The numbers I admit do tell a tale, a huge population of the community has migrated. However the change is spatial dispersal. All social groups experiences changes over time, the only ones that don’t are those that are extinct. As long as a social group can adapt, they can survive,” Ms Andrews points out, dismissing speculations that just like the Jewish community of Kolkata, the Anglo Indians too will eventually fade away from the city scape.

Keeping in mind that presenting a comprehensive picture of a community scattered all over a big city was not an easy task, the New Zealand based author made sure of bringing her professional skills to use. “Being a social anthropologist I use the discipline’s hallmark method of participant observer research, or like it is popularly
labelled, deep hanging out. I travelled a dozen times, spend lengthy hours with the Anglo Indians taking part in activities and observing all the while, interviewed people, collected life stories and took photographs. I‘ve joined in family celebrations such as weddings, anniversaries, christening and birthdays. Also other life span events like burial and memorial services, was invited for family dinners. In fact, when I am in Kolkata I’m often busier socially than when I’m at home,” comes the information.

Breaking the stereotype

“Stereotypical images of Anglo Indians are often played in Bollywood and the media. It’s time to look beyond and do away with such preconceived notions.” The author says, “I hope to spend many more Christmas in Kolkata and am keen to extend my research further.”

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