The British presence in the sub-continent for three centuries has been much written about. There is a huge body of work on what they took away and what they left behind. One of the entities that they left behind makes for a very poignant reading: the Anglo-Indian Community.
The term Anglo-Indian generally stands for people of mixed Indian and British ancestry and steps clear of embracing people of another Indo-European ancestry. A dictionary definition would state, “Those with mixed Indian and British ancestry and people of British descent born or living in India”.
During the early days of the Empire, the Company soldiers took local wives due to the lack of British women in India. There were also occasional Sahibs, who either married their Indian partners or had children outside of the wedlock. In the former scenario, the children were disadvantaged due to class hierarchy and in the latter, there was a stigma around being by-products of “sexual transgressions”. Thus the Anglo-Indians could never be British sufficiently.
Over time, the community grew and developed a culture of its own with distinct cuisine, dress, language and religion. All these markers highlighted their distinctness and segregated them from the native population. With the rise of the movement for independence, Anglo-Indians were assumed to be the pro-British rule. On the one hand, they invited contempt from the British and on the other hand, they incurred suspicion and even hostility from the natives.
Before leaving, the British made half an effort to demarcate areas for Hindus and Muslims – and made a hash of it. Except for some fancied plans for settling Anglo-Indians in the Andamans, the estimated 2 million Anglo-Indians were forsaken and pretty much left to themselves. It was a difficult position for the Anglo-Indians as they were left without a “home” in the country where they were born and stood to receive minimal social acceptance “back home” that they had anyways never seen. They were left high and dry, neither here nor there, straddling the proverbial limbo and pulled by diverging cultures and identity.
No wonder a majority of them decided to immigrate to other countries within the Commonwealth.
One gentleman had seen this coming and in his own small way had tried to find a permanent home for the Anglo-Indians within India. Like the proverbial Messiah, he had decided to find a sliver of the Promised Land for his people, where they could not only live securely but also flourish. He was Earnest Timothy McCluskie who founded a “Little England” – a haven for Anglo-Indians in the Chota Nagpur plateau.
McCluskiegunj is a small town some 66 KM north-west of Ranchi. It is named after the founder, who was a property dealer in Kolkata. One of his friends worked for the Raja of Chota Nagpur. Through him, he was able to persuade the Ratu Shahnsha and procured a lease for 10,000 acres of land, under the condition that none of the tribals from the existing nine villages would be evicted. McCluskie formed The Colonization Society of India and wrote circulars to Anglo-Indians all over India who could buy shares in the Co-operative and make the town their home.
The town is located in the midst of hills that have waterfalls and is surrounded by rivulets. It was no surprise that within ten years almost 400 Anglo-Indian families had moved in McCluskiegunj. The appeal of a promised land combined with fertile agricultural parcel and animal husbandry nestled amidst lush greenery was too tempting. Over the years the residents managed to create a little bit of “Chhota England” right in the heart of India. The elements of an old-world charm were to be seen in McCluskiegunj here with afternoon tea parties, piano music and hunting expeditions were par for the course.
For the next three decades, McCluskiegunj continued to prosper in a tribal belt. But soon reality started hitting home as its lack of education infrastructure and employment opportunities started to tell. Much like Parsis, the Anglo-Indians were primarily an urban community despite all romantic notions of idyllic village life “back home”. To top it all, residents were expected to survive primarily on agriculture which the Anglo-Indians were not very excited about. Gradually the town started emptying and by 1970’s less than 30 families from the original settlers remained.
A visit to the town today would show signs of decay and residents struggle with basic necessities like uninterrupted power supply and health infrastructure. The unique circumstances of the town does attract curious tourists and history diggers who come hunting for a story. Quite understandably the residents are not very enthused to be reminded of an era gone by, a dream gone awry. If at all they are tired of being ogled at as if they were living museums. Quite a few of them prefer to be left alone and refuse interviews for the fear of reopening old wounds.
The town has been the subject of a Hindi movie Maikluskiganj and is also the setting for Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut “A Death in the Gunj”.
Few of the old mansions have been converted to guest houses. A unique cluster has a temple, a mosque and a gurudwara in the same compound. For a town that promised so much, it takes an effort to locate the inscription that marked the foundation of the town. There is a plaque on a cemented platform hidden amongst leafy outgrowth erected in 1934 to kick start a grand vision. Fortunately, there has been a minor revival in the fortunes of McCluskiegunj post opening of Don Bosco Academy in the town. Some residents have been able to gain a semblance of livelihood by running hostels for students.
The town does force you to ponder on the what-ifs of history. Due to prevalence of education, the Anglo-Indian community has punched much above its weight and can count many luminaries amongst them. What if McCluskiegunj would have fully evolved and blossomed into an Anglo-Indian enclave? The town would then have seen Engleburt Humperdinks and Cliff Richards crooning their numbers, a Roger Binny and Sheldon Jackson sweating it out in nets in the hills. And the likes of Nasser Hussain, Ben Kingsley, Bob Woolmer, Russel Peters would have dropped by occasionally to meet up with their cousins who had chosen to stay back.
(Zeyaur Rahman holds a Masters degree from JNU. Along with his day job, he blogs on socio-political affairs and curates historical anecdotes.)