Mon, Dec 26, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: A slice of England in India slowly disappears


As India inched toward independence, hundreds of mixed-race Anglo-Indians feared for their future and retreated to a self-styled homeland in a thickly forested part of the country.

Ernest McCluskie, an Indian of Scottish descent established McCluskieganj in what is now the eastern state of Jharkhand, hoping to attract Anglo-Indians anxious about the impending demise of the British empire.

Nearly 80 years on, the few colonial bungalows still standing are in disrepair, the local economy survives on the back of a single school, and McCluskieganj’s aging residents say the chhotta England” (“little England”) they grew up in has vanished forever.

Anglo-Indians prospered under British rule with access to good jobs in the railways, armed forces or as customs officers.

They spoke English fluently, wore Western-style clothes, ate kedgeree and pudding and -practiced Christianity, much like the country’s colonial rulers, who reserved jobs for them in several branches of government until 1919.

There was still a degree of discrimination, with British officials working in India tending to look down on Anglo-Indian colleagues.

Members of the community socialized at their own clubs because they were usually not admitted into the clubs frequented by colonial officers.

Some high-profile Anglo-Indians went to great lengths to conceal their identity, as in the case of 1930s Hollywood star Merle Oberon, who claimed to be Tasmanian, believing that news of her Indian roots would derail her career.

The popular Hollywood film Bhowani Junction told the story of an Anglo-Indian army officer — played by the sultry Ava Gardner — and her conflicted ties to India and Britain.

This was the climate in which many Anglo-Indians came to McCluskieganj.

Sixty-six-year-old Noel Gordon’s family arrived here in 1946, one year before independence.

“Everyone in India was going on about gora ko hatao [‘remove the white people’]. This place felt safe at a time when people were scared and afraid for their security,” he said. “They were worried that they would lose all the comforts they were used to enjoying under the British Raj.”

Today the ruins of abandoned colonial homes dot McCluskieganj’s landscape.

Dirt roads lead to broken-down bungalows with missing doors and windows. Pieces of brick and terracotta litter floors stained with bird droppings. The the odd ceramic toilet or stone fireplace sits intact, flanked by crumbling cobweb-laden walls.

Shivsharan Mahto, the caretaker at a surviving bungalow, said the original Anglo-Indian owners left decades ago and sold the place to a Hindu family living in the state capital Ranchi.

In the years after Indian -independence, tens of thousands of Anglo-Indians sold their homes in Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and other cities, packed up their belongings and moved overseas, believing that their future lay there.

In the 1960s, McCluskieganj also saw hundreds leave for economic reasons, and the community dwindled to just a few families.

However, in the early days of the settlement, the place was buzzing with activity, retiree Gordon said.

“In the 1940s and 50s, McCluskieganj was more developed than Ranchi. There were record stores, cosmetics shops, we had a bakery, a butchery, a cobbler,” he said. “We would go on picnics and shoots, hunt wild boar and deer. The arms magistrate used to come here from Ranchi to renew our gun licenses because there were so many guns in McCluskieganj.”

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