As one walks out of the Central metro station in Kolkata, rushes through the Chowringhee crossing and lands straight into the chaotic pandemonium of Bow Street, one can never ignore the tall red-bricked buildings on the left, highly experienced with dark patches of ancientness and tiredly looking over the newly painted apartments which proudly champion the doctrines of modernity. These red bricked buildings are located in one corner of Bow Street called Bow Barracks and they belong to the Anglo-Indian community that has been residing there since the time of First World War.
Around 1912 the American troops arrived in Kolkata and settled in the Barracks. Highly dissatisfied with the living conditions, after a few weeks, they shifted to Fort William, and before their departure they handed over the buildings to Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT). As a gesture of respect and fellow-feeling, the trust in turn handed over the buildings to the existing Anglo-Indian community, who stayed in and around the Bow Street at a very nominal monthly rent. Now the obvious question that comes to the forefront is why the houses were rented ‘only’ to the Anglo-Indians and not to the ‘other’ Indians? Did any form of class difference exist between the Anglo-Indians and the other native Indians? Yes, indeed there was.
During the colonial era, especially at the time of British colonization, the Anglo-Indian community always enjoyed a superior socio-cultural and economic status as compared to the non-Anglo-Indian natives. Being close to the Europeans in terms of language, skin color, fashion, food habits and behavioral patterns they were always regarded as a crucial part of the European community. Moreover, they faithfully assisted the colonizers in wars both within India and abroad.
Historical records reveal that during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny there was a separate Anglo-Indian regiment who fought for the British to defeat the Indian troops. But, after India’s independence their wheel of fortune experienced a drastic turn and from a very highly privileged socio-cultural position they were completely segregated from socio mainframe. Though the Indian Constitution has ensured their reservation in the Lok Sabha, schools and job places, in reality, most of them live in a dilapidated state. Such is the condition of Anglo-Indians in Bow Barracks, Calcutta.
The residents of Bow Barracks were mostly employed as cabaret dancers, jazz musicians, hockey players, personal assistants, telegraph officers, and railwaymen. After India’s independence cabaret dancing was condemned as socio-culturally demeaning and was discouraged in Kolkata, live jazz was organized in the pubs but they did not receive the public attention as it was in the British era, hockey became the national sport but gradually it lost its importance to cricket, personal assistants with high academic qualification were preferred than just merely English speaking Anglo-Indians, the evolution of technological comforts made the telegraph offices almost non-functional, and railways no longer remained a monopoly of the Anglo-Indians. As a result, several Anglo-Indian lost their jobs. A major section of the financially flourishing Anglo-Indian community migrated to the suburbs of the UK, US, and Australia. Those who failed to go were forced to stay back and experience acute poverty and socio-cultural crisis.
At present Bow Barracks lies in a highly neglected state without proper hygiene, sewerage, electricity and water supplies. Officially the buildings are still looked after by CIT but in reality, they are hardly maintained. The community mostly survives on the monthly ration program organized by Bow United Organization. The Bow United Organization (BUO) consists of members who once resided in Bow Barracks but left the city in the post-independent era. Felix Augustine’s, the secretary of BUO, expresses the financial uncertainty that he and his team face every month prior to the ration distribution program but he also feels privileged to have the support of the organization members and well-wishers across the globe. It is through the organizations’ funds that the construction and the repair works are conducted. Most of the residents live on monthly rations and a few are involved in odd jobs as domestic helpers, cooks in roadside restaurants and street food sellers.
In spite, of so many crisis they try their best to preserve and practice the Anglo-Indian cultures and traditions through making Anglo-Indian evening snacks and selling it out in the streets of Barracks once a week, monthly prayer sessions which bring together all the residents together, monthly lunch or dinner sessions for the senior citizens, the yearly Bow Barracks fest which starts from 23rd December and continues till the first day of the New Year, and cakes and bakeries being prepared at home. Especially the Bow Barracks fest plays a pivotal role in not only bringing together the current and the ex-residents of Barracks but also welcomes people from different corners of the city, nation, and the world to be a part of their celebration. Each day is dedicated to different age groups and accordingly, different types of activities are organized.
For instance, 23rd December is celebrated as the children’s day and fashion shows and dance programs are organized for them, 24th December is celebrated as senior citizens day during which they participate in community games and couple dance competitions, etc. On this ten-day fest, Bow Barracks stands out as an unparalleled example of multicultural togetherness. It also functions as a baking pot of mixed emotions as individuals become nostalgic about the various Anglo-Indian practices which were alive during their childhood days but have faded away in the present era or have become very ritualistically marginalized.
The present generation does not seem much concerned about their Anglo-Indianness. Moreover, the growing trend of intercultural marriages are leading to new forms of cultural blends like Anglo-Banglos (a mix of Anglo-Indians and Bengalis), Anglo-Marwaris (a mix of Anglo-Indians and Marwaris), etc. and as a result ‘authentic’ Anglo-Indianness is under threat which only survives in the hands of a countable number of septuagenarians and octogenarians currently living in the Barracks. With the withering away of this generation, an entire socio-historical episode is on the verge of getting wiped out.
Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan
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