Tuesday, 24 January 2023
It will be an exciting end to my trip to Bengal with both the literature festival, Kolkata Literary Meet, and the Book Fair.
Yesterday, I went to my first event, a digital meet with the Anglo-Indian author Ruskin Bond discussing a new biography of Ruskin Bond by Barry O’Brien (also Anglo-Indian).
The Anglo-Indians have for a long time been described as people having an English father, who were born in India. The definition has become broader since independence to cover a father from any European nation and, in popular usage, a person with an English (or perhaps Anglo-English parent), regardless of sex.
I’ve seen various estimates of the number of Anglo-Indians at the time of independence, a BBC article “Anglo-Indians. Is their culture dying out? from 4 January 2023 estimates that there were 300,000 at the time of independence. This number fell rapidly after independence as many Anglo-Indians relocated then to the UK (poorly known to many of them) or to another Commonwealth country.
Unlike the French in Algeria, they didn’t all or almost all leave. They were half Indian and regarded India as their home country, even though their grasp of Hindi, Bengali etc. may have been weak.
Their position was difficult; in colonial times not fully accepted as English by the British nor fully accepted by Indians partly due to their ambiguous relationship to independence. Anglo-Indians often worked on the railway system and sometimes in the police, which would hardly be a merit after independence.
It was interesting to see and listen to Ruskin Bond. I was less enthusiastic about his biographer, whose book was described as being easy-to-read and conversational but might be too “popular” for my taste. I shall see if I can examine a copy when I return to the festival later today,
As an Anglo-Swede, it’s been a major theme of my life how I preserve and develop my identity as English while at the same time being open to Sweden’s culture, its literature and history. How to make Swedishness an extra floor in my existential building where I can view the world from a different angle, without having to demolish the English foundation, how to be nourished by both cultures, how to avoid becoming a “museum English person”, visiting the UK and doing the same things and seeing the same people, and viewing anything new from the outside as a tourist. And to avoid being contented with a superficial familiarity with things Swedish where I know enough to get by in everyday life but where the pleasures of the language, Sweden’s history, its place names, its intellectual discussions are closed to me or only afforded a cursory glance. It’s a struggle to make the crisis of moving country into a positive experience but a struggle you have to make if you want the experience to make you more rather than less.
When I write about preserving my English foundation, I don’t mean preserving the historical baggage that encumbers many British minds – I am a republican, not proud of the legacy of empire and I have parted with insular attitudes a long time ago. But it’s English language and literature I know best and there are many places in the UK that I have an attachment to. I would find it very uncomfortable to lose interest in that foundation in favour of a shallower attachment to another culture (even if I struggle to reduce that shallowness).
I would like to know more about what the Anglo-Indians do to maintain their Englishness and how well integrated they are into Indian culture. It’s a smallish group (by Indian standards) and I suppose they may develop like Irish Americans, who are clearly American but don’t deny their Irish roots.
The session at the Literary Meet didn’t satisfy me but I was glad I went. In learning about India and Bengal, the widespread use of English is very useful for me so that I can follow what’s happening culturally and socially.