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Remembering Anglo-Indians in Delhi during the 1960s and 1970s

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Jamil Urfi's book 'Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960's and 70's' which is a nostalgic, personal remembrance of the bygone 20th century or the Biswin Sadi was published last year. Urfi was a campus correspondent for the ‘Times of India' Publication Youth Times during his student days in the 1980's. He has an abiding interest in history, architecture, period publications and popular cinema of the 1960s and 1970s-themes which figure prominently in his latest book. He is a teacher at the University of Delhi.

Editor's note: This is an extract from the author's book 'Biswin Sadi Memoirs, growing up in Delhi during the 1960's and 70's. CinnamonTeal Publishing, Goa, 2018.

Author's note: My family settled in Delhi in 1967. We lived in Nizamuddin East, a residential colony of South Delhi. My neighbours included several Punjabi families, who had been displaced by the Partition, and one Anglo-Indian couple, Mr. & Mrs. Andrews.  I write about our interaction with the Andrews family in this extract from my book. They lived in the flat just above our house. Though we were reserved with them in our initial communications, with time, living together for nearly two decades, we became close to the Andrews Family.

Mr. Andrews

In the beginning, I did not know much about the Andrews.  We lived together in the same building,  but some distance separated us- the gulf between the Angrez (the colloquial expression for 'whites') and the Indian. Each was careful not to cross a clear, invisible line. Over time, we learnt a bit about Mr. Andrews.  He worked for an agency and his job was to make arrangements for audio systems at public functions. Mostly he delivered to the Parliament and the Press Club. (For a while, he also ran a typing school from his house, and throughout the day we could hear the clanking of typewriters). The audio arrangement business explained why every other day a taxi, the vintage black and yellow Ambassador, manned by an elderly Sikh, would drive up in front of our house and then one would hear noises, as audio equipment, such as mikes, loudspeakers, wires, and amplifiers were transported downstairs and loaded into the taxi waiting outside.

It was on one of those occasions when Mr. Andrews was getting ready to go to work, that I learnt that his first name was Eugene. Mrs. Andrews could be heard shouting 'Eugene! Eugene!', reminding her husband about the taxi waiting outside. Except for these comings and goings and occasionally when Eugene took Duke, their dog, out for a walk, we rarely encountered him. He seldom interacted with other Indians or us. The most that he seemed capable of, when it came to acknowledging our presence, was a nod, sometimes a smile or good morning or good afternoon. Most of those who called on him were fellow Anglo-Indians and except for the odd postman, plumber, or electrician, few non-Anglo- Indians ever got a chance to enter his home. I imagine even fewer ever sat in his drawing-room as a guest.

The Andrews House

In all the years that we lived together in the same building, I may have gone up to his house only on two or three occasions. Each time I only managed to steal a glimpse of his drawing-room. I remember the drawing-room had many framed black and white pictures adorning the walls. There was stylish, though old-fashioned, furniture, and memorabilia items such as clocks, decoration objects and a portrait of King George V on a large biscuit tin.

My nose provided more clues about the Andrews household than anything else.  Mrs. Andrews cooking had a distinct smell- different from the spicy, curried food of Indian home cooking. I imagined that much of what the Andrews family ate was typical Anglo-Indian food, (I was later proved wrong in this regard) with many baked dishes. This cuisine is now a part of history.  Some restaurants and hotels, like the Oberoi Maidens in the Civil Lines area of Delhi, try to market it today as 'the Raj cuisine,' with dishes like Mulligatawny soup, kedgeree, fish cutlets, bread pudding, etc.

When the Andrew family was sitting together for meals at the dining table, one heard Eugene's genial laughter. Over the soft background music and the clang of the fork and knives, Eugene's laughter sounded a bit like the 'Ho! Ho! Ho!' of Santa Clause. I am sure that if ever Mr. Andrews had volunteered to be a Santa Clause, his voice would have made him an exceedingly convincing one.

Whenever I think of Eugene Andrews, I picture him as the archetype of the Brown Sahib, dressed in a hat, three-piece suit, tie, and round-rimmed glasses. His demeanour reminds me of Nirad Babu-Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the famous writer, a self-proclaimed Anglophile, well known for his book The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I have always also wondered why Eugene Andrews remained so aloof from us, non-Anglo-Indians. Sometimes, it almost seemed that he made an effort to stay invisible. But then, it was difficult to ignore him since he lived in the same building. Once or twice a day, he descended the stairs to step into the street below, where he was spotted. Is it possible that Mr. Andrews had cultivated an image of aloofness because he was conscious of the fact that he was an Anglo-Indian and wanted to isolate himself from the rest? Was it just peer pressure that forced him to restrict his relations to those of his kind? Did he want to keep away from other Indians,  though, in outward appearance, he looked the same as the common man on the street? Or maybe he was plain shy?

Mrs. Andrews

Interestingly, it was his wife, Mrs. Martha Andrews, who was visibly and racially different. She was a white lady with pale blue eyes (a meim sahib, meim for short, according to locals). And, she seemed to be very proud of it too. To make the point about her ancestry clear, sometimes during a conversation, she would make it a point to say, "I am British!", putting all doubts about her origins to rest. (The fact was that she was born in Sind, once a part of British India, and now in Pakistan).

Martha had been a nurse or a matron at the Wellington Hospital (now Loknayak Jay Prakash Narain Hospital). She had a daughter called Shirley who had migrated to Australia and would come visiting once every one or two years. Another daughter, Margaret, was studying in a boarding school near Pune and visited Delhi during the vacations. Though we had practically no interaction with Eugene, Shirley, or Margaret, it was Mrs. Andrews who became increasingly friendly, till eventually she almost became a part of the family. She was with us in many events of joy and sorrow, always standing beside my mother. She was also there on several occasions when I got hurt and broke my bones and teeth in accidents, and went to the hospital for treatment.

However, our first encounter with her was a somewhat hostile one. The interaction happened just a couple of days of our being in Nizamuddin. It was some disagreement over something that started as an argument, a tu-tu main-main as we call it in Hindi, between my father and Mrs. Andrews which rapidly escalated into a shouting match where each was trying to outshout the other. In this face-off, it was Mrs. Andrews who had blinked first. But over the years, while she never mellowed down, she began to accept us as a part of her surroundings.

Mrs. Andrews was a daily visitor to our flat. Her manner of coming was distinctive. She could be heard slowly descending the stairs, her shoes making a characteristic, clanking noise, announcing her imminent arrival. She did not bother to ring the doorbell,  just loudly called out my mother's name, 'Missis Jaleeel' in a strong accent. Most of the talking, on a variety of topics of a domestic nature, was done while standing. It used to be somewhat amusing to see the two ladies talking to each other in English. One was speaking in a typical Raj style English and other with a standard Indian accent.

 

Mrs. Martha Andrews standing at the foot of the staircase leading to her flat. 1978

Christmas

Once a group of boys and girls of my age got together to celebrate Christmas. We planned to dress in robes and read passages from the Bible. I read out a short passage from Paul. Mrs. Andrews was invited to this function to act as a judge. Somehow, in those days, we tended to associate Christianity as something correlated with Whites/Europeans, and also with the English language itself.

It was later that I learnt to see things from a different perspective. Our school introduced a new item in the morning assembly in which a teacher or student would read a passage from the holy book of his or her faith. They would then explain its meaning to the assembled audience. I think the idea behind it, to familiarize all students with different religions and thus move in the direction of a multi-faith, more tolerant society, was noble. For reading passages from the Bible,  Mr. Shiv Dayal, an assistant in the woodwork hobby section volunteered. He was a fantastic teacher, fluent in English and Hindustani. Though his Hindu sounding name indicated otherwise, it turned out that Shiv Dyal was a Christian from western UP and spoke perfect Hindustani, using plenty of Urdu words.  The passages which he read from the Bible were in Hindustani and not English. The Hindustani reading of the Bible made me realize how varied the Christians were. And how ill-informed we had been all along in viewing them in the restrictive British/White/English context only. Mr. Shiv Dayal stood in sharp contrast to the Anglicized, status-conscious Anglo-Indians that we were accustomed to seeing.

Several Anglo-Indian families lived in both east and west Nizamuddin and often visited the Andrews. I recall that the ladies wore pretty skirts with floral designs and some of the men sported large sideburns. At the time of Christmas, groups of boys and girls would come to the Andrews home, holding lighted candles and singing carols. They would stand on the steps leading up to the flat and sing, at which point someone would come out and give them chocolates and sweets.

Listening to old songs, say the old Beatles song Eleanor Rigby, I am for some reason,  reminded of the Anglo-Indian families who once lived in our neighbourhood.  All the lonely people! With each passing year, those remaining becoming old and grey.

And then suddenly, virtually none were to be seen anywhere. Where did the Anglo-Indians go? Have they died, settled abroad, or are now living in old age homes?

Epilogue

It is now more than 35 years since we left Nizamuddin, the residential colony in South Delhi, where I spent most of my childhood. Mr. Andrews died sometime in the 1980s, and was buried in a cemetery in Delhi. Shortly after that, Mrs. Andrews left for England, where she later died. We don't know how her life in England was and whether she missed Nizamuddin or remembered any of us. I had almost forgotten about the Anglo-Indians until I was reminded of them by an article in a newspaper.

The piece played on nostalgia and remembrance of a bygone era and mentioned the contributions of Anglo-Indian leaders like Frank Anthony and Henry Gidney. It also talked about the favourite haunts of Anglo-Indians in Delhi-St James Church in Kashmere Gate and the Gidney Club. Reading this article rejuvenated my interest in the Anglo-Indian's.  I decided to revive some old contacts. One day I turned up at the door of an old acquaintance,  an Anglo-Indian person I knew a long time ago. I hoped that he would answer some questions that I had in mind.

On ringing the doorbell leading to his flat, my friend ushered me into a room that took me back in time. There were old, black and white and sepia-tinted pictures on the walls. All the paintings were of Anglo-Indians or Englishmen and Englishwomen. Some looked very European while others looked just like us-Indians. There was one gentleman in a bowler hat; that's Uncle Tom, my friend explained. Another was a lady in a Victorian skirt. This painting looked like a very dated image, perhaps going all the way to the days of Lord Curzon. The names of the ladies he spoke so lovingly of were also just as lovely-Juliet, Hazel, Violet, Ash, Wendy.

Gidney Club

And then, one day, I decided to do some exploring on my own and see some of the haunts of the Anglo-Indian community. I wanted to see the previously mentioned Gidney Club.

The name had always sounded familiar. I had probably heard of it from Mrs. Andrews as she called out to Eugene, asking him to hurry up as they were getting late for 'the Gidney'. It was difficult, but I was able to locate the club which was on the first floor of K Block in Connaught Place, the well-known shopping and hang-out spot in Delhi. I believe this was its original location.  But so much has changed in Connaught Place over the years. Officially, it is now known as Rajiv Gandhi Chowk. In the 1960s, when we arrived in Delhi, I remember there used to be open spaces, phat-phatyas plying on the roads, Morris Minor cars, and old-style restaurants. (The phat-phatyas, were old Harley Davidson motorcycles refitted to a carrier which could comfortably accommodate 7-8 passengers. The reason for their name was the noise made by the engine, which could be heard almost a mile away).

The Wengers confectionery shop is still there, making old-style pastries, patties, and fudges. Nearby, the Keventers still sells flavoured milk and an assortment of snacks. But overall, one cannot help feeling sorry for Connaught Place. During the Commonwealth Games in 2009, there was an ambitious plan to give the place a facelift, but what happened eventually was that parts of the Connaught Circus were dug out and then forgotten. Now with traffic congestion, holes in the ground and a large number of cars, it is a place best avoided. However, on this particular visit, I was on a mission. As I walked up the stairs leading to the Gidney, I felt a pang of excitement. Surely, the Andrews must have used these very steps hundreds of times.  Back then, the club must have been brimming with activity, and there must have been plenty of familiar faces around.

On the first floor, besides a colonnade pillar, there was a reception desk. Finding no one there, I walked into a large hall adjacent to it. Here, in a typical club fashion, there were several tables, with chairs around them. On one table, there was a dirty table cloth, a half-finished glass of tea, and the chairs pulled aside. "The end of our story is told at the door," I thought, recalling lines from an old song, "A cottage for sale." On the walls, there were pictures, mostly garish paintings of former British dignitaries and Viceroys. I had not imagined the place would be like this. The club had certainly seen better days. I had learnt that at one time, a band used to play here and parties celebrating birthdays, anniversaries were quite common. Indeed, the Gidney Club was like a second home for many Anglo-Indians in Delhi. In those days, the atmosphere was one of Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley, and all the singers of the 1940s and 50s, and when the times moved on, there were the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley.

Where once there would have been dozens of people milling around, now what I saw was just empty space. I found myself falling into a reverie and started dreaming. The whole place transformed into a scene from yesteryears. A party was in progress and men in coats and ties, women in pretty dresses and high heeled shoes, all wearing paper hats, were dancing or sitting.

My reverie was soon broken. I looked around and found myself facing someone who looked like the caretaker of the club. In a coarse voice, he was saying, Haan ji (Yes?). Whom did I want to meet and how had I come up, he demanded to know, while I fumbled for an answer. I had come at a bad time as there was no one around whom I could meet for a chat about the club. I was asked to leave the premises immediately and come back in the evening in case I wanted to meet the manager. Requests for just looking around the place and possibly clicking some photographs were met with a firm refusal. Reluctantly I left, clutching in my hand a notebook in which I had written many questions for conducting interviews. At the bottom of the stairs, which lead into a busy shopping corridor, I looked up again for the last time. I thought of coming here again some other day, but deep in my heart, I knew I wouldn't.

______________________________________

© Jamil Urfi. Published July 2019

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