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At lunch with an Anglo-Indian family in their home


Kati rolls and sweet tea in the back of a van after attending a charismatic healing service.
The children are all Anglo-Indian


At an Anglo-Indian house party

Robyn Andrews

Massey University

Robyn is a PhD student in Social Anthropology at Massey University. She is investigating issues relating to community identityand community maintenance among Calcutta's Anglo-Indians, and received an Asia 2000-NZASIA Research Award to help fund a fieldwork trip to Calcutta (now officially known as Kolkata) in February this year.

Community Maintenance and Development within Calcutta's Anglo-Indian Community

I am studying the ways in which the Anglo-Indians of Calcutta are maintaining and building their identity as a distinct community. I returned to India in early February this year to follow up the fieldwork research I had undertaken in early 2002.

During this year's month-long visit to Calcutta, I stayed in a central city Anglo-Indian hostel. Also staying in the hostel were a number of young Anglo-Indian men, who live there long-term, the Anglo-Indian family who run the hostel, and the administration staff of the Anglo-Indian school with which the hostel is associated. Being based in the hostel meant that I had constant access to a large group of Anglo-Indians. As well as being beneficial for my research, the hostel people also provided me with good company. They all knew why I was there and seemed happy to talk with me about their lives, including me in many of their day–to-day activities. Participant observation is my primary method of data collection, and so the hostel experience was intrinsic to my project.

My days were extremely full – much more so than when I'm at home in Palmerston North. ‘Bed tea' was brought to me in my room before 7am every morning. The day then filled with various activities, including interviews and updating my fieldwork journal. The day invariably ended with a late dinner with one or other of my research participants. On more than one occasion the hostel gateman earned extra baksheesh for letting me in after midnight.

Members of the Anglo-Indian community, no matter what their socio-economic position, are extremely hospitable. Along with their Christianity and Western lifestyle, hospitality is one of the community's hallmarks. My fieldwork was, in part, made up of a series of social events. Included in my itinerary was attendance at some personal milestone events such as a wedding blessing, a 25th wedding anniversary celebration and the dedication of a baby in a Baptist ceremony. I attended a Valentine's Day Ball as well as several house parties (I will need to take dancing lessons before I go back). I also participated in the Christian dimension of their community life by attending a variety of church services and pilgrimages.

My fieldwork had more formal components as well. I collected several life stories and interviewed some key figures in Calcutta's Anglo-Indian community about their perceptions of the community's health and longevity. One of the objectives of this year's fieldwork trip was to increase my understanding of the Anglo-Indian schooling system. For this purpose, I carried out interviews with a number of people involved in the schooling system: members of Anglo-Indian School boards, school principals, the present Member of the Legislative Assembly, past Members of Parliament, the founder of an education centre set up for Anglo-Indian ‘dropouts'. I also met with the recently retired Catholic Bishop who had had the overall responsibility for the Catholic Anglo-Indian schools.

The hostel I stayed in houses the administrative quarters of a century-old Anglo-Indian school in Kalimpong (in the Himalayan foothills near Darjeeling), where large numbers of Calcutta's poor Anglo-Indians receive a sponsored education. I was able to talk with a range of people associated with this school – from board members, to past and present pupils, to parents of present pupils. Information from all of these sources has given me a good overview of education among the Anglo-Indians of Calcutta and of their various education institutions. It seems to me, and I shall argue this in my thesis, that although Anglo-Indians were the founders of English-medium schools in India, Anglo-Indian students are now disadvantaged in these schools.

Another fieldwork objective was to discern and understand the community's marriage patterns. I spoke to a number of people about marriage partner preferences, mixed marriages, and other marriage trends. One of the eroding influences on the community is the increasingly frequent practice of marrying outside the community. This leads to increasing assimilation of Anglo-Indians into the majority population – a process compounded by the fact that children of non-Anglo-Indian fathers are not regarded as Anglo-Indian; the Indian Constitution states that they are not.

By returning to visit people I had spent time with a year ago I gained a better appreciation of the way in which these people's lives change over time. Without return trips it is more difficult to perceive and understand the dynamics of change operating on both a personal and community level. I hope to make a final visit to Calcutta before completing this research.

The biggest problem I encountered was lack of time to do all I wanted to do. My first visit was two months long. This year's visit was limited to one month, and I had a huge amount to do in a relatively short period of time. Fortunately I remained healthy throughout my stay, and so was able to keep up a hectic pace. I had maintained e-mail contact with many of the people I met in 2002, and so was able to get down to work the minute I arrived. As I now look back on my visit, I see it as a very productive time in terms of data collection and gaining further insights into the dynamics of the community I am studying. I'm sure my feeling of needing to do more than I actually accomplished is shared by many researchers.

There is only one way to do this type of anthropological research and that is to be in the field among the people whose lives you are interested in understanding. Without being in Calcutta I could not have carried out interviews or collected life stories. Nor would I have been able to experience the challenges of living in a large, Hindu-dominated city, challenges that the people I am studying constantly face. Some of my experiences of living in Calcutta mirrored those of the community members. This fieldwork trip, a year after the first, gave me further insights into the community that I did not gain the first time round.