A QUIET CHRIST­MAS AT THE GANJ

Once home to about 400 An­glo In­dian fam­i­lies, McClusk­ie­ganj now has just a hand­ful left. but mem­o­ries of warm feasts and christ­mas balls linger in a town that re­sents be­ing treated as a ‘mu­seum ex­hibit’

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - NEWS - Namita Kohli namita.kohli@hin­dus­tantmes.com

Once home to nearly 400 An­glo-In­dian fam­i­lies, McClusk­ie­ganj in Jhark­hand now has just a hand­ful left. But mem­o­ries of warm feasts and Christ­mas balls linger in a town that re­sents be­ing treated as a ‘mu­seum ex­hibit’.

It’s a damn fine day in McClusk­ie­ganj. The sun is sharp, the breeze is cool, the fish is fresh and the rum has been poured. There isn’t much to do but soak in the day, at least for Bryan Mendies.

But you, he says, are not wel­come. You from the city, look­ing for the clichés, seek­ing the lost ro­mance of be­ing an An­glo-In­dian in this small, hilly town in Jhark­hand.

Orig­i­nally founded as a ‘home­land’ for the coun­try’s An­glo -In­dian com­mu­nity, McClusk­ie­ganj was once a bustling town of about 400 An­glo-In­dian fam­i­lies. Now, it’s home to just a hand­ful of them. And those who re­main are tired of be­ing treated as “mu­seum ex­hibits” for the world out­side.

That’s why “Un­cle Bryan” is livid. He knows you will plumb his mem­o­ries — some happy, some painful — rake up his past, ask ques­tions about his fam­ily his­tory and maybe even scratch a wound or two. And for what? Noth­ing. Not even your com­pany over a drink on a fine af­ter­noon.

The day be­fore, he says, he spoke to some­one who is mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary on the last few An­glo-In­di­ans left in McClusk­ie­ganj. And be­fore that too, many jour­nal­ists and writ­ers vis­ited the town, all in search of the same story.

“And y’all al­ways write what you want to any­way,” he says gruffly. “I don’t have time for this.”

Bryan moved back home to McClusk­ie­ganj af­ter he re­tired from the In­dian Air Force. The house where he now lives is small — enough for an old man and his cook — and stands next to the bun­ga­low where he was born 78 years ago. Liv­ing in the bun­ga­low was ex­pen­sive, es­pe­cially on a mea­gre pen­sion. So, like many oth­ers in the town, he sold his child­hood home.

Min­utes from Bryan’s house are the Mered­iths — a father and daugh­ter who in­sist they would rather be left alone than speak about a by­gone era. As we sit down to chat out­side his house, a bun­ga­low peek­ing out from a thick cover of trees, its roof draped in creep­ers, Den­nis Mered­ith seems rather re­luc­tant to dis­cuss the town’s lost splen­dour, and his own An­glo In­dian iden­tity.

“Is there any­thing left to be said?” he won­ders.

THE BUR­DEN OF IDEN­TITY

The story of McClusk­ie­ganj, and the hand­ful of An­glo -In­di­ans who now live there, be­gins in the 1920s. As India’s in­de­pen­dence move­ment gath­ered storm, the com­mu­nity got jit­tery.

Since the 18th cen­tury, when the Bri­tish East India Com­pany con­trolled much of the sub­con­ti­nent, it was com­mon — and of­ten en­cour­aged — for Bri­tish sol­diers to marry In­dian women. There were few English women liv­ing in India at the time. The chil­dren of these early in­ter­ra­cial mar­riages started off what be­came a small but sig­nif­i­cant An­glo-In­dian com­mu­nity. The Bri­tish, how­ever, never treated them as equals, and the In­di­ans were sus­pi­cious of them.

The closer India got to free­dom, the more un­cer­tain their fate seemed.

That’s when Ernest Ti­mothy McCluskie, an An­glo-In­dian from Cal­cutta, born to an Ir­ish father and an In­dian mother, came up with the idea of a “home­land”.

An as­tute busi­ness­man, he man­aged to con­vince Raja Ratu of Chota Nag­pur Plateau to lease out 10,000 acres of land, about 62 kilo­me­tres away from Ranchi.

“The lo­ca­tion [McClusk­ie­ganj] of­fered the three Rs es­sen­tial to McCluskie for the suc­cess of his dream — rail­way, river and road,” Mal­colm Houri­gan, a res­i­dent of McClusk­ie­ganj, wrote last year in an on­line mag­a­zine.

Based on McCluskie’s plan, a co­op­er­a­tive called Col­o­niza­tion So­ci­ety was formed in 1933. An­glo In­di­ans could buy shares in the co­op­er­a­tive and, in re­turn, get a plot of land. Mem­ber­ship wasn’t re­stricted to Bri­tish In­di­ans. Even those with French and Por­tuguese ancestry bought land here.

And they all trooped down to ‘The Ganj’ with much fan­fare, bring­ing along their “pianos, heavy wooden chests, rid­ing breeches, ri­fles and shot­guns.”

“How­ever, McCluskie had for­got­ten one im­por­tant R — re­mu­ner­a­tion, or liveli­hood, which was to be its [the town’s] neme­sis,” ac­cord­ing to Mal­colm.

Res­i­dents were ex­pected to sur­vive on agri­cul­ture — a liveli­hood that An­glo In­di­ans were nei­ther ca­pa­ble of nor will­ing to un­der­take, he adds. The cri­sis of mak­ing a liv­ing has­tened their exit, which, Bryan re­calls, started in the late 1940s.

Most fam­i­lies mi­grated to Canada, Australia and the UK, leav­ing be­hind ma­jes­tic bun­ga­lows that now stand cheek-by-jowl with mod­ern con­struc­tion in McClusk­ie­ganj. Many homes, lo­cals say, were sold for a pit­tance; some were taken over by care­tak­ers af­ter the own­ers left.

Amid the ex­o­dus, some chose to stay back. Sixty-six-year-old Kitty Tex­eira, de­scribed by a lo­cal as “the face of McClusk­ie­ganj”, is one of those. Kitty was fea­tured on the cover of a book on the town, as well as in sev­eral doc­u­men­taries and news­pa­per sto­ries on the Ganj. With her grace­ful de­meanour, high cheek­bones and flu­ent English, it’s not hard to guess why.

Weary of the in­tru­sive glare on her life and fam­ily his­tory, she shares her story only af­ter much ca­jol­ing.

“When I was young, I couldn’t leave be­cause my mother was un­well,” she says. Af­ter she mar­ried, Kitty says her hus­band couldn’t earn, so she started sell­ing fruit at the rail­way sta­tion.

Even­tu­ally, she sold a part of her house. Now, Kitty lives in the other half with her daugh­ter, grand­daugh­ter, and their goats and chick­ens.

In­side the four high-ceilinged rooms, the only signs of her past are a few framed pho­tographs — a black-and-white pic­ture of her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther hold­ing a banjo, her mother in a dress and hat, and one of a young Kitty with her hus­band and chil­dren.

But over the years, Kitty’s daily anx­i­eties have snuffed out her nos­tal­gia. The past does not make for great con­ver­sa­tion. “Yes, the town had some cel­e­bra­tions in the run up to New Year’s Eve,” she says. “But peo­ple kept to them­selves, and I kept to my­self.”

The re­luc­tance to share fam­ily his­to­ries — of­ten com­plex, and, at times, messy — echoes across fam­i­lies in McClusk­ie­ganj. Some even com­plain of racism; of their chil­dren be­ing la­belled “angrez” or ‘for­eign’ de­spite the fact that they are In­dian.

Deb­o­rah Bar­rett, a mild-man­nered teacher, says she stands out in a crowd be­cause her skin colour clashes with her flu­ent Hindi and Ben­gali. “Peo­ple think we are dif­fer­ent,” says Deb­o­rah, who runs a school in McClusk­ie­ganj. “Once, a few boys with back­packs landed here and told us,‘ Hum An­glo In­dian dekhne aayein hain [We’re here to see An­glo In­di­ans]’. What are we, I thought... I mean, we are just nor­mal peo­ple.”

THE TOWN THAT WAS

But McClusk­ie­ganj wasn’t al­ways home to the rot­ting grandeur of crum­bling bun­ga­lows and wary fam­i­lies. There were the good ol’ days too: feasts with warm stews, de­li­cious pep­per wa­ter, jal­frezi and the spicy hodge-podge known as jun­glee pu­lao; balls and danc­ing over Christ­mas and Durga Puja; shops with the best gramo­phone records and some of the finest silks from China.

When they warm up, lo­cals such as Ash­ley Gomes will also re­call Dorothy Thipthorpe’s jams, jel­lies and fruit wine that sold be­yond the Ganj, and Har­ris Mendies’s leg­endary hunt­ing trips where he would kill sev­eral leop­ards in a day. Har­ris is still re­mem­bered for his “solid wrists” and un­usual pets — pythons and lizards.

But only mem­o­ries per­sist. The lo­cal club, which hosted the Christ­mas shows and the New Year’s Eve balls, has closed. Freshly baked breads and steam­ing stews have given way to a less fussy sta­ple of dalb­haat. The ‘pot­pourri’, a potluck feast in the shade of a banyan tree in Priscilla Perkins’ yard, stopped.

And for Bryan, shop­ping for Christ­mas cakes means a trip to Ranchi be­cause the three bak­eries run by An­glo-In­di­ans have long shut down. “The fra­grance of the town is now gone,” says Gomes, Dorothy’s grand­son.

THE RE­VIVAL

The for­tunes of McClusk­ie­ganj re­vived in 1997 with the ar­rival of the Don Bosco Academy. Al­fred Rozario, an An­gloIn­dian liv­ing in Patna, started the school to help fam­i­lies in McClusk­ie­ganj.

Al­fred, or “Al­fie”, suc­ceeded by spurring a cot­tage in­dus­try of sorts: most res­i­dents now run hos­tels for stu­dents from across the state and be­yond. At first, only An­glo -In­dian fam­i­lies were al­lowed to run hos­tels. But af­ter a spurt in the student pop­u­la­tion, oth­ers were al­lowed to do so too.

The school brought the ghost town, as some lo­cals call it, to life. “It was like a jun­gle, scary and noth­ing to do af­ter dark,” says Joshy TD, the school’s prin­ci­pal. Now, he adds, it’s hard to get an ap­point­ment with a bar­ber on a Sun­day.

But the town still has its fail­ings. “They call it Mini-Eng­land, but we don’t even have reg­u­lar power sup­ply,” says Naveen Giri, 29, pres­i­dent of the McClusk­ie­ganj youth club. His fam­ily runs a gro­cery store that also sells shrouds, and based on its sales, Giri be­lieves, many trib­als are dy­ing. “No­body cares about this town,” he says.

Lo­cals also com­plain of the lack of a good hos­pi­tal. “I still have to travel two hours to Ranchi if I need treat­ment for my sci­at­ica pains,” says Bryan. That’s half the prob­lem: it’s not easy to get to or from McClusk­ie­ganj.

Yet the town and its peo­ple soldier on. Some, such as Mal­colm, are try­ing to re­store the An­glo In­dian ceme­tery that lies in ne­glect, with un­marked graves and par­tial bound­ary wall.

For those An­glo-In­dian fam­i­lies who chose to stay back, how­ever, the charm of a life in this quiet, pic­turesque town has not faded. Af­ter his wife died, Bryan moved to Dehradun to live with his daugh­ter, tak­ing “two truck­loads of mem­o­ries” with him.

“But I came back”, he says. “Now I would rather die here.” It’s not that Bryan likes be­ing by him­self — “it gets quite lonely” — or that he doesn’t yearn to see his old friends re­turn.

“But what to come back for, and what to come back to?”

THE RE­LUC­TANCE TO SHARE FAM­ILY HIS­TO­RIES ECHOES ACROSS FAM­I­LIES IN MCCLUSK­IE­GANJ. SOME EVEN COM­PLAIN OF RACISM; OF THEIR CHIL­DREN BE­ING LA­BELLED “ANGREZ” OR FOR­EIGN DE­SPITE THE FACT THAT THEY ARE IN­DIAN

KITTY TEX­EIRA, 66, is one of the most well­known An­glo In­dian res­i­dents of McClusk­ie­ganj. Kitty mar­ried a lo­cal and has made ends meet by sell­ing fruit and do­ing odd jobs across town. She says she couldn’t leave when she was young be­cause she had to...

BRYAN MENDIES, 78, moved to McClusk­ie­ganj af­ter he re­tired from the In­dian Air Force. Af­ter his wife’s death a few years ago, Bryan moved to Dehradun to be with one of his daugh­ters. But four years ago, the charm of a life in the hilly town of...

DEN­NIS MERED­ITH, who lives with his daugh­ter Karen and her hus­band, says that the fam­ily is not in­ter­ested in dis­cussing their iden­tity and would rather be left alone. Many An­glo In­dian fam­i­lies in McClusk­ie­ganj share their sen­ti­ments and are wary of...

The ceme­tery at McClusk­ie­ganj lies in ne­glect, with un­marked graves, a par­tial bound­ary wall and gate that has been stolen. The ceme­tery has his­toric and sen­ti­men­tal value for those whose loved ones are buried here, say lo­cals. Ef­forts are on to...

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