Memory, identity and productive nostalgia:

Anglo-Indian home-making

Dr. Alison Blunt

Department of Geography

Queen Mary, University of London


Home and identity have been important themes in recent work on people of mixed descent and on diaspora (see, for example, Arnott, 1994, Brah, 1996 and Ifekwunigwe, 1999), and have been the central focus of my research on Anglo-Indian women in the fifty years before and after Independence. My research spans the community in India, Britain and Australia, and explores home and identity in relation to imperialism, nationalism, decolonization and multiculturalism on three key scales (Blunt, forthcoming). On a household scale, I investigate social reproduction and material culture and explore the European and Indian influences that have fashioned a distinctively Anglo-Indian domesticity. On a national scale, I study the intersections of home, identity and nationality for Anglo-Indians, and how ideas about Britain as fatherland coexisted with ideas about India as motherland. Finally, I consider transnational geographies of home and identity for Anglo-Indians living both in an imperial diaspora in British India and across a wider diaspora since Independence.

The purpose of this paper is to introduce Anglo-Indian geographies of home and identity in relation to three examples: settlement at McCluskieganj in the 1930s; debates about Britain as fatherland and India as motherland in the years before Independence; and Anglo-Indians living in India today. I explore how debates about home and identity were gendered, and, in particular, embodied by Anglo-Indian women; and how a collective memory of mixed descent has been both manifested and erased in these debates. Both here and elsewhere, I interpret Anglo-Indian home-making in terms of productive nostalgia (for more on this term, see Blunt, 2003). The term nostalgia invokes home in its very meaning, as it comes from the Greek ‘nostos’ for return home and ‘algos’ for pain (Chambers, 1990) and implies homesickness and a yearning for home. There has been a recent and diverse interest in personal and collective memory, particularly emphasizing the sites and landscapes of memory, their intersections with power and embodied identities, and the methodological challenges involved in studying memory (including Brothman, 2001, Connerton, 1989, Fortier, 2000, Ganguly, 1992, Nora, 1989 and Stoler, 2002). Despite this interest in memory and ‘memory-work’ (Stoler, 2002) and in its spatial articulation and contestation, nostalgia still often remains a shorthand for sentimentalism rather than as a term that is itself worthy of critical revisioning. In work that does address nostalgia more directly, often through a focus on fictional narratives, the term is either seen to represent a wider ‘desire for desire’ (Stewart, 1993) or is interpreted for its temporal rather than spatial significance. As Roberta Rubenstein writes, for example, ‘While homesickness refers to a spatial / geographical separation, nostalgia more accurately refers to a temporal one. Even if one is able to return to the literal edifice where s/he grew up, one can never truly return to the original home of childhood, since it exists mostly as a place in the imagination’ (2001: 4).

In my research on Anglo-Indian home-making, I have found it helpful to think in terms of productive nostalgia. Rather than view a nostalgic desire for home as apolitical, reactionary or confining, I explore its liberatory potential for Anglo-Indians. I also use this term to represent a longing for home that was embodied and enacted in practice, rather than solely in the imagination, and to think about a nostalgic desire for home in relation to the present and future as well as the past. Finally, I consider desire for multiple spaces of home for Anglo-Indians, both in relation to India and Britain / Europe as home before Independence and, today, within both domiciled within India and across a wider diaspora.

Underpinning each of these points is a broader attempt to challenge the popular portrayal of Anglo-Indians within a wider discourse of Raj nostalgia (for more on Raj nostalgia and its cultural revival in the 1980s, see Rushdie, 1992, and Schwartz, 1994). Anglo-Indians have been represented as 'tragic figure[s] of British colonialism' (Sharpe, 1993), in part because they dream of Britain as home and have been ridiculed by both Indians and the British for doing so. Viewing Anglo-Indians as nostalgic for British rule and for an idea of Britain as home has two main effects. First, it perpetuates an imperialist discourse that defined Anglo-Indians purely in relation to the British and to an idea of Britain as home, neglecting their more complex attachments to Britain as fatherland and India as motherland, and the diversity of European rather than specifically British ancestry. Second, it portrays Anglo-Indians in the context of an imperial past and largely ignores their lives in the present, both in independent India and across a wider diaspora.

Anglo-Indian home-making at McCluskieganj

Settlement at McCluskieganj was promoted in terms of a nostalgic desire for home that was rooted in both Britain and India and sought to liberate Anglo-Indians both from British patronage and from Indianization (for more on McCluskieganj, see Blunt, 2003, and Dutt, 1990). Settlement was termed 'colonization' and was organized by the Colonization Society of India (established by E. T. McCluskie, an Anglo-Indian businessman from Calcutta) and promoted through its monthly journal, the Colonization Observer (CO). Settlement at McCluskieganj represented a paradoxical attempt to create a homeland for Anglo-Indians that was located within, but clearly distinct from, the rest of India. As a present resident explains, 'Anglo-Indians didn't have a place to go to at all. They belonged nowhere, neither here nor there. … McCluskie thought they should have a native place. They wanted to be in a place where they would have their own lifestyle.' Another resident remembers that:

This was the best place for the Anglo-Indians to hibernate themselves. The Anglo-Indians were known as English in those days, so we settled over here. They thought they were in England. They wanted to build houses of the same design and live in the same way, with the same identity, and it was an isolated space. … They wanted a homeland, they wanted a place where they could all live, where they could have their own identity. … There was peace and harmony and we were far from the Freedom Movement. … It was an escape from the rest of India.

McCluskieganj was represented as a safe, clean, peaceful and prosperous haven far away from urban India and communal conflict, as shown by the pastoral idyll depicted each month on the cover of the Colonization Observer. .

And yet, this nostalgic desire was also rooted within a distinctively Indian domestic and pastoral idyll. As McCluskie wrote in 1935, 'Every Indian, whatever his station in life, can proudly say he has a piece of land and a hut, which he calls by the sweet word 'Home' … but, alas, we who are bred and born in this country cannot say we have a home. This, therefore, is the real foundation of our scheme. 'To help you to have a Home,' and to feel the joy and pride of possession of a real home of your very own' (CSI, 1935). This nostalgic desire was encapsulated by the Hindi word 'mooluk,' which suggested a place of origin, belonging and authentic identity, and which located 'home, sweet home' for Anglo-Indians within the Indian motherland. As the Colonization Observer put it in 1939,

McCluskieganj is our MOOLUK. It is the one place in the whole of India where we can live like Indians and yet keep our individuality. The days of birth inequalities are past; the present is the time for establishing our undoubted and unchallengeable right to India. It is our Birth-right. There is no question of domiciliary rights; we belong to India and India to us. (CO, March-April, 1939).

Anglo-Indian home-making at McCluskieganj was embodied differently by men and women. The dream of independence was embodied by images of Anglo-Indian men as hardy pioneers, liberating themselves from the emasculation of British patronage and striving to colonize part of India just as their European forefathers had colonized the Empire. A brochure promoting settlement described them as 'not wanting in the spirit of adventure, which is an inherent part of their nature from their father's side. Grit, backbone and determination are lying dormant in these people because they have not had occasion in the past to bring these good qualities into action having had jobs found for them in the Services' (CSI, 1934: 22), and settlement was compared to British colonization in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

In 1938, the Anglo-Indian leader (and, by now, since the death of McCluskie in 1935, president of the CSI) Henry Gidney described McCluskieganj as 'A home for Anglo-Indians under the sun of India, their motherland … - a colony worthy of the traditions of our forefathers … - a memory to the blood of our mothers and grandmothers which runs in our veins' (CO, June 1938). But while a collective memory of European paternal descent defined and legitimated Anglo-Indian settlement at McCluskieganj, the existence of an Indian maternal ancestor - the memory of mothers and grandmothers - was more usually erased. In contrast to the embodied masculinity of European ancestry - the 'grit and determination' attributed to imperial forefathers - the line of Indian maternal descent was disembodied in two main ways. First, instead of invoking an Indian maternal ancestor, India itself was described as the motherland and the natural environment was described in maternal terms. Second, images of white Anglo-Indian women as pioneers and home-makers meant positioning them within a collective memory of European colonization. While McCluskieganj might be depicted as part of an Indian motherland, Indian descent on the maternal line in Anglo-Indian families continued to be erased in favour of European paternal descent. Written and visual images of Anglo-Indian women helped to represent McCluskieganj as natural, healthy and European, far removed from life in cities such as Calcutta and far removed from the lives of Indian women.

''Land of our mothers''

Anglo-Indians occupied an ambivalent place in British India. Born and domiciled in India, they nonetheless felt out of place. As an Anglo-Indian in Perth told me, 'Anglo-Indians were neither Indian nor British and even though you were born and lived in India, you felt like you were an outsider in a foreign country.' Images of India as motherland coexisted with Britain as fatherland, shaping ideas of home, identity and nationality that were distinctive in their duality and echoed community claims not only for a legitimate heritage but also for a legitimate stake in national life (for fuller discussion, see Blunt, 2002). As Herbert Stark wrote in 1926, 'If England is the land of our fathers, India is the land of our mothers. If to us England is a hallowed memory, India is a living verity. If England is dear as the land of inspiring traditions, India is loved for all she means to us in our daily life' (Stark, 1926: 140-1). References to India as motherland and Britain as fatherland became increasingly prominent in Anglo-Indian journals and political debates over the course of the 1930s. But such images were contested. In 1939, for example, Reginald Maher described three main generational differences in an article in the Anglo-Indian Review, the monthly journal of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association. For Maher, while an older generation 'looks yearningly towards England, calls that land of a forefather's home and feels a grouse against Providence if he cannot retire there,' middle-aged Anglo-Indians recognised that 'if England is a home it is sufficiently distant to be out of reach and the fatherland is more of a step-fatherland than the 'home' he was taught to believe in.' In contrast, the young Anglo-Indian 'realises he is no white man,' feels betrayed by policies of Indianization, and 'feels India to be his motherland, is proud of her and loves her’ (Review, May 1939). While some Anglo-Indians sought to establish independent colonies in places like McCluskieganj, Whitefield and the Andaman Islands, and while others sought to migrate elsewhere in the British Empire, Anglo-Indian leaders such as Gidney and Frank Anthony increasingly sought to identify the community as Indian by nationality and as nationalist in its interests.

Anglo-Indian women - particularly mothers - were at the forefront of debates about the future and status of the community in the years before Independence. As Clifford Hicks put it in the Review in 1940, 'Woman was not merely meant for the home, she was meant also for the nation. … If the character of the community is to be rebuilt the homes of its people must be rebuilt, and the rebuilding of the home is the special work of the women' (Review, May 1940). Anglo-Indian women were depicted as both emancipated and yet dangerously transgressive. They were seen, and saw themselves, as more emancipated than other Indian women, through working beyond the home, wearing western dress, mixing socially with men, and deciding whom to marry. But although their emancipation was heralded as evidence of European modernity and freedom, it also transgressed acceptable femininity by provoking fears about interracial sex and illegitimacy. Anglo-Indian leaders sought not only to domesticate a new national identity that regarded India more than Britain as home, but also to domesticate Anglo-Indian women, particularly during and after the Second World War. Anglo-Indian women were also encouraged to domesticate politics by bringing them home to their families and by ensuring the place of Anglo-Indian homes within the new, independent India. In 1940, Henrietta Wise wrote in the Anglo-Indian Review that ‘the responsibility is spread from Legislate Assemblies to our homes, from the agenda of special sessions to the conversations of everyday, from Round Table Conferences to conferences around the dining table’ (Review, May 1940). Finally, an article published in 1944 about Edna Herd, the only female member of the Governing Body of the AIAIA, summarized the political importance of motherhood and domesticity:

She feels that the women of the community should be deeply conscious of the responsibility for the future of the community which lies in their hands, their own future, the future of their children and their children’s children. A future holding great promise, which the community have it in them to realise by combining those qualities, which have made their Western forefathers so successful in our times, with the timeless wisdom and understanding of their Indian heritage which made a civilisation when their Western ancestors were savages and still has a great future before it (Review, February, 1944).

Anglo-Indians in India today

Since Independence, many Anglo-Indians have identified much more closely with India as home, often saying that they are Indian by nationality and Anglo-Indian by community. But many Anglo-Indians see their distinctive identity as under threat, and the very future of the community as doubtful (for more on the community in India - and, specifically, Madras - today, see Caplan, 2001). Just as debates about the uncertain future of the community were embodied by women in British India, current debates about the status and existence of the community in independent India are embodied by Anglo-Indian women and still revolve around work, intermarriage and the home. While the previous two sections drew on articles in the Colonization Observer and the Anglo-Indian Review, I turn in this final section to draw on interviews conducted in 1998 and 1999 with Anglo-Indians in Calcutta who work in various capacities for the welfare and future of the community.

Anglo-Indian women are often the main earners in their families. One Anglo-Indian woman told me that women of the community ‘are more innovative, they take the initiative in things, more than the men. In the case of the Indian home, the man has always been the breadwinner, and the wife has been the home-maker … But the situation seems to be reversed with the Anglo-Indian home. It’s the woman who is the bread-winner mostly … even if the man has a job it’s usually not as well-paid as the wife’s.’ Another female interviewee also sees Anglo-Indian women as more successful than Anglo-Indian men: ‘from childhood, the little girls are more confident, more showy than the boys. The boys tend to be very shy, like there’s a chip on their shoulder,’ and attributes their self-confidence to their Indian maternal ancestry (writing a usually distant and unrecorded Indian maternal ancestor back into Anglo-Indian history, memory and identity). As she continues, ‘Sometimes I think maybe it’s from the Indian side of us. Because if you look at our Indian women, they never went out to work in an office, but they were the bosses in their own little homes, while their husbands went to work. The women controlled the family … So I think we have inherited something of that Indianness in us. Of course our homes are different from the local Indians’ but that initiative and the responsibility to family, and the thoughtfulness and the big heart that an Indian woman normally has, all that has come to us through our Indian parent.’

Anglo-Indian women are still more likely than men to marry non Anglo-Indians, but now other Indians rather than Europeans. Intermarriage between Anglo-Indian women and men from other Indian communities has increased over the last 20 years. For an Anglo-Indian man who works for the community, ‘our boys are not up to that standard. They don’t have good jobs, they can’t flash money, they are themselves struggling to try and make something.’ As a female interviewee told me, ‘if an Indian boy gets a promising young Anglo-Indian girl, he is very lucky. Why? Because he maintains his Indianness as an Indian male. At the same time, his wife is going to bring up the kids in a very westernised and modern way, so that family has the better of both worlds. Very often these Indian boys go in for good Anglo-Indian girls because they want to better their community.’ An agency founded in Calcutta in 1990 arranges marriages for Anglo-Indians, and its very existence reverses one of the key tenets of a distinctively Anglo-Indian modernity embodied by women.


Rather than locate Anglo-Indians within a wider discourse of Raj nostalgia, portraying them as nostalgic for British rule and for an idea of Britain as home, I am interested in their more complex attachments to both India and Britain before Independence. Such attachments to both India and Britain as home are clearly shown by the desire to create a ‘mooluk’ at McCluskieganj, and by images of India as motherland alongside Britain as fatherland. Unlike many imperial and fictional representations of Anglo-Indian women that focus on their appearance and assumed sensuality, I have shown how they embody ideas about Anglo-Indian modernity in contested ways that revolve around home and identity. For Anglo-Indians in British and independent India, the future and status of the community was, and still is, embodied by women who are depicted as more emancipated than other Indian women and as more successful than Anglo-Indian men. At the same time, the mixed descent of Anglo-Indians has been both manifested and erased in debates about the future and status of the community, as shown by images of Britain as fatherland, which were often embodied through the collective memory of an imperial forefather, and by images of India as motherland, which were less often embodied by the memory of an Indian maternal ancestor. Thinking in terms of productive nostalgia focuses on the desire for home, the enactment of this desire in practice, its orientation to the present and future as well as the past, and an idea of multiple homes rather than a single and fixed point of origin. Ideas about productive nostalgia can help in interpreting Anglo-Indian home-making on domestic, national and diasporic scales, and in studying the lives of Anglo-Indians both domiciled in India and across a wider diaspora.


This paper was presented at the conference on ‘Who are the Anglo-Indians?’ organized by Dr. Adrian Gilbert and the East India Club in Melbourne in August 2002. I am grateful to the British Academy for funding my travel to Australia, and to Adrian and the other participants for a very stimulating day, and for helpful questions and discussion. My research has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (R000 22 2826), and preliminary research was funded by the RGS-IBG and by the University of Southampton. I am very grateful to all of the Anglo-Indians that I have met and interviewed in the course of my research.


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