Speakers´ presentations from the Symposium
Updated November 19, 2007.
Brent H. Otto, S.J.
August 13, 2007
Good evening ladies and gentlemen.
It is a pleasure to be here this week to celebrate Anglo-Indian heritage with an optimistic eye to what the future holds.
While the community is now in diaspora across many nations, it maintains an identity and a legacy that is still felt far and wide. In fact, throughout the history of the community, Anglo-Indians have always had an impact that is disproportionately great by comparison with their numbers. This will continue to be the case in the future, I am sure.
I had the opportunity to discover this while I pursued a research fellowship that took me to India for about one year. I was doing research on English-medium Catholic schools, trying to see what kinds of values these Christian, English-medium schools transmit to their religiously and culturally diverse student body, and how these values have changed with the demographic and historical evolution of India since around the time of Independence. In visiting so many traditional English-medium schools, I became acquainted with the strong Anglo-Indian heritage in education, but I also got in touch with my own family roots. I enhanced my understanding of the historically Anglo-Indian character of the schools by going to Australia and Canada as well, to interview Anglo-Indians about their experiences in the past of the same schools I had seen in the present-day.
Many of the schools I visited will be very familiar to you. In fact, I have probably visited the schools that some of you attended. (I invite you afterwards to take a look at the photographs and descriptions on the display board I have put at the back.)
I wish to propose that the field of education is, to some extent, a guarantor of the Anglo-Indian heritage. I invite you to think back to your own school memories. What distinguished your school? Perhaps you did not think of your school as Anglo-Indian, as such. If you were educated before Independence, you may have thought of it as British. But it was by Europeans and Anglo-Indians that these schools were started during the colonial period and they continued for decades after Independence to be operated mainly by Anglo-Indian heads and teachers, and serving large numbers of Anglo-Indian students. Moreover, shortly before Independence the term Anglo-Indian became a legal term distinguishing all English-medium schools, basically all of those that administered the Senior Cambridge examinations.
So, if you were asked to describe your alma mater, what would you say? Maybe that it was English-medium, you might identify its Christian affiliation, or distinguish it as a day or a boarding school. You might speak of the structure and discipline or the intense athletic competitions, elocution lessons or debate tournaments, morning prayers or awkward dances with the students at the sister school for students of the opposite sex! These common traits of Anglo-Indian schools remain nearly as true today as they did in the past.
Some have asked me, “Without many Anglo-Indians remaining in India, is the traditional character of these schools really the same?” The same, no. Nothing stays entirely the same over time. As I see it, however, there are strong currents of both change and continuity in these venerable schools. In both the change and the continuity we can find evidence that the Anglo-Indian legacy will long remain strong.
There are a number of factors in which I see much hope:
- The Indian Constitution offers unparalleled protections for AIs and other minorities, including special representation guaranteed in central and state legislatures. Public funds are also made available for AI schools, as well as those of other minorities. Anglo-Indian schools are allowed to give preference in admissions and hiring to Anglo-Indians and Christians, even if they receive government funds. (This is a foreign concept for those of us from the U.S.) The right to give this preference is beautifully enshrined in article # 30 of the Indian Constitution. It is truly a triumph of India’s pluralistic democracy, which celebrates 60 years of Independence this Wednesday.
- There is great respect for the Anglo-Indian educational tradition. Just think of the hundreds of thousands who have passed out from these venerable schools over the decades! Many of them are now the teachers, principals, nuns, priests and most importantly, the parents of current students. They know and appreciate the tradition and culture of Anglo-Indian education; they are the ones who perpetuate it today. As a result, it is in higher demand now than ever before. Ask almost any parent why they want their child to attend an English-medium, so-called “missionary school,” and you will invariably hear the same answers I have heard time and again.
- They want English language education because it has become the international language of business and higher education.
- They want the strong discipline, the competent and well supervised teachers… the school spirit (remember our school song?!) and the academic and athletic competitions … the reputation and prestige built over long years of excellence.
- Not to be understated is also the culture of honesty and fair play found in AI schools, where corruption has unfortunately found its way into many other institutions.
Beyond these factors that have held consistent over time, several important changes have come to AI schools which, I think, also serve to enhance the strength of their unique heritage:
- Nowadays it is essential, for AI students, teachers and all for whom English is their mother tongue, to be competent and fluent in the vernacular language as well. Most students take learning Indian languages very seriously. I have heard quite a few AIs tell me stories about how this was not so in the past. Now students are bilingual or trilingual, both in speech and in writing too. Your old school’s annual magazine probably now has a large section featuring students’ poetry, essays and stories written in Indian languages. This is a very good development because it is preparing students to be modern-day citizens in India. But challenges remain for Anglo-Indians in particular:
One Anglo-Indian principal in Chennai lamented to me that some of his Anglo-Indian students are resistant to learning Tamil properly. He said some wish to hold a cultural aloofness that is keeping them back in the long run from success in higher education, business and simply expanding their opportunities. The whole AI community must acknowledge this reality and seek to change it.
- AI schools must not be aloof from, but rather inculturated in the broader Indian milieu. They do well to assert their cultural uniqueness, NOT cultural superiority. I am hopeful because I think globalization has prepared the younger generation for this. Let me give you two examples:
FIRST: Once I entered a schoolyard in Mumbai and about five little girls ran over to me and asked, “Sir, are you American?” Then they asked me, “Do you know the band, the Back Street Boys?” I said, “Well, of course! They live near me!” The girls shrieked with excitement. I told them that I was only joking! A short while later, they came over again, excited to recite to me some poetry they had written in Hindi.
SECOND: At a school in Kolkata, on Teachers’ Day, the students prepared a magnificent program which involved dance routines from MTV, a Bengali wedding drama and a recitation of Shakespeare. This shows how students today are able to move between cultures and languages without feeling that one threatens the other. This is good news for the preservation of the Anglo-Indian character of the schools.
- It may surprise you that even the very poor now aspire to English-medium Christian education for their children. This has been made possible, thanks to the commitment many schools have made to providing scholariships and to government aid schemes that relieve some of the financial burden schools face. In addition, service and outreach to the poor has become a big part of the educational philosophy in many schools. Some schools have made it mandatory—an integral part of the curriculum. They challenge their students to aim to live lives that really look beyond themselves, to use their talents for the benefit of the most vulnerable in society. The school that does this best, I believe, is Loreto Sealdah, in Kolkata. I feature Loreto Sealdah in my display at the back.
Now looking to the future, there are a few challenges which are quite relevant to us all:
- In speaking with several Anglo-Indian figures in education and in the leadership of the community in India, I heard the same story: Anglo-Indian students have extraordinary advantages, in the forms of fluency in English and preferential access to all the best Christian schools and colleges in the country. But they lamented that too few take full advantage of these benefits. Those who have, do extraordinarily well and excel in all the fields in which they work. There are dozens of examples of successful Anglo-Indians in India, not only abroad—in the fields of business, education, media and literature. A few examples: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer, residents of Mussoorie, were the first travel writers the Indian media ever knew. They are regularly published internationally. They recently wrote a novel I recommend and have on display, called The Year Before Sunset. Hugh sits on a council that has oversight responsibilities to India’s Supreme Court. Another is Ruskin Bond, a much beloved author of novels, poems and children’s books throughout India. And how many others can each of us probably name who have achieved greatness, even without achieving public fame.
- The Anglo-Indian community world-wide must do its best to help the younger generation, especially in India, both to claim and understand their unique identity and to excel in education and thus gain entry into whichever field they are attracted to. With fewer Anglo-Indian heads of schools and teachers, there’s a paucity of mentors and role models. Two people I recently met suggested that given decreasing numbers of Anglo-Indians in India, successful Anglo-Indians abroad could play a role in cultivating the young generation of AIs, through mentorship, seminars and financially sponsoring the education of the young, perhaps at their old schools.
I would encourage each of you to consider this. We all have talents that can be shared in some way or other.
For those of us who live outside India, we too can do a great deal for our heritage:
Diminishing numbers and living as a minority in various countries does not have to mean a diminished sense of heritage and identity. On the contrary, we are currently experiencing a renaissance of interest in the community. Just look at how many people have traveled far to attend these events! AIs everywhere are writing, researching, gathering together and studying the rich history of the community. Many non-Anglo-Indian academics are doing so as well.
The Anglo-Indians I met in Mussoorie this summer told me that hardly a month goes by when someone does not come by looking to get in touch with their roots, even those who are in their twenties, thirties and forties, most of whom never lived in India.
To learn about, preserve and transmit our own family heritage, is a responsibility we all bear. Let us speak about it, learn more about it and celebrate it!
© Brent H. Otto, August 13, 2007. 2502 Belmont Avenue, Bronx, NY 10458-6282 U.S.A.
MADE FOR THE MOSAIC: The Anglo-Indians, Echoes, Images, Visions
Prepared Talk :Sheldon Fernandez – – firstname.lastname@example.org
My fellow community,
My paternal grandfather was a proud man. I never made it to the homeland during his lifetime and I often wonder how our relationship might have changed had I done so. He was the closest of my grandparents because we shared a love of history, and among my most cherished possessions is the family tree he created to commemorate our heritage. He would trace through its branches in loving detail, like an architect describing a masterwork. Gesturing gently with his finger he would bring me to the tree’s root of 1823 when Salvador Fernandez had voyaged to India and had fathered the family. Although the historical record testified to Salvador’s Portuguese descent, granddad explained that the spelling of his last name suggested he was in fact of Spanish blood. I asked if that meant we were Spanish or Portuguese so I knew whom to cheer for in the FIFA World Cup. “Neither” he would reply firmly, “we are Anglo Indian”. When I asked my generation about the relevance of this term a vague consensus slowly developed. Yes, being Anglo-Indian was significant, and yes, there were aspects of our heritage that we’d pass on to our children. The qualifier, one that might seem laughable to our elders, centered on the topic of values. Our culture is important, we said, because its core values will find expression in subsequent generations. To this end, let us turn to the thorny topic of value differences in our community, because it is here where the future of our heritage lies.
My mom laments that she was born in the wrong time period. There is an inwards sadness when she speaks at such times, an inconsolable disappointment at the erosion of morals and the boundaries of our conceit. In true Anglo Indian humility, she’ll insist the problem is not an incompatible present but an incompatible mother, and that if her children are thoughtless and materialistic it is because of inadequate parenting. Yet behind her words there is rueful air, a yearning for a quainter and gentler time uncorrupted by the coldness of modern ways. For my dad, talk of my generation elicits nothing more than amused resignation. We will never understand, he tells me, because we are enchanted by the falsities of our time. We exclaim that moral values are relative while forgetting that we are relatively ignorant. We cast aside the insights of old because we have yet to realize that the knowledge of books cannot encompass the wisdoms of time. “You are all smug and arrogant” he says, in his smug and arrogant voice. We will never understand.
In the same way, I often wonder if my parents understand. For many of us, growing up was wrought with a strange ambiguity, that of being different, the same, and yet generally not belonging. But it is on the question of values that we really diverge. To the extent that my parents trumpet the traditions and teachings of old, I labor to demonstrate why they are also irrelevant. And so we eye each other from opposite sides of the fence; there is acknowledgement, but not understanding; respect, but not reciprocity. This, my fellow community, will be my attempt at clarification.
People my age are selfish and we are selfish because we were born into a society that has trained us to be so. We are taught that even the most formidable obstacles can be conquered with sufficient effort and channeled passion. We are told that the world is for the taking if we would only have the courage to grab it. And we are given a worldview that dares us to dream beyond it, lest we squander the sacrifice our forefathers made in bringing it to us. These are all praiseworthy principles – the pride and promise of our democratic structures – but take note of their individualistic flavor. Our societal aspirations today are focused on the fulfillment of personal potential: my right to a higher education, his right to equal pay, her right to choose. In the modern mindset the individual is premium and we assert this prejudice unapologetically amidst the historical shadows of oppression and intolerance. It is our modern constitution distilled, this pursuit of opportunity, this quest for equality. Such great promise and innate content, but in the end—to what end? To what do we direct these smug ideals, so anxious in their adolescence, so lonesome in their autonomy? Ask my generation about our rights and you’ll get an earful; enquire about the ends and you’ll get a telling pause. Is it to a greater good, to a higher cause, or to the liberties themselves? Because this question remains unanswered our thought process often runs in the negative and we wallow in the ‘have nots’ of our privileged lifestyles: the possessions we can’t afford, the breaks we don’t catch, the soul mate we can’t find. We don’t purposefully think this way – it will be less exhausting if we didn’t – but we can’t help it: it’s the product of inhabiting a world of boundless opportunity that idealizes earthly accomplishment.
In the context of this cold calculus the advice of our parents can seem laughingly outdated. A single example will suffice. One of my mother’s more jarring claims during my childhood was her assertion that ‘the family that prays together stays together’. She would utter this proverb constantly, to compel us to go to church, to recite the rosary as a family, or to reiterate her simple belief in the power of prayer. I would usually humor her sentiments, but on one occasion, out of laziness I suspect, I went for her jugular with every ounce of elitism I could muster.
It’s an uplifting thought, I told her, but poor philosophy; optimistic rhetoric ignorant of the very realities that prompt us to lean on faith. Religious families do fracture, often irrevocably. The poisons of abuse and jealously are sometimes too venomous for the bonds of belief, and we remember with regret those
God fearing individuals who never taste the fruits of their fidelity: Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, peasants in Central America, women in Afghanistan, and…a certain carpenter crucified at Calvary. I told Mom she was being hopelessly naïve: faith does not always overcome; it’s an antiquated euphuism masquerading as a truism. She didn’t argue. Whether out of hurt or disgust I’m not sure.
Or perhaps mothers simply know what their sons do not, as many years later I would see first-hand the world that had given her such values. “I’ve been thinking of you all morning” she wrote during my travels, “My world in Chittagong is so small, you will wonder how I even got out”. On the plane ride to Bangladesh I remember being as anxious as I’d ever been, and as we approached Chittagong I peered out the window in childish excitement. The elder man beside me, a Bengali with whom I had conversed during the trip, smiled and said “it’s a wonderful thing to come back to your roots”.
One event from my trip stands out above the rest, and it happened one evening at my Uncle Bunu’s after I had taken a nap. As I walked downstairs I heard the words my parents had taught me many years prior. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” they all said in unison. There they were in the living room: my relatives, kneeling, praying, and focused. My two little cousins sat dutifully beside their mother in unwavering respect, and their soulful words gave their meager surroundings an indescribable integrity because something was profoundly different: their adoration was genuine.
As a life-long student of religion I had dissected questions of faith from all angles, but this was the real article, as authentic a spiritual appeal as I’d ever seen. They were really ‘Hailing Mary’, not for her benefit it seemed – but for theirs. And so they continued, praying together, staying together. Mom’s sentiments didn’t seem so naïve.
The danger with such a powerful encounter is the temptation to reduce it to parable; that of the anxious foreigner who by rediscovering his roots reignites his faith and is moved to ‘just believe’. But that would be a disservice to the complexity our existence, one that allows faith to find hope but permits tragedy to annihilate it. For every family that finds strength through faith there is a remote counterpart that perishes in spite of it, and both constitute equally vivid facts of our reality.
Is there, then, a higher or subtler message that we can garner from our predecessors? In theological circles we begin with a simple question: “What would Jesus do?” It is this inquiry, we are told, that should frame the Christian ethic. But in studying the subtleties of the faith you realize that the hypothetical is misguided and that the real question is more practically rooted. Specifically, how is the person of Jesus relevant to the challenges of today? In the same way I would submit that the cultural question for my generation is not ‘What would our ancestors do’, but rather ‘How should what they’ve done inform our lives?’
As applied to the question of values, the key observation, I believe, is that there is a livable truth between the moral assuredness of our parents and the swords of cynicism we wield to discredit it. Real maturity recognizes that regrettable counterexamples do not invalidate the circle of wisdom so much as they are a part of it, and that optimism is not a cradle of the weak but a tool of the experienced. Or, as one scholar put it “that hope has appeared in this universe of ours it itself a ground for hoping that hope is at home in the universe”.
If this wisdom is truly timeless, my fellow community, the majority of us will find it. We will rediscover it through the memory of your example, the trials of parenthood, and the plain pains of time. The rules of right will come full circle: goodwill may not always triumph, but it sometimes does; steadfast prayer does not always hold a family together, but it sometimes can. We will our teach children to respect their elders because one day we too will bear the wrinkles of unacknowledged wisdom.
Yet in what ways is this quest for wisdom or the manner in which it is traversed distinctively ‘Anglo Indian’? Is there an ethic or value unique to our people? We might speak sincerely of Catholic morals and Christian ideals, but our community is but one of many whose conduct is premised on the principles of faith. We could leverage romantic terms like ‘character’ and ‘chivalry’, but the seeds of tradition are planted by the elders of all cultures. What is it, then? What is the ideal that we share here today?
St. Augustine said that to find a soul of a city you must look at what its citizens cherish. Can we likewise locate the heart of our community by searching for that which we hold dear? In visiting my Father’s birthplace of Calcutta a year ago I had the privilege to tour the tomb of Mother Teresa, and engraved in one of the memorial stones was a quote of hers the remains close to my heart. “Do no great things”, she said, “only little things, with great love”. It is a saying so outwardly simple and so seemingly wise that I wonder if only as sublime a person as Mother Teresa could meaningfully assert it. We might imagine Jesus himself imparting such wisdom, so elegant and enigmatic is the teaching. Elegant, because the value of humility is self-evident; enigmatic, because both Christ and the Saint of Calcutta achieved greatness in the very way the statement cautions against. Undoubtedly, there is an implied link between love and modesty, and it is on this point that I believe the spirit of our community can be found. When I examine the lives of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles both blood and honorary, and Anglo Indians both at home and abroad, I see in them much virtue worthy of emulation: integrity, sincerity, spirituality. But the most reliable commonality, that which makes me most proud to call myself Anglo Indian, is a trait at once revealing and at first underwhelming: an authentic, unwavering, and everlasting humility.
It’s a quality unappreciated in our modern climate precisely because it exists in opposition to those spectacular talents that move us, and that this attribute goes unnoticed makes it all the more praiseworthy that some people truly embody it. This, I submit, is the river that runs through our community: a majestic modesty, if such an oxymoron can be used. I saw this quality in my paternal grandfather: a quiet dignity and understated manner that commanded respect. I sensed it when he pleaded with my parents to be tolerant of my failings, lest they forget that they were immature children once as well. And I felt it when he tenderly showed me our family tree and retraced the lineage of generations past. He was forever proud, but never boastful; wise so as to be understated, understated so as to be wise.
It was this sense of moderation and integrity that punctuated the lives of my grandparents and I see it duplicated in my parents and their priorities. The Catholicism communicated to my siblings and I was many-sided: routine, ceremony and discipline were all elements, but mostly, it was a Catholicism by example. To the extent that we reliably went to Church on Sunday, my parents embodied the ideals of faith in themselves; mom through her compassion and quiet strength; dad through his integrity and raw will of belief. It is their example that prompts me out of bed to church on Sunday and fuels the pangs of guilt when I miss it. And so we have predictably come full circle: from cultural dissonance, to speculation, to acceptance, to hopefully reverence.
To my parents’ generation: my Father was right, we will never understand. You have spared us from hardships of real political turmoil, of gross inequalities and appalling wrongdoings. Words such as ‘independence’, ‘liberation’ and ‘bigotry’ are for most of us but abstract terms – far removed from the deep-seated realities they represent for some of you. If it is the measure of men to exceed the ambitions of their fathers so their sons may do the same, you have succeeded wholeheartedly and have set for us high expectations. But the torch must be passed and the responsibilities extended. The journey is ours, the roads are many, and the anxiety is real.
To my generation: I am right as well – our parents will never understand.
Of life at this pace and the prosperity race, Of its ethical wrenches and the obscuring of fences, Of the whirlwind of change and ideological range, Of generational tension and scars we can’t mention.
But it is one of the joys of a generation to discover in the conduct of their children the example of their parents. Let it be so with us, so that it may be true for them. May we in time comprehend the power of faith, the promise of goodness, the sacrifices of parenthood, and the splendor of humility.
May we personify our heritage with the pride of our ancestors as we endure the struggle of the challenging present in hopes of an emphatically different yet prosperous future.