Since the sixteenth century, India saw a steady influx of European merchants who braved arduous sea voyages to set foot on a ‘land of plenty’ in search of fortune. Within two centuries, however, their interest shifted from trade to territory as these traders transformed themselves into colonialists, strengthening the foundation of the British Empire in particular.
However, life in India had little to offer to these early agents of imperialism, as the conditions prevalent here in no way matched those at home.
Before the construction of the Suez Canal in the mid-nineteenth century, only a few British women considered India a viable destination — either to join their husbands or marry men serving in the army and civil service.
As a result, taking a wife from the local population was quite common among the East India Company officials and their offspring had no inhibitions as regards their mixed parentage. It was this population that eventually came to be identified as the Anglo-Indian community.
Of course, the situation of the Anglo-Indian community took a turn for the worse as a racially distinct British population gradually emerged in India. The Anglo-Indians soon found themselves being looked down upon by the ‘whites’ who consciously wanted to segregate themselves as members of the ruling class, having no relation whatsoever with the vast native society.
Anglo-Indians, who regarded themselves more British than Indian, living a life radically different from that of the colonised masses, speaking the language and following the religion of the masters, came to feel their identity was in crisis.
They preferred to remain a secluded minority community marrying mostly within their society.
Feeling disdained on one hand and apprehensive of being swallowed up by the majority culture on the other, the Anglo-Indians saw the growing struggle for Indian independence with suspicion.
Sensing the changed scenario, particularly during the Second World War when the British Empire had started to fall apart, many within the community chose to migrate either to the United Kingdom or other Commonwealth nations.
The exodus that began in the early decades of the twentieth century continues even today.
Though, not all the Anglo-Indians decided to leave India at the earliest opportunity when the struggle against the British intensified. In fact, some even dreamt of establishing a haven here where they would be able to live comfortably both away from the white and the Indian mainstream population.
It is in pursuit of realising such an insulated homeland for the Anglo-Indian community that Ernest Timothy McCluskie (1872-1935), a businessman born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and having represented the Anglo-Indian community in the Bengal Legislative Council, founded the Colonisation Society of India (1933) — a joint-stock company offering a plot of land to every Anglo-Indian shareholder.
The Maharaja of Ratu was convinced to lease out on a perpetual basis ten thousand acres of land some sixty kilometers away from Ranchi on the condition that the tribal population of the nine villages living there would not be evicted by the new settlers.
McCluskie invited Anglo-Indians from all over the country to come and settle there. This region of the Chota-Nagpur plateau was a remote place with dense forest at the time. Within a year, some Anglo-Indian families responded to McCluskies’s invitation, and this place – named after its founder after his demise in 1935 – began to be called ‘Little England’.
No one considered it a misnomer, since the Anglo-Indian residents built sprawling bungalows with fireplaces, sloping roofs and porches with beautiful gardens on all sides. There were schools to educate the children, clubs for entertaining the adults, bakery and departmental stores for daily needs, along with churches, post office, abattoir and cemetery for more than four hundred Anglo-Indian families.
Amenities available at McCluskieganj could not have been even dreamt of in Ranchi or Patna in those days. Music from pianos would often tear apart the stillness of the night; ballroom dancing and whiskey would add to the enchanting world that McCluskieganj represented.
Besides, activities like hunting and angling were easy to arrange here. There were servants to run errands and enough financial resources to enjoy the privileged life of the master class that eluded them elsewhere. McCluskieganj provided Anglo-Indians with a wish-fulfilling world that they had hoped to live in; a vision that seemed thwarted in reality both by the white community and the mainstream Indians.
The McCluskieganj project was perhaps destined to fail. With little or no economic opportunity to sustain the young Anglo-Indians, the area became a place for the pensioners of time to savour the delights of old age.
The young ones moved to big cities for higher education, and these cities kept them glued with economic allurement. With McCluskie’s sudden death, further innovations vis-à-vis infrastructure became almost impossible. Others lacked the enterprising skill needed to carry forward his mission.
With the Colonization Society almost defunct by the 1950s, about thirty families remained in McCluskieganj by the 1970s to treasure the Anglo-Indian dream. Many bungalows were either abandoned or bequeathed to long-serving trusted attendants, while the bustling McCluskieganj fell into an eerie silence.
The irony set in when some of these Anglo-Indians chose to marry into the local population. By then the Anglo-Indian residents of McCluskieganj preferred to live mostly in the past, reminiscing the good old days. The present brought forth an uneasiness they wanted to stay away from.
However, the establishment of the Don Bosco Academy in 1997 by Alfred George D’Rozario, an eminent Anglo-Indian settled in Patna, gave McCluskieganj an impetus for economic revival.
Some of the Anglo-Indian families today have converted a part of their bungalows into hostels for students coming from faraway places to study at that school. Besides, a few Anglo-Indians have opened kindergarten schools themselves as the demand for studying in English-medium schools is increasing every day.
Though the situation at present has somewhat changed for the better for the six or seven Anglo-Indian families that still live at McCluskieganj, but it in no way resembles the settlement it was once. However desperate the attempts might be to improve its condition, McCluskieganj can perhaps never retrieve its lost charm. It has been a victim of the iron hand of time whose ravages can seldom be escaped.
(Subhendu Sarkar is an academic and an independent documentary photographer based in Kolkata.)