What’s in a name? Apparently a lot.Posted: December 22, 2011
My name is Anne-Marie and as far back as I can remember, people have asked me why that is. Their question is justified. With black hair, dark skin and South Asian features, I would have been better off with a name straight out of a Bollywood film. Ergo, the answer for this seemingly simple question has always been long and elaborate and the only way to explain is by delving back into my country’s colonial past.
The British ruled India for about 100 years, a significant amount of time considering that we have been independent for only 64. In that while, they brought railroads and Christianity and looted away spices and indigenous sovereignty. But what often does not make it to history textbooks is that they brought thousands of young English soldiers who left their lives and families at a tender age to fight for their country in a foreign land. Those who survived malaria and heat strokes stayed in India long enough to learn the language and figure out its culture. Some of those unfortunate young soldiers even fell in love with Indian women, often forgetting fiancés and wives back home. It was after all the late 19th century and Skype hadn’t yet been invented.
As such unions proliferated, the country was dotted with light-skinned and brown-eyed babies who grew up to form the Anglo-Indian community.
They spoke only English and cursed a lot. The women wore dresses and hats. On Friday evenings, the Anglos (as they are colloquially called) played cards; on Saturdays they danced the Fox Trot and on Sundays they attended mass. They ate rice and kofta curry with spoons, forks and serviettes. They had western names and knew they were pretty. They took pride in their ‘half-bloodedness’ and felt superior as compared to their darker country cousins. They were good musicians and bad students. The men drank too much and the women smoked too much. But they were the community that raised my grandmother, my mother and then me.
My great grandfather was a French soldier in the First World War. He brought his wife and three kids with him to Burma and left them there as he travelled around the Indian subcontinent. He would often visit his sister, a missionary, in India. On one of these visits, he successfully impregnated an Indian lady. His wife back home succumbed to one of the many deadly tropical diseases, and maybe even grief, and he conveniently brought his three children over to his mistress’ house to give them a new mother. My grandmother, Edna St George- white skinned, and dark -haired found herself a place in the bastard Anglo-Indian community and gave up speaking French for English. She loved being French and baptized her four daughters with names rather uncharacteristic to the rest of India- Genevieve, Marcelle, Marie Antoinette and Patricia. The latter three were born with creamy white skin and black hair.
As a child I always struggled with the name Anne-Marie. I grew up in New Delhi, the capital, and despised being introduced to new people. For a long time, one of my neighbours called me ‘animal’, as he truly believed that was my name. While studying grade two arithmetic, my best friend asked me why I had a minus sign in the middle of my name. I had no clue why. Grade three was worse. It was the year my mother revealed to me that I had a middle name too- Patricia. And when you’re Roman Catholic, it doesn’t just end there. I was given my second middle name- Claudelle, during my Confirmation ceremony at the impressionable age of 13.
I did well at school but didn’t like it much. My friends thought that I was a snob when I spoke English with ease and struggled with Hindi. That’s why weekends with Nana were so special. Nana always smelt of perfume and cigarettes, and I loved it. After she turned completely grey, her crimson lipstick was the only speck of colour on her white face. She was beautiful. She would sit me down on her knee and teach me Eenie meenie miney mo- the uncensored version, of course. She also taught me Yankey Doodle and other rhymes which I never learned in school. She made the best pork roast and she taught me how to pray the rosary.
I wish I got to spend more time with my grandmother. When I was five, she left for Australia with my three aunts. They weren’t the only ones, most Anglos have migrated to Canada, Australia and England, and only a handful remain in the homeland. Intermarriage is widely practised so third generation seed, like myself, only bear the fading echo of a once robust community.
As I grew, I soon learnt to laugh at the various mutilations my name went through and the reactions it solicited. At my last job in India, I received a bill in the name of ‘N. Marry’. I preserved it carefully. Here in the US, I am frequently asked for my ‘real name’. On some of these occasions, I give the inquirer what they want to hear- something straight out of a Bollywood film.
Read a related article on the Anglo-Indian Community from The New York Times
Written for an ‘Opinions and Editorials’ class at Boston University with Boston Globe Columnist, Adrian Walker.