A Channel 4 show plans to reunite British families with scattered relatives. Anglo-Indians would be interested candidates.
Stereotypes about the Anglo-Indian community abound, a favourite being that many of them are more than ready to emigrate, made familiar in movies such as Julie (1975) and 36, Chowringhee Lane (1981). It is a fact that there was an exodus soon after Independence, which continued for the next couple of decades, but that no longer holds true, especially with the younger generation, according to Sandra Da Costa, honorary secretary of the Anglo-Indian Gidney Club in Delhi. “We had a choice to emigrate but made a conscious decision to stay back,” says Da Costa who teaches at Frank Anthony Public School. Her husband, Stephen Da Costa, the principal of Frank Anthony Public School and president of the club, concurs. But tracing their ancestry is something they would be interested in. Mr Da Costa has made attempts himself and was moderately successful on his maternal side, going back to the mid-19th century, but drew a blank with his paternal grandparents. “And for us, that is actually more important,” he says.
The Da Costas are exactly the kind of people the producers of Guess the Relative, a show that will be aired on UK’s Channel 4, would be looking for. In the show, three people from different countries who think they have British ancestors will stay for a week with a British family — one of the three will be related to the family. At the end of a week of getting to know each other through various activities, the family has to guess who the real relative is. “Given the historical ties, there would be many people in India with British ancestors. And we’re not looking for people who have already traced their roots; we have experts who will do that for them,” says Kay Green, assistant producer of Guess the Relative which is scheduled to air in 2012. Once all the applications are in and shortlisted, the task of tracing ancestry will be handed over to a firm specialising in genealogy, after which the British families will be identified. “In India so far we’ve got applications from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Kerala,” says Green. Applications have been invited from over 40 countries, chosen for links with Britiain as well as the quality of genealogical records.
Genealogy as a subject for television shows abroad is not entirely new though — BBC has a show titled Who Do You Think You Are where celebrities attempt to trace their roots. USA has its version of the show, by NBC, as well as another titled Faces of America by PBS. The shows have generated sufficient interest in tracing one’s ancestry for BBC to have an entire section on its website called “Family History” — a step-by-step guide that will help you in the quest to draw your family tree with practical tips, like this one: “Dates and events can often get muddled with time, and the use of pet names can cause great confusion. For example, Uncle Jack Smith may well have been born Michael John Smith”.
Philomena Berkley, a 79-year-old resident of the Grant Govan Homes, a retirement home for Anglo- Indians in Delhi, says she too has tried tracing her family roots and was successful with her Irish branch. But the trail goes cold with her father’s parents who may have died in Hitler’s concentration camps. “I would have liked to find out more though,” she says, wistfully.
* * *
Anglo Indians are people of mixed British and Indian ancestry. The early British merchants and administrators often had Indian families and adopted local customs — the White Mughals. David Ochterloney, who defended Delhi against Holkar in 1804 and distinguished himself in the Nepal and Pindari wars, had 13 bibis. They would dress like women of the Mughal household and Ochterloney would smoke the hookah. Hyder Young Hearsey, who went to Mansarovar with William Moorcroft in disguise sometime in 1812, had an English father and a Jat mother. He was named Hyder Jung after Tipu Sultan’s father but anglicized his name when he went to England to study. James Skinner (1778 to 1841) of Skinner’s Horse was born to an English father and a Rajput mother. Some of his descendants can be found in Meerut, living under Anglo-Indian as well as local identity. The assimilation stopped by the time the 1857 mutiny broke out. Those who married Indians were derided as having “gone native”.
It is not just Anglo-Indians in India who are keen to find out who their ancestors were — the reverse also holds true. Those scattered abroad with ties to India from the days of the Raj are also eager to find out more about their roots. A particularly rich resource for them is the British Library which has an extensive “India Office Records”, including a section called the India Office Family History Search Database which contains over 300,000 records of British and European residents in India between 1600 and 1947. These include records of baptisms, marriages and deaths, military records and even details of East India Company warehouse labourers. Other sources include self-help organisation Families in British India Society for members researching ancestors who lived in British India.
The quest to discover one’s ancestors has also spawned genealogy tours, or ancestral tours, particularly in Scotland and Ireland, where companies offer genealogy-based escorted tours to help you discover your roots. In India, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had some years ago started “discover your roots” tourism, in which the states’ tourism departments on receiving inquiries from those whose ancestors had once lived in the state would help them locate their roots. Uttar Pradesh had also launched “graveyard tourism” for people living in England to come and locate the graves of their forefathers.
Sandra Da Costa says her brother-in-law living in Britain managed to trace his Scottish ancestors and in the process, revealed to a BBC TV host (a relative he discovered in the course of his search) that he was actually Anglo Indian! Perhaps these are the kind of revelations Guess the Relative hopes to spring on its participants when its show goes on air next year.