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Letter from India: No Place Like Home

4 minute read
Alex Perry/McCluskieganj

However bad it gets, there are some traditions from the old days that Kitty Teixeire refuses to let die. She greets visitors barefoot in a bedraggled sari at the doorless entrance to her collapsing bungalow. But when she serves coffee, she covers her splintered table with a white cloth and pours into what may be the only set of matching cups and saucers for hundreds of kilometers. “It was such a beautiful place,” she sighs in her clipped vowels, a gift of her mixed Welsh, Portuguese and Indian blood. “But McCluskieganj just went down and down. Down the drain, you can say.”

Kitty, 52, has a few dozen chickens and 4 hectares of mango, tamarind and oily mahua nut trees. On the rare occasions she has $20 to buy boxes of fruit, she sells bananas to passengers on the Calcutta Express at McCluskieganj railway station. It’s hard to see how she earns enough to feed her four daughters. But it’s almost impossible to imagine that when she was born inside these whitewashed walls, McCluskieganj was a paradise for mixed-race children of the British empire. What Kitty remembers most about the early days is the hope. The settlers’ idea was to create nothing less than a mini-state for Anglo-Indians. Their leader: Ernest McCluskie, a Scot-Indian who had felt personally the sting of discrimination from both the British and from Indians who resented that their mixed-race countrymen were eligible for better jobs. As a wealthy trader, McCluskie was in a position to do something about it. So in 1932, he bought 4,000 hectares of jungle in the hills of eastern India, part of what is now the state of Jharkhand. At his beckoning, 350 mixed-race families followed, bought 4-hectare plots from him, cleared them and built themselves large red-roofed bungalows with breezy verandas. McCluskie exhorted them to live with their fellow misfits in this self-sufficient, subcontinental England of collective farming, cardamom cakes and masala tea dances.

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“Practically every house was Anglo-Indian,” says Kathleen Hourigan, a matronly 55-year-old Irish-Indian. “There was a real togetherness. And there were lovely shows, picnics and dances. It was quite something.” The farmers raised pigs and cattle and made mango jelly. There was a school, two hospitals, a clubhouse and endless rose gardens. Nothing it seemed, not even World War II, could touch McCluskieganj. And then, in 1947, came Indian independence. The community “just couldn’t imagine a life without England,” says McCluskieganj historian Captain David Cameron, 72. Some of the early pioneers had died and, without the colonial shield to protect them, their children emigrated to England or Australia. Those that stayed discovered that after shutting out the cruelties of the world, they’d cut themselves off from its riches too. The place had no industry and was simply too small and isolated to sustain itself. Mold ate at the bungalows and neglect swallowed the tennis courts and swimming pools. The dream of an Anglo-Indian Eden soured like milky tea in the afternoon sun.

Yet today, more than half a century after the end of the empire, something of McCluskieganj survives. In 1998, after an absence of 33 years, Hourigan returned from Australia to the family home with her ailing husband. “My late husband said: ‘I was born here and I want to die here,'” she explains. “And somehow I’m just more comfortable here now.” The weeds, say the settlers, are yet to choke the ideal of a gently segregationist shelter on which McCluskieganj was built. “This was my mother’s house,” says Kitty Teixeire. “How can I leave?”

There are even some newcomers, including the Scot-Indian Cameron. After living in Australia, Britain and Africa, he says he’s finally found his home. Before arriving in McCluskieganj, his restless blood led him through a rainbow of identities, from Indian army captain to cocktail pianist, author to pilot, headmaster to racehorse breeder. Yet only in McCluskieganj, he says, among his fellow outsiders, is he truly himself. “Because I’m rather swarthy, people in England and Australia mistake me for an African or an Aboriginal,” he says. “Nobody knows who you are or what you are. But here, in this place, how do I put it? I simply never feel out of sorts.”

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