Rhyme time for an Anglo-Indian thriller
Double Cream, Memsahib? published by Chennai-based Anglo-Ink, is a 43,000-word book spotlighting the much-misunderstood mixed-race community who number around 250,000 and live mainly in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, with 25,000 still in India. “Double Cream, Memsahib?” concerns Anglo-Indian author Kevin Martin’s search for his community’s true identity, finds out Rudy Otter, an Anglo-Indian freelance journalist, who is TII’s longest-serving UK correspondent.
Tamil Nadu-born writer Kevin Martin has written an unusual novel – a thriller in verse. He took 500 days to produce the 288-page book in Australia where he now lives. Its title, “Double Cream, Memsahib?” has nothing to do with a lady fawned over by a restaurant waiter but concerns Kevin’s own Anglo-Indian community’s search for its true identity. The fictional story involves a double rape and murder on the night of India’s Independence in 1947.
Published recently by Chennai-based Anglo-Ink, India’s first Anglo-Indian book-publishing company, the 43,000-word book so moved one reader that she wrote a glowing online review hoping it would be turned into a movie, spotlighting the much-misunderstood mixed-race community who now number around 250,000 and live mainly in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, with 25,000 still in India.
History books tell us that during British rule the white-settlers relieved their loneliness by taking Indian brides. In 1911 their offspring, until then known as Eurasians, came to be called Anglo-Indians, the term white-settlers had originally chosen for themselves. The new Anglo-Indians were regarded by the British as “90 per cent Indian and 10 per cent British,” while Indians maintained they were “90 per cent British and 10 per cent Indian.” They came in four colours – many white, many more brown in light, medium and dark shades.
Kevin Martin had been a teacher of English literature in a missionary school in the Darjeeling hills of India. In search of a better salary, he moved to Dubai and taught there for 20 months before receiving a surprise job offer locally as a copy editor for the Gulf News, a daily newspaper. It was a post he approached with “great trepidation” but quickly settled down and continued editing for ten years. He enjoyed the role of “making and breaking the news”, as he puts it, and 12 years after leaving Dubai he still writes a regular weekly “Off the Cuff” column for the paper from his Sydney home.
While on holiday in a Delhi hotel, he found himself reading Vikram Seth’s book, “The Golden Gate”, and was so captivated by the bestselling Indian author’s story, told in sonnets, that he resolved to follow Seth’s versifying example if and when he ever felt like getting down to writing his first novel.
Back at Gulf News, he happened to read a piece about Dubai’s Indian Association planning to mark India’s 50th year of Independence, and that triggered the idea which, after several years of research and planning, spawned “Double Cream, Memsahib?” Kevin explained: “It got me, an Anglo-Indian, wondering about my own community. What had become of us in the last 50 years, our dwindling numbers in India, how scattered we were now all over the world. My book focuses on the search for our identity and ‘double cream’ is how I once heard an Indian boy in India describe fair-skinned Anglo-Indian women. That label stuck in my mind and became a handy metaphor for the book.”
The story is about the double rape of a young Indian girl on the banks of Kolkata’s Hooghly River by two departing British naval men and centres on a “relentless desire not only to identify the perpetrators but to come to grips with the meaning of identity itself”.
Talking of identity, I asked how the large Anglo-Indian communities in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and elsewhere get on with Australians? Kevin says he sees a “gradual dilution” of the Anglo-Indian race as they marry into various cultures Down Under, including Australian, Greek, Italian and others.
His memories of India include his father, a railway engine driver, bearing the grimy look of a miner encrusted in oil and coal dust after driving steam locomotives. He also drove diesel engines which offered a clean environment and meant wearing “a nice suit and pushing buttons”, then finishing a shift and going straight to church from the loco shed without needing to clean up. Later he drove electric engines but his favourites were the steam ones. ‘Those were the days, men!’ he used to say,” Kevin recalls.
Now, when Kevin returns to India he is amazed by the “magnetic quality of the land of my birth”. He revels in the “incessant buzz, cars and their never-ending horn-tooting, crowds bigger than I ever remembered them, swarms of two wheelers everywhere….”
He had moved to Australia and has nearly finished writing his second novel (mostly in prose with some poetry) which deals with “post traumatic stress disorder and the futility of war.” He attributes his penchant for writing to his mother who penned the “most amazing word pictures” in her frequent letters to him at boarding school in India.
(By courtesy of The International Indian magazine, Dubai.)