Now close your eyes again and throw a dart on the map of India. This magical land comes alive in McCluskieganj that was once—perhaps still is—the largest settlement of Anglo-Indians in India. It sure is like a heaven at the end of a dirt road, 40 miles off Ranchi in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.
But then what’s heaven without its stories about Satan and demons? Or, at least their modern avatar. I was on a special-issue assignment in Jharkhand, and McCluskieganj was a mandatory stop in my itinerary. “Don’t go, it is no longer safe,” uttered one voice; another talked of bandits who loot travelers even in broad daylight; yet another threw in a dash of fear, “You are a woman, are you crazy that you want to travel alone …?” Many more voices fell my way, several ogres gathered at the threshold, but I did not want my one opportunity to see a fabled land crumble in fear. I had to see that heaven. I took a trusted Man Friday, got the car checked for any ailment, defied the ogres at the threshold, and set out for my rendezvous with heaven.
And boy! Did I imagine this heaven? The very Anglican houses sit amidst bougainvilleas and poinsettias, white picket fences and the marble plaques bearing names of the families that once lived there. There is no rush nor trappings of a modern town, the entire place seems to expend its everyday existence lazily, nobody seems to be in a hurry, nobody seems to question life. There is an amazing peace that wraps McCluskieganj in its wide arms; even the unruly red hibiscus knows that nobody would interrupt its wanton ways.
But who built this heaven? Not the gods, certainly. You need to look at the picture of Ernest Timothy McCluskie to understand the beginnings of this heaven. He stares out of the frame—a strapping man, his sparse hair gelled and combed back pleasingly, his black bow perched nattily on a crisp white shirt; you can see the arrogance in his eyes and you would conjecture he only mumbled monosyllables. There are not many photographs of McCluskie; this one is from the 1938 edition of The Skipper magazine. You should know the man because if you see McCluskieganj as a scratch on the map, it is only because E.T. McCluskie contrived a dream.
Circa 1932. McCluskie, a house and land agent based in Calcutta, must have been an astute entrepreneur. But not everything was mercenary about him; he also loved his race—the Anglo-Indians. During the tumult of the swadeshi movement in the early 1930s, this rich businessman got perked with an idea—he wanted to bunch together the Anglo-Indians in a verdant hamlet and for that he was looking for some place on earth. He found it nestled in the bountiful forest of Lapra, what was then the fiefdom of the Raja of Ratu, a small principality. He acquired 10,000 acres from the king for an undisclosed amount, and sent circulars to nearly 200,000 Anglo-Indians in India inviting them to settle in this newly found place, where the jackals roamed, the river flowed silently, and the forest grew wildly.
And then they came—the Mendises, the Christensens, the Booths, the Bonners, the Cameroons. They bought acres and acres of wild land, they built a church, a club, an abattoir, a post office, a poultry farm, and nice little Anglican homes with flowers on the periphery and tiled, slanted roofs. They brought their pianos, their horses, and their mahogany chests and four-poster teak beds. The forest was suddenly agog with music, guffaws, the smell of fresh meat, of rum cakes and tangy beer. In the beginning there were nearly 300 Anglo-Indian families.
Amidst them were the handsome white men who wore bowler hats, slung guns on their broad shoulders, kicked dust on their stallions, and waltzed throughout the night with pretty women in tulle gowns. And when they heard the eerie laughter of the hyenas or saw the rapacious jackals, the guns would start booming and the tiny village of McCluskieganj would get sleepless at night. When things were not so wild, little white girls in flouncy skirts and buckled shoes would play three-legged races or run to the haberdashery to pick up Brussels lace or fresh rose cakes. When Christmas came, the village would be soaked with the smell of rum cakes and biscottis and there would be merriment everywhere.
The idea of McCluskieganj was different. It was purported to be a pastoral and domesticated homeland, with lush cultivation and healthy livestock. In a letter to the Colonization Observer in 1934 a visitor to McCluskieganj wrote: “It is like a beautiful dream, everything your own and in a lovely spot with no dogmatic treatment and no dread of the sack, and, above all, no streets and drains for latrines and spittoons, no dirty leaves, waste paper and mud chatties to be served in and to trample on an evening walk, and lo, no … Dewalies, … riots, and any fear of Dacoities and Bomb throwing. It would be just splendid: Farming, Commerce and Industry, Dance Halls and Picture Houses for the money-maker …”
OLD RESIDENTS AND NEW
Let history and vignettes wait; let’s listen to Kitty Texeira, 56, who sells fruits at the McCluskieganj railway station to feed a family of five. That balmy September morning when I drove to the station, Texeira was wearing a blue nylon sari and a brown cotton blouse. Her hands looked callused and you could see the scars of an unhappy life on her porcelain skin rimmed with naughty curls the color of gold. Texeira was born in this settlement much after her grandfather, a retired government servant who earned a pension of Rs. 112 a month, bought 10 acres in McCluskieganj and called it his home.
But Texeira was not always so unkempt and slovenly, nor was life so unkind to her. “I was born in McCluskieganj, I know no other world,” says Texeira as she holds on to a bag full of puffed rice and haggles over the price of bananas in her basket, rambling between impeccable English and the local dialect with a drawl. Wiping the sweat on her blue nylon sari that is carelessly draped on her rather fragile casing, she wanders into a world that seems lost and forgotten now.
“There were no schools in McCluskieganj but I remember wearing my Sunday best and going to the church and winning Rs. 18 in a three-legged potato race and a tin of pickles in a lucky dip,” she says, her voice fading into a nostalgic whisper. “Oh! I also won Rs. 6 at a fancy dress competition where I dressed up as a paan-bidi-vala,” she hurriedly adds.
All was well in McCluskieganj till 1946 and then, just as they had come, they left … one-by-one, taking the train out of McCluskieganj station and going wherever fate took them. The beautiful Anglican bungalows that were once laced with geraniums and poinsettias and reverberated with the giggles of the rather large Anglo-Indian brood, fell into silence and impoverishment.
Some came after the exodus. Bryan Christensen was teaching in Calcutta when his mother called him to McCluskieganj to look after the family property. That was several decades ago and Christensen stayed on, now running a hostel for the students of Don Bosco Academy. “When I came there were no macadamized roads, I actually liked the dirt road; the people were friendly and the place much more homely. Of course, things have changed …” Tracy, his daughter, is happy in the house that is stacked with books and the garden where her grandfather’s old car sits regally amidst weeds and yellow flowers. The 90-year-old clock, the teak four-poster bed, and innumerable framed pictures still adorn the pink walls of the Christensen home. Bryan’s father-in-law, Bryan Mendis, was one of the first settlers and he never left his home that he lovingly built in 1934. Out of the Mendis home I could smell some afternoon tea, but the patriarch refused to step out or speak. Behind the walls I could hear a guttural, faceless voice, “My story has often been distorted, I am sorry, but I do not want to speak.”
But there was Lt. Gen. M. Mayadas, a former director general, weapons and equipment, in the Indian Army, who calls McCluskieganj “my home, my coincidence.” During his stint in the army and his jaunts abroad he had never come across a place called McCluskieganj, his wife had not even heard of Ranchi. An official trip was bringing him to Bihar and he knew that his friend, Lt. Gen. Baljeet Singh, had taken up a place in McCluskieganj. He got a little curious, spared a couple of hours for this unknown place and—just to twist a cliché—he came, he saw, and he was conquered. And very soon this painter, photographer, shikari, and son of a former deputy commissioner of Delhi came to McCluskieganj for what he wanted to be “forever.” In his 20-acre property that he bought for Rs. 2.5 lakhs (roughly $5,500) he added mango, gamhar, teak, and guava trees, and supplemented the dwelling that was originally built in 1934 with a red, brick chimney, servants’ quarters, and a large hall. And of course, 17 pigeons, 12 chicken, two geese, six goats, and three dogs.
Ask him what he loves most in McCluskieganj and he would blink and point his cragged fingers at the silhouette of the hills that seem just an arm’s length away in the horizon. “You can’t see such a beautiful sunrise and sunset anywhere. And look at the hills …” Perhaps there isn’t. And his wife who did not even know where Ranchi was, lived happily in McCluskieganj, scaring wild animals with a gun, and sitting by the fire in the lawns with Mayadas.
McCluskieganj today is still as beautiful as when the handsome men waltzed with their chiseled beloved, when they would punter on their horses and come to the post office to pick mail, or when the hyenas howled all night. Perhaps the only difference is that silence has set in—a number of bungalows have fallen into ruin, some are deserted, others turned into tourist lodges, and the churches isolated. Of the nearly 300 original settlers, only 20 families remain, some like Texeira mingling with the crowd, others living in a discordant quiet and waiting to return to dust.
Within the confines of McCluskieganj, Lt. Gen. Mayadas was not just a fascinating storyteller, he was also a very munificent host fussing over coffee and meal arrangements for me and interspersing it with nostalgia. But as the clock struck 3 p.m., he got restive. He was bothered about my safety, he wanted me to leave before darkness set in. Honestly, I wanted to stay longer in McCluskieganj, to forget the woes of the world, to slough off urban malice in the hush of this village, but Mayadas reminded me of the marauding demons on way. I know he was not scuttling my plans nor imbibing fear, he was concerned and he wanted me to reach home safe. Yes, I wanted to stay longer, but I was touched by the gesture, by his concern. At 3:15, I was driving past abandoned buildings and reckless hibiscus bushes; no demons accosted me on the dirt road, I returned from the newfound heaven happy and safe. I owe it to you Lt. Gen. Mayadas for your kindness and to you, Mr. McCluskie, for engineering this Anglo-Indian dream.
Preeti Verma Lal has worked as a journalist in India and the United States. She now lives in New Delhi, freelances for several publications, and runs her website: www.deepblueink.com
* Getting There:
By air: The nearest airport is Ranchi, 40 miles away.
By rail: McCluskieganj station is well connected.
By road: From Ranchi you can travel by road—you can take a bus or hire a cab. Avoid travelling after dusk.
* Where to Stay:
There are some tourist lodges and guest houses. If you know a family, you could stay with them. The other option is to leave very early for McCluskieganj, make it a day trip, return to Ranchi by night.