I much preferred hot-dog days, when a buck-fifty bought everyone a wiener and a can of pop.
In the summer of 1978, I flew back to England with my parents for a visit. One afternoon, we gathered at the home of my Aunty Zia and Uncle Douglas in Wembley. At some point, jostled between hips and legs, I caught a glimpse of my grandfather sitting in the living room.
Papa Albert was too frail to join the welcoming mob at the door. He was seated in a plump chair by the front window, tiny and delicate as a bird. He had a head of white stubble and a golden complexion. He wore a tie, a woollen vest and a herringbone jacket that gave him a distinguished air.
Suddenly he looked up at me and grinned, as though he knew I’d been staring, and I saw something instantly familiar and yet utterly foreign in his face, in the gentle slant of his eyes. He looked Chinese.
I was dumbstruck. My grandfather was Chinese? We were Chinese? On top of all the quasi-Indian, English, Portuguese, Dutch business, we were Chinese?
My father didn’t have many answers. His father didn’t either, or if he did he had never shared them. All I could gather from my parents was that many years ago in India, Papa Albert’s father was somehow given the name John Abraham. Other than that, only three things were known about him, and none with certainty: He was Chinese, he was a juggler and he had disappeared.
If we had something to hide about our heritage, John Abraham stood out as the thing that was hidden. A secret Chinese patriarch, a juggler, a lost culture, a lost name – all discovered just when the Abraham name was causing me a schoolyardful of grief (to prepubescent boys, my prepubescent chest was the Plains of Abraham).
The mystery of my great-grandfather marinated in my imagination.
In 1979, my father changed jobs and we moved back to Mississauga. On Sundays, Nana Gladys came to visit.
I had always thought of her as my very English Nana. She’d lived in a Victorian row house outside London and shopped on the high street, where the clerks called her “Glad” and she called them “love.” But she had a nasty fall from a bus in 1978, and that was it – she packed and moved to Canada.
Every Sunday we picked her up for the 12 o’clock mass, and after lunch she and my mother would spend the day in our kitchen making dinner: chopping onions and garlic, grinding spices into a paste, frying cumin and coriander and cardamom pods in a pan, picking out stones from rice on an orange melamine plate.
All the while, they talked, about places in India with names full of vowels – Poona and Dhoand and Jubalpore – and communities they called railway colonies, where it seemed they had always lived, in houses by this train station or that. Practically everyone they knew had gone somewhere, after India won its independence from Britain in 1947. None of the people they talked about had Indian names, except the servants.
It was my introduction to the in-between world of my ancestors, a small swatch of mixed-blood people known by various labels when Britain ruled the subcontinent, many of them pejorative – half-castes, chi-chis, bastards of the Raj.
The community’s official description, still entrenched in India’s constitution, is “Anglo-Indian.” It refers to citizens descended from a paternal line that originated in Britain or Europe. They were not to be confused with English-born people who lived in India, who were called “domiciled Europeans.” Then there is “Eurasian,” the all-encompassing term to which we usually subscribed. All that taxonomy works hard to stress the non-Indian fraction of a hybrid heritage, not that I understood that then.
As a child, my knowledge of Anglo-Indians came from watching my parents, relatives and friends, usually at one house party or another, with the Johnnie Walker flowing and laughter erupting late into the night. Everyone spoke perfect English, but their words rose and fell with the musicality of a unique subcontinental lilt.