Lost in time. For Pankaj Mishra, growing up in India, Anglo-Indians were a source of romance and longing. But they were a community in decline, nostalgic for the privileges of the Raj

The Jadu House: intimate histories of Anglo-India

Laura Roychowdhury <em>Doubleday, 291pp, £12.99

Anyone who grew up, as I did, in an Indian railway town in the 1970s would not fail to remember the Anglo-Indians. The men, red-faced and large, drank heavily and played cricket, hockey and billiards at the Railway Institute. They lived in small, cramped quarters near railway tracks or adjacent to the local Christian-run school, where their wives were often employed. A morbid air hung around their badly lit homes, where framed, sepia-tinted pictures of cricket teams stood alongside Kodak photos of relatives lucky enough to have migrated to a white Commonwealth country. On Sunday mornings, they filled church courtyards with bright Indian colours. Their exotically pale and delicate daughters wore skirts and danced and even, it was rumoured, kissed boys - something that no unmarried Hindu girl was ever likely to do. Their sons boasted to envious schoolmates of the lives awaiting them outside India; they had "courtships" and "love marriages". They hummed Cliff Richard songs and smuggled copies of Picture Post into school. They were a source of romance and longing in our drab landscape.

We couldn't have known it then, but the Anglo-Indians were a community in decline. They had derived their power from the British presence in India; the British withdrawal in 1947 left them exposed. Unlike the Parsis, another Indian community patronised by the British, they had no entrepreneurial skills. In the absence of government patronage, they could quickly grow poor and seedy. They retreated into themselves, and there were many migrations. In Australia and New Zealand, they taught hockey and created world-class teams. They didn't always do well in Britain. In their own way, as products of mixed cultures, they were "multiculturalists" long before the word, and the alien reality to which it referred, found wider acceptance. Those who could blended into the general whiteness of their surroundings. There were many suppressions: Merle Oberon, the Hollywood actress, succeeded in concealing her Anglo-Indian origin for most of her career. Even today, there are people in Britain who are unwilling to acknowledge their Anglo-Indian ancestry.

Their loss of status took a different form in India. I often heard it said about them that they had "all the vices of the British but none of their virtues". I now wonder at the cultural confidence behind that appraisal, the confidence that came so quickly to a subject country. This was part of a larger pride in the victories of the nationalist movement that had filtered down even to the lower middle classes. But it was also true that the British empire had altered Indian identity for ever - you can see the evidence for that in the matrimonial advertisements for "fair-skinned" women, the largely national preference for English-medium schools, the vacations in hill stations, the obsession with cricket and the glamorous relative in England. Each Indian who echoed that judgement on the Anglo-Indians had been Anglicised in his own way. The British empire, and its inadvertent benefits, had brought him to the point where he could criticise some of its products; feel himself closer to the virtues, rather than vices, of the British.

But the irrevocably Anglicised self lay under a new nationalist self-regard, the idea of India as an entity almost remade and purified by the independence of 1947; and the Anglo-Indians could be an unwelcome reminder of something unalterably mixed in the Indian inheritance. This unease with aspects of their identity made many Indians scorn and mock a writer such as Nirad Chaudhuri, who felt no inhibitions in acknowledging the role of the British empire in shaping him.

Laura Roychowdhury, an English social anthropologist who came to India in the early 1990s to research the dwindling community of Anglo-Indians, experienced a different kind of unease with her British identity. She felt oppressed by her school (St Paul's Girls' School) and felt no more relaxed at Cambridge, where she failed to break free of what she calls the "hallucination of Britain". She found relief only at the University of Michigan. The urge to escape the constrictions of her Englishness led her to the idea that "if I studied India, I thought, perhaps I could finally reinvent myself as an expert and descendant of a different civilisation".

There is a charming ring of truth to such a confession: anthropologists are no less vulnerable to the confusion about identity that the modern world creates within many people. But Roychowdhury didn't find that India, or at least not the part she explored, was such a different civilisation. This is the dilemma of anthropology, which in the beginning depended on a real difference between the anthropologist and his subject, between "Us" and "Them". But colonialism dissolved that difference to some extent. Us is now Them and Them is Us. The commonly advocated solution to this dilemma is for anthropologists to be more self-conscious, to incorporate their self-consciousness into their work.

This is what Roychowdhury has done, with mixed - if always interesting - results. After some weeks in Calcutta, she travelled to Kharagpur, a railway town in Bengal still populated by an eccentric cast of Anglo-Indians. Much of what she reports of the community has the tone and form of a travel book: she describes people from the outside, and she has a good eye for physical details, if a bad ear for dialogue - the people in her book speak too much like academics. Thus, this slightly weird seduction scene:

"'Are you sure you want to do this,' I ask.

"'Everything is arranged for this to happen from the battle of Plassey onwards. We're just following the script of Hindi movies, colonial titillations, speculations about Tash, nationalist respectability. This isn't seduction, it's just us following the traditional temptations,' he says, unwinding my stained purple dupatta."

The postcolonial seducer here is a Bengali student, Subhrasheel, who accompanies Roychowdhury to Kharagpur, and with whom she has a passionate and - since she is married to an African man back in Michigan - adulterous affair. In fact, the account of her relationship with the student turns out to be the most intimate of all the intimate histories of Anglo-India in the book, which, despite the interest of the subject, feels unorganised, as if written out of many different inspirations.

The affair predictably invites disapproval among Roychowdhury's Bengali hosts in Calcutta. In response, she uses Anglo-Indian histories to preach on the futility of looking for uncontaminated identities: "A few months ago in Subhrasheel's arms I had wondered what was inside and what was outside of my identity. In this moment I know that this is a false division: India and Britain are part of the same crystal globe and my self is suffused with the contradictions of their historical relationships." Roychowdhury self-consciously acts out those contradictions and, with some pride, she relates how, after a traditional Bengali wedding in Calcutta, she got into jeans and spent the night dancing with friends at a nightclub.

There is much to be admired in Roychowdhury's determination to extract personal happiness out of the larger and very tormented historical relationships between India and Britain. But one does begin to feel that there is something too strained and hectic about such intellectual web-weaving, especially when Roychowdhury says: "Subhrasheel does not offer me either India or a peaceful end to contradictions, instead he offers restless stories that divert me from comfortable, homely lies." Here you feel yourself transported to the slippery realm of postmodernism, where storytelling constitutes a morality in itself and where everything is a myth waiting to be undermined by some clever academic.

The problem is that not all our lives can be reduced to a few basic myths, or be so briskly transferred from the moral to the intellectual realm. The modern world offers many people a dazzling variety of personal choices, but those choices still involve certain renunciations, and the grief and loss attendant upon them still have to be acknowledged; they cannot always be explained away with borrowed abstractions. The last lines in Roychowdhury's book are about the possibility of her new husband moving to Britain with her; and you are left wondering about the self-made man from an African village, an oceanographer, to whom Roychowdhury is married and with whom she professes to be in love more than once, and who is waiting for her to return to him.

Even the very little information about him that Roychowdhury provides identifies him as a man with his own dreams of transcendence and fulfilment. But after hearing of Roychowdhury's new marriage, which she describes with as much keen delight as she does her lovemaking with Subhrasheel, we hear no more of the African. His disappearance feels abrupt and cruel. By being so thoroughly absent, he becomes the most intriguing presence in the book - and makes it seem, with all its energetic confessions and intellectualising, oddly reticent.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of The Romantics: a novel (Picador)