BioEducated at the universities of Cambridge and London and author of Outsider Biographies, Danigo! French Grammar Reorganized andGenet: Les Bonnes, Ian Magedera is a would-be European who also blithely ticks the ‘British Asian’ box in ethnicity questionnaires. His cultural and academic travels in Europe, speaking German and French, follow on from his parents’ journeys to the UK in English and Sinhala after the end of the British Empire.
What happened to Sonia Gandhi as she moved from the Italian-born wife of the non-political son closer and closer to the centre of power? Before she became Mother Teresa, how did an Eastern European-born outsider in the Loreto order of nuns present herself as she claimed to renew Indian Christianity around 1947? How did Swiss-born Simone Tata apply the visits to Parisian beauty salons in her youth to transform Tata Group’s Lakmé brand? This is the ground covered by just three of this book’s ten chapters that illuminate the careers and Indian identity formation of European-born women and their deep and sometimes controversial influence on education, religions, spirituality, commerce and politics in India. That influence began with Annie Besant’s 1893 landfall in Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) and continues today, still enabled by Indian elites such as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the Catholic Church and the Tata family. For their Indian supporters and opponents, these women were both Indian and videshinis (foreign women); they were also non-British (Italian, Albanian, Swiss, French, Ottoman Turkish and Irish) and thus at one remove from the colonial power. They may be the last outliers of the intercultural contact around empire and the freedom struggle, but their bumpy integration by Indians holds a lesson in inclusivity for the country’s future.