No. 52                                                                                                    September 2002

ISSN 1026-1001




FTN On-line

Indian Racial Legend

Cite Unseen


FTN Goes On-Line

Mikel J. Koven



FOAFtale News is about to find its new home on the World Wide Web. During the 2002 ISCLR conference the Society Executive debated the merits of posting FTN on-line, rather than as a printed newsletter. The merits of such a move included easy and free access to an archive of past issues, further ease of dissemination, avoiding publication delays whilst I fiddle about with the issue making sure it is the correct size, and let’s be honest here – it is a considerably less expensive way of presenting the newsletter, thereby avoiding the ever increasing costs of printing and postage, particularly International postage.

                The major drawback to this move is that an electronic web-based newsletter is useless to our Institutional subscribers. In addition, not everyone who subscribes to FTN has sufficient access to the Internet to read it there. And so a compromise was reached: we will still be printing hard-copies of FTN, but in substantially smaller numbers. These hard-copies are for our Institutional subscribers, but also for any member who wishes to still receive a hard-copy of the newsletter. The only stipulation is that you have to tell me that you still want this mailing.

                And so I have a task for all of you reading this: unless you tell me via post or email (both addresses can be found on the last page) that you do want to receive FTN in the post, this will be the last newsletter you will receive in hard copy. FTN will still be published on a regular basis but made primarily available on-line. But in order to get your mailing, you will need to opt-in to receive it. All paid up members will receive an email informing them of any and all updates.

                The new home for FTN is: - and will be linked via the ISCLR homepage -




“For all ‘is dirty ‘ide”: three cross-community forms of the same urban legend from India

Sanjay Sircar


It is possible that the following is not a full-blown enough narrative to count as a legend proper, but the motif does have the seeds of one. 

During the colonial period in India, from at least the 1830s onwards if not before, it was advantageous to be "pure" British, whether or not one was. Hence, as many mixed-race people ("Anglo-Indians" in the later and now dominant sense of the term, where "Anglo-" covered all things "white European") as could, tried to "pass for white" ---  if  possible, British, if not, Italian or Spanish or Portuguese.  They ignored or denied all "impure" "native" blood, gave their children no details of the "dark side" of their ancestry.  Dark skin and "non-white" facial features were ignored, or attributed to the "Indian sun."  In one family I know of (that of Mr Stan Blackford, now of Adelaide, who "came out" as mixed-race in his seventies), the Anglo-Indian mother put peroxide on her sons' faces to keep them fair, till her British husband put a stop to it.  Often (as in the case of Mr Blackford's mother), fair-skinned white-looking Anglo-Indians tanned very easily, and in another family (Ootacamund, South India, c. 1975), an Irish lady pointed out that in the case of a white (part-Belgian) mother and mixed-race son (who was not technically an Anglo-Indian, since Anglo-Indianness goes in the male line), even though the mother called herself a "white native", occasionally wore a sari and had had three Indian husbands, both mother and son were both very careful to wear hats and keep themselves as rugged-up from the sun as they could, for just this reason (which applied more to the son).   

Such families invented explanations for a certain swarthiness which ran from a dusky "old rose" colouring to various shades of ordinary Indian brown or black ("two black, and two white and two khaki", in the words of the limerick).  But is there an Indian connection to these explanations, too, as there is for the distinct tradition of Anglo-Indian food?  

1. The family of R. B., who wishes to remain anonymous for the sake of his family, born in England in 1964, do not identify themselves as "Anglo-Indian".  R. B. knew that his mother was born in India and immigrated to England in 1948, and that some of her family was still in Calcutta.  When he asked as a young child why part of his family was various shades of) dark-coloured, he was told that the family was cursed in the nineteenth century in India, a curse which should have ended with his grandmother's generation.  In later years he was told that the family was of Maltese descent, with one set of family papers mentioning a Maltese ancestress, others mentioning a "wife unknown" for what seemed to be the same ancestress.  His British wife then raised the question of his origins --- of Indian accent, "Indian" hands and other features.  Other, more reliable family papers, traced via another relative's lead and then research in the British Library, had an Indian Christian ancestress where the Maltese had been, one with a non-Indian European-style first name and sans maiden surname.  R. B. found that his family in India emphasised being British at every opportunity that they could get, and a newly-found and hitherto unknown female relative in England laughed and said she did not know where the family colouring came from, when she was asked.  When R. B. told his grandmother about his findings, she put forward the claim that family were "Domiciled Europeans, not Anglo-Indians" (i.e. part of a racially unmixed category, born and bred in India, a category which has no legal status, but which was insisted upon by those in India who did not wish to be considered "mixed-race" and named as "Anglo-Indian".  There are also other related terms, sometimes ambiguously used, like "Anglo-Indian" to indicate British-in-India and also mixed-race, such as "native born" and "country born", while "country woman" in context seems to indicate only "brown/black native", as do the obsolete "Indo Briton" and the term, contentious in South Asia though not Malaysia and Singapore, "Eurasian").  However R. B.'s grandmother recognised (and was shy about) her accent as "chi-chi".   

2.  Ms Joy Chase, now of California, says that dark Anglo-Indians were told things like her "uncle Len Shepherd, born around 1925 in Wellington, South India, [who] was told that his mother had too many iron pills during her pregnancy." 

3.  Mr Warren O'Rourke, now of Canada, says, "In India, other fabrications were invented to explain away a dark skin, for example the one that when he or she was a baby, the baby was oiled with mustard oil and left out in the sun for medical reasons, and that this resulted in darkened pigment".  He further says, "I used to keep a bottle of this mustard oil, just for the aroma, for in my home in India (Bihar, in the north) I was rubbed down with mustard oil when I had a cold. The remembrance of my chest being rubbed as a child is part of the pleasure."

4. It was on seeing Mr O'Rourke's sentences that a forgotten childhood memory came back to me, who am not mixed-race (but minority community Indian Christian), that the mustard-oil story was the very one my light-brown paternal grandmother told my fair-skinned mother --- probably at the time of her marriage (in 1951) --- about her son, my very dark-brown father: that when he was born, the midwife rubbed him with mustard oil and put him in the sun (i.e. so that the "naturally light" pigmentation then darkened and was "baked in" to him). My grandmother did not seem to think it relevant that her husband was very dark too, at this point, though she did recognise it at others.  She remarked, for example, that (in the 1930s or 1940s) a (European) photographer who was leaving India offered to pay off a debt to her husband by enlarging and colouring two photographs for them, one of her carrying a parasol, the other, their wedding photograph (of the early 1920s).   Much to their surprise, he did send back the two photographs, in which he left my grandmother pretty well left as she was (though he lightened her colouring somewhat), but systematically straightened the rounded lines of her husband's face and painted it peaches and cream, in effect turning him into something very like a white man (as a favour?). It was still recognisably my grandfather, but equally recognisably someone else altogether. My father, I think, thought that in his youth his father had been fair.   My grandmother threw away all her original photographs in what seems to have been a fit of spite in 1977, but the coloured enlargements still exist, in my keeping, so that the alterations along these lines can be proven. 

5. Hence, it is possible that Anglo-Indians and Indian Christians picked this tale up from each other, or from other Indians, who are notoriously fixated on fair skinned  "beauty" (be it thought of as Aryan or high-caste or Arabic/Persian/Turkish).  Only twice in my life have I heard of two fair-skinned Indian girls spoken of as "unprepossessing" or "ugly").

6.  When I told my informants of how (at least some) Indians shared this lore with (quite distinct) Anglo-Indians, Mr O'Rourke said that British control of power went some way to explaining Anglo-Indian pretence, that these pretences might have worked abroad but never in India, where in true Indian style, friends and neighbours would know family backgrounds.  Ms Chase remarked, "Maybe I'm so light because my mother massaged me with olive oil instead of mustard, huh?"  She also noted that in the USA, she is constantly asked which half is British and which Indian, that people are not horses or dogs and so pedigree is only interesting on paper, that blood is all red, not blue, and that the Anglo-Indian search for a romantic Indian princess ancestress who was grabbed from the burning funeral pyre of her husband's burning funeral is exciting but didn't happen very often. Her own research shows that when the British married locally they mostly married the mixed Christian women of Dutch or Portuguese ancestry.



R______. B______.  "Blue-eyed and Brown-skinned: Uncovering a Hidden Past in a Quest for Identity", 8-page personal memoir, 2001. 

Stan Blackford, One Hell of a Life: An Anglo-Indian Wallah's Memoirs from the Last Decade of the Raj.  Fulham Gardens, South Australia: privately printed, 2000. 

Joy Chase, initial comments, made in public posts to the India listserve, August 2001, amplified in email to me, 2002.

Warren O'Rourke, Memoir, full length, in progress, sent to me 2001-2002. 



Cite Unseen -

Back by popular demand


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FTN needs your contributions!

Please send me news, queries, research notes, clippings, calls for papers, book and movie reviews, or notes about local rumor and legend cycles for inclusion in FTN.




Next Issue Out:

December 2002


FoafTale News (FTN) is the newsletter of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.  We study "modern" and "urban" legends, and also any legend circulating actively.  To join, send a cheque made out to "ISCLR" for US$30.00 or UK£18 to Mark Glazer, Arts & Sciences, University of Texas - Pan-American, Edinburgh TX 78539-2999, USA for North American subscriptions, or Sandy Hobbs, ASS Department, University of Paisley, Paisley, Scotland, PA1 2BE for European subscriptions. Institutional rates available upon request.  Members also receive Contemporary Legend, a refereed academic journal.  Most back issues of FTN are available from the Editor at a charge of US$3 each.   FoafTale News is indexed in the MLA Bibliography.


This newsletter is called FoafTale News for the jocular term current among legend scholars for over twenty years.  The term "foaf" was introduced by Rodney Dale (in his 1978 book, The Tumour in the Whale) for an oft-attributed but anonymous source of contemporary legends: a "friend of a friend."  Dale pointed out that contemporary legends always seemed to be about someone just two or three steps from the teller  — a boyfriend’s cousin, a co‑worker’s aunt, or a neighbor of the teller’s mechanic.  "Foaf" became a popular term at the Sheffield legend conferences in the 1980s.   It was only a short step to the pun "foaftale," a step taken by a yet-anonymous wag. 


FoafTale News welcomes contributions, including those documenting legends” travels on electronic media and in the press.  All research notes and articles are copyright by the individual authors who reserve all rights.  For permission to reprint, contact them at the addresses given in the headnote of the article. Send queries, notices, and research reports to a maximum of 3000 words to the Editor; clippings, offprints, and citations are also encouraged.


The opinions expressed in FoafTale News are those of the authors and do not in any necessary way represent those of the editor, the contributing compilers, the International Society for the Study of Contemporary Legends, its Council, or its members.


Editor:  Mikel J. Koven, Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies, Parry-Williams, Building, Penglais Campus, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, United Kingdom, SY23 2AJ

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ISSN 1026-1001