Thursday, October 02, 2008

Raj Redux







Part I - From British Raj to Cadre Raj


Which is the best Club in India? You’d instinctively think that it must be one of those venerable institutions of Calcutta – once, allegedly, regarded as the second city of the Empire. And, being a Bengali (a ‘pseudo Bong’ - nevertheless) you’d expect me to say that too, if nothing - simply out of regional chauvinism. But, my vote would go elsewhere.

True the Bengal Club – once the residence of Lord Macaulay (click here to read the heritage of the Club) - still retains an imperial air. Though age and decline in fortunes are clearly discernable there is something very sublime and charming about it . The corridors are often adorned with Trade Union posters blending the past and the present beautifully – a testimony to the changing times, the transition from British Raj to Marxist Cadre Raj. And, on a good day - especially if you are with Ram Ray ( an acknowledged gourmand turned gourmet and the Chairman of the club's F & B Committee)– no club can beat their food (just as Ram’s friend Shobu Banerjee would say of the service at Calcutta Club on the ‘blue-moon’ night of their Foundation Day dinner). The ‘Abdars’ pamper you with their gentle fawning. The recent addition of facilities such as the health club and a pub has injected some new vibrancy and, I hope, would contribute to its long-term financial stability too (In the 70s, the Club had to sell off part of its prime property at the Chowringhee end, where a monstrous commercial high-rise came up, to avert a financial crisis) -though, I for one would have preferred to see more of “restoration” rather than “renovation” of such a grand heritage property. But, at times, one does wonder if it's in danger of becoming a “Calcutta Club – Mark II” , to appropriate another Aveek Sarkar quip.

the last Bastion of Bhadraloks

Well no one can question the aristocratic (“bonedi”) antecedents of The Calcutta Club ( click here ) – so what if it strikes you as a societal rendition of Ray’s Jalsaghar (click here for synposis and critique)– an extension of the “baithak khana” of a North Calcutta zamindar residence (read “Rajbaris), which had obviously seen better days. The bearers running after you to the car – to collect their tips – kind of completes the picture. Swapan Dasgupta wrote a wonderful piece in a Mumbai paper (click here to read full article) couple of years back – on what is probably the last surviving bastion of the “bhadralok” Bengalis (though, I think it is grossly unfair to compare its membership profile with that of the Mohun Bagan Club {click here} - another much loved institution of the North Calcutta 'ghotis').

(Flag hoisting ceremony at The Calcutta Club on Independence day)

This Club too has seen a wave of “renovation” ( euphemistically called - 'face-lift') over the last couple of years as it celebrated its centenary. But, it was more like fixing a “pace-maker” on a septuagenarian (that’s the modal age of members – almost half of whom are, incidentally, doctors and surgeons with lawyers forming another large chunk) not an open-heart surgery. But, if Bengal Club is a club with a soul, then Calcutta Club is definitely a club with a heart - as is evident in the frenetic electioneering every July. Sometimes, I think the Club exists only for the Annual Elections – as it provides vicarious gratification to the seeds of political aspirations lying dormant at a sub-conscious level in every true Bengali. That’s why it’s often said that; there hasn’t been a Bengali President of the country (Pranab Mukherjee and Somnath Chatterjee came precariously close to busting this theory) – because the Bengalis ambition ends with becoming the President of Calcutta Club. But, all is forgiven and nothing else matters when on a wintry evening - sitting on the verandah – you dig into a diced chicken cutlet while savoruing a pot of fine Darjeeling, brewed just right.

a bar with a cricket field

The CCFC ( The Calcutta Cricket & Fotball Club, click here for history) , my personal favourite, was great fun as long as long as it stayed true to its original charter of being “a Bar with a Cricket Field attached”. But, it was on the verge of losing its 200 year old mandate when the reins passed from the “chai-wallahs” to the new “corporate” honchos and business barons – who converted the banquet hall on the first floor (witness to many a ball and brawl over the years) to a restaurant and enclosed the front terrace to make a post-colonial glass paneled bar overlooking the grounds. But, the old bar downstairs is still the best in town and my friend Ansar – the head bar tender – proudly claims, his Bloody Mary and Fresh Lime Soda are “international famous”(sic). And certainly it is the most youthful, sporty and happy club in the city.

The Tolly’s ( to read about the Tollygunge Club click here) pride is, of course, the Golf Course with its pack of tame jackals. But the food remains indifferent and at night the club takes a near deserted look, except on evenings when there is a reception at the ‘Far Pavilion’ regularly let out for weddings and other social functions. It’s the current favourite of the new Corporate set and rightfully so – with the best sports facilities in the city. No wonder it is the most professionally managed club in the city – with a CEO who is actually allowed to function by the elected committee members (the President decided by consensus). But, still it would not get my top vote.


Part II - A Journey Down South


The degeneration of the clubs of Calcutta can be naturally linked to its altered economic and commercial status of the city , after the demise of the Merchant Houses and the exodus of large multi-national companies through the 70s and 80s. But, economic affluence alone can’t make a club great – as one would easily realize entering the haloed precincts of the Delhi Gymkhana, once a quintessential Raj establishment. The unseemly fracas over the Presidential elections last year, which was covered in the main-stream dailies (click here for full story) with a repeat of sorts again this time around (click here ) proves the point.


Sarkar(i) Raj

A stronghold of bureaucrats and service officers – I remember the time when the club’s Bars were sealed after an Excise raid engineered by a CBEC Member who had lost the elections. (It was a fact that, they hadn’t renewed the Bar License for over 10 years – perhaps, not feeling the need to do so with all of Delhi’s bureaucratic top brass being members). On another occasion – in a Ghulam Ali concert the audience continued to chomp kebabs and guzzle their drink – with the maestro singing away like a hired performer in a shaadi. Those of us, who waited till the end of the programme , found that there was no food left and had to head out for Pandara Road to grab some dinner.

(But, I am sure it’s any day better than the Orai Club - in the boondocks of Uttar Pradesh. A colleague, who was posted there as Manager of a new HLL unit, was asked on applying for Membership - if he possessed a gun-license. Apparently, it was unsafe to enter the club in the evenings without a gun).

The Delhi Golf Club remains the capital’s only saving grace.


Capitalists at their best


(Bombay Gym - Photo Archive)


Bombay’s obsession with pace is inimical to the development of a true club culture, which has to be, by definition, slow and unhurried. The Bombay, Gym (click here for history), the Cricket Club of India (CCI) the Willingdon are all great clubs with fantastic properties at prime locations – but are too busy and crowded for my liking. At the CCI especially – the restaurants (the quality of food and service will match any first-rate eatery or 5 Star in town) are so packed and loud they don’t feel like a club at all. But, none can match them in overall upkeep and the range of facilities, all smacking of Mumbai’s hallmark efficiency.


(the majestic facade of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club)

The only club with a leisurely - and yet not totally laid-back - culture, that retains much of its pristine ambience – is the Yacht Club ( click here for history) and I try to get there as often as I can.


Bangalore has become too cosmopolitan to have a homogenous club culture of its own. At the Bangalore Club, therefore, there is no clear dominant set. Apart from the city’s classy old Kannadiga gentry, there are the planters from Coorg and Chikmagalur, the moneyed (but highly refined) Magaloreans and, of course, the ubiquitous Malyalis and the affluent Syrian Christian community. Then there are the new Czars and Czarinas of IT / Bio-tech; and the late migrants from all over the country – who have built their post-retirement nest in this ‘Garden City’. All told – the Club, despite its very good facilities (but passable food) has a somewhat mixed character.


Up in the Hills


The clubs in the Hill-Stations – conceived primarily as holiday destinations or watering holes for the local planters – fall in a different category altogether, quite distinct from their city-bred cousins. Of them, the 127 year old, The Club at Mahabaleshwar (click here for more) has best preserved its heritage and an aura of history – while making the necessary concessions for modern-day comforts and amenities. It is everything a good club ought to be (except that – for some odd reason - it no longer has a bar). The Kasauli Club – is a quaint little gem tucked away in the Himalayan foot-hills on the way to Shimla. Being a Cantonment and an Air-force station, both Kasauli and the club has remained largely untouched by marauding crowds from Delhi, Chandigarh and the plains of Punjab.

In the Nilgiris, The High-Range Club in Munnar, once an almost exclusive domain of Tata Tea executives, ranks high. My personal favourite is the Wellington Club in upper Coonoor. Sitting outside the cottage, feet up with a book and a glass of gin on the side – occasionally staring across the lush green golf course is the stuff my ideal holidays are made of. But, it’s perhaps only appropriate that the real Queen of the Hill-Clubs
should be located in ‘Queen of Hill Stations’. The Ootacamund Club in Ooty defies comparison in its grandeur and elegance.

familiar but not obtrusive & baked crabs

That brings me to my last stop – the Madras Club in Chennai. It has kept up with the times without losing its class or character. The staff are efficient and courteous without being, in the least, obsequious.

To me a club is not just a place to meet friends, drink swim and, now also gym, – but it’s meant to transport you to a mental ‘space’ somewhere between home and work. It’s a state of mind, which makes that fine difference between being in one’s living room, a bar or a restaurant. It’s a place where you feel at home – without being home. So it’s the attitude of the members – familiar but not obtrusive – which defines the culture of a club. The members of the Madras Club have an understated and quiet dignity, which I find most impressive.

They make a mean and cheesy baked-crab - the best I have had, which would give even the Bengal Club stiff competition. Try it when you are in Chennai next time – even at the risk of your cholesterol shooting up by several points. You wont regret it - I guarantee.