Sunday, May 27, 2007

the last posts of the british empire














bombay gymkhana,calcutta club and the bangalore club(bus club) enjoy enviable reputations.they all belong to the same genre.clubs formed in the late nineteenth century by englishmen,of englishmen and for englishmen. a home away from home. plush lawns,swimming pools,tennis and badminton courts,reading rooms,siesta rooms,change rooms,cards rooms,banquet halls,etc.etc. and not to forget the 'men's only' bar.

a place where the family would come together, and each would mind his/her own business. the children would quickly melt away with the other children-hollering and playing in the huge expanses .the women would sit together and gossip and the men would play football,cricket,tennis and even rugby and then move around naked in the washrooms and later head to the bar for a moderately priced "scotch" or a draft beer. if the lady felt like staying over, they would even dine in the club and return home just when the club doors were being shut.

at one time meant exclusively for englishmen with strict dress codes and rules and regulations for members,these clubs have literally become the last posts of the british empire.they have very strict membership rules and applicants are interviewed by a balloting committee with balloting committee members having the power to 'blackball' any of the candidates.to become a member was an achievement. something one could proudly add to one's resume. for some members getting into the managing committee was a burning ambition and when that did happen the wives ended up throwing more weight than their spouses. our brown sahibs literally became more british than the britishers. heard quite often in the cloak room,"bearer,garam pani milenga?".

when i was about eight years old i was initiated into the club culture. my father took me to the calcutta club where he was a member.that was my first contact with this imperial institution.i would 'knock' for half an hour every morning with the club's tennis 'marker' as those who taught youngsters and played with members were called.his name was idris.the old man would call it a day after the allotted time of half an hour by saying "aaj hog"(suffice for the day).a humble equivalent of a coach, the marker would teach you how to grip the racket,volley and serve.and play with you from the opposite side and leave you to play with other members once you had reached a certain standard.

the calcutta club is an elite club and its members are the 'creme de la creme' of calcutta's professional and business community.it has strict dresscodes.e.g.shorts not permitted other than on tennis,squash and badminton courts.no to kurta and pyjama.ditto kurta and trouser.shirt with dhoti follows the same fate.except with dhoti,chappals are not permisssible.shirts should be buttoned up.t shirts without collar not allowed and jeans in the evening not permitted.and certain hours beyond which children are not allowed to stay on.till a few months back men were supreme with membership restrictions on women.the all-male bastion,this 100 year-old club will now start admitting women too as members in their own right.

when my father was transferred to bombay, he became a member of the bombay gymkhana. he was a keen tennis player.his tennis was above club standard but he would play only with the marker with whom he would have made a prior booking.just for 30 minutes.he would then pack off.he hardly visited the club for any other business excepting for his monthly haircut. many members even now make their appearance in the club for their monthly 'crop'.i used to accompany him for many years with my tennis racket and later became a junior member and after i completed my studies and started earning,i became a fulltime member.i have been a member for nearly 40 years now.bombay gymkhana was my second home.it used to be my fuelling station.situated almost at midpoint between our home at churchgate and the victoria terminus station from where i would take a local train to bhandup about 28 kms from vt station to work.baked beans on toast, or tea no1,or plain mint tea in the mornings.in the evenings after a good workout it would be a drink at the bar to unwind after a hard day's work.

later when i was posted to bangalore i became a member of the bangalore club known those days as the bangalore united services club(bus club).our family has spent so much time here that each one of us can write a book on our memories and experiences. when l was four,she nearly got drowned in the club's swimming pool.luckily, i was playing in the tennis court just ten feet away. she later learnt swimming and won many competitions in school.draft beer was a novelty then and the united breweries was so close to the bangalore club that we would joke that draft beer was available on the pipeline.there were lots of get-togethers; the main ones being the x'mas eve dance and the new year's eve dance. the club culture has bitten l and h too who frequent the club often during their free time for sports and socialising.

the ice is melting in all these clubs. slowly but surely. calcutta club which did not extend an invitation to the west bengal governor gopalkrishna gandhi's wife tara for a particular event because of her sex or khuswant singh was not allowed entry to madras club because he wore a chappal or maqbool fida hussain,the worldfamous painter was stopped at the bombay gymkhana gate because he was barefeet are all history. the rigid rules have been relaxed, women have got voting rights and can become committe members and dress codes are not stuffy anymore. these clubs,i might say have become a bit broader in outlook. finding themselves unviable due to poor footfall and restricted membership, they have opened the doors for company-sponsored members with huge admission fees. club shops have become very modern and some of the clubs have even leased their shop spaces to famous retail houses. gyms have been spruced up with the latest fitness machines,steam and sauna and beauty salons.

lord winston churchill who served the british army was posted for a brief period in bangalore.he was a frequent visitor to the bar and a bill of rs 13 remains unpaid by him.the club's celebrity defaulter.shown in the book of accounts as "irrecoverable debts". prince charles had a hearty laugh when he was shown this list when he visited bangalore club several years ago.there were many englishmen who sent cheques to square up the account rather than see the ignoniminy of their former premier.bangalore club returned all the cheques.they preferred to have a celebrity defaulter.

'a passage to india' adaptation to a movie by david lean of the original book by e.m.forster had several shootings at the bangalore club.perhaps the famous 'mullagutawnny soup" originated here.that is what atleast some old waiters claim.mulagu in tamil is pepper and the soup is hot water mixed with pepper powder and rice.when this was offered to an englishman member,he was so delighted with the soup that he enquired of the waiter "what is this called?".the tamilian waiter promptly replied "milagu tanni,saar".

the bangalore club was built in the european classical or graeco roman style of architecture around 1868.while the bombay gymkhana was built around 1875 in a swiss chalet style club house and pavilion designed by john adams.the cost of construction was rs 18,625.the first ever test match in india was played in the bombay gymkhana grounds on 15th december 1933 lasting 4 days. several international rugby,badminton and squash tournaments have been held here .

bombay gymkhana will be celebrating its founders'day soon. perhaps the only club where cardplaying is forbidden. where young sportsmen are encouraged to excel in sports and membership is awarded on the strength of one's sporting credentials.after all the objective of the founding fathers was "to offer young sportsmen of small means the opportunity of indulging in their proclivities at a minimum cost to themselves and at a maximum production of enjoyment to the general public".

"koi sun raha hai?".

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