London Calling: How does India look from afar? Looming world power or dysfunctional democracy? And what’s happening in Britain, and the West, that India needs to know about and perhaps learn from? This fortnightly column helps forge the connections so essential in our globalising world.
It’s been a hotter ticket than Taylor Swift. For the past few weeks, a hidden away Indian restaurant in central London – famed more for its formica tables than its food – has been inundated with customers wanting one last lamb bhuna (roast), masala dosa or fish curry.
When word spread that the India Club was closing for good after 70 years, it caused more shock and sadness than if the Rolling Stones had split up. The queues have stretched all the way down the narrow flights of stairs; the bar could barely keep up with the demand for Cobras and Kingfishers; everyone wanted to take personal leave of a place which bore so many memories.
I first went to the India Club more than 40 years ago, when I started working across the road at Bush House, then the home of the BBC World Service. It was an oasis of calm amid the clamour of the city. It was also a point of connection with a sepia-tinged world of Indian nationalist students and the optimism of the independence era. The dated décor, the modest prices, the portrait photo of former defence minister of India V.K. Krishna Menon on the wall, all spoke of the history of the institution and its importance as a link between India and those Brits who wished the nation well.
Thanks to the Marker family, who have run the club for almost thirty years, it has continued to flourish. The food was better than ever, the restaurant was always busy and the bar too was in demand. The India Club was not a failing institution. But the property is owned by a company intent on disembowelling the building and making it deliver a bigger financial return. So out with the past; in with the profit.
The India Club shut down permanently on Sunday (September 17). A sad day. Many of its customers regard this as an act of cultural vandalism.
‘To me, it’s a very personal connection’, says Londoner Smita Tharoor. ‘My father was one of the founder members in 1951. It’s my dad’s history that’s disappearing forever, and it’s painful.’
Chandran Tharoor was a newspaper man who spent much of the 1950s based in London. When he returned to London in the 1980s and popped in to the India Club for a curry, he commented: ‘it looks exactly like when I left in ’58!’ There was a timeless quality about the place. That was part of its charm. Smita Tharoor, who hosts the ‘Stories Seldom Told’ podcast, had a last supper in the club in the past week. So have hundreds of other moist-eyed well-wishers.
‘The closure of the India Club is a sad reflection on the victory of capital over heritage’, says William Gould, professor of Indian History at the University of Leeds. ‘The club was one of the most important sites for Europe’s largest diaspora from South Asia. It was a home away from home for new arrivals to the city for around 70 years, and hosted many of the communities’ cultural, artistic, political and social events.’
A few years ago, Gould prepared a report about the history of the building and the club to make the case that it should be regarded as a historically important site and protected from redevelopment. The building which houses the club was earlier the office of the India League, the exceptionally effective pro-independence lobby group led by Krishna Menon. It was where India’s national case was developed and promulgated in the imperial capital.
The India League helped establish the India Club, which counted Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten among its founder members. The proximity of King’s College, the London School of Economics and the Indian high commission provided a steady stream of keen, if impecunious, customers. From its inception, it has also been a hang-out for Indian journalists based in London. Over the years, its clientele changed from being mainly Indian to principally white British, but it retained an eclectic mix of habitues.
The club was initially based nearby and moved to its enduring home, 143 The Strand, in the mid-1950s. The building is well over a 100 years old, and still has much of its original stained glass, tiles and fittings. Eating there really was like travelling back into another era.
Part of the magic of the India Club was that it was a shared secret. It got hardly any passing trade. There was a door marked Hotel Strand Continental, and sometimes a board advertising Indian food, leading into a staircase so dark and serpentine as to repel all but the most intrepid. But the adventurous got their reward. The bar, cosy and (usually) genteel, was on the first floor. You had to trudge up another echoing flight of stairs to reach the restaurant.
Older customers can remember the shudder of disapproval in earlier days when you sought to order a beer in the restaurant. You were sent downstairs to the bar to carry up your own bottles. Others recall the legendary Doris, a formidable bar lady who took it upon herself to decide how much her customers should drink. As the India Club’s own website proclaims, it was always ‘charmingly eccentric’.
Now, that charm has been lost and a cultural connection ruptured. The club is looking for alternative space nearby, but even if it succeeds the spirit of the institution cannot easily be conjured up in a new home.
But in the closing days of the club, the mood among diners and drinkers was irrepressibly upbeat. After all, it’s more important to celebrate what you have had than to mourn what you are losing.
Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India Correspondent.