In 1996, after climbing up a steep staircase, I first entered the India Club in London with my friends Anjali Mody and Rathin Roy — one is a formidable journalist and the other is now recognised as a leading economist — both bibliophiles. Roy made me sign up in a register and pay one pound sterling to become a member of the club.
There was an old English lady behind the bar across the elevated table where the register sat. She looked at me and said: “Paid your quid, yeah?” I politely nodded my head. The historic photographs from the times of Indian and Pakistani independence hanging on the walls instantly grabbed my interest.
That one quid membership literally meant nothing but access to a small inner room with wallpapers coming off and some dilapidated lounging sofas, which I or my other friends who visited the place seldom used. The small outer room, with a bar like a narrow tuck shop, also had some tables and chairs laid out.
Only low-priced British and Indian alcohol with some PG Tips or Tetley’s teabags and barely drinkable instant coffee were on offer. Some years later, that register vanished and so did the old lady. Legend has it that she was a friend of Krishna Menon’s — the Indian academic, politician and diplomat under Nehru. She had tended that bar for decades before younger people were given the task.
Just above the bar and lounging area, there is a restaurant on the second floor. It serves lentils, meat and vegetable dishes of various sorts, with different varieties of rice and bread. All were reasonably priced compared to other South Asian eateries in central London.
Perhaps this marketing decision was made to include students and scholars from colleges in the surrounding area among the patrons. The India Club — until its closure this month on September 17, 2023 — is situated on The Strand and at a walking distance from King’s College, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Birkbeck College. It is a stone’s throw from the famous Bush House, where the BBC World Service was located until some years ago.
Between the time I started frequenting the Club in the 1990s until now, both the first and second floors of the Club were regularly occupied by academics, scholars, students, BBC broadcasters from different language services (until the time BBC was in Bush House), poets and writers. In some sense, it was similar to the Pak Tea House in Lahore, or the erstwhile Zelin’s Coffee House in Karachi.
However, the Club was international in character. It brought together some of the finest minds from across South Asia, the UK and beyond, to have a beer or a cup of tea together, while discussing books and ideas which ranged from philosophy and history to sociology and literature.
With the effort led by Menon, The India Club was founded in 1951 as an exclusive gathering place by some former prominent individuals of the Subcontinent’s freedom movement. Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten are included in its founding members. Sometime after being established, it became open to all.
For the last few decades, it was owned by Yadgar Marker, supported by his daughter Phiroza. Marker happens to be a Zoroastrian from Karachi. Since I was a regular, we started recognising each other. He was extra nice to me after learning that he and I shared the same birthplace. A few years ago, Marker told me that they were running a signature campaign against the local council’s decision to demolish the building of the Hotel Strand Continental, within which the Club is housed. He succeeded in staving off the demolition that time.
From the 1990s to the 2010s, it was at the India Club that Prof Amin Mughal and I would get together every few days and then invite other friends, such as Masooda Bano (who would come from Oxford regularly to meet us), Arif Azad, Wusatullah Khan, Arif Waqar, Shahid Malik and Mazhar Zaidi.
On occasions, Jim Roth and Usman Qazi would also join us from Manchester. Heated debates on South Asian history, economy, politics, language, literature and journalism, would end up dissecting everyone — from Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru to Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Shaikh Mujeebur Rehman. Prof Mughal’s breadth of knowledge and classical erudition would bring together elements as scattered as Gandhian economics to Marxist class analysis to subaltern studies into the discussions. Each conversation had to end with curry and rice.
All major political and literary figures, besides personal friends visiting from India or Pakistan, were invited and had their share of flavours and thoughts. Leading Punjabi poets Amarjit Chandan and Mazhar Tirmazi have read their poems to us for hours at the Club.
The now-former advocate-general of Punjab and Haryana in India with a penchant for Urdu poetry, Rajinder Singh Cheema, spoke at length there about the Partition, interspersed with classical and modern verses. After an evening with poet Fahmida Riaz at the LSE, we took her to the Club for dinner. In later years, academic friends such as Adnan Sattar, Nadir Cheema and Tariq Suleman would also join us. There are so many more memorable evenings that come to my mind. So many other people will have similar memories of their own.
It was over a number of meals in the Club that my friend and co-author Rohini Kohli conceptualised the idea of writing a book of creative non-fiction on the ideas of separation and belonging, in the context of 1947 and 1971. We ended up adding in a real-life story of one of the Bangladeshi waiters at the Club, Khalid, whose name was changed in the book.
The Club will soon be no more. But as my friend Robert Nieuwenhuijs, who also frequented the place, puts it: “Sad news, but happy memories remain.”
The writer is a poet and essayist.
He has recently edited Pakistan Here
and Now: Insights Into Society, Culture,
Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection
of verse is Hairaa’n Sar-i-Bazaar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2023