Eating at the Tollygunge Club (Calcutta, Jan 2020)

I finished up with my Goa reports from January two weeks ago. All that remains from that India trip are a few reports from Calcutta, which is where we went directly from Goa. We were there for just short of a week for a family wedding. For the first few days we were put up at one of Calcutta’s many hoity toity private clubs, the Tollygunge Club. The father of the bride is an ex-president of the club and set this option up for everyone from the bride’s side of the family who wished to partake. This was an opportunity I was all too glad to seize as I’ve had a morbid fascination with these clubs since I was a young boy—never having seen the inside of any except the Tolly on a few occasions as a teen, as the guest of either said ex-president of the club or of wealthy classmates from the boarding school I went to in Darjeeling in the 80s.

Calcutta, as you may know, was the capital of British India till the second decade of the 20th century and anglophone Bengalis haven’t gotten over it yet. Anglophone Bengalis, it should be said, is more or less a synonym for anglophile Bengalis—Nirad C. Chaudhuri once quipped that the last Englishman would almost certainly be a Bengali. It’s a truism that all over India there isn’t the kind of anti-English sentiment that you might expect from an ex-colonized country for its colonizers, and there really isn’t much anti-English sentiment in Calcutta. The English pulled off the neat trick of passing on aspirational neo-colonialism with independence and elite westernized Indians slid very quickly and seamlessly into the spaces of cultural power previously occupied by the English. Colonial English clubs famously had signs reading “dogs and Indians not allowed” and as late as 2007 the Tolly Club had a sign reading “dogs and ayahs not allowed” (ayah=maid). Englishness itself occupies the space of the exotic in India, rather than serving as a locus of resentment. This was/is perhaps most evident in the high colonial cities like Calcutta, Bombay and later Delhi—or for that matter in Singapore and doubtless many other ex-colonial cities in the world. And nowhere more so than in private clubs like the Tollygunge Club, or the Tolly Club as it is popularly known.

The Tolly Club is not quite as old money hoity toity as either the Bengal Club—whose history dates back to the early 1800s and which didn’t allow Indian members till well after independence—or the Calcutta Club—which was set up primarily to allow prominent Indians to have a club they could join since the Bengal Club wouldn’t let them in. It is nonetheless pretty exclusive—with the waiting list for a membership now past 15 years—and has a niche of its own, being more of a country club with sprawling grounds and sports facilities that the clubs located in the heart of the city do not have. I had drinks with some of my boarding school friends towards the end of our stay who are members at a few of these clubs and they said that while the Bengal Club and the Calcutta Club are indeed more hallowed, their membership is also much older and the atmosphere much stuffier. The Tolly, on the other hand, is altogether looser.

In my childhood and teens I always felt like an awkward impostor on the few occasions I visited the Tolly as a guest. While some members of my mother’s side of the family were/are well-off, my parents were solidly middle class. And while we aspired to and longed to be able to inhabit spaces like this, our experiences of them were glancing. We looked and sounded the part but didn’t really have the money to have more than a drink or a few snacks; and we certainly couldn’t aspire to a membership at the Tolly Club. And so I will not deny that I was both interested in an anthropological sense and also excited to finally make it inside the club proper, so to speak, armoured with the confidence of American money. What did I find?

For one thing, a much larger club than I remembered. At some point the hotel-like residential section in which we were staying was constructed—I believe it’s a major source of income now. The rest of the club has also been spruced up. The club as a whole seems also to have become more Indianized than I remembered with a smaller percentage of people, seemingly, who might be talking about “the Days of the Raj” at the bar—well, I guess I’m now 50, not 15, and most of those people are dead. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an utterly elite space—with large signs prohibiting the presence of members’ domestic help in all but one prescribed area of the club—but it felt far less late-Victorian than it did even in the 1980s. Unlike some similar storied clubs—in Calcutta and elsewhere—the Tolly allows some Indian dress—though you’re not allowed a kurta/pajama combination or un-strapped chappals. Actual enforcement, I suppose, may be only as firm as that of the proscription on tipping (which is in fact openly rampant). We had dinner on the first night at the club restaurant, the Belvedere, and while it’s a flash colonial-style dining room with a “continental” menu to match, breakfast every day—in the Tipu Sultan room—was altogether Indian; and there were wedding events happening on the grounds just as in large hotels.

We didn’t really partake of any of the major attractions of the club; well, the missus got an Ayurvedic massage but the outdoor swimming pool was bone-chillingly cold while the heated indoor pool was full of leathery old men swimming in the lanes. And I’ve never developed an interest in tennis or golf or horseback riding or, for that matter, in drinking during the day—the word is that one of the club’s bars is the largest consumer of Johnnie Walker Red in the world. So it was all probably more than a bit wasted on me. We did like our rooms though and now that the number of aunts and uncles we would normally insult by not staying with drops every year, it’s quite likely that if/when we return to Cal we’ll try to fix up another stay here (it’s very cheap compared to hotels with similar amenities).

On our first night, as I said, we ate at the Belvedere. Having arrived on the evening flight from Goa, and having endured evening rush hour traffic from the airport to the club, we were in no mood to go back out to the city proper for dinner, and in any case I was intrigued to see what the Belvedere experience would be like. Well, on the whole, it was more interesting in a cultural sense than in a culinary sense. In saying so, I don’t mean to insult people who enjoy going to the Belvedere to eat its version of what in India is called Continental food—a strange colonial simulacrum that has been updated a few times: there’s now Thai papaya salad and a lot of pasta on the menu at the Belvedere, for instance, as well as an alleged Coorgi mutton dish. The food is not bad—not even the mutton, which I ordered, and which tasted like it was a recipe passed down by the kitchen of a colonial Englishman stuck in Coorg but not able to handle spice, but was nonetheless tasty in its own way. But it’s also not very good. There’s better—though no less weird—Continental food to be had in Cal, and we had some a few days later. On the whole, we much preferred the Indian dishes at the breakfast buffet in the mornings.

I don’t know how interesting any of this is for you—he said after writing more than 1000 words—but if it is take a closer look at what the food and some of these spaces look like.

Next from Calcutta: a very good Indian Chinese lunch in Tangra. More on that next week.


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