Old Clubs and Puddings : India Sheds Empire but Stays British

Times Staff Writer

Sunday morning services are under way at St. Stephen's Church here in the town they call the queen of the Nilgiri Hills. The Rev. Mark Benjamin ascends to the pulpit in the pseudo-Gothic chapel with Tuscan columns and a peaked roof.

Behind Benjamin is a plaque commemorating a fallen parishioner: "In memory of Richard William Preston, captain, 1st Bombay Grenadiers. Died June 1893. Drowned in the Kromund River while out hunting with the Ootacamund Hounds. Thy will be done."

"Let us pray," said Benjamin, clutching his Church of England Book of Common Prayer. The "national anthem" in his hymnal is still "God Save the Queen."

Little Piece of England

It has been 38 years since India cast off its yoke of imperialism and freed itself from British rule. But here, at 7,000 feet above sea level in the blue-green mountains of Tamil Nadu, at the very southern tip of India--where the British once flocked to escape the scorching heat of the plains--more than a little bit of England remains intact.

Except for the fact that Benjamin is an Indian Tamil with chocolate brown skin, like most of his congregation, the whole service in the little church this Sunday could have been lifted directly from the colonial past.

India has a reputation as a place that conquers its conquerors, eventually wearing them down with its fierce climate and huge numbers. But the British ruled here for more than 300 years, first through the auspices of the East India Co. and then directly. They made an impression that seems indelible.

Fiefdoms, Tribes, Castes

Before the empire, India was not a country but a motley, feuding collection of princely fiefdoms, tribes, castes and linguistic divisions. The British laid railroads connecting this vast land's various regions. They drafted armies to protect its borders and created a highly educated civil service to run the machinery of government.

Most important, perhaps, they provided English as a unifying national language where none had existed before; there are 800 native languages here. In doing so, they also created a model for a ruling class that has not changed since.

"They gave us our railways and our postal systems and our administration," said Ramkuri James, rector of St. Peter School in Ootacamund. "But they also gave us a spiritual heritage that we are also trying to maintain."

The result is that the edifice and artifice of the British raj--as depicted in the public television series "The Jewel in the Crown" and in "A Passage to India," the movie based on E.M. Forster's novel--have not disappeared here but have been adapted to serve the Indian ruling class.

There are reminders of England everywhere.

India's two most passionately and expertly pursued sports are cricket and field hockey, brought by the British. In these, the Indians long ago surpassed their teachers. Last week, India and Pakistan, the two main components of the old British raj, met in the finals of the world cup of cricket in Australia. India won. England had been eliminated in early competition.

A statue of Queen Victoria, orb and scepter in hand, still stares haughtily from its perch in central Bangalore, although she was removed from a cupola on the main government mall avenue, Raj Path, in New Delhi.

English and English manners and mostly English food are the mainstays of the Indian army officers' mess--part of a military establishment that may be more British in bearing than Britain's own armed forces these days. English is still the language of India's elite, even if only 3% of the population speaks it.

Hounds and Foxes

Down the hill from Ootacamund in the town of Wellington, the Army Command and Staff College still maintains the hounds and horses of the old British fox hunt. It is the only remaining hunt club in Asia.

Also, havens of elitism and the exclusivity of British colonial life are still open--the Tollygunge and Royal Turf clubs in Calcutta, the Gymkhana in New Delhi and the Ooty Club--popularly dubbed the "snooty Ooty" Club--here in the Nilgiris. In most cases, these institutions are almost perfectly preserved in colonial style, even without British members.

Instead of closing them as symbols of their oppression, Indians with money simply joined the private clubs, and today they are the center of upper-class social life, with few concessions made to local culture.

At the Ooty Club, a low-slung classical building fronted by four Ionic pillars, the wife of the club secretary warns Western visitors that on Sunday, rice and curry will be served for lunch that might be too spicy for their tastes. Normally, the fare is bland and British--bread pudding, meat pies and morning "bed teas" served by a silently efficient staff.

English journalist Trevor Fishlock wrote after sampling the heavy food of the Ooty Club:

"India is perhaps the last refuge of the freshly made British pudding. In its land of origin it has been largely displaced by ready-made desserts from supermarkets and the cruel demands of dieting. In India, belts may still be freed a notch for . . . plum duff, jam roly-poly, upside down pudding, suet pudding and others, all accompanied by thick custard."

In an almost empty dining room recently, guests at the club were served a meal of celery soup, cheese cauliflower, roast beef with horseradish and cabbage and a lemon chiffon pudding.

In the teak-paneled room, barely light enough to see the food, there was the impression of always being watched. The walls were decorated with fading photographs of English horsemen and sidesaddled horsewomen on handsome steeds.

Although the club has been in Indian hands for nearly four decades, there are no pictures of Indian riders or sportsmen on the walls. The only indications that the British have left are photographs of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and the posted names of recent Indian club presidents. This phenomenon is true of most of the old British clubs, not only in India but also in other former British territories now part of Pakistan and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon).

At the Madras Club in the capital of Tamil Nadu state and 1,200 miles away at the stately Sind Club in Karachi, Pakistan, the Financial Times of London--not a local newspaper--is prominent on the reading racks in the entry halls. The same English puddings served in the Ooty Club can be found in the isolated former British Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya in central Sri Lanka.

The result is that these institutions often resemble museums or shrines more than social gathering places. To be in them is to be where time has stopped.

At an Englishman's gravesite near New Delhi, Hindu worshipers have taken it a step further by leaving annual offerings of whisky bottles on his grave, seeking good fortune.

Stylistically at Odds

Despite their long rule here, the English never really seemed to be comfortable with their adopted land. With the exception of their last major architectural work--the viceroy's palace (now Rasthtrapati Bhavan, home of the Indian president) and the government complex in New Delhi, which is an adaptation of Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist architecture--most of the buildings they left behind seem grossly incongruous with the climate and culture.

In her study of imperial architecture in India, author Jan Morris contends that the British left more monuments to their rule than anyone since the Romans. Several stand out for their grandeur and inappropriateness.

The famous Victoria monument in Calcutta is a wedding cake of Italian statuary complete with smiling winged cherubs and gilded opulence that makes a mockery of the chronically depressed state of the city's wretched street-dwellers. Victoria Terminus, the main train station of steamy Bombay, is an Italianized Gothic structure with hundreds of gargoyles set behind two magnificent crouching lions.

In many cases, the "stones of empire" left by the British are no longer used for the purposes of their design. For example, the one-time official home of the British representative to the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, with its grand staircase and crystal chandelier, is now a college. St. Peter's Garrison Church, built in 1822 at Ft. William in Calcutta, was deconsecrated and is now used as a military library.

'Completely European'

The most sentimental and nostalgic of the buildings, designed with the express purpose of bringing a little bit of England to India, were built in the hill stations where the British imperialists went to escape the inhospitable Indian climate, sometimes taking their entire offices with them.

A famous hill station at Simla, in the Himalayan foothills north of New Delhi, abounds with mock Tudor and Gothic buildings--often miniatures of buildings at Oxford or Sussex.

But it was not just with architecture that the British attempted to re-create England. The well-maintained gardens at the Ooty Club are resplendent with giant stands of hollyhocks, canterbury bells, sweet pea, snapdragons and sweet william. Jersey cattle, imported more than a century ago, graze the meadows. Gorse bushes were brought in to make the roughs of the golf courses unpleasant in the same way they are in England.

Once established, the hill stations were celebrated as harbors of health. "A climate completely European. . . a tract of country which is so luxuriant and salubrious that it may justly be said to form an oasis amidst the arid plains of the peninsula of India . . . fully as bracing and strengthening as any part of Great Britain," one author wrote of the hill stations.

Now, instead of the English officers and tea plantation owners, it is the Indian gentlefolk who have homes in the old hill stations and belong to the gymkhanas and hunt clubs--and chase the golf balls through the gorse bushes.

"When I first came (to Ootacamund) in 1946, the Ooty Club was absolutely chockablock with British, mostly officers," said R.E. Maclaine Clarke, 78, a retired officer in the Royal Navy and a tea planter who lives with his wife and Alsatian dogs in the town of Fernhill nearby.

"Now you can count the Europeans here on the fingers of your hand--one hand."

In Ootacamund, once the queen of the hill stations, there are only half a dozen of what they call pukka (true) British left. The town and its activities, however, seem just as British as ever.

"After independence," said Elfrida Gay, 87, a British citizen but a lifelong resident of India who still comes to the Ooty Club twice a week for "tiffin" (lunch) and afternoon tea, "the British and the Indians simply met like this"--she drew her hands together and linked her fingers.

"The Indians proved to be just like the British," she complained. "They gather at parties and talk nonsense."

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