Regent Street in London, January 17 (Photo: Getty Images)
VENGALIL KRISHNA KURUP Krishna Menon would have been horrified. London, his beloved London, is wracked by the coronavirus which has already taken more than 100,000 lives as a helpless government wrung its hands in despair. The great city is smothered in Tier 4 restrictions and blinded by uncertainty about the future. This is not the London that elected him councillor of the borough of St Pancras and would have welcomed him in the House of Commons if jealous capitalists masquerading as socialists in Labour’s ranks hadn’t scuppered his nomination when he applauded the Soviet army’s patriotic occupation of Finland.
It must hurt even more that Menon’s role as London’s leading desi has been seized by a billionaire Punjabi trader from East Africa whose wife is richer than the Queen. They call Rishi Sunak ‘the Yorkshire Maharajah’; they hail him as being ‘uniquely placed to rejuvenate’ stricken Britain. The unkindest cut of all is that profiteering developers are again threatening the sad remains of the India Club that was launched long after he had been dragged screaming and raging to New York but which likes to claim him as founder. What would man be without sustaining myths? The acerbic Menon fainting in the flow of mammoth orations on Kashmir at the UN and refusing to come to life until a microphone was glimpsed was a rich source of legends.
Tucked away above a steep flight of stairs near the Strand’s meeting with Fleet Street, the club is officially described as ‘charmingly eccentric’. Some might say eccentricity overwhelms the charm. I booked in one night some 20 years ago and fled at dawn to the refuge of my son’s single room in the School of Oriental and African Studies’ hall of residence near King’s Cross station. I haven’t been back since. But history is repeating itself. The India Club is again battling the forces of modernity. More than 26,000 sturdy champions rose to its rescue three years ago to thwart re-development. Can this force be mustered again?
Phiroza Marker, who, I gather, manages the club restaurant for her father, Yadgar, might find it difficult to do so this time. The lockdown has put a virtual end to movement although institutions such as the London School of Economics and Political Science, King’s College, the Royal Courts of Justice, the BBC’s now abandoned Bush House, and normally bustling lawyers’ and business offices surround the club. Empty buses wheel despondently through deserted streets. The unoccupied shells of tube trains whistle through subterranean corridors. The ban on assembly is as effective as our Section 144. Shops and cafes are boarded up. While takeaways are permitted, Menon would have approved of the Gandhian austerity that forbids any alcoholic drinks being taken out.
The Britain that Boris Johnson snatched out of Theresa May’s failing grip looks desolate. Across the road beyond the bay window where I am writing this is Freddie Mercury’s deserted Garden Lodge. Usually, there is a cluster of worshippers at the gate. But only once in the last four months have I seen three young people, New Zealanders by their accents, keeping loyal vigil at the long empty home of music.
Crime is proliferating. Businesses are being forced into bankruptcy. Unemployment has soared. Obliged to take the single-decker C1 bus to Victoria one day I saw more homeless people—legacy of Thatcherite pragmatism—in the street than in Kolkata. They were huddled in tattered quilts against the biting January cold. That was before the snow began to drift down in lazy flakes to settle here and there. Things will worsen for London’s homeless as the winter hardens. Although heavy cast iron grit and salt bins line some pavements, there is no trace of the necessary manpower. I can hear in my head the doleful resonance of ‘Bring out your dead!’ that marked the 14th century Black Death when 75 million people perished.
The India Club that Menon founded in 1952 to “promote and further Indo-British friendship” was a gracious place in upmarket Craven Street, near Trafalgar Square. He roped in Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten whom he had got to know in London before Nehru’s dramatic encounter with her in Singapore (described in Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India). Menon’s own connection with Nehru was equally unlikely. Minoo Masani who knew Menon before Nehru did recall that when Nehru was defending Menon in the Lok Sabha on the basis of having known him longer than any other member, Masani silently shook his head from side to side. Nehru at once stopped in mid-track and corrected himself adding “except for one other member”. Masani had introduced the two men.
I went only once to the Craven Street club. That was in 1960 when the editor—whose name I have forgotten—of a glossy magazine called Envoy asked me to lunch: I had just joined The Statesman and was returning to India. What I do remember is the vigour with which a small grey-haired woman criticised New Delhi for supposedly discriminating against the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in order to promote the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). Such was my ignorance after working as a reporter on local English papers in provincial towns such as Stockport and Newcastle upon Tyne that I did not know then that INTUC was a Congress outfit while AITUC belonged to the then undivided Communist Party of India. “It makes me very hot under the collar,” she declared, and I remember noticing with flippant irrelevance that her round-necked dress didn’t have a collar.
The Britain that Boris Johnson snatched out of Theresa May’s failing grip looks desolate. Across the road beyond the bay window where I am writing this is freddie mercury’s deserted garden lodge. Usually, there is a cluster of worshippers at the gate. But only once in the last four months have I seen three young people, New Zealanders by their accents, keeping loyal vigil at the long empty home of music
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Menon had founded Envoy, which was then respected as a professionally produced and attractive ‘little magazine’. The AITUC supporter was Bridget Tunnard, Menon’s long-term girl-friend, India Club’s de facto manager and, in the eyes of British intelligence, close to the Communist Party of Great Britain—the famous CPGB that reared a host of distinguished Indians such as Jyoti Basu and PN Haksar. Although himself suspected of being the ‘Fifth Man’ in the notorious Cambridge spy ring (Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt), the MI5’s Guy Liddell feared that the Tunnard connection meant “that anything of interest that Menon hears about will reach the Communist Party through her”. He wanted Britain to “get rid of Menon”. MI5 Director-General Percy Sillitoe felt that while Menon may have distanced himself from the CPGB after becoming high commissioner, he remained a fellow traveller and therefore a considerable threat to Commonwealth security. Others argued that pushing him out of India House risked “driv[ing] him back into the Communist fold carrying with him Commonwealth defence secrets which he must have acquired as Nehru’s right-hand man”. Top secret intelligence was no longer shared with the Indian authorities.
Menon’s club was identified with the old India League (Bridget was a secretary) whose patrons numbered many Labour worthies including the MP Fenner Brockway who made history by wearing a Gandhi cap in the Commons. On another occasion, he tried to walk away with the Mace. I see that among the raft of organisations listed as having used the club as a base at one time or another are the Calcutta Rowing Club, the Curry Club and the shadowy Indian Workers Association (IWA). The IWA represented no workers that I knew of but did own a small collapsible signboard and two-step platform. It was a standing joke among the late Amiya Gooptu’s friends in the 1950s that he rented the contraption from time to time to deliver anti-colonial lectures in Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
I am unable to endorse the India Club as Britain’s curry pioneer. That honour belongs to the Patna-born Sake Dean Mahomed whose grave I chanced upon when visiting my son during his doctoral studies in Brighton. Dean Mahomed opened England’s first Indian restaurant: the Hindoostane Coffee House near Portman Square, in 1810, promising, among other attractions, hookah ‘with real chilm tobacco, and Indian dishes, … allowed by the greatest epicures to be unequalled to any curries ever made in England’. Alas, financial difficulties killed the coffee house. Britain’s later crop of so-called Indian restaurants reflects Sylheti enterprise.
London is familiar with disaster. I have already mentioned the Black Death. The Great Plague of 1665 killed 80,000 people, one-sixth of the city’s inhabitants. Although the following year’s Great Fire may have saved lives by burning down unsanitary housing with the rats and fleas which transmitted disease, it uprooted ‘200,000 people of all ranks and stations’. It also destroyed 13,500 houses, as well as public edifices like the Royal Exchange, Custom House, St Paul’s Cathedral, several prisons, the General Letter Office and three city gates. However, historians believe that the flames cleansed London and facilitated rejuvenation through bonding across all barriers.
Those were also the unintended gifts of the Second World War’s devastating blitz when about 30,000 Londoners were killed and another 50,000 injured. When the Luftwaffe bombed Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen-Mother, tellingly commented that she could at last look the East End (which had been savagely damaged) in the face. The coronavirus pandemic has similarly created a sense of kinship. As the crisis hit Britain, people across the country joined remarkable mutual aid efforts at fundraising and frontline work while a mass mobilisation of volunteers supported Britain’s unique National Health Service (NHS).
In the suspended animation of lockdown, everyone has been adjusting to new roles and routines and forging what is called a new ‘partnership of necessity’ between volunteers and the state as in the war years. Some 750,000 NHS volunteers support vulnerable people at home through regular ‘check in and chat’ phone calls, and deliver shopping and medicines. They also man vaccination clinics with cheerful courtesy like the retired accountant and her actuary husband, also retired, who guided us through the formalities when my wife and I received our first jabs.
The India Club is again battling the forces of modernity. More than 26,000 sturdy champions rose to its rescue three years ago to thwart re-development. Can this force be mustered again?
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Marcus Rashford, the young black Manchester United footballer, compelled the government to provide free food to needy children. Led by 17-year-old Roni Dragusha, a group of sixth form students is challenging ministers to take positive action to promote education instead of just shutting down schools. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, a bus driver’s son, speaks highly of the Evening Standard’s campaign to safeguard the deteriorating mental health of the young.
The combination of private effort, massive vaccination campaigns, a less than munificent government rescue package and Rishi Sunak’s modest incentives to private business will slowly bring London back to life one day. I hope the revival will also include a more charming, more comfortable and less eccentric India Club. Krishna Menon may not have founded this particular institution but the landlords and promoters know that the quaint and quirky club is committed to the same Indo-British future. But the club must rise to the challenge by improving its accommodation and facilities.