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08.05.2018

Over a hundred listeners in a high-ceiling hall nearly the size of a basketball court, seated around fifteen round tables, duly search their tambola tickets, competing the second “full-house.” It’s another matter that at the Gidney Club on the Outer Circle of New Delhi’s Connaught Place, they’re far from a full house. “This is a skeletal crowd,” an elderly Raymond Alberts, with whom we share the table, says. “You should come and see at the Christmas Ball.”

The thin summer-crowd won’t interrupt this decades-old Sunday ritual of the Delhi branch of the ‘All-India Anglo Indian Association.’ During breaks between each round, Naresh Kumar Saini, who has been caretaker of the Gidney for thirty years, goes about serving bottles of Limca or taking orders for an omelette or a sandwich, while players flit from table to table to greet each other. A grandma, carrying around her three-year-old grandchild, humblebrags that he’s “lost property,” at each table.

Alberts claims he’s seen her around here since she was as old as her little grandson. 60-year-old Valerie Oberoi, also at our table, tells us: “I have been coming here since the time I was ten years old. My mother, grandmother, everyone was a member here, and so am I.” Her younger brother, Kevin Horne, accompanies her to tambola Sunday. “My children are not eligible to be members of the association, though, since I married outside of the community,” Oberoi says.

These rules are in keeping with the common understanding of the ethnic identity of persons of the Anglo-Indian community: a native of India whose father or other male progenitor from the male line is/ was of European descent, while the maternal side is of Indian descent. (The ‘Anglo’ in Anglo-Indian is a myopic reference to descent from the British.) The community dates its origin back to the fifteenth century, when European settlers came to the present-day Indian region and entered into marriages with local women. The 1951 census, the first after independence, was the last one to count Anglo-Indians as a separate caste group; its worldwide numbers are now estimated at a few lakhs.

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The Gidney, named after a noted surgeon and pillar of Anglo-Indian society, is about as old as Edwin Lutyens’s Connaught Place itself, dating back to the 1930s. The association is believed to have been started in the late nineteenth century. “Not every branch of the association has a space like we have The Gidney Club in Delhi,” says Richard Barraud, former treasurer. History, nostalgia and memories of Delhi’s city life are inseparable from every sight and mention of The Gidney Club. “In my childhood here in the 1960s, there used to be sit-down dinners and the servers of the club’s restaurant wore colonial gear,” Barraud says. (In an old photograph in an anteroom, we find a scene with staff wearing livery of the sort still seen at the Indian Coffee House.)

Delhi’s Tajs, Oberois, and Sheratons owe much of their musical enthrallment to the Gidney Club: stars from here include Karl Peters, Carl Evans, Mike Fey, Malcolm Edwards, Ronnie Bush, Tony Quadros, Lawrence Ireland. (Ireland still plays the piano at The Orient Express at The Taj Palace, and has taught music at schools across the city).

Richard Barraud’s wife, Noelene, remembers her first visit to the Gidney at age five: “Almost everyone knew how to play one instrument or the other,” she tells us, “there would be someone playing the piano, another the double bass, yet another would do the drums.” Her own father, a railway employee, often played the piano here during his six-month posting in Ghaziabad in the 1960s. “I remember there was an Aunty Agnes who played the trumpet so beautifully and I wished I could play like her,” Noelene says. She didn’t quite manage it, but with all this music in the air, it wasn’t uncommon for the Gidney to be full of members breaking into a dance: “Foxtrot, waltz, jive,” Alberts declares.

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On a weekday evening in 2018, the Gidney isn’t quite bursting with these memories: we found five men playing cards and smoking cigarettes as Kolkata Knight Riders played Chennai Super Kings on a cathode-ray-tube TV, placed under the portrait of Sir Henry Gidney, surgeon. The men were members, but not Anglo-Indian; they have associate memberships that allow them to use the premises without having a say in its administrative decisions. Naresh Kumar Saini, the caretaker, was sitting at the now silent bar.

Thermocol reindeer from last Christmas still hung through the ceilings in this hall. “After the bar and restaurant here shut due to license issues a few years ago, most of the weekday patrons went away,” Saini said. His own father, who worked here for as long as Saini himself has, has seen the premises in many lights. “The primary classes of the Frank Anthony Public School (also run by the association, now from Lajpat Nagar) were held here, and during the evenings, the place turned into a club,” he told us.

Quite often now, Saini shows around the place to middle-aged former-students settled abroad who turn up on their Delhi-visits. He gave us a tour too, introducing us to portraits of prominent persons from the Anglo-Indian community: “Gidney sa’ab”, of course, and a special lesson about the Keelor brothers (Denzil and Trevor), who were both awarded the Vir Chakra for their exemplary service to the Indian Air Force during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. While Trevor Keelor has passed away, Air Marshal (Retd.) Denzil Keelor now serves as the chairperson of the school that ran out of the Gidney when he was fighting that fateful war.

“In older days, the floor was always kept powdered and slippery in anticipation of the next dance,” Saini said as we walked around. There were at least two dances a month. “There would be no space to set foot here.”

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None of this is really lost to time, even if its frequency has diminished. “The Christmas balls are now held in Frank Anthony School as the club falls short to accommodate us all,” says Barraud. “This space is so valuable to connect with the community, host little functions when our tiny city-houses can’t hold guests, and for the younger people to meet prospective partners,” says Noelene. “I had noticed you at this club when you visited way back in the 60s,” Barraud says. Noelene laughs it off: they actually met at a relative’s wedding in Allahabad in the 80s when Noelene was 29.

As we speak, Noelene is overcome with the urge to find Gidney’s piano, that her father once played. In an outer hall with windows overlooking the Auliya Masjid in K block, there are dusty sundries, but the piano seems to have vanished. Instead, we discover framed posters that Richard designed: pictures of Anglo Indian persons significant to the Indian union’s identity. One of these is a picture of Colonel James Skinner, also known as Sikander sahib, credited with raising, in 1803, the 1st Horse or Skinner’s Horse, one of Indian Army’s oldest cavalry regiments. He also built St James’s Church, arguably Delhi’s oldest church, located in Kashmere Gate.
There’s also a portrait of Diana Hayden, former Miss World, recently dismissed as “not Indian enough” by Tripura’s new chief minister. Perhaps that complexity of identity was the thing that made Alberts say wistfully, to us, that “to know about Anglo-Indians, you have to know the difficult lives we live”.

But at the Gidney, it’s impossible to let the past weigh too heavily on the present. Valerie Oberoi interjected before things got too melancholic, to remind the table: “Despite everything, we know how to live, laugh, and have a good time.”

Getting there: K-48, first floor, Outer Circle, Connaught Place, next to Auliya Masjid and York Restaurant. For membership-related queries, call Mr Ashok Kumar on 23415317.

Accessibility: Stairs only.

Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Wire, and the Hindu, among others.

 

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