The Bengali Brahmin General Manager of the Colonial Club, Mr. Bhattacharya, loved rules and regulations. He could at the same time be meticulous and methodical, obsessive and obnoxious, calculating and condescending, elitist and egotistical, snooty and snobby, fastidious and fussy.
Mr. Bhattacharya, in the tradition of the Indian civil servant that Rudyard Kipling referred to as “more English than the English” was a pukka sahib.
In the words of the 14th century poet and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun:
“Those that are conquered wish to imitate their conqueror in his characteristics, clothing and customs.”
Mr. Bhattacharya affectionately and reverentially exuded the mannerisms of the British Raj and was possessed of that chameleon-like hybridity, unique to colonial India, which metamorphosed and melded, slid and slithered, from Indian to British and back again, as slyly as the snake charmer’s cobra.
The Colonial Club was the pride of Mr. Bhattacharya, since it was the epitome of the British Raj, in attitude and aspiration.
The club had an alliance with the Oxford and Cambridge clubs in Pall Mall and the elite gentleman’s clubs of St. James in London. It had the perquisites of sumptuous leather arms chairs, grand paintings of the foxhunt and of dusty polo fields and of serene green cricket fields, and of the marching British army in robust red uniforms and brass bands while on parade.
There was the long counter of the bar, modeled after the tradition of the officer’s mess, and the plush billiard tables, and the felted and groomed card tables where bridge and rummy were played. The one concession to India which was a departure from the traditional cold climate of the English gentleman’s clubs of London, were the gigantic wing spanned ceiling punkhas (ceiling fans) which whooshed and whished all day long to purify the tropical air in The Colonial from all other invasions of ‘Indianness’
Every day at precisely 4pm, afternoon tea was served with creamy cakes and cucumber sandwiches.
Mr. Bhattacharya knew everything about the operations of the Colonial Club and was despised and feared, respected and obeyed, by his Indian staff.
Mr. Bhattacharya knew everything except one thing:
He did not know his own nickname. Every member of the Colonial Club had a secret nickname which was only used behind their back, but never revealed to them. This was one of the traditional eccentricities of the Colonial Club that bothered Mr. Bhattacharya. He did not appreciate any irregular outliers to regular rules and regulations. He did not like those that did not play by the rules and he did not like not knowing everything, because he could not control what he did not know.
Mr. Bhattacharya had tried every trick in the book to pry his nickname out of the mouths of his loyal Indian staff but there was simply nothing doing. His staff had made a pact not to reveal his nickname to him and this was a source of great agitation and frustration to Mr. Bhattacharya. At one point, he was even tempted to bribe one of his staff members to reveal the nickname, but of course, that would be impossible. Mr. Bhattacharya was nothing if not a stickler. He prided himself on being a stickler for rules and regulations and for leading by example. Bribing would be highly irregular and unethical and, well, the kind of ‘Indianness’ that one strived to keep out of the pristine and particular Colonial Club.
Mr. Bhattacharya ordered his lunch tiffin for precisely 12:30pm every day except Sunday.
Of course, Mr. Bhattacharya could just as easily ordered his lunch from the Colonial Club’s excellent Nepalese chef, Siddhartha. However, being the stickler that he was, Mr. Bhattacharya refused to be remotely reputed to helping himself to any of the perquisites of his job, and preferred to pay for his own lunch out of his own pocket.
The previous General Manager of The Colonial, a Goan by the name of Da Gama Rose was not nearly such a stickler and would enjoy various meals and tea times prepared by the masterful chef, Siddhartha. Da Gama Rose was beloved by the staff and the members of The Colonial for his complete lack of pretentiousness and his willingness, in the way of the Indian bazaar, to make things go smoothly by tweaking and bending the rules a little, and doing so with heaps of charm and a disarming twinkle in his eyes. Da Gama Rose was a man of the world, and he knew how to smooth out the rough edges of the world in order to maintain a sanctuary of otherworldliness within The Colonial.
A good example of this was the case of a club member by the name of Mr. Chatterjee, who, as it happens, was also a Bengali Brahmin like Mr. Bhattacharya.
Mr. Chatterjee was cut from a different cloth, however. He was the most affable and friendly, and perhaps even the most erudite member of The Colonial. He lit up the place when he walked into it and brightened the members’ faces. The Colonial was his home, and he seemed to be the very soul of The Colonial
Mr. Chatterjee had endured a terrible grief. He had lost his dear wife just half a year ago, and was in deep mourning. She had been the light of his life, and they had both been schoolmasters at a British boarding school in the Shimla hill station. Generations of schoolchildren had grown up being taught by either Mr. or Mrs. Chatterjee, or both, and Mr. Chatterjee had completed the twilight of his schoolmaster years as headmaster of the boarding school, an honor his beloved wife relished with glowing pride for her husband. Their dream had been to retire in a cottage near the school and live out their days there.
When Mrs. Chatterjee passed, Mr. Chatterjee was heartbroken and could not bear to be in the same vicinity where he and his wife had shared so many happy memories for so many decades. He moved out of the cottage, which was not owned by him but by the Shimla boarding school he had devoted most of his adult life to, as a schoolmaster and headmaster.
Mr. Chatterjee sold most of his possessions and moved to a rented flat on Rawalpindi Road, in what can only be referred to as a very dodgy part of town. There was an all-night bar, where the cheapest moonshine was sold, just two doors away from Mr. Chatterjee’s modest little flat. There were all sorts of scoundrels and rogues, wheelers and dealers, on Rawalpindi Road, and all manner of mischief and mayhem. Yet, for Mr. Chatterjee, it all served a purpose of obliterating the memory of the glorious green rolling hills of Shimla, the pristine pink colonial school houses, and the vast cricket fields sparkling with dew drops in the early morning as the gentle Himalayan sun cast its warm glow on the promise and the privilege of bright-eyed young students of the boarding school where he had taught.
In his gloomy grief, Mr. Chatterjee could no longer bear to behold beauty.
The grimy and seedy presence of Rawalpindi Road had no beauty to behold. It was the worst of what modern civilization had become. It was not the world that Mr. Chatterjee loved, but rather, it was the blurry dark edge of the world, where people go to fall of the face of the earth.
For Mr. Chatterjee, the one sanctuary for his soul was the Colonial Club.
In many ways, the club reminded him of happier days in the teacher’s common room where he and his fellow teachers would commune between classroom hours and tea time. Back in those days, there was a proud plaque in the teacher common room that contained the names of generations of Chatterjee men that had been teachers at the school. The Bengali and Sanskrit root of the word “Chatta” means “teacher”, and true to their name, the Chatterjee family had held a long tradition of serving as schoolmasters.
The convivial and clubby atmosphere of The Colonial suited Mr. Chatterjee and brought him back to life and momentarily out of his deep grief from the loss of his wife. The club members loved to converse with him because he was so keen and knowledgeable on so many subjects and so erudite and eloquent in his extemporaneous delivery.
Mr. Bhattacharya found Mr. Chatterjee quite irritating.
Mr. Bhattacharya was all pretention and no pedigree. In the presence of Mr. Chatterjee, Mr. Bhattacharya felt his pretentions exposed for the sham that they were.
Mr. Bhattacharya knew Rawalpindi Road because that his where his own tailor, Mr. Warnakulasuriya lived. He had given his tailor original drawings of men’s suit designs from Saville Row in London, so that Mr. Warnakulasuriya could mimic the English designs and add to Mr. Bhattacharya’s pretention of being a pukka British sahib. Mr. Bhattacharya had even had his horn-rimmed glasses specially made in the design of the British Civil Service. His bow ties and his striped blue and white shirts all emitted the bureaucratic administrative power of the British Raj. Yes, he had all the form of the ruling classes.
Yet, he lacked substance.
Mr. Bhattacharya had not the pedigree of Mr. Chatterjee, who, even in his somewhat tattered and tweedy jacket and his frayed shirt collar, could transport you to the stanza and the verse of the great Bengali poets and playwrights, and usher you into their gentle beauty. Mr. Chatterjee would flawlessly and fluidly recited passages from Wordsworth and Yeats and Kalidasa and Tagore.
The rich man has his riches, Mr. Chatterjee would say, and the poor man’s riches are his stories.
India was a wealthy country when it came to stories and Mr. Chatterjee was a wealth distributor, who, like a Minister of Economics, funded everything from irrigation systems to school education. Mr. Chatterjee irrigated the parched souls of the elite members of the Colonial Club, with a wealth that all their money could not ever purchase. He educated them in the best way possible. He put them in touch with their better selves and he enlightened their hearts to give more of themselves and he made their eyes sparkle again. Mr. Chatterjee revived and resuscitated his own life by infusing and injecting the members of The Colonial with life. In so doing he found a solace in his grief, and the members found a spark in their mundane lives. The Colonial needed Mr. Chatterjee and Mr. Chatterjee needed The Colonial.
Mr. Bhattacharya would sometimes be strolling through the club, checking in on his staff, and from the corner of his eyes he would see Mr. Chatterjee holding court to a group of entranced and enchanted men, old and young, who would pull up their chairs and lean their ears forward towards him, as Mr. Chatterjee told one of his riveting stories or recited a moving passage of poetry.
“I wish I could tell him his nickname,” Mr. Bhattacharya thought to himself spitefully as he watched Mr. Chatterjee charm the club members.
Mr. Chatterjee’s nickname was ‘Chatterbox”.
Mr. Bhattacharya relished the fact that, regardless of pedigree, in terms of pure form, his name carried a superior rank amongst Bengali Brahmins, than did the name Chatterjee. The aristocratic Bhattacharya name was rooted in the Sanskrit and Bengali “bhatta” which meant Vedic Priest, the kind that performed sacred rituals, and “acharya” which meant High Caste Teacher. Moreover, Mr. Bhattacharya was of the conviction that, even in the realm of nicknames, (although he did not know what his nickname was at the Colonial Club), he was certain it was far superior to “Chatterbox”.
The tradition of nicknames contributed to the Colonial Club’s sense of otherworldliness since nicknames added a sense of informality and playfulness in the right proportion to the relaxed prestige of the club.
The Colonial Club’s Nepalese chef, Siddhartha had acquired his nickname from a Cockney guest of the club, whose home was in Hackney in the East End of London. This Cockney gentleman was a self-made millionaire who had never forgotten his humble roots. He had particularly enjoyed his meal at The Colonial and asked his Indian waiter to pass his compliments on to the chef.
“What’s ‘is name?” enquired the jovial Cockney guest of the Indian waiter.
“Sid Arthur? Now isn’t that a coincidence, eh? I used to know a Sid Arthur, lived not three doors down from me house in Hackney. Me an ‘im was born right within the sound Bow Bells, we was!”
And so it was, that the fine name of the dignified chef Siddhartha, whose parents had named him after the Lord Gautama Buddha himself, had now been re-christened ‘Sid Arthur’ and his lineage re-designated to that of a barrow boy in London’s East End.
The previous General Manager of The Colonial, a Goan, Mr. Da Gama Rose, was affectionately nicknamed “Rosey”. When Mr. Bhattacharya enquired of his male secretarial clerk Gopal, why the club had settled upon “Rosey”, Gopal ventured wryly:
“Well, I think club members felt that Da Gama Rose saw the world through rose-colored glasses…”
“Precisely,” enthused Mr. Bhattacharya, while munching on a gulab jaman dessert from his lunchbox tiffin, “Well said, Gopal! I see that rose-colored view when I go through all these accounts ledgers. The man was an idealist and not a realist. There must be firmness and discipline as General Manager. As well as a sense of who is important and who is not. Look at the way Rosey allowed that Kumar to pay off all the chits and the membership fees of Mr. Chatterjee the Chatterbox!”
“Eh, begging your pardon, sir…” began Gopal, somewhat gingerly, “You see, Mr. Chatterjee is a special case. He is living on a widowed schoolmaster’s pension and still grieving over the loss of his beloved wife. And Kumar, you see, was one of his school students in Shimla and has a schoolboy’s admiration for his old teacher, Mr. Chatterjee. Young Kumar has a very rich father and he is heir to one of the biggest sisal mills in India, and he feels it is his privilege to pay off the indulgences of Mr. Chatterjee.”
“Privilege, yes, but not principle!” protested Mr. Bhattacharya, “We can’t have the well-off members of our club like Kumar, paying for the gin and tonics and membership fees of the mere riff-raff like Chatterbox now, can we?”
“But sir, begging your pardon you see, I mean to say that Mr. Chatterjee is not really riff-raff, he is just not well-off moneywise like Kumar and other members, but Mr. Chatterjee has much to offer the Colonial Club, he is the most popular member you see, and beloved by our members.”
“He’s riff-raff!” retorted Mr. Bhattacharya, “Have you seen the fray in his collars and the tattered elbow sleeve of his hideous tweed jacket? What is more is that he is very liberal in his thinking. Too liberal I tell you! And that is not the kind of member we need here at the Colonial Club now, is it?”
“Eh, I am not sure I understand, sir…” muttered Gopal, feeling a somewhat perplexed as Mr. Bhattacharya became increasingly overstimulated.
“That is because you do not know the definition of an English Gentleman’s Club do you now, my dear Gopal?“ pointedly patronized Mr. Bhattacharya.
It was a rhetorical question and Gopal patiently awaited the answer.
“A club,” explained Mr. Bhattacharya after a deliberately orchestrated pause:
“A club, is an oasis of civilization in a desert of democracy”.
Click here for Chapter Three, Kumar