Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXXI No. 15, November 16-30, 2021

A Clubman Remembers

by R. Chandrasekar

Chennai today has little in common with the city that saw in the dawn of Independence in August 1947. The name is different, of course. What was then the administrative centre of a sprawling presidency is now the capital of a more compact, linguistically homogeneous state. Remnants of the city that was lie around us if only we cared to look, but it is the new city, brasher and more crowded, noisier and more dynamic, a vibrant, in your face, technicolour version of the sepia tinted city of 1947 that demands to be noticed.

Hidden in the leafy byways of the city, her back turned to the tumult and frenzied life of the changing city, sits the Madras Club, marking her days to a quieter, gentler beat. She, too, has seen changes in the 190 years of her existence, not always evident to those haven’t known her well but substantial enough in the eyes of her members, and reflective of those larger convulsions in the milieu of which she continues to be a discreet part.

Chronicling these changes with humour, affection and self-effacing modesty in his memoir Don’t Forget to Remember, Ramesh Lulla writes of arriving in the city in 1965 with ambitions, dreams and little more than a promised government subsidy in what was then a nascent plan to develop small industries in Guindy.

Some twenty years after Independence, much of the city still retained vestiges of the colonial era. A fair sprinkling of expats occupied senior corporate positions and continued the old British tradition of clubbing at the Madras Club, the Gymkhana Club, the Boat Club and the Yacht Club. These retained their old ways and the sense of preserving something of the distant homeland; it was not until the early 1960s that the Madras Club began dismantling the barriers that kept Indians away from its portals.

Lulla was in many ways an unusual newcomer to the city. Growing up in Bombay in a large Sindhi family, he had no direct connection to Madras. Yes, his mother had grown up here, but had moved to Sindh years earlier as a young bride. And yes, a modest family home in Matunga meant that he grew up with Tamilians as neighbours. But it was the urge to grow and develop his father’s spring factory that took him first to an apprenticeship in England and then to accept the Madras Government’s offer of a subsidy to set up a unit in Guindy.

Along with his bride Chandra, Lulla found Madras a welcoming city. Gregarious by nature and familiar with the ways of the English, the Lullas soon found themselves invited first, to a membership at the Yacht Club, and as a direct consequence, to the Madras Club. Aged only 30, all Lulla had going for him at that point was that ineffable quality, clubbability, and clearly that mattered more than social status or any formal qualifications.

Clubs and club life were social institutions and habits that, like cricket, were inherited from the British but have since become a part of life in India (the urban and affluent parts of India, anyway). Along the way, customs, traditions, dos and don’ts originally meant to recreate an atmosphere where an Englishman could feel at home have ‘kindly adjusted’ to suit the conveniences of their new members.

The half century of the Lullas’ membership of the Madras Club marked many changes, not least the transformation of an almost exclusively British club to an Indian one. As a long-term committee member of both the Madras Club and the Yacht Club, Lulla had a ringside perspective on those changes while also being an active agent for change. Don’t Forget to Remember is a personal retelling of his lengthy association with the club. It is as far from a mundane catalogue of meetings, rule changes and administrative trivia as it is possible to get. Instead, we get a lighthearted, easy-to-read narrative, full of quirky characters, oddball happenings, and a recounting of how a like-minded group of people enjoyed themselves in unexpected ways while trying to stay within the bounds of the rule book.

The changes at the club were not always smooth. There were difficulties at times with finances, recalcitrant members, a long-running strike by the employees and the inevitable differences between those pushing for change and those reluctant to give up the old ways. In some ways this personal memoir describes a microcosm of the larger changes India and Indian society faced in this time.

Filled with photographs of an era now gone, and punctuated by recollections of individuals and incidents, Don’t Forget to Remember grew out of the many stories and reminiscences Lulla shared over the years with his close friends at the club. These were arranged, compiled and edited by Ranjitha Ashok and make for engaging and interesting reading. They tell the tale of how a Sindhi family came to make Madras/Chennai their home and an insider’s perspective on how club life evolved over an eventful half century.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *