Walk along the Strand and just past Waterloo Bridge, before you get to Somerset House, you might just see a narrow doorway squashed between a newsagents and a pizza joint. This is the entrance to the grand-sounding ‘Strand Continental Hotel’ – a six-storey Edwardian building which houses not only the cheapest accommodation to be had in the city, but a unique slice of Indian social history.
Climb the dingy stairwell to the India Club bar on the first floor and the rumble of traffic recedes into the background as you step out of the endless headlong rush of city life and back in time. The tables are formica-topped and the chair-legs are chipped. The oriental rugs on the laminated floorboards have been worn thin by five decades of feet making their way to and from the bar, where the drinks – Amaretto and Old Monk, Amrut whiskey and Kingfisher beer – don’t seem to have changed much either. The India Club feels like a throwback to a time when ‘going for a curry’ was an exotic sport, racism was the norm and everyone smoked. When London was a smoggy, bomb-cratered, grimy sort of place, hauling itself slowly out of post-War privation with the help of an influx of students and workers from ‘the colonies’.
“Coming to London as a student in 1953, I didn’t know a soul,” says historian Kusoom Vadgama – now in her late 80s. “There were no newspapers, no television, no radio, no phones. If you ever caught sight of someone in a turban or sari, you’d think: ah! Home.”
The India Club, for Vadgama’s generation, became their ‘home away from home’ – the title of a recent month-long oral history exhibition at the venue, curated by the National Trust. The Club grew out of the India League, which – once its goal of Indian Independence had been achieved – morphed into an organisation with a cultural and social mission, to “promote and further Indo-British friendship”. This was the least ‘clubbish’ of clubs, whose paint-chipped doors were open to all: students from the London colleges near by, visiting dignitaries to India House across the road, hacks and reporters on a break from the BBC at Bush House nearby.
One of the Club’s founders was Chandran Tharoor (father of Shashi Tharoor) who came to London at the age of 19 in 1949. I put on a pair of headphones and listened to his daughter, Smita, reminiscing about a satirical poem he wrote and performed at the club about London life at the time. “It went something like: If you touch anything accidentally the Englishman says ‘sorry-sorry’, and for the least thing the Englishman says thankyou-thankyou all the time. And guess what?” she laughed, “it hasn’t changed!”
In the exhibition, the recordings are accessed by an imaginative variety of ways: a heavy Bakelite telephone receiver, a flat, push-button cassette tape player, even specially pressed records that you drop on to a turntable to play. At one table, the recording is triggered when you click open a briefcase – a grey, Samsonite cases with spring-loaded clasps and battered silver trim, complete with an empty pack of Dunhills: very ’sixties. There are boxes containing black and white photos – men with Brylcreemed hair next to ladies with elaborate coifs and saris cinched-in at the waist – and old-fashioned slide-viewers that operate with a satisfying clunk.
“ ‘If walls could talk’,” muses Kieran Cooke, veteran BBC foreign correspondent and long-time frequenter the Club. “It’s a terrible cliché, I know, but the walls here have heard so many fascinating conversations, political discussions, right across the political divide.” Novelist Will Self came here first as a cash-strapped student in the 1980s to chow down on the ‘serviceable Madras cuisine’ in the restaurant. Returning two decades later, he was delighted to find it unchanged: “The world outside had horribly mutated but in this sepia burrow it was still India in the 1950s.”
But this unique little burrow may not be around much longer. In September 2017, developers put in a planning application to Westminster Council to modernise the hotel. Manager Yadgar Marker and his daughter Phiroza immediately responded with a signature campaign that gathered over 26,000 supporters. There has been a temporary stay of execution – thankfully – as they look for ways to update the interiors without changing the essential character of the place.
I left, hoping fervently that they succeed. Knowing you can pop into India Club for a quick dosa for a fiver, or meet up with chums for an Old Monk and coke, makes London seem a more human, friendlier, dare I say more Indian place. As I stepped back out into the bright sunlight of today’s multiracial, multilingual and multicultural city, Kasoom Vadgama’s parting words still rang in my ears: “It’s a place where east meets west. Eat your heart out, Kipling!”
First published in India Today magazine, 11.3.19