It’s Saturday afternoon, and the week’s work on the tea estate is done. It’s time for young, eligible assistant managers to get on to their company issued motorcycles and zoom off to a weekend of fun and revelry. There are no city lights to dazzle these youngsters but there are the clubs. Games of tennis and golf beckon and before the sun goes down, it’s good to get a few games in. Evenings are reserved for the bar and billiards. That was the scene in the 1960s and 70s. Planter’s clubs were once the hub of social life in South India’s planting districts. A club membership was and still is one of the perks enjoyed by assistant managers in many company estates.
Weekends also meant meeting managers and assistants from other estates at the club for a game of tennis or billiards, as the case might be. The billiards room was considered a male bastion and a place where they could smoke and swear at will. Movie nights were a big hit with the families which was often followed by dinner.
Ravi Mathews, a senior planter, talks of Saturday nights at the club in the 1960s when he was a “creeper” (as newly minted assistant managers were called). Though he was talking about the Peermade Club, this is true of most planters’ clubs. “Saturday nights were Club Nights and once a month, films were projected on an ancient 35 mm projector, some nice ones; the nicer part was that you had the opportunity to refill your glass each time the projectionist changed the reels so you were happily “composed” by the time the movie ended, and ready for the more rambunctious frolic that followed.
Mathews recalls that Saturday nights ended often with the “exhausting games such as pillow football, where a cushion was the ball and you scooted around the wooden floors on your bottom, with your feet carrying the ball.” Another planter recalls how they tied up one of their rather stuffy contemporaries to a post in the tennis court and then forgot to untie him until the next morning! Hazing it was, but more often than not, assistant managers were often public school boys who had already ‘taken’ a bit of it in school and college. So, as the sun’s rays lit up the dew on the tea leaves, young planters rode back to the estates with hangovers and splitting headaches.
Dances were held regularly with a live band in attendance, where everyone danced and drank till the early hours of the morning. Young managers flirted outrageously with the senior managers’ glamorous wives and pretty daughters’ home from boarding school or college. Fights broke out and were often settled with fists on the tennis courts.
The Planter’s Week was the high point in the planters’ calendar. Besides the more official meetings and exchanges on various aspects of plantations, was the social side of parties, dinners and sports. All the clubs in the Nilgiris are chock-a-bloc at this time.
Duncan FaHowell writes, in 1975 in the Spectator in an article titled “Stranger in India”, of the blasé nature of the club members in Ooty when it comes to excesses. “…am discovered prone on the lawn by an imperturbable flunkey who sees everything. “Madam, the master is lying on the grass.” “Oh don’t worry;” says Mrs. Wallace, “he often does that when he’s tired. Their driver takes me home in the black Zephyr and puts me to bed.”
Today, Planter’s clubs are quieter and it’s not often that the assistant managers ride up to the clubs to unwind. Times in the tea industry are hard. Now, much of the fun in clubbing has disappeared as work pressure has increased, says Suresh V, an Assistant Manager on a tea estate in the Nilgiris. “We have only heard senior managers talk of the fun and revelry of plantation life in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, now they are the ones who push for higher productivity and keep our nose to grindstone. For instance, Saturdays used to be a half-day and you could relax, play tennis or golf over the weekend. But now, you are expected to put in a full day’s work.” So, young planters would rather watch TV or go online rather than drive the long distance to the club. Boring!
A senior planter agrees. He says that there is no time for leisure these days; the worries are constant; a small mistake can cost the company a fortune.
Clubs in the planting districts in south India were started in the mid 1800s for the same reason as they were in other parts of India — as centres for sporting activity and socializing. According to Maria Misra, historian and author of the book, ‘Business, Race and Politics in British India’ the first clubs the British started were sporting clubs such as the Bengal Jockey Club, which was established in 1801. Misra says that by the end of 19th century, these clubs were “more akin to the gentlemen’s clubs in London”.
Similarly, the clubs in the Nilgiris were started as sporting clubs and then evolved as places of exclusivity and aloofness. FaHowell says, “Yes, the club manages. And now that it admits Indians it could survive, albeit in ‘wrecked’ form, because when it comes to snobbery and exclusion, Hove is left standing at the stacks.”
Snooty Ooty, once the summer capital of the Madras Presidency catered more to the bureaucrats and Governor’s entourage, and the Ootacamund Club being the snootiest of them all. The Club was founded in 1841 by a Captain Douglas and seven other officers of the Madras and Bombay Armies. At the time of opening it had 360 members and membership was open to “All members of H.M & the Honourable Company’s Civil and Military Service, gentlemen of the mercantile or other professions, moving in the ordinary circle of Indian society”. The club retains its old world charm with its panelled walls, parquet flooring, polished rosewood furniture and shining brass fittings.
Sir Neville Chamberlain, an Army Officer not to be confused with the British Prime Minister of the same handle, drafted the official rules for snooker in 1882 at the Ootacamund Club. Another interesting tidbit about the Club’s history is that the Ooty Hunt Club used to meet here.
During the “season” the club is full, with activities planned for every single day. But as FaHowell says, “The regulars hate the season because the place must play host to the monied spivs up from Madras in their electroluxe shirts who honky up the turf with winklepicker* mincers.” But the seasonal burst of activity pays for the clubs to be run at impeccable standards, perfectly trained bearers and bartenders. It is with relief the regulars watch the disappearance of the city crowd and sink back into their languor of telling of local stories, exchanging gossip while sampling the not so perfect blend of whisky.
Ray Kurian, planter and former president of the Ooty Club, says that the club has maintained its standards and is particular about the quality of the members admitted. Besides planters, the club also has a number of outstation members. “The whetting process for new members is very strict”, he says, “though the entry fee is the lowest in the district.”
At 7000 m above sea level but on less exalted heights than the Ooty Club, is the Ootacamund Gymkhana. It overlooks the Wenlock Downs with the Avalanche range in the background and surrounded by woods thick with eucalyptus, oak, fir and rhododendron. This is said to be a challenging 18-hole par 70 golf course and is spread over 193 acres. “A great course,” enthused a senior planter. “Really look forward to playing over the weekend,” he said.
The third on the list is the Wellington Gymkhana Club (WGC), right inside the Wellington cantonment which is pretty and neat as a pin. The Club is cheek by jowl with the Defense Services Staff College and and the Madras Regimental Centre. The WGC is set in 69 acres and also has an 18-hole golf course; though this club has its share of civilian members the majority of its members are from the armed forces. The club is set in a valley with a stream which meanders through the course. Sitting on the verandah drinking a fragrant cup of Nilgiri tea or a mean vodka as you watch golfers stroll by, you catch your breath at the sheer beauty of the surrounding verdant, green hills.
Further afield is the Coonoor Club, more Orange Pekoe than the Ooty Club; a tea club where the members are a happy blend of the people who make up the trade. The Club has a homey feel to it and the long room which houses the lounge and the card tables smells of cut flowers and brass polish. The talk at the bar is often about tea prices, the rising wages, the late onset of the monsoons, and the endless woes of planters, manufacturers and buyers. The Bombay Soda is the best in the district and quite a treat especially with a plate of onion pakodas.
Cherian P Matthew, a third generation Coonoor-based planter, says that while the membership profile today is more diverse, in the early days the clubs in the Nilgiris were mainly used by the planters. He said that even after Independence, the clubs continued to play a major role in the social lives of the planters.
Mollie Panter- Downes in her book “Ooty Preserved’ talks about the Ooty 20 years after Independence and says that the “Ooty (sic) Club is encountering the hard times that are worrying club secretaries everywhere all the way from St James’ Street to Ootacamund. The old subscription list of four hundred members is now rather less than half that. It surprises me, to tell the truth, that it is still so big, but people in many parts of the Nilgiris, and beyond, I am told, belong to it.”
Most clubs in the Nilgiris, like other places in India, experienced a drop in membership after the British left, though companies continued to sponsor their management cadre. Subsequently, Indians have warmed up to the idea, especially, considered how much more economic food and booze are, at the clubs. Club affiliations are another great plus as members can stay at or use the affiliated clubs anywhere in India or even abroad.
In the mid 60s, Ravi Mathews reminiscences how older members, often Englishmen, nurtured the younger lot and introduced them to the ‘Club culture’ that was often alien to the newcomer. A young assistant manager or a quaking new bride is put at ease very tactfully. This is true of most clubs in the planting districts as the last of the English planters were pulling up their roots and getting ready to depart to ol’ blighty.
However, this was not always that way. When my grandfather, P.V.Cherian joined the plantations as an Indian assistant manager in 1914, things were quite different. Though on the lowest rung, he was the only Indian in the management cadre and he found that one of the perks listed on the appointment letter was membership at the planter’s club.
So one Saturday, Cherian polished his boots, trimmed his handlebar moustache, jumped on his mo’bike and roared off to the Club as he had seen the other English assistants do. He entered the lounge and found the other assistants sitting around drinking and swapping stories, so he pulled up a chair and sat down. There was a stunned silence and then slowly the conversation started again while they looked surreptitiously at the interloper.
The next Saturday on his visit to the Club, Cherian found that there were just as many chairs as there were English planters. All senior managers were present at the bar and were watching with interest. Cherian leaned nonchalantly at the bar, picked up a six-months-old newspaper, and started reading while keep his eyes on the group of assistant managers. He was waiting for the right time to make his move; and sure enough, one of them got up to use the rest room and Cherian walked across and occupied the vacant chair, “Gentlemen” he said, bowing his head to the rather indignant group. The reaction from the seniors was mixed, some amused at the young Indian’s effrontery while the others were not. Needless to say, in a couple of months, he was transferred to another district and issued a new appointment letter with that perk missing.
* Winklepickers are a style of shoe or boot worn from the 1950s onward by male and female British rock and roll fans
Featured illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin