Play Fare

Written for Wicket Leeks, a group exhibition about confronting colonialism
through the lens of food and sport at Flux Factory, a gallery in New York City.
Photographs by Mallika Chandra.

This excerpt is the Introduction chapter.


The story of the British Raj in India is in many ways a story about food.

One of history’s most significant imperial exercises happened almost by accident: what drew the British traders from the East India Company to Bombay and Calcutta in the 17th century was not Queen Victoria’s desire to be Empress or even India’s promise as the Jewel in the Crown. It was the desire for pepper and cardamom, the exotic lure of “black gold.” The stories of two nations and its people were irreversibly linked for centuries to come–by peppercorns.

Over one hundred years after this initial arrival the British had moved on to trading tea grown in the hills of Assam and Darjeeling. The East India Company had been absorbed by the Crown, Queen Victoria had indeed ordained herself Empress of India and what we know as the Raj had begun: a century of rule over nearly a billion people by a few thousand British civil servants and officials. With the civil servants came boatloads of memsahibs, English women who came to India in search of eligible husbands and inadvertently brought with them more civilised ideas of culture and society. Everything about India was diametrically opposite to life in England, and this new cohort of homesick colonials set about building institutions and customs mirroring those at home. While parliamentary democracy, bureaucracy and the spread of English in the subcontinent are undeniably the most significant results of that effort, one institution tends to be forgotten because of its quiet existence: gentleman’s clubs. Modelled on the famous clubs in London, like White’s and the Athenaeum Club, these carefully landscaped spaces dotted across the subcontinent were meant to be sport and leisure facilities for elite Victorians to rub shoulders with each other, insulated from the presumably uncivilised natives. 

These were prominent, powerful institutions of their time, establishing not only a strict social hierarchy but also developing facets of the uniquely Anglo-Indian experience—food, sport and entertainment. By the time the British left India in 1947, they had taken many things, significantly the Koh-i-Noor diamond and a passion for curry, but they had also left behind cultural relics like the club, which were thoroughly combined into the social fabric of India at large. Today, a new kind of capitalist nobility—India’s monied class—have inherited the clubs and have adapted to the customs of their original members in the same way that Bombay and Mumbai are doomed to co-exist as names for a city that at once accepts and rejects both.

Today’s Mumbai would be unrecognisable to a sahib if he came wandering through time, and not just because the city isn’t officially called Bombay anymore. What was once a set of sleepy coastal islands and a part of Princess Catherine Braganza’s dowry to King Charles II is today a thriving metropolis, the financial capital of the country and the birthplace of India’s most glamorous export, Bollywood. It is also home to a simmering discontent with mementoes of its colonial past and has undergone a massive effort to erase them by changing British names of streets, museums and train stations. While this rabid refurbishment was taking place in the early 1990s, and Mumbai was trying to decolonise its public spaces, the clubs continued untouched, as if the sun had never set on the Empire. Insulated from the national fervour happening outside their walls by ‘Members-only signs’, or perhaps completely forgotten by the nationalists, in Bombay’s many colonial-era private clubs, life continued as usual.

Why should we turn our attention to these forgotten spaces, which the majority of people cannot even peak into? Politically, the only real oppressive quality of these clubs are the mythicised “No dogs or Indians” signs that were said to be prominently displayed at the entrances. They were exclusionary spaces, building real walls to separate the rulers and the natives. But in the larger story of the colonisation of India, clubs remain largely inoffensive. 

It is this benign presence that makes them relevant in the age of reparations. The clubs themselves seem to have frozen in time in 1947: the cane furniture, the wood panelling, the archaic rules of a civilised people and the scent of elitism all remain untouched. But the new Indian members have infused in them post-colonial energy. Clubs have evolved gradually over the past 72 years with no urgent pressure from those who would consider McDonald’s a threat to the street snack vada pav. It is a rare, untainted specimen in a time when colonial kitsch dominates the common consciousness by propagating a mythicised version of the charm of Raj-era India and creating a disconnect between our faraway understanding of that history and the reality of it that surrounds us.

If the story of centuries of imperial power can be told through a humble peppercorn, the story of post-colonial Bombay can be told through the cultures emerging around eating at these clubs. The food served at these establishments is a perfect distillation of the tug-of-war that continues to happen between staunchly independent Indian-ness and quaint, forgotten British-ness. The names of dishes, like Steak Phelomina and cocktail naans, are the contemporary equivalent of Hobson-Jobson. It is consequential that sev puri, a typically Bombay street snack, is eaten on the lawns of the Willingdon Sports Club, a club named after the 22nd Viceroy of India, Lord Willingdon, by ladies who have gathered together for high-tea. It is fascinating that dishes like Eggs Kejriwal and Chicken Manchurian were invented in clubs and have remained popular decades later, even in England. Club fare is inarguably a cuisine, albeit one without a geographical origin or formal history, built on the ideas that led to the creation of the food, the practices, spaces and objects designed for its consumption. 

But as a city, we have been playing a fruitless game of hide-and-seek with our colonial past for too long, acknowledging only what suits us and ignoring the rest. This book attempts to unbiasedly approach the hybrid nature of post-colonial Bombay through the food served at these clubs. The goal is not to sift through club menus to reclaim our food versus theirs, or to reject the colonial influence in search of an illusory uninterrupted Indian origin story. Instead, the goal is to honour the influence of the past on the reality of today and to give form to the culture that has emerged around eating at clubs, and the reflection of the beliefs of a people in the way they eat. 

Read the rest of the book here:

ResearchSneha Mehta