From Mumbai Central to the Willingdon Sports Club of Bombay

The posh colonial world collides daily with the crazy street life of India. Anglicized local elites have replaced white Brits in many clubs. Thankfully, they are not taxing the peasants during famine, but questions about colonial legacy, injustice and identity persist.

March 13, 2024 21:59 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

On Thursday, March 7, one of our donors hosted a dinner at the Willingdon Sports Club in Mumbai, India. We had donors, alumni and readers show up. We spoke about politics, economics, different cultures and more over a delectable dinner. As I ate, I could not help but marvel at the imperial splendor of the dining room and indeed the entire club. In the not-too-distant past, only colonial administrators got to have such a jolly good time here; the club was a refuge for Brits in a wildly exotic land.

Even today, many Europeans and Americans speak of India as the final frontier. Like an onion, this part of the world has many layers. My trip to the Willingdon Club took me through many worlds in a few steps. Unlike the vast majority of the folks who graced the club, I arrived by local train. A friend very kindly guided me by telephone to get off at Mumbai Central after changing trains at Dadar. Google Maps had not given me the most accurate instructions. In fact, Google Maps often fails me in Mumbai, but that is a story for another day.

The dinner was at 8:00 PM, and the local train was not terribly crowded because I was headed in the opposite direction to most commuters. It was evening, so people were rushing back north to their homes after work whilst I was heading south. 

A walk through many worlds

I got off at Mumbai Central, where the platforms were still full of people, and exited west. Cars were honking crazily and pedestrians were weaving through traffic to cross the road in a relentless game of chicken that goes on almost at all hours of the day and night. I managed to cross the road without jeopardizing life and limb.

Mumbai Central railway station. Via Superfast1111 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The shops I walked past were mainly Muslim-owned. Elegant men sat with their long flowing beards and white caps waiting for customers to stroll in. As the road turned, I ran into a Hindu wedding procession with the groom on a white horse, with a band playing Bollywood tunes in front of the horse and some members of the marriage party dancing in wanton abandon before the band. The procession was moving at a glacial pace, but no one in the neighborhood seemed to care two hoots about it.

I watched the procession for a bit, wondering how austere-looking Muslims were living cheek-by-jowl with music-blaring Hindus, and walked on. I came across a drug rehabilitation center as I walked on, and the smell of urine mixed curiously with the spring evening air. The pavement (sidewalk in American English) was unwalkable because some people were living on it. So, I walked along the side of the road before weaving through cars in some sort of strange parking lot for taxis. I smelled a mix of rubber and oil as I walked between the vehicles.

Eventually, I entered the Willingdon Club and was transported back in time. Clearly, this was a club built in the heyday of empire. Faux Greco-Roman columns, tennis courts and swimming pools adorned the exquisitely colonial bungalow-like building. A sumptuous bar and a restaurant with an exquisite mural covering an entire wall made for impressive viewing. Uniformed waiters seemed a throwback to another era. I can see why the British found it so hard to let go of their empire.

The King’s favorite tennis partner

I got to the Willingdon Club before everyone else and could not help but leaf through a fat coffee table book about the history of this storied institution. It turns out that the chap Indians refer to as Lord Willingdon began life as Freeman Freeman-Thomas. Like Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Rory Stewart, he was an Etonian, although unlike these three musketeers, Freeman-Thomas went to Cambridge, not Oxford. In fact, he went to Trinity College, a place where the likes of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and Lord Byron went before him.

Freeman-Thomas was a top sportsman, a quality expected in a colonial governor. After all, the Duke of Wellington, who served for eight years in India, had reportedly declared that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Freeman-Thomas joined the army, married well and rose up the social ladder smoothly. He became King George V’s favorite tennis partner and was elevated to the peerage as Baron Willingdon of Ratton in the County of Sussex.

In 1913, Lord Willingdon rocked up in India to become the Crown Governor of Bombay. He later went on to become Governor of Madras and the Viceroy as well. The good lord thought Mahatma Gandhi a Bolshevik and, in 1917, raised taxes by 23% in spite of a severe famine gripping in the Kheda region. Nevertheless, Gandhi is safely dead, and the Willingdon Club is suitably thriving in modern Mumbai. The city may have changed its name from Bombay, but the coffee book is still hagiographic about the smooth Etonian who squeezed every penny from dying brownie fuzzy wuzzies.

The club itself is a closed shop. Membership has been closed since 1985. The only new members are reportedly children of current members. Wealthy, old-money families have formed a good caste that shuts out the hoi polloi a stone’s throw away and maintains its colonial splendor. The King’s favorite tennis partner and his wife still have their portraits hanging proudly at the entrance and, except for a stray dog or cat, the hustle and bustle of the chaotic world outside does not disturb the good lord’s soul.

History is a poisoned chalice

The evening at the Willingdon Club was wonderful. I found our host gracious, warm and kind. All dinner companions were thoughtful and knowledgeable. The food was delicious and the ice cream sensational. Yet the evening at the club set me thinking. There are many relics of the British Raj all around the country. The common law system is an implant and few really buy into the law because it is in a language most people do not understand.

India’s army officers celebrate victories for their erstwhile British masters on their mess walls. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is an even more powerful version of the Indian Civil Service the British created. The Indian Police Service (IPS) is a modern day avatar of the Imperial Police. The Police Act of 1861, drafted when power transferred from the British East India Company to Queen Victoria’s government to ensure that the Indian Rebellion of 1857 did not recur, is still in place.

In short, India’s bureaucratic, judicial and military elite still suffers from the coconut complex. Even though they look brown, they act white. Increasingly, the children of the elite refuse to speak their mother tongue or any of India’s numerous languages.

One argument in favor of such a trend is that change is inevitable. Africa is now home to megachurches and names like Simon or Samuel. Like the weather, the Anglo-Saxon soft power of James Bond, Google and McKinsey is irresistible. To quote a Punjabi scholar, educated Indians have come through Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay’s system and aim to become modern day rai bahadurs, a resonant yet meaningless title that the British bestowed upon their toadies. Gandhi is dead, while Macaulay lives, and we have to just accept today’s realities.

Arguments against this trend range from traditionalists seeking to go back to the past to leftists who want to bring down colonial institutions in their quest for justice. Still others are deeply confused. Indians aspire to join colonial clubs and colonial institutions just like Africans and Latin Americans throng to colonial churches. Yet the very elites who belong to these institutions constantly blame the colonial masters for all their ills.

Nowhere is the confusion more stark than in the offices of the state. I have met numerous IAS officers gloating over the decline of the UK and claiming English is now an Indian language even as they down their scotch in these poncy clubs. Never have I really met anyone who is entirely comfortable in their own skin. India’s elite has a strange superiority complex vis-à-vis its own people while suffering an inferiority complex when it comes to the West. Nearly 77 years after independence, we are still struggling to make sense of the British Raj and come to terms with Anglo-Saxon culture.

I could go on, but the time has come for me to bid adieu. In our own way, we are trying to make sense of what is going on and give you perspectives from around the world, including and especially non-Anglo-Saxon ones. Yes, it is true I write in English, love my Shakespeare and went to Oxford, but we are questioning sensibly and sensitively issues that are driving our societies apart. So, send us your thoughts and make sure that you get your circle to subscribe to our newsletter and join a global conversation.


Atul Singh
Founder of Fair Observer 

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