Where Mahatma Gandhi met Vallabhai Patel in Ahmedabad

THE GUJARAT CLUB, the oldest club in Ahmedabad, stands opposite the Ahmed Shah Masjid, the oldest mosque in the city. The club was founded in 1888 by Rao Bahadur Nagarji Desai. With over 1000 members, the much used clubhouse is in an unmodernised condition. Located next to the recently constructed (2020) City Civil and Session’s Court, the Club is a ‘hang-out” and informal meeting place for many senior advocates. In former times, the place was frequented by Ahmedabad’s wealthy Mill owners and high ranking Britishers. It was the first Indian club that admitted Indians as well as Europeans from the moment it was established.

Vallabhai Patel above a doorway at the Gujarat Club

The Club is located close to a house where Sardar Vallabhai Patel (1875-1950) lived. Patel frequented the Club regularly and played bridge there. It was where he first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1916. A tree marks the spot where they chatted.

After having passed the Bar Examination at London’s Middle Temple, where my wife achieved the same thing many years later, Patel came to live in Ahmedabad. The first meeting with Gandhi at the Club marked the start of Patel’s attachment to the Mahatma’s cause. Years later, Patel played a key role in uniting the former Princely States with what had been British India to form the India of today. An important freedom fighter for Indian independence, he became a senior member of the country’s government after 1947. A close associate of Gandhi, the two men chose to differ on how to deal with certain issues, for example the creation of Pakistan.

We sat under the verandah of the Gujarat Club and enjoyed cups of tea. From where we sat we could see a large rectangular open space, which was being used as a car park. The ground was marked out with tennis court lines and a couple of nets were stretched between rows of parked cars.

We began conversing with an advocate at the next table. When he learned that my wife was a barrister, he kindly offered to show us around the neighbouring court building.

We spent well over an hour sitting in various court rooms. Most of these had two layers of glass screens, separating the judges and the court officials from the rest of the room: a covid precaution.

Several things impressed my wife as being different from what happens in British courtrooms. First, the plaintiffs are permitted to speak directly with the judges, rather than via intermediaries such as barristers. Secondly, the judges seemed to be handed the papers of a case at the moment it was about to be heard, rather than in advance. Thirdly, each judge was able to switch seamlessly between fluent Gujarati, Hindustani, and English. Also, they made decisions far more rapidly than their counterparts in the UK.

After our fascinating visit to the court house, our host and a charming advocate from his firm invited us to return to the court and the Club to celebrate Republic Day on the following morning, the 26th of January 2023. We accepted, and I will describe the events in another essay.

Our visit to the vibrant Gujarat Club proved far more exciting than we had anticipated. What was once a place where mill owners rubbed shoulders with British officers and officials, where Patel first met Gandhi, is now a congenial place where advocates meet, converse, read, and relax.

Two architects and a painter in Ahmedabad

ON TUESDAY THE 24th of January 2023, we arrived in the city of Ahmedabad in the Indian State of Gujarat. That evening, we visited a friend who had been the curator of a building in Ahmedabad, which had been designed by the architect Le Corbusier. Our friend was pleased to see us but was upset because a close friend had died that morning at the age of 95. That friend had been a disciple collaborator of Le Corbusier.

Our friend’s friend was Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, who was born in Pune in 1927. He worked with Le Corbusier in Paris between 1951 and 1954. He returned to Ahmedabad to supervise Le Corbusier’s architectural projects in that city. In 1955, Doshi established his own studio in Ahmedabad, and was working there until the day before he died.

Clearly influenced by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, with whom he designed the campus of the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), his (some might say Brutalist) architecture embodies the ideals of Le Corbusier in a much more user-friendly form than that which his mentor produced.

Amdavad ni Gufa

Next door to CEPT University in Ahmedabad much of which was designed by Doshi, there stands Doshi’s most unusual edifice, the Amdavad ni Gufa (the Ahmedabad Cave), which was completed by 1990. Its is difficult to describe this structure, but I will try. Covered in a mosaic of black and white ceramic tiling, it resembles an enormous caterpillar partially submerged in the ground. It is a giant caterpillar punctuated by bulbosities of various sizes, some of which have hemispherical windows at the end of short stalks that project from the dome-like bulbosities.

Steps descend to the two entrances of the Gufa. Originally designed as an art gallery, its irregular shape and wavy floor deemed it unsuitable for its intended purpose. Within the Gufa, the ceiling is supported by irregularly shaped columns that resemble stalactites with have joined with stalagmites beneath them. The strange space, which was too odd to be used as a gallery, is now decorated with sculptures and murals painted by the celebrated Indian artist MF Husain (1915-2011).

The Gufa is one of the ‘must-see’ sights of Ahmedabad. With the recent demise of Doshi and the earlier death of Husain, the Gufa makes a fitting memorial to these two great creators.

Geometric and meaningful

BETWEEN A ZOROASTRIAN (Parsi) well and Churchgate railway station, both in central Mumbai, there stands a wonderful steel sculpture, which was financed by the Tata company (named after its Parsi founder).

The sculpture, completed in 2011, is the creation of the architect Nuru Karim and colleagues. Consisting of two closely placed spirals, it rises to a height of 11 metres. The spirals are formed using a set of triangular frames made of a type of Tata steel alloy.

The sculpture is named ‘Charkha’, which means ‘spinning wheel’, and refers to the spinning wheel which Mahatma Gandhi encouraged his followers to use to help make India self-sufficient and less dependent on British imported textiles. Each of the triangles are unique. Combined together in this sculpture, they are supposed to portray unity within diversity, and India’s rich mix of diverse cultures. In other words, the artwork is expressing the idea or hoped-for ideal that although a rich mix of different people, India is one united country.

Whether or not India has achieved this ideal, this sculpture is both aesthetically pleasing and a welcome addition to Mumbai’s incredibly rich mix of visual delights.

A bell at Byculla railway station

THE RAILWAY LINE between Bombay(Mumbai) and Thane was opened in 1853. Byculla Station was one of its original stations when trains began running along this stretch of track. At first a wooden building, it was soon replaced by the present stone structure, which was ready for use in 1857. This historic station, the oldest surviving railway station in India. was beautifully restored recently.

On platform 1, I spotted an old bell hanging close to one of the station’s offices. It is marked with the initials “GIPR”and the date 1863. The letters are the initials of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway company, which was incorporated in 1849. In contract with the British East India Company, its aim was to link the British Presidencies by rail. The first stretch to be built was that between Bombay and Thane.

The bell carries the name of its manufacture – “Mears & Co. Founders London”. This bell foundry, first established in the 16th century, moved to London’s Whitechapel Road in the very early 18th century. It was where one of the largest bells in St Paul’s Cathedral was made. The Mears family ran the foundry between 1784 until 1873.

The foundry ceased working in 2017. The bell at Byculla Station has by now long outlived the bell foundry in Whitechapel and the British Empire, during whose existence it was manufactured.

One lady with four husbands

ALTHOUGH THERE WERE ALREADY villages on the banks of the River Hooghly where the city of Kolkata (Calcutta) now stands, the Britisher Job Charnock (1630-1693), a man of commerce, is often regarded as the founder of Calcutta. He died there and his remains are interred in a charming mausoleum (1695) of oriental design in the churchyard of Kolkata’s former cathedral, the church of St John.

Job Charnock’s mausoleum

Job does not rest alone in that structure. His companions include the surgeon William Hamilton, who died in 1717. He had cured Ferukseer, the “ King of Indostan”, and beneath his memorial, written in English, there is another written in Persian script. Job’s wife Mary lies next to him. She died in 1700. There is no mention of his other wife, an Indian named Maria. There is also a memorial to Martha Eyles, who died in 1748, having first been married to John Gumley (who died in Dhaka in what is now Bangladesh), and then married Edward Eyles, who was on the council of Calcutta’s Fort William.

Whereas Martha Eyles had had two husbands, Mrs Frances Johnson, whose remains lie in a mausoleum a few feet away from Charnock’s, had a more exciting marital record. Born in 1725, she died in 1812 at the age of 87. Frances had four husbands. First, she married Parry Purple Templer, then after his demise , James Altham. Mr Altham died of smallpox a few days after marrying Frances. Next, she married William Watts, and they produced 4 children. In 1774, after the death of Mr Watts, she married the Reverend William Johnson. He survived until Frances died.

Apart from the above-mentioned graves in the churchyard of St John’s, there are many others that commemorate the deaths of early European inhabitants of Charnock’s Calcutta, and there is also a memorial to those who died in the Black Hole of Calcutta, but more about this at a later date.

Colour bar at prestigious clubs

LAST NIGHT, THE 18th of January 2023, a relative by marriage hosted us for dinner at a historic swimming club in Kolkata. It was established in 1887. However, it was not until the 1960s that Indians were able to become members.

Despite India becoming independent of British rule in 1947, many of the prestigious clubs established in India prior to that date did not admit Indians as members until several years later.

In the 1960s, when eventually the Tollygunge Club in South Kolkata began admitting Indians as members, my father-in-law was offered membership to this exclusive previously ‘whites only’ club. He turned down the offer because he was a nationalist at heart and was upset that the Club had remained racist so long after 1947. In contrast, he happily became a member of the Bangalore Club, which welcomed Indian members almost immediately after Independence.

It is a mark of the tolerance of Indians that elite clubs (and some schools) were allowed to exclude non-Europeans so long after 1947, and, incidentally, that statues of Queen Victoria (and other British ‘worthies’) can still be found intact in many Indian cities.

St Paul’s Cathedral without a dome

IN FEBRUARY 1961, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip paid a visit to Kolkata (Calcutta). People lined the streets along which they drove. Every now and then their car stopped and the Queen shook hands with people in the crowds. A little girl stepped forward to shake Her Majesty’s hand. Thirty-three years later that little girl became my wife.

Apart from shaking hands with the future Mrs Yamey, the Queen visited Kolkata’s Anglican St Paul’s Cathedral. Unlike is namesake in London, it does not have a dome. It was built to replace the older St John’s Cathedral. St Paul’s foundation stone was laid in 1839 and the gothic revival edifice was completed by 1847. It was designed by Major General William Nairn Forbes og the Bengal Engineers. Since its completion, various disasters have necessitated repairs, but the edifice looks to be in good condition.

The Cathedral is full of interesting features, a few of which I will now mention. The stained glass window at the western end of the church was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Burne-Jones. The mosaic panels that can be found on the east wall were the creations of Arthur Blomfield, who was involved in the design of many Victorisn churches in London. The walls of the nave have the crests of the Dioceses of the former Anglican Province of The Church of India. Prior to 1947, St Paul’s was the Mother Church of what are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka.

I noticed that the pews in the nave are divided into male a female sections, separated by the central corridor. A Church worker explained that the sexes are no longer separated during services and that the signs marking where men and women should sit have been left as historical curiosities.

The TocH Chapel was dedicated on Armistice Day 1927. It contains the impressive sculpted funerary memorial to Sir Charles Allen, Chairman of the Calcutta Corporation. It also contains the helmet of an Indian soldier who died while fighting in the 1971 Bangladesh War. Next to this is a crucifix made from charred timber from a war damaged house in Bangladesh. These monuments to those who fell in Bangladesh are remarkably moving.

I have mentioned a few things that interested me in St Paul’s. In addition to these, there are plenty of memorials to Britishers, who came to India for one reason or another, and died there. One example of these is George Ham from Bristol, who drowned in the River Hooghly in 1866, aged 33.

Photographs of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the cathedral are on display within it. When my wife saw these today, the 18th of January 2023, she remembered shaking the hand of royalty back in 1961, and told me about it.

All wrapped up

TODAY, WE SENT some books from Kolkata to Bengaluru (Bangalore) to lighten our luggage because domestic flights in India restrict the amount of baggage one can carry. The process reminded me of sending books from other countries.

I used to visit Yugoslavia a lot when it still existed. One one occasion, I wanted to send some heavy books from Belgrade to London. I went to a large centrally located post office. Within the building there was a counter for wrapping parcels. For book post, the books had to be wrapped a certain way. They had to be packed so that a part of each book was left uncovered. This was so that the customs and postal people could see that it was books that were being dispatched.

In 1984, I visited Yugoslavia’s neighbour Albania, which was then under the strict Stalinist dictatorship headed by Enver Hoxha. We had to travel through Yugoslavia to reach and leave Albania. I had read that books from Albania would be confiscated by the Yugoslav customs, and that it was best to post any books bought in Albania back to the UK. In anticipation of this and following the advice that parcel wrapping materials were not available in Albania, I brought brown wrapping paper, adhesive tape, and string from home.

I bought several books in Albania and wrapped them up with the materials I had brought from England. Along with a fellow traveller, an Australian post office official, I took the parcels to a post office in central Tirana. The parcels were weighed by a person at a counter, and he handed me the right amount of stamps for each package. After affixing the stamps, I handed the parcels to the Albanian post office worker. He examined them, then tore off one of the stamps before rapidly reapplying it. I had inadvertently stuck on the stamp upside down. As he restuck the stamp, which bore an image of Albania’s fictator, he said “Enver Hoxha “. Apparently, sticking him upside down was considerable disrespectful. My Australian companion was horrified. He exclaimed:
“Removing postage stamps from mail is against international postal regulations. He shouldn’t have done that.”

Today, in Kolkata, we took our books to a post office in Park Street. Pn ots steps, there are several men who wrap and label parcels to be posted. One of them took our books, wrapped them in cloth bags, and then in a strong plastic sheet, which he carefully sewed up with a beedle and thick thread. This was then wrapped in another layer of plastic, sealed with tape. Upon this he wrote the address to which it was being sent, and our address in Kolkata. Then the whole thing was wrapped in tough transparent plastic to protect the parcel from adverse weather conditions. After this, he carried to parcel to the correct counter, where we paid the postage: about £2.75 for 8 kilograms. The wrapper’s charge was less than £1.

The books I sent from Yugoslavia and Albania arrived safely. So have other parcels I have sent by post from one Indian city to another. So, I am reasonably optimistic that our 8 Kg packet will arrive ‘in good nick’.