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.
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.