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.

The bodies which came back to life

AT ABOUT FIVE in the morning, a taxi dropped us off at the Madras Gymkhana Club in Chennai. It was late February 1994, and we had just disembarked from an overnight train from Bangalore. We were going to rest at the Club before taking a flight to Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Today, the 8th of January 2023, we revisited the Gymkhana Club, and seeing the place reminded me of a strange experience we had there back in February 1994. The Club, which was founded in 1884, has as its main building an edifice gifted by the Rajah of Venkatanagiri in 1886. Compared with the Madras Club, south of it, its architecture is far less refined.

When we got out of our taxi before daybreak in February 1994, we entered the main building, which was unlit at such an early hour. The night watchman at the reception desk asked us to sit in some armchairs near the entrance until the morning receptionist arrived. After sitting for a while in the hot, humid reception area, the sun began to rise and the Club’s interior began to become visible slowly.

I noticed that we were sitting close to a very large room. As the light improved, I saw that the room was filled with tables. The tables were covered with napkins, cutlery, and plates of unfinished food. Alongside the tables, there were bodies lying on the floor. Soon after dawn, these bodies came to life. They belonged to the Club’s staff – waiters and so on. These people then proceeded to clear up the remains of the previous night’s banquet. Maybe, they had finished too late at night to make it worthwhile to return to their homes for a few hours.

Seeing these people lying in the gloomy light of daybreak and then coming back to life was a memorable experience. Visiting the Gymkhana Club today, 29 years later, evoked this memory powerfully.

Our brief visit to the Club today was quite different. The place seemed far from sleepy, and we received a warm welcome.

A Modulor in Bangalore

THE BOWRING INSTITUTE is a private members’ social club in central Bangalore (Bengaluru). It was established in 1868, and has been standing on its present site since 1888. The club has recently undergone a tasteful restoration and improvement. The old 19th century buildings can be seen in their full glory, looking as if they have only just been constructed.

One external wall of a club building has been adorned with a huge panel decorated with two Modulors. The Modulor is a symbol created by the great pioneer of 20th century architecture, Le Corbusier. It looks like a man with one arm raised and was designed by Le Corbusier to be “ a visual bridge between two scales: the metric and the imperial…” It was also connected with his philosophy that the proportions of structures should be related to those of the human body.

Le Corbusier had several connections with India. For example, he was intimately involved in the design of the city of Chandigarh and created a few wonderful buildings in Ahmedabad.

That said, I have yet to discover why the Modulor was placed twice on a panel at the Bowring Institute so long after its creator’s death. I would like to think that it is a fitting reminder of the considerable influence that Le Corbusier has had on 20th century Indian architects, including Balkrishna Doshi, whose studio and offices are in Ahmedabad.

A refreshing breeze in Goa

I SHOULD NOT BE TELLING you about a wonderful place in the heart of Panjim in Goa, but I will.

The Clube Vasco da Gama is situated on the first floor of a building beside Panjim’s lovely Municipal Garden. Founded in 1909, it occupied other buildings before it moved to its present site. With a pleasant decor, which evokes times long past, the Clube serves a wide range of drinks and superbly prepared Goan food. Today, we enjoyed baby squids stuffed with minced vegetable and chopped up squid, served in a tasty sauce. We also ate croquettes filled with a mildly spiced prawn purée. In addition, we consumed fried fish served in a very spicy sauce. Everything tasted wonderful, and as we will be in Panjim for several days, we will work our way through the menu.

We first came across the Clube in April 2018, when the weather was almost unbearable: extremely hot and humid. Quite by chance we came across the Clube and decided to enter it. We discovered that it has two small balconies, each overlooking the Gardens. Each of them has a small table with three chairs. All day long, there is a lovely, cooling breeze blowing across these two tables, making them the coolest places to sit in central Panjim (without resorting to finding places with air-conditioning).

It is because there are only two of these wonderfully positioned tables, it is with some trepidation that I am telling you about them. I do not want to turn up at the Clube to find them occupied by those who have just read this!

Czech it out

JAN GARRIGUE MASARYK was born in Prague (Czechoslovakia) in 1886. Son of the first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), Jan was Foreign Minister of his country between 1940 and 1948, when two things happened. First, the Communists began tightening their grip on Czechoslovakia and possibly connected with that, Jan Masaryk was found dead in his pyjamas in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry in Prague on the 10th of March. By 1948, Prague already had a reputation for defenestration. Whether or not Jan was pushed out of a window remains uncertain. Two years earlier, a large non-descript house in Hampstead’s West End Lane became home to the recently formed National House, a meeting place for Czechoslovaks (mainly war veterans) in London. Now, it is known as Bohemia House. Its website (https://bohemiahouse.london/beginning-of-national-house/) explains:

“After communist revolution in 1948 and the USSR invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968, providing the homely atmosphere as well as traditional cuisine. Converted into public house in mid 80’s, the National House serves also as a traditional restaurant showcasing Czech & Slovak cuisines to the public.”

It was in the 1980s that I first began visiting the place to sample Czechoslovak food and drink. After many years, I revisited the place recently (in March 2022).

If it were not for the sign advertising Pilsner Urquell beer projecting above a tall privet hedge, most passers-by would hardly notice that they were passing what is now a bar and restaurant. Immediately after entering via the front door, I noticed several commemorative plaques. One of them honours the British historian RW Seton-Watson (1879-1951), who fought for the rights of the Czechs and Slovaks and other subject people/nations of the former Austro-Hungarian Empireafter WW1. Next to that, there is a large metal plate remembering the Czechoslovak “soldiers, airmen, and patriots”, who fell in WW2. It makes special mention of the Czechoslovak men who flew from Leamington Spa and were parachuted into their Nazi-occupied country to assassinate Heydrich (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/11/25/leamington-spa-heydrich-and-the-tragedy-at-lidice/).

A doorway from the hallway leads into a front room used as a formal dining room. This is decorated in a mildly baroque style. A gold-framed portrait of TG Masaryk faces the door. Various other framed portraits including one of Queen Elizabeth II hang on the walls. A metal bust of TG Masaryk stands on a mantlepiece next to a credit card machine and a metal sculpture of a Czech airman and there is an old-fashioned gramophone with an LP on its turntable between the two metal sculptures. The formal dining room is separated by a folding screen from a much larger room behind it. The latter, with tables and chairs, a pool table, and a table-football unit, is a less formal space, which I do not remember from the 1980s. In those days, food was served to ‘outsiders’ in the formal front room.

The larger, rear room with windows overlooking the back garden has several interesting objects on its walls. A sombre-looking metal plate covered with many names lists those who “gave their lives for Freedom” between 1939 and 1945. On the wall facing this, there are two posters with photographs of Alexander Dubček (1921-1992), a Slovak Communist politician, who tried to reform the Communist government during the Prague Spring of 1968, which ended after a few months when the Soviet Army invaded his country. On a wall behind the table-football unit, there are two large, colourful, framed maps. One is of the Czech Republic and the other of the Slovak Republic. Between the end of WW1 and 1993, the two now independent countries were parts of one country: the former Czechoslovakia.

A visit to the toilet involves climbing the stairs to the first floor. After ascending the first flight of stairs, the next short flight approaches a huge painting depicting TG Masaryk dressed in a flowing light beige coat and sporting a straw hat with a black ribbon tied above its rim.

Today, Bohemia House continues to welcome guests, both from the lands, which were once Czechoslovakia, as well as others. Its bar offers a range of beers, spirits, wines, and soft drinks, from that region of Central Europe. I sampled a can of Kofola, a carbonated Czech soft drink, whose taste vaguely resembles Coca Cola. The pint of Pilsner Urquell beer was more enjoyable. We also tried a variety of dishes typically cooked in the Czech and Slovak republics. They were enjoyable enough, but I prefer the cuisines of both Poland and Hungary. However, do not let this comment put you off paying a visit to Bohemia House, where you will receive a warm welcome from its charming staff. And … if you wish to know more about Hampstead’s Czechoslovak, other Central European, and Soviet historical associations, you could do no better than to read my new book about the area, available from Amazon [https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92] and bookdepository.com [https://www.bookdepository.com/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ITS-ENVIRONS-2022-Adam-Yamey/9798407539520]).

Sir Anthony Blunt sat here often

HOME HOUSE IN London’s Portman Square was completed in 1777 for the wealthy Elizabeth Home, Countess of Home (c1703-1784). Born in Jamaica into a slave-owning family, her wealth was produced by the unpaid labour of slaves imported from Africa. The house is remarkable, especially for its intricately detailed interior décor designed by the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792).

In 1933, Home House became home to the Courtauld Institute of Art, now part of the University of London. A close friend of mine, now sadly deceased, studied at the Courtauld for both his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate. Whilst writing his doctoral thesis, my friend was supervised by Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983). Blunt was the director of the Courtauld from 1947 to 1974. He was also in charge of the Royal Collections of art from 1945 onwards. In addition, he carried out much important scholarly work in the field of history of art. Blunt, as director of the Courtauld, was given a flat in Home House.

Until 1979, few people knew, or even suspected, that Blunt had been involved with spying for the Soviet Union.  When this came out into the public domain, Blunt’s downfall commenced. He was stripped of his knighthood and his Honorary Fellowship at Cambridge’s Trinity College was rescinded. Also, Blunt resigned as a Fellow of the British Academy. Soon after his exposure as an espionage agent, who worked against his own country for the Soviet Union, Blunt ceased residing at Home House. In 1989, the Courtauld Institute shifted from Home House to larger premises in Somerset House in the Strand. Home House remained vacant until 1998, by which time it had been beautifully restored and adapted to become a private social club. During a recent visit to Home House when we were entertained by a friend, our host, a member, took us to see an interesting exhibit, which is housed in the wash basin area of one of the Club’s unisex toilets. We were shown a glass-fronted display case containing a wooden furniture item. It bears a label with the words: “From the bathroom of Sir Anthony Blunt”. The labelled object is the toilet seat on which Blunt must have sat numerous times, and its wooden lid. Another case in the room contains Blunt’s telephone. Although the loo seat and the ‘phone are unremarkable except for their provenance, the rest of Home House is a visual delight.

Calling the world

WHEN I WAS A CHILD, the family possessed a radio, which could receive long wave, medium wave, and short-wave signals. It was made by Pye, contained in a dark brown wooden cabinet, and took several minutes to ‘warm up’ before anything could be heard from it. It was faced with glass screen behind which there was a list of radio stations and a vertical cursor that could be moved across the list to tune into different stations. The stations listed were, to my young mind, quite exotic. They included places such as Berlin, Budapest, Beromunster, Moscow, Prague, Monte-Carlo, Leipzig, Hilversum, Vienna, Sofia, Cairo, and Luxembourg. One of the places on the tuning screen sounded far less exotic to me: Daventry. I knew that this place was somewhere in the English Midlands, and that gave it less appeal to me than places further afield and across the sea.

Recently, we spent a couple of nights near Rugby in Warwickshire. After leaving it to travel eastwards, we noticed that we would be passing through Daventry, and decided to stop there for breakfast. Prior to our arrival in that small town in Northamptonshire, I believed that it would turn out to be a place of little interest apart from the fact that I remembered having seen its name on our old radio back home in the early 1960s. How wrong I was to have pre-judged Daventry so harshly.

We parked next to a modern shopping centre, attractively arranged around an open space in which people were enjoying refreshments at outdoor tables and chairs. This contemporary shopping precinct is close to the High Street, which runs from Market Square to Tavern Lane. This thoroughfare is rich in historic buildings.

Overlooking Market Square is the former Daventry Moot Hall, an 18th century building, and beyond it on a slight elevation is the Holy Cross Church. This neo-classical style church was built between 1752 and 1758 to the design of David Hiorne (1715-1758) of Warwick. Not only does it resemble London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, but on a smaller scale (and with a far smaller portico), but also many churches built by the British in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. Seeing the church in Daventry reminded me of the far larger St John’s Church in central Calcutta and the Danish church at Serampore on the River Hooghly. Unfortunately, the church in Daventry was not open when we visited it.

At the other end of the High Street, where it continues as the narrower Tavern Lane, there is a curious building with gothic revival features and crenellations. We asked an elderly man about the building and he told us that it used to be the BBC Club. It was then that I remembered that Daventry had connections with radio broadcasting. I recalled seeing the place’s name on our old radio at our home in northwest London. Our informant reminded us that for many years the transmitters near Daventry carried news and other broadcasts from Britain to the rest of the world.

On the 27th of July 1925 at 730 pm, the BBC began broadcasting from its new station at Daventry. At first, these transmissions could be received on crystal radio sets within a 250-mile radius of a circle with Daventry at its centre. Soon after this, broadcasts could be received far further afield. This was further augmented when the BBC installed much more powerful transmitters in about 1927. By the end of WW2, Daventry was transmitting the ‘highbrow’ Third Programme (now, ‘Radio 3’) broadcasts.

In December 1932, Daventry began transmitting programmes to a world-wide audience on the Empire Service. As the threat of war increased during the 1930s, Daventry started transmitting regional services such as The Arabic Service (in Arabic) and The Latin American Service (in Spanish). After WW2 broke out, there were broadcasts in many other foreign languages. Some monitoring of foreign broadcasts was also carried out in Daventry.

During the Cold War that followed the end of WW2, Daventry was involved in the transmission of programmes to people living on the Soviet side of the so-called Iron Curtain. Until its closure in 1992, the radio station and its transmitters at Daventry were continually updated. One of several reasons for its closure was the end of the Cold War following Gorbachev’s leadership of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now, returning to the gothic revival building at the end of Daventry’s High Street, here is what Norman Tomalin, who worked at Daventry and has written a history of its radio station (www.bbceng.info/Books/dx-world/dx-world.htm), has to say about it:

“For the many thousands of BBC staff who briefly came to Daventry, the BBC Club … was home from home. It provided a central cosy meeting place, a break from the digs, a bar, billiards, table tennis, and photographic rooms and on the top floor, pride of place, a much treasured amateur radio transmitter. Call sign 5XX”

‘5XX’ was the call sign of the first transmitter at Daventry. It was superseded by another ‘5GB’ in 1927.

Our elderly informant told us that he remembered that broadcasts from his hometown used to begin with the words: “Daventry Calling The World”. In his book “Daventry Calling”, Tomalin wrote that the very first broadcast from Daventry began with the words: “Daventry Calling”, for back in 1927, it was not the world that could receive the programmes, only people in the UK.

I wonder how many of the people who listened to broadcasts from Daventry all over the world had any idea where the town was and if they did, did they wonder if it was as great a city as many of the others that appeared on radio tuning dials.

Dining in a church

A FRIEND INVITED us to dine one evening at the exclusive Mosimann’s Club in West Halkin Street in London’s elegant Belgravia district. As it was dark when we arrived and I was too busy chatting with our host, I failed to notice the exterior of the establishment. Years later, I noticed that the narrow façade of this fancy eatery, named ‘The Belfry’, is that of a Victorian gothic church with a slender spire.

The church was being used by the Presbyterians in 1866, so wrote Edward Walford in the 1880s. The website of The London Metropolitan Archives catalogue reveals more:

“…a chapel was built on Lower George Street, called the Ranelagh Chapel. In 1845, on the death of the Methodist minister, the church joined the English Presbyterian Church and was renamed Ranelagh Presbyterian Church. The lease on the Lower George Street chapel expired in 1866 and the church merged with a Presbyterian Mission in West Halkin Street, Belgrave Square. The name Belgrave Presbyterian Church was adopted. The church was rebuilt in 1881. In 1923 the church moved to premises in Emperor’s Gate, Kensington.”

The former church is an unusual structure in that the end facing the entrance is considerably wider than the façade. As to when it was originally built, I am uncertain. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, does not give it a mention in his extremely detailed guide to the buildings of the City of Westminster in which it is located. However, he does mention the chapel’s neighbour, to the left of it as you face the façade. Far more attractive than the chapel is the façade of its neighbour which is decorated in a neoclassical style. It has two porticos supported by pillars with Doric capitals. This building was built in about 1830.

Today, the Doric pillars flank entrances to a branch of Waitrose food stores. This shop also has an entrance on the street parallel to West Halkin Street, Motcombe Street. Thus, two temples of food stand side by side. If you cannot afford to dine in the former church, then you can console yourself and appease your appetite by acquiring something edible in Waitrose by stepping between the Doric pillars. In case you are wondering what we ate at Mosimann’s, I am afraid I cannot recall as it was so long ago, but I do remember enjoying it.

Kit Kat in Hampstead

KIT KAT CONFECTIONERY BARS are familiar to many people and I enjoy eating them occasionally. The ‘Kit Kat’ and ‘Kit Cat’ tradenames were registered by the Rowntree’s confectionery company in 1911, but the first chocolates bearing this name only appeared in 1920. Had you wanted to eat a Kit Kat in the early 18th century London, you would not have been served a chocolate item but a type of mutton pie. The Kit Kat mutton pie was the creation of Christopher Catling (aka ‘Katt’ and ‘Cat’), who had a pie house in Shire Lane near Temple Bar, which used to stand near the present-day Royal Courts of Justice on London’s Strand.

When walking in Hampstead Village recently, we saw something I had never noticed before during at least 60 years of visiting the area. It was wording above the doorway of a house on the corner of Heath Street and the much narrower Holly Bush Steps. The words are: “Kit Cat House” and (below them) “A.D. 1745”. Above one of the ground floor windows, that which is nearest to Heath Street but on the wall facing Holly Bush Steps, there are some painted letters, which I will discuss later.

The Kit Cat Club (also sometimes spelled as ‘Kit Kat’) was an 18th century club whose members were of the Whig political persuasion. Members included  literary men such as William Congreve, John Locke, Sir John Vanbrugh, and Joseph Addison; and politicians including Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Burlington, Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, The Earl of Stanhope, Viscount Cobham, Abraham Stanyan and Sir Robert Walpole, who was Prime Minister between 1721 and 1742. The painter Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was yet another member. He painted portraits of 48 members of the club, which are now kept in the National portrait Gallery.

The club is commonly believed to be named after Christopher Catling and his mutton pies, but this is not known for certain. The club’s meetings were held at first in Catling’s tavern in Shire Lane (which no longer exists). Then, they were held at the Fountain Tavern on the Strand, which stood where today stands Simpsons on the Strand, and then later at purpose-built premises at Barn Elms (between Barnes and Fulham). In summer, the members met at the Upper Flask in Hampstead.

The Upper Flask, which was demolished long ago, was a pub located on the corner of East Heath Road and Heath Mount, that is on the south corner of East Heath Road and Heath Street, about 190 yards north of the present Kit Cat House on Holly Bush Steps. It was on the site of the now closed Queen Mary’s Maternity Home that received patients between 1919 and 1975.

Edward Walford, writing in his encyclopaedic “Old and New London” (volume 5, published in 1878), noted:

“The ‘Upper Flask’ was at one time called ‘Upper Bowling-green House,’ from its possessing a very good bowling green …  when the Kit-Kat Club was in its glory, its members were accustomed to transfer their meetings in summer time to this tavern, whose walls – if walls have ears – must have listened to some rare and racy conversations … Mr Howitt in his ‘Northern Heights of London’ gives a view of the house as it appeared when that work was published (1869). The author states that the members of the Kit-Kat Club used ‘to sip their ale under the old mulberry tree, which still flourishes, though now bound together by iron bands, and showing signs of great age…’”

During the later year’s of the Club’s existence, in the first quarter of the 18th century, some of those members who sipped ale under this tree included the poets Shelley and Keats, who lived in Hampstead. Another member, who enjoyed meetings at the Upper Flask, the poet and physician Richard Blackmore (1654-1729), penned these lines about them in his poem “The Kit-Kats” (published in 1708):

“Or when, Apollo-like, thou’st pleased to lead

Thy sons to feast on Hampstead’s airy head:

Hampstead, that, towering in superior sky,

Now with Parnassus does in honour vie.”

So, the Kit Cat Club had an association with Hampstead, but was there any connection between the Club and the house on Holly Bush Steps, which bears the date 1745? The house was built in about 1800 (https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/item/IOE01/15805/21), which is after the period between 1696 and 1720, when the Club was active (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/73609). It is also after the date above the door, ‘1745’.

An old postcard, published sometime between 1903 and 1930, reveals that the house was once a shop belonging to ‘Francis’. This was J Francis of number 1 Holly Bush Steps. What J Francis sold is not certain but above the whitewash that covers the wall of the ground floor, the remains of an old painted sign can be seen on the brickwork. It reads:

“Libraries” and also “S ?? D”, the two question marks represent letters that have disappeared.  Other letters below the word ‘libraries’ have also gone. I wonder whether it once read ‘Libraries bought and sold’. Interesting as this is, it does not explain to me why the house is so named or the significance of the date 1745. So far, and this might be purely coincidental, the only connection I have found is that Robert Walpole, a member of the Kit Cat Club, died in 1745. However, I am not at all sure that this is why the date appears below the name above the door of the house on Holly Bush Steps.

I enjoy chance findings like that which I noticed in Hampstead and investigating their histories. I am not sure that I am much the wiser about the naming on the house on Holly Bush Steps, but whilst trying to find out about it, I have learnt a little more about the history of Hampstead, a part of London that was important to me during my childhood and which I continue to enjoy visiting. And as for Kit Kats, I would prefer that you offer me the chocolate version, rather than the mutton one.