A statue and a club

KNOWING MY INTEREST IN INDIA, my cousin kindly sent me some photographs of a statue she saw in a small cathedral city in North Yorkshire. The statue does not commemorate a former slave owner (or even abolitionist) but (if one wants to be politically correct) a former representative of the British ‘oppressors’ of some of their subject people. The city where the statue stands is Ripon and the subject depicted is George Frederick Samuel Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon (1827-1909).

Lift to the Ripon Club

The Marquess (‘Ripon’) was born on the 24th of October 1827 at 10 Downing Street, the London home of his father, the Prime Minister Frederick John Robinson, 1st Earl of Ripon (1782-1859), who was the British Prime Minister between the 31st of August 1827 and the 21st of January 1828. Educated privately, Ripon was awarded a degree in civil law by Oxford University. Between 1852 and 1880, Ripon had a diplomatic career, becoming involved in matters relating to the USA and the formation of Italy. During this period, he also served several terms as a Member of Parliament for various constituencies. In addition, he held various high government positions including a brief stint in 1861 acting as Under-Secretary of State for India.

Between 1880 and 1884, Ripon was the Viceroy of India, one with more liberal views than most other holders of this post. While in India, he tried to introduce legislation that would give Indians more rights, including the opening the possibility of allowing Indian judges to judge Europeans in court proceedings. This reform did not materialise because it met with vigorous opposition from Europeans living in the Indian subcontinent. Ripon was involved in developing forestry in India as well as taking part in at least one huge hunt that resulted in massive killing of wildlife. Some of his efforts during his rule of India were beneficial to his Indian subjects, for example the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 and the repeal of the Vernacular Press Act of 1878. The latter, introduced by the Viceroy Lord Lytton, prohibited criticism of British policy by the Indian language (i.e. vernacular) press but it did not apply to the English language press.

Ripon returned to England, where he held various important civic and political positions. When the Liberals took power in 1905, Ripon became Leader of the House of Lords, a position he retained until the end of his life.

Ripon is still remembered kindly by a few people in modern India including in Chennai (Madras), Riponpet (in the Shivamoga district of Karnataka), Multan (now in Pakistan), and in Bombay (now ‘Mumbai’). It was in the latter mentioned place that a good friend of ours, a Parsi, took us to see the Ripon Club on the third floor of an edifice on MG Road, the NM Wadia Building, in the Fort area of Bombay.

The Ripon Club, whose membership is open to Parsis aged over 18, was founded by eminent Parsis including Sir Phirozeshah Mervanji Mehta, Jamshedji Tata and Sir Dinshaw Manackjee Petit (grandfather of, Rattanbai, the wife of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah). All these gentlemen tried to improve life in India but had great respect for British imperial rule. The Club’s website (www.riponclub.in) informs that the place:

“…is a quaint, “Ole English-style” establishment for professionals such as Lawyers, Businessmen and Chartered Accountants to meet and enjoy their lunch. Of course, Parsi Zoroastrians from all professions are members of this beautiful club … the Ripon Club is the place to be if you whether you want to relax after a wonderful meal or entertain your guests and business associates … But time still stands still in this bustling club. The furniture from days gone by is evidence of this fact.”

It is much more than the furniture in the Club that gives the impression that time has stood still there. The building in which the Club is housed is old as is also its lift, which looks old enough to be preserved in a museum. However, it worked, and we ascended to the third floor. A pair of dark-coloured, wooden swinging doors, rather like the doors to saloon bars in films about the Wild West, serves as entrance to the Club. We entered a large dining room with many well-spaced tables and chairs, mostly unoccupied. The fittings and screens in this eating place look as if they might have been installed when the Club was founded. If this is not the case, they are certainly very old. The Club’s restaurant is famous for its Mutton Dhansak Buffet on Wednesday afternoons, a treat that I hope to enjoy some time in the future. Of course, we will need to be invited by one of our many kind Parsi friends, who is a member.Three or four people were eating lunch silently, served by a waiter, who was wearing a white shirt with black trousers.  Another room we visited was also furnished with tables and chairs in addition to padded armchairs and sofas, as well as glass fronted bookshelf cabinets. This room also contained the sculpted bust of an eminent Parsi gentleman, whose name I failed to note.

The Club also occupies the fourth floor of the building, but we did not venture there to see its billiards and cards rooms and the fine view from its windows. Although we did not spend long in the Club, we were able to see that it, like many old Parsi and Irani restaurants and other establishments run by these minorities in Bombay, has resisted the tide of time. How much longer these relics of long ago will last is a worrying concern because the world’s Parsi population is diminishing in size.

I am grateful to my cousin for sending me her photographs of Ripon’s statue in the city of Ripon and thereby stimulating me to look into the story of the man who gave his name to a fascinating little club in the heart of Bombay, which was shown to us in early 2018 by a good friend who resides in the city.

A place of refuge

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.