Of Snooker, Churchill and Auld Lang Syne
Within its wood panelled walls, Snooker was anointed a new indoor sport. On its wooden dance floor Sir Winston Churchill was supposed to have danced as a young man when he was stationed in India. In its old world dining room as the pine logs burn in the sub zero temperatures of late December, you can close your eyes and imagine men in uniform sitting down to a dinner with venison as the main course after a day’s hunt. And if you try hard, you might just catch the whispers of late eighteenth century conversation in its wonderful old bar – ‘Mud in your eye ol’ chap’ perhaps?
It's a place where Time has almost stood still, a place that takes you back. Where the whispers of the past mingle with the laughter and chatter of the present. A place that seems to drag its feet even though the winds of change have blown in and brought about changes all around it.
Ootacamund or Udhagamandalam as it is officially known today nestles in the Nilgiris or the Blue Mountain Ranges of South India, 7500 feet above sea level. It is surrounded by tea growing estates but the town serves as a watering hole for all those who work in and around it and is an escape for families from the heat of the plains during school vacations. When the British discovered it in 1819, here’s how Lord Lytton described it in a letter to his wife: ‘Such beautiful English rain and English mud. Imagine Hertfordshire lanes, Devonshire downs, Westmoreland lakes, Scotch trout streams and Lusitanian views!’ In spite of the incongruous concrete structures that have sprung up, in spite of the tourist traffic that clogs up the narrow streets with huge vehicles in peak season, in spite of the haphazard development of the main town, the place still retains its old world charm especially outside the town limits or in some of the old establishments like the Ootacamund Club – also referred to as the ‘Snooty Ooty Club’ because it has only five affiliations all over the world and even if it is running empty, you just cannot book a room there unless it’s done through a member.
Years ago, on our way to the tea estates where my grandfather worked, we would sometimes stop here for scones and tea. So many years later, I wondered if my memory of the old place served me well and as we drove in through the gates into the driveway, this verse came unbidden to my mind:
But thou that didst appear so fair
To fond imagination,
Dost rival in the light of day
Her delicate creation
Our annual New Year get together couldn’t have been at a better place. We’ve been doing it every year for the past five years – a group of friends meeting somewhere far from the madding crowd. When you get into your forties and fifties, the loud and raucous New Year parties you loved, you can happily do without. Instead, there’s a joy in getting together with friends from all over the world in oases of peace and quiet – no, even if old acquaintance be forgot, old friends never will!
And a bit about Snooker. It was Sir Neville Chamberlain, a young man in the British army stationed in India, who first invented the game and it was in 1875 in an army cantonment town called Jabalpur where the first seeds were sown. Snooker was a term used for inexperienced new cadets. After he was wounded in the Afghan War, he served as part of the personal staff of General Sir Frederick Roberts and every summer was spent in the cool climes of the queen of the hills in South India – Ooty. There was plenty of time to hone and polish this new game and add to it with different coloured balls. Today, the staff at the Ooty Club will proudly tell you all about it and the room where this game became popular is jealously guarded and talked about with reverence.
The ballroom is huge and adorned with hunting trophies like heads of tigers, leopards and deer. You’ll find animal skins scattered around the gleaming parquet floors too. The rosewood furniture is polished and has a wonderful gleam that only comes with age. The dining room has portraits of British army officers astride on their horses – hunting was a favourite pastime. In the Reading Room where the air is filled with the smell of old leather and old books, a portrait of Queen Victoria gazes down on you. You wonder if you really are in the present or you’ve time-travelled back into the past.
Vestiges of a bygone era abound – some of them stuffy but it is what gives the club that old world charm. Men still have to wear a jacket and tie in the dining room. Children cannot eat in the main dining hall and there is a separate room where the same menu is served. Men who are not appropriately dressed are also banished to this section – no excuses are entertained. While modern fittings have been added to the rooms, the fireplaces hark back to the old days and in winter, the warmth and the sound of the fire crackling in the hearth is comforting. We stayed in the Annexe which was originally built to house ladies and you wonder as you look around what secrets those old walls hold!
It’s a spot in the midst of a world that is changing where Time seems to have been frozen. There are so many of these little islands that have insulated themselves from the passage of Time and all the changes it has wrought around them. Will the march of progress cause it to melt and merge with the world outside? Or like Tevye in the Fiddler on the Roof, will the Ooty Club be singing ‘Tradition’ and clinging to it like a lifeline, resisting all change for years to come?
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