Tollygunge club

BELINDA WRIGHT

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IN the 1950s and ’60s, Calcutta was arguably the most stimulating place a privileged child could grow up in. Even today, a number of my childhood friends, and their parents, return there annually for their ‘Calcutta fix’. Much of our memories revolve round the Tollygunge Club, where we would be taken every afternoon to play, ride, swim and generally let off steam.

In 1972, my father Bob Wright, became the managing member of the club. It was a position he held for twenty-five years until he retired in 1997. My parents lived on at their beloved ‘Tolly’ until my father’s death in April 2005.

Tolly has paralleled the twists and turns of Calcutta’s fate more closely than you would think. The following tale is taken from various papers that my father wrote about the club.

The existing club house – an elegant, airy building – was built in 1851 by an indigo planter, a Scotsmen called Johnston. He and his family lived there until they perished from cholera. Many years earlier the property, along with a number of nearby houses, was given to Tipu Sultan’s widows and sons after they were brought to Calcutta by the British. Eventually the family scattered (surprisingly, many went to live in England) and the area fell into disrepair.

In 1895, the main building along with 130 acres was purchased by Sir William Cruickshank who was then head of the Bank of Bengal (that later became the State Bank of India). He had found the dilapidated property when he was out riding early one morning and lost his dog. It was Cruickshank who founded Tollygunge Club, largely as an equestrian facility, and gifted it to future members.

Until 1950, Tolly did not even have a boundary wall and buffaloes mingled with golfers and equestrians. The monthly subscription at the time was a princely Rs 25, although by paying an extra Rs 5 a month you could beat the queue for membership and become what was called a ‘millionaire member’. I remember as a small child riding out, not far from Tolly, into a beautiful rural Bengal, with green, green paddy fields.

The club flourished until 1972; as Calcutta’s fortunes waned, so did the club’s. The then secretary was murdered at his desk in broad daylight by a disgruntled worker, and his two successors were forced out by ‘violent agitation and disruption’ by the club staff. One night that same year, the club stables to the south of the property were set alight. The syces were woken by noble Toby, the guard dog, and they rushed the horses through the club gate to safety.

The president announced that with a capital of only two lakh rupees, the club could not meet its commitments, and Tolly came to a close.

My father was on the committee of the club and since his company had recently been nationalised, he was pressurised into taking over as the managing member. I well remember the angry strikers and how we feared for his life. Of those difficult days he modestly wrote, ‘The bad elements were hastily dismissed and the bulk of the good workers rallied around and the club reopened, and has flourished ever since.’

It was those same ‘good workers’ and their families that led my father’s 1,500-strong cortege through the streets of Kolkata when he died last year.

 

In 1973, came a second blow. The Government of West Bengal decided that Tolly was the perfect site for a vast new stadium. My father managed to persuade the authorities that the area was far too narrow by international standards by showing them a plan of Wembley Stadium that was air-dashed from London. But the club eventually had to give up a considerable amount of land, 25 acres in all, for the Metro Rail project for which they negotiated a handsome compensation.

Although this brought Tolly’s gymkhana racing to an end in 1982, it was really this compensation – and a second amount of Rs 134 lakh in 1983 – that brought new life to the club. The golf course was redesigned, the tennis courts were moved to their present site near the club house, four squash courts and a second swimming pool were built, new housing and a canteen were constructed for the staff, generators and tube wells were installed, and finally two accommodation blocks came up, Tolly Towers and Tolly Terrace, with 75 guest rooms.

Tolly is no longer the old fashioned, laid-back, frayed place that it was in my father’s time. I remember endless teas on the lawns with pate and jam, when the members knew the staff and each other by name. As the sun went down a black cloud of mosquitoes would came out to play, and we would all head home. The nights were for the jackals.

 

In March 2004, my father wrote: ‘Let us think of the future. Whilst dress restrictions have been fairly reduced, decorum and tradition have been somewhat maintained with no tipping, no horns on the premises, etc. The club must retain its dignified presence and concentrate on its sporting activities and events, providing facilities for the youngsters… These should be given priority over noisy disco dance shows, fashion parades [and numerous weddings!]… Tolly is unique, and let us hope that its stays with its present tremendous facilities, but at the same time, maintaining its decorum, standards and traditions for the benefit of its members in future years – as the outstanding country club.’

I somehow doubt it Dad. Times change and Tolly has changed. It is now described as ‘a socially vibrant, happening place’ and is not my cup of tea any more with its necessary rules and regulations and crowds. Sadly, there is no longer any feeling of history there. But it stills feels good to go back to where I will always be known as ‘chota baba’.

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