London: On Sunday, the 70-year-old London-based restaurant India Club, which has deep connections to India’s freedoms struggle, closed down permanently. The curry house was a hub for nationalists and a home away from home for Indians in the country over the years. Though the manager of the institution, Phiroza Marker said ‘ We are closing but looking for new premises in the vicinity to relocate to, we have been completely rushed off our feet since the public found out we were closing on September 17,’ observers say it would be tough, considering how the rents are being hiked exponentially amid a cost-of-living crisis, which forced them to close down.
The Malayali connection
Kannur-born V K Krishna Menon, who went on to become the first High Commissioner of independent India to the UK, was one of the founding members of the club, which has its walls adorned with photographs of prominent Indians such as former prime ministers. As well as housing one of the UK’s early Indian restaurants, India Club quickly transformed into a hub for a rapidly growing British South Asian community in the aftermath of Indian independence.
Menon intended the India Club to be a place where young Indian professionals living on a shoestring could afford to eat, discuss politics, and plan their futures, noted Parvathi Raman, Founding Chair of the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), when she worked on the exhibition A Home Away from Away: The India Club’ in 2019, curated by the UK’s conservation charity National Trust.
The Club has functioned as an Indian restaurant since 1946 on the first floor of the 26-room Strand Continental Hotel. The freeholder of the building, Marston Properties, had earlier put in an application with Westminster City Council for a partial demolition” to create a new hotel. The application was unanimously turned down by the Council in August 2018, noting the venue’s importance as a cultural institution in the heart of London.
Smita Tharoor, the London-based daughter of one of the other founder members of India Club journalist Chandran Tharoor, has been a regular visitor with her brother Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and other family members.
Many of the former leaders and founders of the India League created the India Club to offer a home away from home for Indians living in London. My father regaled us with its stories when we were growing up in India, she shared.
For me, the closure of the club is something very emotional and sad because it is the end of my father’s memories that have been kept alive for so many years and where I could visit whenever I missed him. He died very young at the age of 63 in 1993. This is not just a place to eat Indian food. This is a place that gives us stories of the past, she said.
Tharoor recalls how the Club has counted the likes of Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of independent India, and Lord Mountbatten the last Viceroy of India among its many distinguished visitors and has been a little corner of India for many living in or visiting the UK capital.
Attempts to save the club
Parsi-origin Yadgar Marker has been running the establishment with his wife Freny and daughter Phiroza since they rescued it from ruin in 1997 as the director of Goldsand Hotels Limited.
The family had launched a Save India Club appeal and won an initial battle to prevent the building from partial demolition a few years ago when they were served a notice by the landlords to make way for a more modernised hotel. However, the increasing rent spelt the end of the road for the venue.
Nostalgic visitors who have been frequenting this little slice of India in central London offering hot dosas and pakoras within a dwelling steeped in history feel bereft at the loss.
It’s simply heartbreaking. A slice of Indian history on the Strand will be lost forever, said British Indian historian and journalist Shrabani Basu.
As an Indian journalist based in London, it was our watering hole. There will be no more beer and pakoras at the historic bar. We will miss it, she said.