A Tale Of Two Clubs
Delhi’s Chelmsford Club, and Chandos, East Finchley, are like chalk and cheese
Two sports clubs in the two continents of Asia and Europe tell vastly different stories about rival cultures and day-to-day life in countries that are nearly 5,000 miles apart. Both clubs devote themselves to their tennis playing members and on the surface they have so much in common.
After all, English is the common language, spoken both at Chandos, East Finchley, close to the famous London suburb of Hampstead, as well as at the Chelmsford Club in New Delhi, a stone’s throw from India’s national parliament.
Players in both clubs exult in 40-love victories per tennis game and the ultimate is a 6-love triumph in any completed set. Congratulations captured in loud shouts of “well done” and “great shot” are indistinguishable from each other in London and Delhi.
Dig a little deeper, however, and the cracks start to appear, speaking volumes about deeper distinctions between the two clubs and the countries in which they are located.
A healthy mix of elderly men and women, overwhelmingly White and mostly Jewish, dominate Chandos. The Blacks stand out. Younger members are equally hard to spot and in any case they play mostly within their own age group, anywhere between the ages of 17 and 30, leaving the oldies to fend for themselves.
The over 70s are brave. They may stop from time to time to cough or imbibe from their inhalers, but they are plucky and determined to carry on at any cost.
The indoor courts where some of them play cost £7 per hour to rent. Outdoor courts are free. The more adventurous, seeking to improve the quality of their game hire local coaches at £45 per hour.
Club buildings are spotless, as are the pristine lavatories. Located between the indoor and outdoor courts is a small coffee shop where a small cup of cappuccino and a cinnamon bun sets you back between £5 and £7 (Rs 500 and 700)
Delhi’s Chelmsford Club, named after the Viceroy who ruled India between 1916 and 1921, is another experience. Step through the looking glass from Chandos to Chelmsford and a world of surprises awaits.
Here the paint is crumbling on the walls that surround the three outdoor courts, a single urinal for the men looks doubtful and no toilet paper is readily available in the single lavatory. Stray dogs canter across the courts from time to time, forcing games to be suspended.
Outside where we sit small clusters of flies hover over the tea and biscuits and a single line of small ants casts a long line from floor to table. “Our standards are different”, explains my friend Billoo as we gratefully drink a second cup of tea thoughtfully paid for by a fellow player who has taken a break between sets. Each round of tea costs less than Rs 150 (approximately £1.80)
Billoo has been a member for at least 20 years, as has our mutual friend Rajesh. Each one is instinctively generous, funny and supportive. Ages vary between 25 and 79. All play fiercely and hard shots zing across the nets with no concessions to age.
They form part of an inner group who compete every day, except Mondays, women are rarely seen. The rare exception is a white Polish woman in her 40s. No one knows where in Poland she comes from, who she works for, or how she has managed to gain admission to the club. She plays on the solitary hard court, paying a modest sum to the coach who teaches her how to improve her serve.
Our hard core members in Delhi somehow contrive to ensure no one is left hungry or thirsty on any tennis day. Rajesh arrives regularly with a huge bunch of bananas, Billoo provides ‘rusks’ thoughtfully wrapped inside a big, see-through plastic box.
Once or twice a week hot samosas and mint sauce appear as if by magic and every birthday is celebrated with gusto. Five minutes drive away is the bakery that makes large chocolate cakes coated with icing. Generous tips are gratefully accepted by the six ball boys and coach.
The main distinction between London and Delhi is the nature of conversations that take place between sets. At Chandos, where the cost of living dominates every second sentence, most members are property developers, investment advisers, mixed in with a handful of doctors and dentists.
Bob talks about future holidays in Cannes or Barbados. Bill moans about the cost of sailing between Portsmouth and Nice. Bill’s son, 25 year old John, joins the group for a few minutes to moan about the rising cost of property. “The two bed flat you could buy for £40,000 when you started work is now worth £1,000,000”, he tells us in despair.
In Delhi the Chelmsford members are made up of senior police officers, an MP from the ruling BJP, property consultants, bankers and company directors. Cricket is on everyone’s lips, including the shameful booing of the Australian team at Lords, so also is the topic of Monsoon rains, mosquito bites and the dangers of contracting dengue fever.
Supplementary comments focus on what will happen in the immediate future and what Indian soothsayers say about Saturn entering its 12th house in 2025. If these soothsayers are to be believed, there will be a new world war, nuclear conflict and flooding everywhere. Only New Zealand will survive.
Ramesh changes the subject to talk about the importance of “duty” and the impossible choice that the Hindu hero Arjuna faced when confronting his Kaurav cousins across the legendary battlefield of Kuruskshetra. As told in the Mahabharata epic he turned for advice to Lord Krishna who told him, “Life and death are preordained. Your job is to fulfil your duty.”
All nod approvingly at the mention of ‘duty’ with one club member, Salim, changing the subject again to talk about the mother who told her home and all her belongings to fly with her son and daughter in law to a new home in the US. The son took her ticket and passport, supposedly to facilitate her check-in and never re-appeared.
No ‘duty’ involved where he was concerned. Fourteen hours later his mother was still waiting for him in one small corner of the departures terminal.
It is a desperately sad story, not typical of Indian families, but India’s Supreme Court has now amended relevant laws, so no child can fleece their parents before abandoning them and running off to another country. “Rule Britannia”, says Ramesh, “I’m sure it's all very different in the UK where you have good laws and good police. But for myself I still prefer ‘Jai Hind’.”