With the windows flung open above London’s Strand and a queue snaking up the stairs, the India Club looks like an establishment in rude health. The truth is that it is the last days of empire at the venerable meeting spot, with the club having been served a notice by the landlords to make way for a more modernised hotel.
Nostalgia is powering a wave of visitors in these final days of summer, a member of the proprietor’s family told me when I popped in last week. There’s nothing wrong with that – it shows how humans even in a big anonymous city form attachments and associate with legends in ways that go beyond mere food.
As backstories go, the India Club can rival any in London.
To this day, it is just metres from the India High Commission. It dates to 1951 when VK Krishna Menon, the first Indian high commissioner to the UK, wanted a focal point for the nationalist movement in the British capital.
It has, at times, resembled more the dining room of a hostel than a gentleman’s club common room that has always been something to overlook. Devotees are legion even as the Indian dining scene has exploded over many decades.
The announcement of the closure came at the same time as the Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, another pioneer of the food scene, also said it was closing. People mused on a choice between a final visit to one or the other. Comparisons may be made, but the India Club to my mind belongs to a different category of loss.
When a National Trust exhibition on it was staged on the premises in 2019, the club described itself as a community asset. Its owners point out that that it remains a hub for Indo-British groups, including the Calcutta Rowing Club, Goan Association and the Curry Club.
Oral histories from the exhibition are now lodged with the British Library, including that of David, son of Joseph, the legendary waiter. The senior Mr Joseph arrived in England in 1957 and had one job working at the club until he retired in 1993.
A previous closure threat, when the owners sought to redevelop No 143 Strand, garnered more than 20,000 signatures and the council scrapped the application.
I see it as belonging to that intersection of the London traditions – a club – with the historical role the country played for diasporas and independence movements. I would cite as its peer the Polish Club, overlooking Hyde Park.
At an early summer reception in the Polish Club, which now survives with high hospitality events, I found myself explaining the history of the Free Polish forces and their London base in that grand building to another guest. A similar aura surrounded the Irish Club in Eaton Square, where acknowledgement of post-independence ties with London were at the forefront of the association. It eventually disappeared in 2011.
The Indian politician Shashi Tharoor issued a fond lament for the Strand institution last week that summed up its span of interests.
“As the son of one of its founders, I lament the passing of an institution that served so many Indians [and not only Indians] for nearly three-quarters of a century,” he wrote on X. “For many students, journalists and travellers, it was a home away from home, offering simple and good quality Indian food at affordable prices as well as a convivial atmosphere to meet and maintain friendships.”
At an official level, Britain is desperate to nurture its ties with India. The priority placed by diplomats on links with the country has seen the UK dramatically expand its presence in the country. Just last week, Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch was in Jaipur where she talked of the final stages of negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement.
Post-Brexit the UK thinks its total annual trade with India could grow at 25 per cent to an annual £9 billion ($11 billion). Importantly, the FTA deal has an unprecedented provision for travel between the two countries. Ms Badenoch says that “business mobility” is on the table, something that New Delhi has made a priority.
This means there are plenty of reasons for a hub for the relationship to exist. As the premises around the newish American embassy in London demonstrate, the diplomatic HQ tends to cluster country-themed businesses nearby. The India House, which is the Indian diplomatic mission in the UK, will still need an outer office in London, as the late Mr Menon envisaged more than seven decades ago.
There could yet be a post-script to this story. Owner Yadgar Marker and his daughter Phiroza have fought for decades to keep the institution going. As its website says, its interior is untouched by time. A younger member of the family tells me that they are looking to set up elsewhere after the shutters are finally drawn on September 17.
I wished him good luck. The mementos on the walls of the India Club could provide retro continuity in another space.
The feel of home for visiting Indians, and of authenticity for Londoners, need not be lost. Good concepts are transferrable, and I promise an update here if and when it rises like a phoenix.