Opinion Columnists 06 May 2020 A.S. Dulat: Steeped ...
A.S. Dulat is also the co-author of Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years and The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace

A.S. Dulat: Steeped in lore, Gymkhana adds purpose to one’s golden years

Published May 6, 2020, 7:00 pm IST
Updated May 6, 2020, 7:00 pm IST
The Gymkhana has produced national squash champions. Bhubaneshwari Kumari, an Arjuna awardee and Padma Shri, remained national champion for 12 years and Bunker Roy who gave up an elitist education to start the ‘Barefoot Movement’ was national champion for three years. Photo source: Dehi Gymkhana Club
 The Gymkhana has produced national squash champions. Bhubaneshwari Kumari, an Arjuna awardee and Padma Shri, remained national champion for 12 years and Bunker Roy who gave up an elitist education to start the ‘Barefoot Movement’ was national champion for three years. Photo source: Dehi Gymkhana Club

The Delhi Gymkhana, over a century old, is the country’s finest and arguably one of the world’s best. It is embedded in tradition, history and legend. In the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, adjoining the Prime Minister’s residence, it has become a home to the who’s who of the capital.

When I joined service in March 1969, the head of administration, one Mr Grover, advised me to apply for government accommodation and added “it may be worth your while to apply for membership of the club to keep yourself fit”. I got my Gymkhana membership earlier than my DII flat in Andrews Ganj.
During the November 1983 Commonwealth Summit I invited my British colleague, Gordon Cawthorne, Margaret Thatcher’s chief security officer, for lunch to the club. He was so overwhelmed that on the way out he asked for a club letterhead as a memento; I presented him a club tie.

As legend goes, Union home secretary V. Vishwanathan would, in the early 1960s, get up promptly as office ended at 5.15 pm, dust his coat and head straight for the club. His preferred tipple was rum. After a couple of gubernatorial assignments when he finally settled in Delhi he was always in the club, even in his last days in a wheelchair. My own chief, Atma Jayaram, was a regular at the bridge table.

Gymkhana has been a sports club: 75 to 80 per cent of its space is utilised for sport even if it fetches only two per cent of the income (much of that comes from the club’s cottages).

The Gym is a tennis club with 26 grass courts comparable to Wimbledon's, seven synthetic all-weather courts, three of which are lighted. Tennis is an all-day activity. A special programme managed by the All England Club, “Road to Wimbledon”, for talented youngsters is hosted on our grass courts, as have national, international and Davis Cup matches. Most of our greats have either been members or played on our courts. Naresh Kumar, former Davis Cup captain and national champion is one of the club's oldest members. So were Sumant Misra, Narendra Nath and Prem Pandhi, who each represented the country. S.L.R. “Shubh” Sawhny, a contemporary of Ghaus Mohd and also a national champion, has a trophy in his memory for the club's best tennis player. Ramanathan Krishnan and Vijay Amritraj have been star attractions.

Besides facilities for badminton and basketball, the club has two swimming pools: the indoor Lady Willingdon Bath which is heated and available all-year round, and a larger open air one for young enthusiastic swimmers. At one time riding was also on offer. The club produced some of the best shooters, polo players, and mountaineers. Our Everesters include Capt. M.S. Kohli, Maj. H.P.S. Ahluwalia, Col. Narendra Kumar and Brig D.K. Khullar. Kohli, as resident director of Air India in Delhi was to scale other summits as well, travelling the world with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The Gymkhana has produced national squash champions. Bhubaneshwari Kumari, an Arjuna awardee and Padma Shri, remained national champion for 12 years and Bunker Roy who gave up an elitist education to start the ‘Barefoot Movement’ was national champion for three years.

Last but not least: cricket. Though the club could never seriously muster a team, there was no dearth of national-level cricketers in the club. Possibly, India’s finest cricket captain Mansur Ali Khan “Tiger” Pataudi was a member as was our King of Swing, Col. Surendra Nath who bowled Peter May for a duck in the Lord’s Test in the summer of 1959, an event of great celebration in his regiment, 16 Cavalry. Lt Gen. A.K. Sengupta, also from 16 Cavalry, opened the batting for India in a Test match in Chennai.

Theatre, music, song, dance and literature have always gone apace with sport in the club. The Gymkhana has one of the finest libraries in town, particularly for old rare books. The club hosts an annual literature festival while its fortnightly “Book Club” invites eminent personalities to speak. William Dalrymple and Shashi Tharoor have been recent guests while Kapil Dev entertained members with anecdotes of his career. Dev Anand launched his autobiography in 2006.

The Gymkhana has a lively bar, jampacked on Saturdays with a live band in attendance. Rocque Fernandez, the soul of the club, played the drums for close to 40 years till he was almost blind and finally passed away when his heart failed.

Former Army commander Lt Gen. D.R. “Robin” Soni has been one of the more popular presidents in recent years. The general committee is as good as any. It is sad therefore that the club should find itself embroiled in legal matters. The ministry of corporate affairs’ enquiry and the Union of India’s petition appear to be prompted by disgruntled elements or vested interests. If there have been aberrations or procedural errors they can surely be rectified; the club’s members are supreme and important matters are approved by the general body. The government is never wrong but why it should want to change an age-old way of life that most impacts elders is incomprehensible. The matter is sub judice but hopefully, as in the past, the court will decide to stay out of club affairs.

The club has provided me with an identity, friends, a home away from home and a place of worship. As Mark Twain puts it, good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life. The Delhi Gymkhana Club provides it all.

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