The notice from the venerable Kolkata sports club announced its annual general meeting or AGM, followed by voting to bring in a new managing committee, followed by lunch on the house — the inducement to come and vote. It promised an experience that I had till then missed out on, being mostly in another city.
But with the day drawing to a close, a slight sense of trepidation took over. Clubs created by the British in India are not run the way they ought to be. Group rivalry and mud-slinging, sometimes culminating in court cases, drive institutions that are supposed to be fraternal associations of like-minded gentlemen who routinely elect the same committee year after year. In fact, another venerable city club was headed in the perverse direction — the cloud of a possible court case, provoked by a partisan accusatory e-mail somehow spilling into the public domain, hanging over it.
So what medium do you guys use for name calling, I asked my friend, a veteran member and successful office bearer of his time. No no, we are not so bad, the stakes are lower, he whispered in a mischievous aside, and things are done with grace. But I kept my fingers crossed and the emergence of an appeal by a competing panel, using an e-mail ID created to look like the official one and calculated to cause confusion, made my scepticism stronger.
I got the first sense that things could be different when I reached a bit early on the appointed day, eager to get a proper flavour of the whole event. Of course, there were two canvassing groups welcoming the members and pushing leaflets into their hands but I quickly realised that there was no tension in the air. In fact, as the day went by, the mood that took over was one of the bonhomie of a reunion with much back-thumping and feigned affront taken at failure to recognise faces not seen in a long time.
The AGM got off to a brisk start and proceeded in that pace, with some of the office bearers on the dais looking a bit out of place in jackets and ties in the July heat of Kolkata and amidst the distinctly non-pucca English accent dominating the proceedings. It was left to a friend of mine next to me to mutter, as the treasurer read his report: He’s at least got a decent accent! Not a word of Bengali was spoken throughout. It was amazing how what the sahibs had left behind dug roots and mutated in Kolkata.
There were a few questions that the chair mostly agreed with. The finances and sports-related activities of the club were in such obvious good shape that there was little to complain about. And when someone asked about the quality of what the caterer served, an important issue in the city, the chair ended all controversy by saying: Yes, we also feel that way; the new committee should change things. No wonder the proceedings ended before time and the members resolved to bring forward the start of voting by half an hour!
Out of the hall, armed with two lunch coupons for self and spouse, I joined a long queue thinking it must be for casting votes. It is only after some time, as members all around kept amiably chatting with each other, that many realised it was not the voting queue but the one to collect coupons for drinks. And, more seriously, they had run out of beer coupons.
As I joined the voting queue one of the challengers whispered in my ear: “All we want is a change, and [ in an even softer whisper] the bar member has been enjoying himself a bit too much.” Ballot quickly cast, under the shamiana the big challenge was to find a table. Once you found one, it took little time to join in the general good spirits, which got more and more cheerful as the minutes went by.
Then came the most distinctive event of the day: an absolutely superb lunch catered by a well-known restaurant chain that had done much to bring Bengali cuisine out of the home, much like bringing a beautiful shy bride out from under wraps during the pre-nuptials for all to see and admire. I have had good fish fry in my days and can say that what was served was difficult to beat. The same was with the mutton dish. In a city that does not take its food lightly, red meat is de rigueur on important occasions, good-health advice be blown.
The men predominated in the AGM hall, and the spouses took over thereafter. Sometimes a bit over-dressed and over made-up – considering it was midday in mid-monsoon, the breeze coming over the lake waters offering only partial relief – most of them a bit past their prime, they made up with their zest for life and determination to have a good time. I ran into two girls who had gone to college with me. They are grandmothers now but to me they remain girls of my time. And I cursed myself when a plump fair lady with a sweet face shamed me by introducing herself when it was obvious I could not recognise her. This when chatting with her husband, a friend, a year ago I had enquired: “And how is your good-looking wife?”
When the wife and I left, it was well into the afternoon but many were still going strong. Later, in the evening I was told the incumbent panel had won by a huge margin. No wonder there was no tension or rivalry, only a clubby ethos topped by the effervescent froth of a special occasion.