The India Club: Formica, strip lighting and atmosphere

Culture club

A cherished hub of post-colonial Indian life in London is under threat of closure

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In the 1980s, you could still find time machines in London. They lurked up fusty staircases, behind faded curtains and signposted by tatty nameplates, giving a whiff — sometimes literally — of a city fast disappearing under the tides of globalisation and modernity.

My favourites were the political ones. At Daquise, a South Kensington café haunted by the Polish diaspora, a collecting tin for the government-in-exile stood next to the till. That dusty body, still awaiting its glorious return to Warsaw in 1990, was just up the road in Eaton Square. Forlorn Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian embassies maintained the de jure statehood of the Soviet-occupied Baltic republics. A royalist Serbian club in Notting Hill kept the flame burning for Draža Mihailovi´c, the wartime anti-communist leader we abandoned.

The last of these time machines is the India Club. A hallowed hangout, it now faces its doom from the combined attack of the pandemic and a property developer.

It was easy to miss even at the best of times. A shabby narrow staircase leads off the Strand, with worn black rubber treads protecting equally venerable red lino. The feeling is of a run-down boarding school: one half-expects St Trinian’s girls will come thundering down the stairs waving their hockey sticks. Instead, you are greeted by India’s greats: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, Krishna Menon, the first high commissioner to London, and others, hanging mutely in a random assortment. You have to know your Indian history to recognise some of them, but the customers who come for the cheap curry don’t care, and those who come for the ambience need no reminders.

It was a real club once, established by the nationalist India League to promote post-independence friendship and understanding. Founding members included Lady Mountbatten and her lover Nehru. A National Trust exhibition in 2019 in the club’s lounge, called “A Home Away from Home”, outlined its storied history as a hub of expatriate politics, culture and socialising for Indian intellectuals, diplomats and writers.

It is hard to imagine now, but only a few decades ago in London curry was exotic, and South Asians were a rare bunch, lonely and cash-strapped. That the India Club’s Formica tables, strip lighting, battered steel utensils, flimsy paper napkins, wobbly chairs and rickety tables offered little concession to elegance or comfort mattered little. Far more important was the food, a formidable array of south Indian dishes, cooked with more flair than precision, and served at impossibly low prices. And reinforcing the crispy chickpea batter on the starters, the unctuous sauce on the meat, and the chewy sweetness of the kulfi dessert was the distinctive atmosphere: a reminder what is exotic to some is homely to others.

The club was part of the magic quadrangle of my twenties. I studied at LSE, just the other side of Aldwych. Then I was a radio producer at Bush House, the glorious temple of the then-revered BBC External Services, in the middle of London’s poshest traffic island. For easy access to work, I lived in a decrepit ex-council flat in the hardscrabble neighbourhood of Covent Garden (reader: those days were different).

I would eat at the India Club before night shifts, trailing the fumes of my curry as I plied deserted corridors and staircases

The ties to the past were palpable. At LSE, the student revolts of the late 1960s were still recent history (a spot on a roof terrace was where, we were solemnly but mistakenly told, Mick Jagger had hurled a chair into the street). The era of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Harold Laski, William Beveridge and Lionel Robbins was not distant intellectual history but concerned people who seemed to have only recently left the room. Indeed, one could easily imagine them eating a suitably austere meal at the India Club, talking approvingly of the disastrous Nehruvian socialism that well-meaning Fabians bequeathed to the sub-continent in a final act of intellectual imperialism.

At Bush House, another time machine, the memories were more congenial. I would eat at the India Club before night shifts, trailing the fumes of my curry as I plied deserted corridors and staircases that had once been trodden by George Orwell and his colleagues, broadcasting to occupied Europe. Their wartime work helped destroy the Third Reich, I told myself self-importantly. Now my colleagues and I were doing the same to the Soviet empire.

I didn’t know the club’s history then. My friends and I believed — wrongly — that it was somehow attached to the nearby Indian High Commission, and thus enjoyed some kind of quasi-diplomatic tax concession. This, we thought, also explained why the Thatcherite tides of market economic and customer satisfaction had not yet breached this bastion of semi-socialism. The menu seemed to be a work of magical realism, not a guide to the food. The waiter would repeatedly ask if you wanted the “set meal” — and bring it anyway. The bill was always around £8. Other things were not on the menu but could be ordered, such as ferocious chili bhajias. Alcohol was not served, but the restaurant embraced a liberal bring-your-own policy, with no corkage. You were encouraged to take away the empties.

If you arrived alone, armed with a book or newspaper, you seldom got to finish it

Conversation flourished amid the cramped tables, more like a pub than a restaurant. Disputatious tables drew in neighbours. If you arrived alone, armed with a book or newspaper, you seldom got to finish it. In the hotel upstairs were rooms too, the cheapest in central London. For the thrifty and resilient young, they were a bargain, though pickier guests flinched at the well-worn fittings, eccentric plumbing and capacious ventilation.

The restaurant is now a commercial enterprise (of a kind), run by the same family. The leaseholder since 1997 is Yagdar Marker, aged 70; his mother, Khorshed, worked there until her mid-eighties, while his 32-year-old daughter Phiroza is spearheading the campaign to save this slice of London’s gastronomic and post-colonial past.

But as London smartened up, the India Club didn’t. It stood for other values, increasingly anachronistic: that restaurants were not just a business, that functional décor needed no improvement, that the patina of time was not a sign of neglect, but a sign that the past was properly cherished.

Things have changed a little this century. The menu features more options. The randomness has abated somewhat. Alcohol is served, though the bring-your-own policy remains. But it is still a good idea to order the £19 set menu, with bhuna lamb, butter chicken, chili paneer and dhal.

South Indian dishes cooked with flair

Now this defiant bastion of postwar grunge is under threat. Three years ago, the Markers fought off a takeover by the landlords, Marston Properties, who put in a planning application with Westminster Council to turn the site into a hotel. A hotel, that is, in the conventional sense, with shiny surfaces, silent mattresses and obedient windows.

A petition by fans across Britain and from abroad drew thousands of signatures and worked wonders. Westminster Council threw out the application, citing the restaurant’s cultural and historical significance. A second application filed just weeks later failed too.

Even my flinty free-market views flinch at all this

Now the developers are back. Marston Properties declined to answer my questions, but issued a statement saying that they have owned an interest in the building since 1981 and have always had the intention of running the hotel eventually. They say they are concerned about the building’s “viability and condition” and have tried for years to resolve issues about its redevelopment with the owner of the businesses. Following the expiry of the lease, they are, they argue, “entitled to regain possession to occupy the building for our own business use and therefore notice was served in August 2020”.

The logic of the market can seem inescapable: a prime city-centre site ought to be attracting high-spending customers with high-end services. That creates wealth and jobs. The building’s owner has property rights. They can’t be ignored.

But there is another side to the story. Ms Marker says that Marston’s fire safety concerns, for example, are unfounded. The lack of wheelchair access is an issue, but an existing lift shaft could be renovated — and the Markers’ company has offered to pay for it. “By the end, we were left with no options for a long-term future,” she says.

Even my flinty free-market views flinch at all this. London has no shortage of smoothly-run eateries and bland hotels. It is hard to argue that we need even more. Our city authorities do protect historic sites and regulate the use of buildings in the interest of aesthetics, conservation and social cohesion. Could they not do more in this case?

The tenancy is protected, and though the lease has indeed expired, it rolls over until the legal process has finished. The Markers must file their defence by March. But their business has been stricken by the pandemic, leaving coffers empty for a legal battle against a wealthy adversary. Hope still burns though. A crowdfunding appeal for legal costs has raised more than £32,000 from more than 1,000 supporters. I am one of them. You should be too. What price a time machine, in reasonable if creaky working order?

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