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The Cosmopolitan life

A sense of history and gracious living still pervades this 115-year-old club, writes PANKAJA SRINIVASAN

Bankers, industrialists, Gandhians, advocates, educationists, litterateurs and jewellers discussed ideas that gave shape to the city's development, its progress, and they did it here


A POT POURRI OF OLD AND NEW At the Cosmopolitan Club

When Lal Bahadur Shastri called upon the people to give up one meal every week to make good the acute food shortage in India, Pushpa Desai and Dhirendra Desai decided they would do so. They still don't eat on Monday nights.

The Clock Tower in the Town Hall area was built in memory of this man — A.T. Thiruvenkataswamy Mudaliar. A Brahmo Samaji, S. P. Narasimhalu Naidu gave up his wealth to charity. He was also the man behind the Siruvani scheme. And A. Kasturiranga Aiyengar went on to own The Hindu. R.K. Shanmugham Chetty was the first finance minister of Independent India and the founder of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Bharat Ratna Dr. C. Subramanium was the father of the Green Revolution.

The old order

What was the common thread that held all these people together? They are or were all members of an institution in Coimbatore that began way back in the setting years of the 19th Century — The Cosmopolitan Club.

It started off as a twinkle in the eye of like-minded young men. For the princely sum of Rs. 400, they purchased three acres and 96 cents of land from S.L. Ramaswamy Aiyer of Sulur on July 25, 1891. To a small shed was added a clubhouse, a billiards room, card rooms, tennis courts and so on.

And, along with the mortar and stones, a tree came to assume great significance. It was the Wisdom Tree.

Sadly, it stands no more. It was where the club members got together and discussed anything at all that caught their fancy.

"Many great ideas took root under this tree or in the verandah that later took its place. it came to be known as the Verandah Club," says Rajesh Govindarajulu, member and editor of the Club's in-house journal that is, quite naturally, called The Wisdom Tree.

Tamil please

An entry in one of the journals reveals that the members of this group had to speak only in Tamil. Anyone who transgressed this cardinal rule would be fined a dhambidi or an anna!

One day, in 1891, it was resolved that the Madras Mail, The Hindu, the Amrita Bazaar Patrika, Bombay Gazette, London Times, Nineteenth Century, Pall Mall Budget and The Graphic, among others, would be subscribed to.

That was the beginning of the club library. Today, there are over 8,000 books and 13 newspapers and 60 magazines here.

One finds Sir Walter Scott's Waverly Novels, sitting easy with the Imperial Gazetteer and the wonderful old orange-and-white Penguin editions of books holding their own with modern, glossy novels. Govindarajulu proudly displays a large book with rare photographs from Gandhi's life. Books on philosophy, socialism and religion abound.

The library has comfortable chairs and tables and it is not uncommon to see someone enjoying the day's news along with hot soup.

A conversation with P.R. Damodaran, a club member for over 45 years, brings on a volley of tennis memories.

A keen player, he recalls how the club's courts regularly saw great matches. He recalls: "In 1959, we invited Noor Mohammad, the All India Lawn Tennis coach, who trained people like Ramanathan Krishnan and Premjit Lal, to conduct a camp. The club persuaded him to stay on in Coimbatore which he did till a ripe old age, after having coached many members and their offspring."

Nirupama Vaidyanathan, who played at the Wimbledon, and Vidya Sharatram have played tennis on these courts.

Old club it may be, with old memories and old books, but a lot of youngsters frequent it.

Take J. Satish, a young businessman. "I come here to socialise. I get to meet people from interesting walks of life ," he says.

The Secretary of the club, J.V Chowdhury says, "It is relaxing and at the same time stimulating as you find a potpourri of intellectual thought here."

The oldest member is Mr Srinivasan, who turned 95 on January 1 this year.

"He is a regular at the club and enjoys his game of rummy," says Govindarajulu, and tells the story of another nonagenarian member, Ramachandran, who was studying in England when the Second World War broke out.

He became a student volunteer for the British Army and would watch out for enemy aircraft at night.

Another member, R. Mahendran did the club proud by taking part in the ASEAN Rally.

Reminiscent of another era

Even though the club buildings have kept up with the times and many changes have been effected, it is not very difficult to imagine Victorias, Broughams, Landaulettes and dogcarts sweeping into the drive, as indeed they did.

T.S. Krishnamurti, who was Principal of the Governments Arts College, recalls in one of his memoirs, "... I have a lively recollection of N. Giriya Chettiar's handsome dogcart. It was a pleasant sight to see it dancing along with the shining turrets on its harness, the tinkling bells on its neck and the waving plumes on its brow."

The horsecarts, of course, gave way to Hondas, and angavastrams yielded to Armani.

And, today both fashions and vehicles are ultra modern.

"There is a lot of history attached to the club and while we have had to keep up with the times, we have taken care to keep old traditions alive," says J. V. Chowdhury.

Good fellows

Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, "A club is an assembly of good fellows meeting under certain circumstances... And there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good... club."

He could have been speaking of the Cosmopolitan Club.

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