Kerala Club in Connaught Place was once a hub for Delhi’s Malayalis. In its platinum year, this signpost of those times stands in bare bones.
Many a time, going past the outer circle of New Delhi’s Connaught Place, you would have seen the signboard of Kerala Club. The simple font in white on blue in the midst of glitzy hoardings definitely gives the idea that this is a signpost hailing from the laidback early days of Independent India, when Delhi was a babu-filled administrative headquarters. Of which CP was the centre of life and leisure.
What keeps these places ticking in today’s times? How much have these hubs changed, or not changed? Who are the regulars? What happens there? Or have they closed down long ago? Did someone forget to down the signboard?
A flight of stairs leads you to Kerala Club. A lock hangs from the door. “It opens sometimes,” helpfully offers a waiter of a restaurant that shares with it the first floor of the building in CP’s K block.
Before the next visit, you do your homework. Find it open!
Peep in and you are suddenly staring at rows of faces in black and brown frames. You recognise some of them; deduce it is a photo gallery of well-known Malayalis. Step in and you find the high-ceilinged room large, dingy, caught in a time web — the bulb shade is of a kind not made anymore; that floor mosaic has long vanished from people’s houses. There is certainly a whiff of the past trapped within the high walls.
In the adjoining room, behind a work desk — amidst glass almirahs filled with books that seem to have not felt the touch of a reader’s hand for a long time — is seated N.P. Radhakrishnan, the club secretary since 2006. He is helpful, gives you details — the space is on rent (owned by Punj Brothers), has 450 members, “most not active”, etc. Also asks the peon to make tea for you.
Also shows you around the place. You return to the photo gallery. It has been the club’s effort to put up photos of distinguished Malayalis “for the younger generation to know about them.” It is still a work in progress but from Shankaracharya onwards, it is a formidable show. Pointing at a frame, he says, “This is C. Krishnan Nair. There is no photo of him available, so we got a portrait made. He was DPCC president in the early ’50s, the first choice for Delhi Chief Minister; he refused it. DDA was his brainchild.”
You thereafter enter a mini auditorium, “takes in about 100 people,” built some years ago in memory of former club president Justice Subramanium Poti. “We borrowed the idea from Akshara Theatre,” he says.
Attached to it is a room used “as a green room” — dark, musty, also has glass almirahs with old books. What are these books? “They were part of the library that we had. It closed down 15-20 years ago,” he says. Picking up a book, he continues, “They have become brittle…we are thinking of chemically treating them to make them usable.”
Throughout the conversation, you find Radhakrishnan wallowing in nostalgia, in the club’s halcyon days. “These books are gems of Malayalam literature, many are first editions, chosen by illustrious people from Kerala who came to work this side, like KPS Menon, V.P. Menon, Sardar Panicker, John Mathai, etc.”
He is spot on. Hordes of educated English-speaking Malayali men began arriving in the National Capital since the ’30s, down till the ’80s, to fill — largely — the bureaucratic ranks. Their urge to connect with their language and culture was at the root of the club’s origin. “In fact, the idea for it was born in the house of KPS Menon in 1939 in Shimla, the Capital of India then, where he was posted as an ICS officer,” fills in Radhakrishnan. That was an Onam day, “so the annual Onam feast is important for the club”.
By and by, theatre, literature, music, dance related to Kerala began to get ample space in the Club’s regular activities. “One of its biggest activities was the Friday evening Sahithee Sakyam, a forum for discussion on literary, social, economic and contemporary issues besides presentation of creative writing in Malayalam,” recalls Omchery N.N. Pillai, noted Malayalam poet-playwright and the club’s president, during a telephonic conversation later. “On this platform, many new trends in Malayalam literature were born. O.V. Vijayan, VKN, Kakkanandan, M.P. Narayana Pillai, M. Mukundan and others had acknowledged how this forum had inspired their creativity. We are happy that the tradition still continues,” he says. Being a Friday that day, he will visit the club. So what would the evening’s discussion be about?
“Well, this time, we will finalise articles for a periodical that we are bringing out on April 14 to commemorate the club’s platinum jubilee year,” he says.
So it is the club’s 75th year of existence! Will there be special celebrations? Radhakrishnan says, besides the periodical, there would be a bilingual handbook on the contributions of distinguished Malayalis. It will also start a club website. Some 45 lakhs rupees is required to refurbish the club. The money is not yet in sight.
Asks dancer and well-known Delhi Malayali Geeta Chandran, “Why not ask Kerala business houses?” Geeta has fond memories of the club. She saw her father, also ‘PTI Chandran’ (later her father-in-law), active there. “I still have certificates that I got as a child artiste there. Later, I used to be called there to take part in discussions. For some years, I have not visited it,” she says.
The club should involve other communities too, she says, “Since many Delhi Malayalis are married outside the community”; have Malayalam film shows; celebrate Kerala week; do workshops for youth. “Youth will have to be involved in its management. Aesthetics matter a lot to young people, so an old-looking place is unattractive.”
Dancer Jayaprabha Menon, another Delhi Malayali, too suggests, “It should have lec-dem sessions, students’ workshops, etc.” She “never got the opportunity to use the space.”
Omchery and Radhakrishnan know that youth will have to be involved to keep the legacy going. “But today’s youth has no time. The work culture has changed. Even those who work in a bank can’t think of leaving office at 6 p.m.,” points out Radhakrishnan.
Delhi also has expanded hugely. “Earlier, most Malayalis would be around central Delhi which is not the case anymore,” adds Omchery. “There are about 100 organisations of Malayalis in Delhi now, both social and religious ones. The scene has shifted to these places,” notes Radhakrishnan. “Renovation of CP has also taken a toll.”
Wrapping up the conversation, having finished the tea, you tell Radhakrishnan, wish it was filter coffee. He retorts, “Where do you find filter coffee in Delhi today?”
Perhaps in his pessimism lie the sign of the times.