Triumphalism is not something one expects from the ladies of the Calcutta Ladies Golf Club, yet it is in the air.
The intrigues of their “victory” in February, when police and politicians teamed up to keep the club greens free from invasion by participants of a Left Front election rally, are shared gladly. The concession followed a plea from the club authorities to save the greens from processionists. A bigger battle is coming up for what is described as Asia’s only women’s golf club: a victory rally by the political force that comes to power in West Bengal is expected at the Maidan.
The Maidan, a tree-lined open space spread over 1,000 acres in the heart of Kolkata, has for two centuries been claimed by every interest in the city—from tarot card readers, ear cleaners, magicians, mendicants, buskers and dog owners to political parties. When the Left rode to power in West Bengal in 1977, it was at a rally at the Maidan (also known as the Brigade Parade Ground) that the comrades declared their plans for the state.
It is sports clubs such as the Calcutta Ladies Golf Club that have had the longest presence at the Maidan—in their case, since 1891. Over 50 small clubs dot the greens, excluding the formidable presence of football clubs Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Each comprises a small temporary tent structure (the legal owner of the Maidan, the army, disallows permanent construction), a lawn and a practice field that is often shared between clubs.
The Ladies Golf Club came about as a move against the male-dominated Royal Calcutta Golf Club, which used to disallow women—even the wives of British officers—from teeing off.
I’m sitting on one of the wooden benches facing the manicured putting course of the club. Birds chirp noisily, horses neigh in the distance, and a green clubhouse with a bright red sloping roof adds to the charm. Wizened teak-covered walls and floor, thick upholstery, a decently stocked bar, and a Burma teak-framed Belgian mirror resonate within the feminine vibe of the club. There is a wall-mounted honour board, starting with names such as Mrs Pedler (1891-93) and ending at the current club captain, Jyotsna David.
As captain of a club that has 200 women members, David oversees a strictly enforced policy, “where wives sign in dependent husbands”. The club organizes tournaments and coaching camps for underprivileged children and throws the occasional party, complete with live bands. Occasionally, well-placed husbands chip in with sponsorship.
Right of admission reserved: (from top) Members of the Calcutta Ladies Golf Club; footballers of the Taltala Institute; the signage at the Measurers Club and the Calcutta Kennel Club. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
On the northern flank of the Maidan, 46-year-old Minati Roy is exercising at the premises of the 1932-established Calcutta Referees’ Association. She is among the 500-odd members, with a Fifa-empanelled referee and member as inspiration, who are involved in the craft of football refereeing. People are trained in “running, flag waving, whistling techniques, football rules and on keeping the eye and mind focused on the ball,” says Roy, her athletic frame clad in shorts and T-shirt. Many members come in after their office hours, change into a referee’s uniform, and conduct Maidan football matches.
Vroom! A full-bodied volley of a trainee footballer finds the ball hitting the back of my shoulder, and knocks me forward. I’m at the premises of the Taltala Institute, a club founded in 1914. Like the Bhawanipore, Kalighat and Howrah Union clubs at the Maidan, Taltata Institute took its name from Kolkata neighbourhoods: “localities with a strong culture in sports”, according to the club’s football secretary, Gour Dey.
Days before the ongoing annual Indian Football Association (IFA) registration of footballers, the selection process is on at the Taltala Institute ground—young players going through strenuous rounds of physical exercise before a selection match. For the use of the sprawling premises, the club—like all other Maidan clubs—pays a notional annual licence fee to the police.
Adjacent is the Measurers Club, there since 1902. I talk to its secretary, D.N. Biswas, a “retired measuring official”. The club was born out of the weights and measures department of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which would measure and weigh cargo shipped across the world from Kolkata Port and make freight calculations. With the river silting and the port falling on bad times, the department was wound up in 1988. The club manages to stitch together football and cricket teams. Evenings are mostly measured through pegs of subsidized liquor, the Measurers Club being one of the British-era clubs at the Maidan that got a bar licence. A large peg of Black Dog (Scotch) costs Rs 150.
“Since the excise duty has douballed as such the prise of hard drinks has increased marginally”, reads a notice. Ironically, the Central Excise Club premises is opposite the Measurers. Does such excise duty-led “prise” escalation see drunken evening brawls?
Both the Central Excise and Measurers clubs are examples of office- and institution-patronized Maidan clubs—the clubs of George Telegraph, Income Tax, Bata, ICI (paint company), Food Corporation of India (FCI), High Court, Kolkata Municipal Corporation, Customs, Police and Anandabazar Patrika being some others wanting a piece of the Maidan action.
The Maidan belongs to them as much as it belongs to the Kolkata Mounted Police, which trains each morning at its premises behind the Press Club, a disciplined affair of the mounties and their stallions. In another corner towards the Park Street crossing, the Calcutta Kennel Club sees dozens of well-bred pets being trained in every conceivable kind of doggy conduct. Thrice during the winter months, the 1906-established club sees Great Danes, Rottweilers, Dachshunds and Setters vying for top position at the dog show—570 of them turned up for the last one. The club’s caretaker, whose father worked here too, professes a deep fear of the Doberman. “They don’t follow any rules when they feel like biting,” the caretaker says.
Close at hand is the Armenian Sports Club, representing an early Kolkata community whose population has dwindled over the years. The gates were firmly bolted when we visited. There isn’t a single member to be seen in the sprawling compound of the 103-year-old Parsee Club either. A board holds three notices, one of them an invitation for lunch, an affair with “Dhandar, Machhi No Patio and Lagan-nu-Stew”. Colourful board pins are stuck into the otherwise empty, large velvet-topped noticeboard.
At the Greer Club, founded in 1905 and named after a British chief executive of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, I meet 18-year-old Abhishek Ghosh. The boy who travelled all the way from Duttapukur, not very far from the Bangladesh border, is beaming. Just moments earlier he had been informed of his selection to the Greer Club football team: the bona-fide entry to the Kolkata football circuit. His IFA registration will soon take place.
Years of hard work have paid off. Ghosh’s father died years ago and his mother, who works as an ayah, will be pleased. “I no longer have to ask her for money to come to Kolkata,” he says, before heading for the Sealdah railway station. From now on, the Maidan belongs to him too.
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