YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Old Clubs and Puddings : India Sheds Empire but Stays British

March 19, 1985|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

OOTACAMUND, India — Sunday morning services are under way at St. Stephen's Church here in the town they call the queen of the Nilgiri Hills. The Rev. Mark Benjamin ascends to the pulpit in the pseudo-Gothic chapel with Tuscan columns and a peaked roof.

Behind Benjamin is a plaque commemorating a fallen parishioner: "In memory of Richard William Preston, captain, 1st Bombay Grenadiers. Died June 1893. Drowned in the Kromund River while out hunting with the Ootacamund Hounds. Thy will be done."

"Let us pray," said Benjamin, clutching his Church of England Book of Common Prayer. The "national anthem" in his hymnal is still "God Save the Queen."

Little Piece of England

It has been 38 years since India cast off its yoke of imperialism and freed itself from British rule. But here, at 7,000 feet above sea level in the blue-green mountains of Tamil Nadu, at the very southern tip of India--where the British once flocked to escape the scorching heat of the plains--more than a little bit of England remains intact.

Except for the fact that Benjamin is an Indian Tamil with chocolate brown skin, like most of his congregation, the whole service in the little church this Sunday could have been lifted directly from the colonial past.

India has a reputation as a place that conquers its conquerors, eventually wearing them down with its fierce climate and huge numbers. But the British ruled here for more than 300 years, first through the auspices of the East India Co. and then directly. They made an impression that seems indelible.

Fiefdoms, Tribes, Castes

Before the empire, India was not a country but a motley, feuding collection of princely fiefdoms, tribes, castes and linguistic divisions. The British laid railroads connecting this vast land's various regions. They drafted armies to protect its borders and created a highly educated civil service to run the machinery of government.

Most important, perhaps, they provided English as a unifying national language where none had existed before; there are 800 native languages here. In doing so, they also created a model for a ruling class that has not changed since.

"They gave us our railways and our postal systems and our administration," said Ramkuri James, rector of St. Peter School in Ootacamund. "But they also gave us a spiritual heritage that we are also trying to maintain."

The result is that the edifice and artifice of the British raj--as depicted in the public television series "The Jewel in the Crown" and in "A Passage to India," the movie based on E.M. Forster's novel--have not disappeared here but have been adapted to serve the Indian ruling class.

There are reminders of England everywhere.

India's two most passionately and expertly pursued sports are cricket and field hockey, brought by the British. In these, the Indians long ago surpassed their teachers. Last week, India and Pakistan, the two main components of the old British raj, met in the finals of the world cup of cricket in Australia. India won. England had been eliminated in early competition.

A statue of Queen Victoria, orb and scepter in hand, still stares haughtily from its perch in central Bangalore, although she was removed from a cupola on the main government mall avenue, Raj Path, in New Delhi.

English and English manners and mostly English food are the mainstays of the Indian army officers' mess--part of a military establishment that may be more British in bearing than Britain's own armed forces these days. English is still the language of India's elite, even if only 3% of the population speaks it.

Hounds and Foxes

Down the hill from Ootacamund in the town of Wellington, the Army Command and Staff College still maintains the hounds and horses of the old British fox hunt. It is the only remaining hunt club in Asia.

Also, havens of elitism and the exclusivity of British colonial life are still open--the Tollygunge and Royal Turf clubs in Calcutta, the Gymkhana in New Delhi and the Ooty Club--popularly dubbed the "snooty Ooty" Club--here in the Nilgiris. In most cases, these institutions are almost perfectly preserved in colonial style, even without British members.

Instead of closing them as symbols of their oppression, Indians with money simply joined the private clubs, and today they are the center of upper-class social life, with few concessions made to local culture.

At the Ooty Club, a low-slung classical building fronted by four Ionic pillars, the wife of the club secretary warns Western visitors that on Sunday, rice and curry will be served for lunch that might be too spicy for their tastes. Normally, the fare is bland and British--bread pudding, meat pies and morning "bed teas" served by a silently efficient staff.

English journalist Trevor Fishlock wrote after sampling the heavy food of the Ooty Club:

Los Angeles Times Articles