Sunday, the 22nd of March. In the year of Our Lord 2020. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had declared janta curfew; in other words, a voluntary self-isolation, giving a foretaste of what was to follow. And predictably enough, two days later, the government proclaimed an indefinite curfew – benign, one has but to concede in the circumstances. To contain the spread of the dreaded virus, which had rippled out from an otherwise little-known town named Wuhan. Our transhimalayan neighbour would have the world believe that its origin was zoonotic, -- chiropterous, they insisted. The world, for its part, dismissed it with the contempt it deserved, especially after the explosive revelations by a dissident virologist, who had worked at the laboratory there, emphatically averring that the spiked ball of evil had been studiously cultured -- on a Petri dish, one assumes -- in the toponymic Institute of Virology.
And so, like everything else in the country, the majestic gates of Dalhousie Institute were clanged shut. 42, Jhowtala Road wore a desolate look. The edifices, -- one of late colonial vintage, the other contemporary, -- two dark silhouettes against the verging sun, wore a forlorn countenance, lending comfort, cold for all it was worth, to each other in their misery of loneliness. The drooping leaves of the rows of willows lining the driveway were a Jeremiahic pointer to the wretchedness.
More woes, however, lay in store for the club. With the pandemic ebbing somewhat, after a long, violent bout that saw the untimely deaths of millions the world over, and the economy plummeting headlong southwards, and with prophylactics affording a semblance of a shield against the virus, the government partially eased the restrictions on assemblages. The clubs, like other institutions, reopened with COVID protocol in place. Not, however, the hapless DI. Issues with the staff, to put it succinctly, stood in the way. The result: a stalemate, a standstill. The consequences: weeds engulfed an already unkempt lawn, and sere leaves from a second successive fall – to borrow an Americanism – rustled around in the wind, sometimes gentle, sometimes gusty, on the wide expanse of the parking lot. Spiders afforded themselves a free run of the place, weaving intricate, diaphanous webs on every corner they could lay their spindly legs on. Could the murine variety be far behind? It remains a wonder of no mean measure that a slithering invertebrate or two did not seek refuge in the deserted premises. In fine, a once-prim place run to sickening seed.
Many negotiations and visits to the courts later, a faint flicker appeared at the end of a tunnel that bore a striking resemblance to the pitch-black labyrinths of a coal mine thousands of feet inside the bowels of the earth. The honourable court barred the agitating workers from blocking the entrance. Thereby affording unimpeded ingress and egress.
Braving the odds, the club has been painstakingly brought back to its original trim shape. Not in its entirety though, much yet remains to be done, but the process, -- laborious would be an understatement even an Englishman famously known for his predilection for understatements would hesitate from taking recourse to -- has begun. The tennis courts have been re-laid with a fresh layer of shoorki, the fine russet grains derived from laterite, the swimming pool scoured clean and filled with sparkling recycled water, the Indoors feathered for shuttlers, and the treadmills, cross-trainers and barbells dusted off the grime of two-and-a-half years of disuse – the Schwarzeneggers warming up their long-unflexed muscles.
So, in the fitness of things, when along with the national flag, the President hoisted the club ensign, it heralded a fresh start for the Institute. On Monday, the 15th of August. An analogy to the rise of the mythical phoenix would not be entirely far-fetched. The lawn, which even a couple of months ago was an eyesore of a swathe of dense undergrowth, is now a carpet of lush green, the nap velvety to the touch. The paved terrace wore a scrubbed look, washed clean by the overnight precipitation. The morning commenced with a Woosterishly sunny visage, then the woolpack lent a fleecy cover and, as the morning further progressed, the firmament was gradually eclipsed with a canopy of dense nimbostratus. What, however, struck most was the gleam in every member’s eyes, having met friends after a virtually interminable hiatus, the unmistakable twinkle on seeing the club reopen at an almost frustratingly long last. The smile that creased every face said it all. A moment to savour, indeed.
So, when the resident Master of Ceremonies announced the flag-hoisting ceremony, it was greeted with a round of hearty applause. The national anthem brought all to starchy attention, some with hands on their breasts to express fealty to the nation and, one ventures with a fair degree of confidence, to the Institute as well. The two hundred odd, assembled members then repaired to the commodious Indoors where they were entertained to a string of national airs by Bhaskar Banerjee and Debanshu Bose. Bharat amar Bharatbarsha, O amar desher mati, Ei mere pyare watan and Chhoro kal ki baten were some of the melodious renditions.
The address by the President was fittingly preceded by a minute’s silence in memory of the martyrs who had laid down their lives, -- many felled by bullets, countless more by barbaric torture in dark prison cells, -- for the azaadi we are now celebrating. As if on cue, the heavens opened up, shedding the collective tears of empathy in copious measure. In his short speech, the President welcomed all and profusely thanked members for their continued support in this long-drawn-out war of attrition. Stating that the facilities were being resumed in phases, he assured that food and beverages would follow in the not-too-distant future, albeit with self-service till everything fell in place. He showered lavish – and deserving -- praise on the members of his council for the unstinted sacrifice they have made in these two and a half years. His parting words, wishing the Institute a long life, were greeted with plaudits.
Breakfast was then announce, which could more appropriately be termed elevenses, considering the time of the day. It comprised club kachori, alur dam and Gulab Jamun, flushed down with cups of steaming kesari chai. Members parted on this burpy – do forgive the solecism -- note of satiety. Contented in the thought that they are again going to frequent their beloved club.
Author : Amit Dutt