Peccavimus (We Have Stayed In The Sind Club)
Impressions of a first visit by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller (November 2012)
For a first-time visitor, the Sind Club is hard to believe. Set within a sprawling, noisy turbulent city, its order, its elegance, its history make the Club feel like a fantasy kingdom.
As devotees of P G Wodehouse, we sustained the fantasy by populating the Club with his characters.
Lord Emsworth (in his early days, before Wodehouse gave him the Empress of Blandings) is pottering happily amongst the flowers which have won the Club so many prizes. His raffish brother, the Hon Galahad Threepwood, is enjoying a few frames with his chum the Earl of Ickenham, in the cathedral-like Billiard Room. Bertie Wooster’s “good” Aunt Dahlia is distraught: her master chef Anatole has defected to the Club’s kitchens. One beneficiary is Lord Emsworth’s food-loving enemy, Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, filling his plate at the lavish lunchtime buffet in the main dining room. Sir Gregory then totters to the hammam to steam away his excesses and ask the expert masseur to knead him back into some sort of shape.
Meanwhile, Mike and Psmith are enjoying the outdoor cricket net, where Mike needs all his talent to resist the fierce turn and bounce from Umar the resident bowler. If he chooses to join Mr Mulliner and the Oldest Member in the Main Bar he can inspect the signatures of all the other great cricketers to have passed through the club on tour. Bertie Wooster and Bingo Little are enjoying a vigorous game of squash. Other Drones are biffing the ball around the tennis courts. Gussie Fink-Nottle is looking in vain for newts in the giant outdoor pool, whose silky water feels as though it has been ironed before use.
Bertie’s room may well be bigger than his London quarters in Brinkley Court. Even the exacting Jeeves will be satisfied with its furnishings and facilities. And where is Jeeves? We think he might be thoroughly at home with the staff. Jeeves does a lot of shimmering and so do they. He endeavours constantly to give satisfaction, and so, indeed, do they.
The Wodehouse game is an enjoyable fantasy, but it is just that – fantasy. For although much of the Club retains much of the décor and the extraordinary artefacts of its days in the British Raj, it has become a Pakistani institution. It has chosen its legacy: keeping what is worth remembering, discarding the rest into history’s well-filled dustbin.
The Club is indeed stuffed with memories (literally so, in the case of all the preserved animals and the old weighing chair in the Main Bar, in which one former member set an enduring record of 317 Imperial pounds). There is a fine published history of its creation and transformation in the modern era, full of distinguished visitors. One is the great traveller, Robert Byron in 1929, installed in “this temple of Sahibdom in a suite of three rooms with bath.” He is forced to take his meals in his room because of his unforgiveable crime of not packing a dinner jacket.
The past comes most alive in tiny details. Who, for example, was Mr Wood, immortalized in the Billiard Room, winner of the challenge cup in 1931 with an astonishing 675 points? Then there’s the special dinner menu for 1933, featuring “Gateau St Honoré, Baked Custard to be passed separately to His Excellency.” Who was this Excellency and was he very particular about his custard?
The Club can take pride and pleasure from its history because it has created a very distinctive environment and ambience for its present-day members (and its delighted visitors.) We have experienced here a quality of good manners which seems especially important in Pakistani social life – a genuine concern for other people. It seems to start young. We have noticed many children around the club, but we haven’t noticed the whining, arguing, and general attention-seeking that all too frequently announce children in England or the United States. When people wish you a nice day in this Club, they actually want you to have one. If they help you it is because they want to help you, not to see themselves helping you.
We have noticed very few insects in the Sind Club, but if there are any we now feel certain that they would ask permission before biting us.
We have come to Karachi and the Club to write a history book. We would each like to come back to the Club to write a novel. Not one of those short, slight modern novels but a thick, long, Dickensian one.