The Malabar European Club – Calicut

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A long time ago….

Some 500 years or so into the past, Calicut was not quite mired in obscurity. It was as one intrepid traveler wrote, ‘on the way to everywhere’. Traders and travelers vied to make their way to the spice capital of the world and write about the strange ways of the people, the spices in the markets and the riches on display. Some even wrote about the honesty of the rulers and the cosmopolitanism they saw. The Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, the Danes and of course the British made their presence felt at this entrepot as time moved on, if only to profit. Years passed and soon it was stripped off all its glory as the British, who like many others, also entered India through its gates at Calicut, moved North and established the metropolises at Bombay, Calcutta and eventually Delhi. The new order had no place for lowly Calicut, but a few enlightened souls still came by, now and then. They all had mainly one place to stay and lodge at, the Malabar European Club, facing the Arabian Sea.

A couple of them wrote lovely accounts while ensconced in that motley club, with a handful of rooms and a small library to boast. We discussed one of those travelers - Edward Lear, some years ago, and I read about another who supposedly stayed there and wrote a masterpiece, the writer being Somerset Maugham, and the masterpiece being The Razor’s edge. I found that a bit unlikely, for I did know SM had been to Travancore, but did he ever set foot in Calicut? I decided to check this and so, let us go there and check the club out, if only for an hour or so, what do you say?

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the unfortunate Ratnavelu Chetti ICS, and the racist incident at the Calicut Club during the Canterbury festival at Calicut. It was decidedly a very different place at the turn of the 20th century, where one saw bullock carts on the road, an occasional buggy or horse cart, Brits riding horses and the Nairs, Tiyyas and Moplahs bare bodied and sporting just a dhoti, scurrying about the port area and town.

The Malabar European Club, on the Beach Road- Calicut, was established on 8th Feb 1864. The warehouses and offices of the mercantile community fringed the shore from the Malabar club to the Kallayi River, and the bungalows of the European residents partly lay facing the sea between the pier and the club. The gazetteer from the early 20th century mentions that visitors to the town were catered for by a travelers’ bungalow and hotel, not to mention two clubs for European and native gentlemen respectively.

So, for the Europeans, a smattering of British, French and perhaps a Dutch or two, this European club was where they could come, wet their beaks and play some cards, have some continental food, peruse a book or two, the Punch magazine or newspapers from London or play some billiards. Couples could dance, and if so required, stay at one of the Club’s few rooms. Sometimes a traveler landed there and stayed for a while, partaking in the little entertainment the club had to offer while he went about his work be it writing or transacting business. Tennis and cricket were played, so also golf, all reserved of course for the white man. There was one exception though, Parsees (perhaps just one) gained admittance to this exclusive club otherwise known as the Malabar European Club of Calicut.

Let’s go back in time and pass through the doors, nod curtly at the doorman clad in white, turban and red cummerbund and get into the ambience of the hall, get seated and gaze at the serenity presented by the glorious Arabian Sea with the setting sun a beautiful reddish orange silhouette and the horizon as its backdrop.

Lear in 1874 wrote lovingly of his stay there – Drove to the travelers’ bungalow, but found it very bad form, no butler, low as to position, dirty, damp; and the only decent-sized room tenanted by an old planter of by no means prepossessing appearance, who advised me to go to the club. So I drove thither. It is close by the seaside; boats and coconuts ad lib. Some little difficulty ensured on account of my not being a member, and I had to shew letters, etc.; when two or three good natured members allowed me to take two rooms. Gazing out, he sees bare breasted (he complains they were old) women ambling along, picking this and that from the beach, fishermen getting off their boats. Off to the right, half a mile to the North was the lighthouse and the screw pile (kadal palam) snaking into the sea. Next door is the French Loge. He mooned about those beautiful lanes and roads, the exquisite vegetation which beat all chance of description, but complained often of the ‘crow-be-bothered club at Calicut’, firmly stating ‘The crows here are a bore!’.  

He loved the scenery - Beautiful colour, calm sea and bright sunset, all more or less qualified by the odour of stinking fish. He managed to get what he wanted from the little town – going out with Giorgio to the Basel Mission; he bought a book about Coorg and ordered two suits of clothes. The tailor, Francis Pereira, brings two suits of clothes made up, the cost of both 45 Rs. The days of Malabar Club life go by happily; the quiet, bar the crows, is delightful, so also the bright calm sea. They then had their hair cut, now can you imagine the scene, the barber coming to the club and cutting their hair the old-fashioned way?

Lear added - There are worse places than the Malabar Club. I wrote and read, and enjoyed the bright sun and broad shadows and lovely air. I remember I disliked many things in Malabar on my first visit here; but now, after Ceylon, Malabar seems Elysium. The Beypore road is undoubtedly one of the model wonders of beauty in this world; nothing can be lovelier than that river scene with the far hills. He concludes - I wrote and read, and enjoyed the bright sun and broad shadows and lovely air.

A gentleman visiting Wynad in April 1881 mentions - The Malabar Club there is as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land, and possesses one refinement of luxury which considerably astonished me. I do not allude to the two lawn tennis courts, nor even to the excellent racket court, but to the swimming bath of fresh water which is kept always in perfect condition. It was a great boon to a stranger like myself to be able to put up at the comfortable club chambers there, instead of going to a traveler’s rest house, or inflicting myself upon a private bungalow on the strength of a 'letter of introduction’.

Let us go further, to 1883 – we read of the grand sendoff dinner given at the club for W Logan, collector This was just as he was moving out of Calicut and to Travancore as resident (now that was news to me!). A correspondent at Calicut writes to a Bombay paper (Homeward Mail from India, China and the East - Wednesday 23 May 1883): A large dinner has been given at the Malabar Club to Mr. Logan, our popular Collector. Covers were laid for sixty, and fifty diners sat down. The ladies of the station were invited and graced the entertainment with their presence. The town band was in attendance, playing during and after dinner. The rooms of the club and the dining-room were very tastefully decorated, and the arrangements altogether did credit to the gentleman who undertook to carry them out. After dinner our local musical talent was to the fore, and subsequently all adjourned to the lawn tennis court, on which the younger folks danced till an early hour of the morning. The dinner was a farewell entertainment to Mr. Logan, who proceeds to Travancore as Resident, much to the regret of the district of Malabar, where he is respected and loved by all classes. The entertainment clearly indicated the universal esteem Calicut (indeed Malabar) society has for him.

An 1898 report states - The annual general meeting of the Malabar Club came off on Monday evening, Sept. 5, about twenty members being present. The report and accounts were laid on the table and were formally adopted. Mr. E. E. Davies was elected honorary secretary for the coming year. The members afterwards sat down to a grand dinner, at the conclusion of which several toasts were drunk amid great enthusiasm.

Many an Englishman gave his address in Calicut ‘care of the Calicut club’ and we see a report of one KF Tarrant, working for a Rubber company in Calicut, originally hailing from Cheltenham filing for divorce - due to his wife’s dalliance with another man, in 1927. We also read that in 1931, the secretary of the club, one GH Bull committed suicide by shooting himself with his seven chambered revolver, sitting by the verandah (perhaps after lifting a final toast as a goodbye to the Arabian Sea)!

We can read a curious argument by one Capt Rigby who is indignant when a visitor Mr Palmer scoffs that Calicut had but one road which is only 3 miles long. Rigby maintains that the entire state is traversable by road and that he himself had done thousands of miles from Travancore to Cannanore and beyond in the first decade of the 20th century. He adds that the Malabar Club provided the latest papers from Britain and that the Madras Mail was but one day late, in availability.

From Raghu Karnad’s marvelous book ‘Farthest Field’, we can see that a prominent Parsi - Dr Khobad Dhunjibhai Mugaseth of Calicut was the only non-white member of the club. Dr Kobad Mugaseth for those who don’t know, was among the most respected medical practitioners and it seems his treatment of a choking elephant was a story dutifully (I don’t know the story, as yet!) recounted to each succeeding generation in Calicut. CHF had introduced him in an article some years ago.

The Beach Hotel Today
The Malabar Club then moved to the new building (the Beach Hotel these days) on the same Beach Road, which was built in 1890, and by then it comprised some 200 members, inclusive of married men whose wives were also eligible for membership. Beach-facing rooms had bathtubs and secluded verandas; all the rooms were tastefully furnished and had plenty of character. At the previous location, a nursing school was built. Soon, it boasted of six stately rooms with polished wooden floors, soaring ceilings, while the ground floor rooms were garden facing rooms.

The 1866 rulebook provides more information – To be a member, you had to be a resident of Malabar, the Neilgherries, Coimbatore, or Palghaut. We see that the rules were quite strict, and late payment or nonpayment defaulters were shamed on the notice board placed in the Public room, and had to pay double to get back. The club house was available for receptions to members between 6AM and 2AM, a member could book rooms only for a maximum period of 14 days, with prior reservation. When one person vacated a room, it was aired and cleaned for a whole day before being let out again, meals had to be eaten in the restaurant, some supplies were sold at the club, no club servant could be reprimanded by a guest, tips or gratuity were banned, dogs were not permitted, horses had to be parked in proper places, music was prohibited, members could not bring their own liquor, no games/play was allowed in rooms and on Sundays. Games at the Billiards table were chargeable. A large number of members seemed to be planters from Wynad. The Club had an entrance Fee of Rs.100. The annual Subscription was Rs.12 for members resident in Malabar and Rs.6 for non-resident members; The Monthly subscription was Rs.10 for singles and Rs.12 for married couples.

Later on, in 1898, the Cosmopolitan club was founded by Jamshedji Mugaseth, as a meeting place for the native gentry, stated to be open to persons of over 20 years of age. Entrance fee for gentlemen Rs.25- and monthly subscription Rs.3-. It appears there was another club as well, the Catholic Union Club.

Now let us get to a quick runover of Maugham and his trip to India. In 1938, W. Somerset Maugham on his visit to India met with Ramana Maharishi at his ashram south of Madras. After a month touring holy sites in the south, Maugham arrived in Madras, where at a cocktail party Christina Austin, the wife a senior British civil servant, offered to take him to meet Ramana Maharshi. The meeting did take place during which Maugham fainted, later met Ramana for a few minutes and Maugham departed. In an essay entitled “The Saint”, published in 1958, Maugham wrote that while he had been touched by Ramana’s humility and dignity he had reservations about what he regarded as the guru’s acquiescent philosophy. Nevertheless the whole event seems to have influenced him a lot. Some insist that Maugham modeled his fictional guru around Ramana in The Razor’s Edge.

But did Somerset Maugham ever land up in Calicut or sit at the Club’s verandah, overlooking the Arabian Sea, to pen his ‘Razor’s Edge’, as claimed by some? I am not at all sure and I doubt it, for even after scouring through his diary and notes, I could not find any mention of Calicut. He did stay at Travancore and Cochin though. I checked with Lady Selina Shirley Hastings who had after extensive studies on SM, written a lovely biographical account on Maugham’s secret lives. She got back with this comment - I never came across any information about Maugham staying at Calicut, but of course it’s entirely possible that he did!

My search and study had been completed, though the question had not been satisfactorily answered. I have not read Razor’s Edge as yet, maybe someday, but for now, it is time to move on….

Ah! this trip took us to another era, when life was different, for those were the lazy and serene days when the contemptuous Burra sahib was sitting on his high horse, lording a colonial town, governing the outlying estates while at the same time crawling slowly towards industrialization, as the subjugated natives groveled on the ground and watched through tired and sleepy eyes.

Life is decidedly better these days, but it is always interesting, to say the least, to look back and see how it once was, to appreciate the today we live in. For some it would be nostalgia, for others a dark age which they prefer to forget.

The rules of the Malabar club – 1866
Edward Lear’s Indian journal – Ed Ray Murphy
Somerset Maugham and the guru – Mick Brown – Telegraph, 10 Aug 2014


Razor’s edge - It tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of some transcendent meaning in his life. He finally finds his way to India, where Larry has significant spiritual adventures before returning to Paris. He is introduced to Advaita philosophy and eventually goes on to realize God, thus becoming a saint—in the process having gained liberation from the cycle of human suffering, birth and death that the rest of the earthly mortals are subject to. The novel's title comes from a translation of a verse in the Katha Upanishad -The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.

Ramana Maharshi – Venkatraman Iyer, a sanyasi, had his ashram west of Tiruvannamalai, south of Vellore. Since the 1930’s his teachings have been popularized in the West, resulting in his worldwide recognition as an enlightened being. He approved a number of paths and practices, but recommended self-enquiry as the principal means to remove ignorance and abide in self-awareness, together with bhakti (devotion) or surrender to the Self. Although many claim to be influenced by him, Ramana Maharshi did not publicize himself as a guru, never claimed to have disciples, and never appointed any successors, he never promoted any lineage. Interestingly, he spoke Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam!

Pic - Courtesy Beach heritage - Calicut


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    A very interesting post. We still need to find out whether Maugham did indeed stay at the Club. But, one thing is certain. The place has some attraction for writers. We can recall two writers in recent times who stayed here and researched/wrote in the peaceful environs provided by the Beach Hotel. One is Aravind Adiga, the Man Booker Prize winner who has stayed here more than once. The other is Virginia Jealous, the Australian poet and writer who recently published her book on Laurence Hope, titled 'Rapture's Roadway'. She writes: 'In Calicut/Kozhikhode I stay at the Beach Hotel, built in 1890 to house the British Club. Laurence Hope and the General would probably have stayed while they looked for a house to rent in 1904'.
    If no evidence exists for Maugham having stayed here, we will have to invent the evidence... and the onus is on you, Maddy!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF..
    yes indeed, I am sure it must have been the perfect setting to let loose your thoughts and imaginations and then put them into paper. One could of course assume that Somerset wanted to see where Laurence Hope lived or perhaps research on what ended up as a story on Adela titled 'Colonel's lady'. Nevertheless, while many other illustrious people may have visited and lived at the club/Beach hotel, Maugham may not ventured to Calicut.. So it is, until further evidence surfaces..