Late Lunch

by Maya Sorabjee

published April 15, 2016

On the third and fourth floors of an old revival building in the southern tip of Bombay lives an institution so complete, so encased in its own time, that you could consider it a work of art. An utter colonial relic, its wooden furniture is suspended like formaldehyde animals across two floors of dusty air thickened with nostalgia. The place is called the Ripon Club. It is one of several surviving nineteenth-century members’ clubs designed to answer idle time—activities include sipping tea, reading the newspaper, and dozing off in a type of cane lounge chair with armrests extended so invitingly that it has come to be known as the Bombay Fornicator.

The difference between the Ripon Club and other Raj-era clubs in Bombay (apart from the fact that the entirety of its sports facilities is limited to one billiards table) is that its membership is reserved exclusively for the Parsi community, an ethnic minority of Persian descendants in South Asia. Though a demographic decimal point, the Parsis have played an integral part in the development of Bombay and its infrastructure. But they are now quite literally a dying breed, their numbers shrinking at such a sharp rate that the idea of a languid afternoon spent in a Bombay Fornicator might not be one of leisure, but of necessity.

Known for a mean sense of humor and somewhat problematic Anglophilia, Parsis frequent the Ripon Club with their guests firstly to eat its great Parsi food at uninflated, pre-Independence prices, but mainly to be sucked into an imperial time warp. Waiters dressed in white shirts and black bowties serve bowls of custard on silver trays without a trace of irony. Regal busts of Parsi gentlemen gaze from their pedestals across the long dining room and street-facing windows crop the neo-Gothic High Court building that sits across the road into unsullied rectangles of architectural detail. Steeped in so many comfortable anachronisms, the dated materiality of the Ripon Club is thought rare and wonderful to those who have had the privilege of visiting. That it is tucked, unchanged, amidst the mess of what Bombay has become makes it even more of a miracle of unwitting preservation.

My dad and I went to the Ripon Club on a Friday—pulao dal day, to the hungry and knowing. We ate our lunch—a traditional wedding dish of mutton, lentils, and rice—without hurry, beneath the synchronized whir of sixteen ceiling fans. Afterwards, I drank some mint tea on a Fornicator and, inspired by the sleeping geriatrics all around me, draped myself in an unfolded newspaper and took a nap. When I woke up, the evening traffic had just started outside. Its noise drifted slowly into the room, dulled by the blades of the ceiling fans and folded into 1884.