Secunderabad Club fire: By virtue of complacency, we are guilty of severe negligence

Life has the habit of throwing us unexpected challenges. I never imagined writing a eulogy for a place. Throughout the day, I wondered if the stone and wood that made up the Club screamed in agony as the searing flames scorched their molecules.

Zeenath Khan

This morning, national news channels were ablaze with footage of the blaze that engulfed the Secunderabad Club. Overnight, a short circuit-induced fire destroyed most of the Club’s main building.

By mid-morning, a series of apocalyptic images flooded my phone. Against the backdrop of a reddened sky, towering flames, and flashing lights, a pair of firemen valiantly pointed a hose at the fire. In another, a centuries old tree remained rooted to its spot while smoke curled out of skeletal remains. With the onset of dawn, the devastation was complete. The Colonnade, billiards room, and the administrative office were now consigned to ash. Latest reports suggest the library and the mixed lounge, with hand-painted murals depicting scenes from Midsummer Night’s Dream, didn’t succumb to the tragedy. Fortunately, no human injuries or fatalities have arisen from this incident.

Although the Secunderabad Club ranks as one of India’s oldest and most distinguished clubs, its origins are humble. Salar Jung I, Hyderabad’s visionary nineteenth-century Prime Minister, used the building as his personal hunting lodge. According to the Club website, he gifted the premises to the then British Resident for his evening recreation. Situated in the heart of Secunderabad’s cantonment area, the Club became the focal point of social activity for the British Army. Legend has it that the young Winston Churchill left behind an unpaid bill at the Club when he was stationed in Secunderabad as a sub-altern.

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With the turn of the twentieth century, the Club entered its golden era. Those were the days of glittering balls, lobster dinners, and waiters in starched whites. Bashful, chaperoned debutantes batted their eyelashes at dashing army officers. Old-timers remember Deccan Airways planes swooping down and showering them with toys on Christmas Day.

The fire had claimed not just a building but a slice of Hyderabad’s history. General Syed Ahmed El Edroos, Commander of the Nizam’s army, was the Club’s first non-British President. After the state’s union with India in 1948, the victorious General Chaudhuri took over the mantle. Throughout the decades, much has changed in the city’s political and social landscape. The Secunderabad Club offered the city’s residents a continuum of sorts, a place where the old and the new met. I associate some of my earliest childhood memories with the Club. As a two-year-old, I floated in its swimming pool in a plastic tube. In the eighties and early nineties, it was the city’s coolest and possibly sole teenage hangout place.

We flocked to the Club’s outdoor movie screenings and queued up at the chaat and tandoor counters.

Turning sixteen meant license to attend the dances and use the adult library.

Thirty years later, driving past the cannons posted on either side of the Club’s gates always gave me a sense of coming home. The Club dated us all and ought to have outlived us. It was the link between the past, present, and future. When the order of events is upturned, it is always a cause for distress.

Buildings can be rebuilt. I’m told the Club is flush with funds. I hope those in charge preserve the Club’s colonial aesthetic.

Life has the habit of throwing us unexpected challenges. I never imagined writing a eulogy for a place. Throughout the day, I wondered if the stone and wood that made up the Club screamed in agony as the searing flames scorched their molecules. If so, then by virtue of complacency, we are all guilty of severe negligence.

Zeenath Khan, a Hyderabadi by birth, is a writer who resides in Mumbai

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