A Passage To India


A journey to the wonderfully exotic South Asian destination that cradles a blend of colour, cultural and golf

BY Tom Peters

“Before I got to Shillong, toward the eastern side of the country and my first game of golf at the Shillong Golf Club, I traded a car seat for a seat on the back of an elephant at the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in the Marigaon District of Assam.”

Indian politician and author, Shashi Tharoor, wrote, “India is not, as people keep calling it, an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.” I had to see for myself: underdeveloped or in a state of decay. What I found, at least in my impression, that it was a bit of both and a lot more.

India was a bucket list trip for me. For some reason it held an exotic fascination I really couldn’t explain but I had to explore. All the stories I had heard of heat, poverty and a lot of bad smells didn’t deter me. If anything, it all added to the lore. Ironically, I wanted to see firsthand the second most populous country in the world and yet I don’t like crowds.

Further to the fascination, it was another place I wanted to play golf. I’ve had the good fortune of playing in a lot of places but this was India, the land of tea and spices. It’s a vast country that is not known for its golf, but then again, neither is Iceland and I had a great golf adventure there. So with clubs in tow and an open mind, I set out on a busman’s holiday. I was ready to accept whatever I encountered. My goal was simple: to see what I could of the country wrapped around some golf.

Guwahati, the capital of the State of Assam in northeast India, was my first stop.  First impressions are indelibly stamped in your brain. The massive traffic confusion and congestion in the streets in that city of over two million people hit me like a ton of proverbial bricks. Weeks later I could still feel my palms sweating, my fingers clinging tightly to the car seat and in my mind’s eye, still see the hundreds of near misses with my ears still ringing from the constant blaring of horns. And I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

With its daily open air fish auction, Hindu temples and Rongali Bihu festival with all its colours, traditions, Indian music and spicy food, it was a great kick start to my adventure.

Before I got to Shillong, toward the eastern side of the country and my first game of golf at the Shillong Golf Club, I traded a car seat for a seat on the back of an elephant at the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary in the Marigaon District of Assam, which is home to the endangered one-horned Indian rhinoceros. It wasn’t long before we spotted several grazing on the open plain.

Seeing the rhinos turned out to be an easier task than setting up golf in this country where the game is pretty much enjoyed only by the affluent. I realized before I left home that getting a tee time required more than going to the pro shop to find an open spot. There was a lot of advanced booking to be done but I managed to get times at Shillong; the Bombay Presidency Club in Mumbai; a visit, but not a game at a very busy Delhi Golf Club; and a game in the city of Chandigarh.

The Shillong course was closed on the Monday I arrived, but being a gracious host, the club manager allowed me to play. A young Indian lad offered to caddy for me and for the princely sum of 300 rupees - about six Canadian dollars - it was a bargain.

While there were no golfers around, I could hardly say I had the place to myself. The course was open to the public, a common practice when it is closed, who randomly wander the fairways and stage the occasional picnic, which proved a little more than your usual hazards. But further to negotiating my golf ball around pedestrians, there is also a busy two-lane road that cuts across two fairways, not alongside, but across, presenting a very tricky situation. The road comes into play off the tee on one hole and into play on your second shot on the other. Very unusual indeed.

If you go to India for some personal spiritual uplifting, it is a country that addresses many religious beliefs and practices. The Don Bosco Museum here in Shillong has a great display of religious histories and philosophies. Religion is very diversified – Hinduism, Buddism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity – live hand in hand in a way the world should follow. And speaking of following, Hinduism has the largest and you can easily become absorbed in the many Hindu temples throughout the country. You may also stumble across a sacred cow sunning herself in the middle of the road or Hindu rituals being performed, as I did, or happened upon a Hindu cremation where the body is cremated on a large open fire.

Sadly, golfing in Shillong had been neither spiritual nor inspirational. Perhaps it’s the expectation of a first round after flying halfway around the world, or perhaps it is negotiating cars and people that took away my focus. Nonetheless, it’s 18 holes done and an experience that is both unique as much as harrowing; I’m not sure if the general populace walking around were insured but I’m glad I did not have to find out.

But the golf gods, who I sometimes think I follow too religiously, were smiling on me in Mumbai at the Bombay Presidency Golf Club, a parkland style course established in 1927. Mumbai is a city of 22 million people, nearly two-thirds the population of my home country, Canada. I was in awe of everything around me in the sprawling, noisy metropolis that still bore a lot of past British influence. Many buildings displayed Victorian and European architecture and the ‘Gateway to India’ on the waterfront, a massive arch completed in 1924 to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary, was a reminder of pre-independence years. Not far away from the arch, some 5,000 people worked in the world’s largest open laundry, the men washing bedding, towels, et cetera, from hotels, hospitals and the like in large concrete tubs while the women ironed out the wrinkles.

On the sidewalks, outside of the walled off golf course, street people slept in the shade of overhanging trees. On a nearby corner a small, frail woman, with a large blue cotton bag over her shoulder, rummaged through a garbage pile weeding out pieces of plastic and cardboard to be sold for a few rupees to a recycler. And the daily hustle and bustle of the city fell in the shadow of tall concrete buildings, blackened over time by weather and smog.

In contrast to the cityscape, The Bombay Presidency Club had a feel of British-Indian aristocracy, stiff upper lip and all that. A full service, elegant clubhouse and all the amenities that go along with the privileges of being a member of a private club. That is not to say the members were unwelcoming. Quite the contrary. There was great acceptance of this foreigner by the members in my playing group. They wanted to know where I lived in Canada, about my home course and about golf. They were quite surprised to learn that in my province in Eastern Canada, situated on the Atlantic Ocean, it is not unusual for golf courses to be open from mid-March to late November and even into December.  

“Obviously the Delhi course is one of the busiest in the country and I dare say the world. Despite a substantial membership entrance fee and annual dues, it has a 30-year member waiting list.”

The journey then continues to Delhi and a visit to the famous Delhi Golf Club. It was a Saturday and the course was very busy. In my discussions with some club officials, I was told they have 5,000 members of which approximately 3,500 are full playing. Those numbers are staggering compared to the clubs back home where members count in the hundreds. Obviously the Delhi course is one of the busiest in the country and I dare say the world. Despite a substantial membership entrance fee and annual dues, it has a 30-year member waiting list.

It was the Delhi course that I also met Rajan Sehgal, President of the India Golf Tourism Association. The association was formed, he said, to work with India’s government to promote India’s golf product and tourism around the world. He told me that of the 220 or so courses in the country, approximately 45 are of international standard and there are several more courses either planned or under construction.

The Delhi area or the National Capital Region as it is also referred to, he said, was a good golf destination because there are number of top level courses within close proximity. After spending a few days in the city, I felt the Radisson Blu Plaza Delhi, was a great place to base a golf holiday. 

The city of Chandigarh, about a five-hour drive north of Delhi, certainly doesn’t speak to Tharoor’s underdeveloped country. Unlike Mumbai and Delhi, Chandigarh, also known as ‘The City Beautiful’, was India’s first planned city following independence in 1947. It is filled with clean, tree-lined streets and parks and modern architecture. Its master plan was prepared by the famous Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier. The city of just over one million people, has a very high quality of life and is considered the face of modern India.

The Chandigarh Golf Club and course are part of that desire to be environmentally friendly and project a green future. The tight fairways are lined with mango, eucalyptus and many other tree varieties. The greenery and attention to detail are exceptional. The course, opened in 1962, is over 7,000 yards from the tips and also has nine holes and a driving range lit for night golf.

Golf at Chandigarh proved totally enjoyable. A highlight was my chance meeting with the father of Jeev Milkha Singh, the first Indian golfer to play on the European Tour and the first Indian to play in the Masters. The elder Milkha Singh, a former Olympian himself, graciously greeted me in the fairway.

And again, as at the previous courses I played or visited, at Chandigarh there was always a handshake, an invitation to lunch or the offer of a refreshment. I had come to India with no pre-conceived ideas and no great expectations. I didn’t set myself up for disappointment. I must admit India is not for everyone. There are real life issues and habits that could be disturbing to some people. But what I learned was to turn away if I didn’t like something and I learned India would be a place I would like to go back to for a more focused golf vacation.

In the novel, A Passage to India by E.M. Foster, and in the context of the story, the question was asked: Can an Indian be friends with the English? I’m not sure how the question was answered in the book but in my own context, based on my experience, an Indian can certainly be friends with a Canadian. I learned that firsthand.