Subhash and Udayan have never set foot in the Tolly Club, a local golf and country club, though they have passed by its high brick walls “hundreds of times.” Their father used to watch horse races within from the street as a young man, but after the Second World War—around the time when Subhash and Udayan were born—the walls of the Tolly Club were raised to keep the public from being able to see inside.
The Tolly Club, and its walls built to ensure that the luxuries within it are reserved only for a privileged few, is in many ways the center of the Tollygunge of the boys’ youth. By starting the novel off with this framework, Lahiri demonstrates the inequities and simmering discord in the background of Subhash and Udayan’s childhood.
Bismillah, one of the boy’s neighbors, works as a caddy at the club. Bismillah is a Muslim who stayed in Tollygunge following Partition—the violent and devastating 1947 division of British India into two independent nations, India and Pakistan. Bismillah sells local boys golf balls and broken putting irons which have been lost or damaged on the golf course for a cheap price, allowing Subhash, Udayan, and other boys like them who are barred from the Club to play golf on their own—despite the fact that they’re not very good at it. Bismillah knows the boys long to learn more about the club, and he draws them maps of the interior and gives them a tip about “sections of [unfinished] wire fencing where one might enter.”
Lahiri illustrates the diverse makeup of Tollygunge and hints at the memories of unrest between its Muslin and Hindu residents. Subhash and Udayan are not distracted by religious or cultural difference—their relationship with Bismillah is happy, because he allows them to glimpse what life is like for the privileged members of the Tolly Club. Bismillah and the boys are united by their desire to not just work in or look at the Tolly Club, but to be a part of the luxury, safety, and status it symbolizes.
One evening, Subhash and Udayan decide to try to infiltrate the club. Around dusk, they approach the wall with their putting iron and two empty kerosene tins. They cut through dried-up paddy fields, passing refugee encampments filled with Hindus who have fled from the territories which are now a part of Pakistan. These families have been “stripped of their ancestral land,” and now are forced to live without sanitation or electricity, “in shanties next to garbage heaps, in any available space.” These people, Subhash and Udayan know, are “the reason for the club’s additional walls.”
Lahiri uses Subhash and Udayan’s point of view as children to deliver a simple and affecting portrait of a complicated political situation in a town divided by religious and cultural tension. Even Subhash and Udayan, young as they are, know that the more privileged members of their society would rather ignore the pressing humanitarian problems facing it, and the Tolly Club’s raised walls symbolize the willful ignorance of the privileged and the elite—an ignorance which will, later in the boys’ life, motivate one of them to drastic action.
Subhash and Udayan arrive at the walls of the Club and find a place where the fence is low enough to scale. Their pockets are full of golf balls, and Bismillah has told them that they will find plenty more inside. Subhash helps his brother—who is a few inches shorter—to climb over. Subhash offers to stand guard on the outside of the wall while Udayan explores, but Udayan urges his brother to join him on the other side. Subhash reluctantly heaves himself over the wall, as “frustrated by Udayan’s daring [as he is by] himself for his lack of it.” He is thirteen, and older than Udayan by over a year, but has “no sense of himself” without his younger brother.
This scene serves to transition the focus of the narrative from the wider issues and tensions facing Tollygunge to the particular tensions between Subhash and Udayan. Subhash is the older brother, but clearly the less daring one. His frustration with his brother’s impulsive nature is mirrored by his frustration with his own inability to be so carefree and headstrong—as the older brother, he harbors insecurities about being overshadowed or left behind by the younger.
The boys are suddenly “no longer in Tollygunge.” The Club is full of lush tree, manicured grass, and beautiful tall egrets. The boys are afraid they will be caught, but when no one comes to chase them away, they begin to relax and explore the golf course. As the boys practice their swings, they encounter a water buffalo and a group of jackals, who begin howling—signaling that it is late, and time for the boys to go home. The boys return many times, and on each visit Subhash collects feathers, almonds, and bird eggs while Udayan practices his swing.
The wild animals within the Tolly Club’s bounds underscores the cruelty of it walls’ even more greatly. Wild animals are more permissible a presence than poor people, refugees, or simply middle-class individuals. Nevertheless, the boys are enchanted by the club, and play happily there again and again, testing fate with each visit.
One evening, climbing over the wall to leave the club, the boys notice that the kerosene tin they’ve left on the outside of the wall is missing. Just then, a policeman appears, and makes them empty their pockets, which are full of golf balls. He also takes their putting iron. The policeman tells the boys that they should know better. Udayan insists the break-in was his idea, and the policeman tells Subhash he has a “loyal brother.” The policeman tells the boys that he’ll do them a favor and forgo mentioning their trespassing to the Club as long as they promise not to try it again. Subhash agrees. The policeman orders Subhash to turn around and face the wall, and then strikes the backs of his legs with the putting iron. Udayan cries for the policeman to stop, throwing himself in front of Subhash. The policeman throws the iron into the grass and retreats.
This scene demonstrates the sense of loyalty and duty between Subhash and Udayan, but also the imbalances in their relationship. Udayan tries to rightfully take the blame for his impulsive behavior, but it is nevertheless Subhash, the eldest, who bears the brunt of the punishment. This foreshadows the power dynamics that will plague the boys’ relationship as they grow older, signaling that Subhash will be forced to accept shame and punishment that should belong to his younger brother.