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Welcome to the club: Here’s the story of SMAC

There was a time when membership in a book club would elevate you to an elite position in the hierarchy of litterateurs. There were letter-writing clubs for others in love with the pen and paper and gourmet clubs for food lovers. Even though they exist today, clubs in India and around the world have found their own niche.

Take for instance, the Pokemon Hunters’ Club. Some members of the group go out and about in the city, carefully measuring their steps, as they become desi Sherlock Holmes. They search across streets, cafes and parks to trace their mysterious creatures in a virtual avatar. That is what the members do when out on a ‘Pokemon hunt’. In many parts of the country, the Pokemon fever ran high before the pandemic but the lockdowns put a halt to it. Now, as the Pokemon Hunters’ Club members reunite, the journey has begun again.

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Elsewhere, people are engaging in unconventional hobbies to rejuvenate as life gets back on track after the pandemic. So, you have watch lovers, connoisseurs of fountain pens and single-malt whiskies, and diggers of the Sanskrit language, among many others, who have reinstated their meetups to bring fire to their shared passion once again.

For the love of Sanskrit

When some of India’s most prestigious institutions begin efforts to revive the oldest language of India, we know that it will be in safe hands. The Sanskrit Club of IIT-Roorkee was officially launched on its campus in 2016. The student-led initiative aims at approaching Sanskrit with a scientific temperament and bringing back to the world all the literary, technological, philosophical and scientific geniuses that dwell within the texts of this language.

Anil Kumar Gourishetty, coordinator of the club and associate professor in the department of physics, IIT-Roorkee, shares that the story goes back to his college days when he was pursuing PhD at IIT-Kharagpur. “We, as students, thought of organising a spoken Sanskrit workshop which was just meant to listen to Sanskrit instead of reading and writing it in order to develop interest in conversational Sanskrit. When I joined IIT-Roorkee, I thought of a similar workshop here,” he says.

He shares that around seven years ago, the education ministry wrote to all IITs, being a premier technical institute, to promote spoken Sanskrit and to explore the relevance of the language in science and technology. Along with students, as they would be the primary stakeholders in the initiative, the institute started working on exploring Sanskrit-based knowledge systems in different streams of science and technology. That is when the club was born in 2016.

Gourishetty says that last year, IIT-Kharagpur, too, started its Sanskrit Club for the promotion of the language. The institute has full-time faculty members for the initiative. As a club, it has no mandate to offer formal academic courses but organises guest lectures and workshops on how to study Indic sources. Students also carry out projects with faculty members from IISc Bengaluru for exposure on Sanskrit-based knowledge systems. The club has also organised competitions to generate interest.

In 2020, during the pandemic, the club’s spoken Sanskrit workshop went online and saw more than 14,000 registrations from more than 30 countries. All the courses and workshops of the club are free of cost and its videos are also uploaded on YouTube.

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Talking about pursuing a career in Sanskrit in today’s time, Gourishetty says that a number of premier institutes hire Sanskrit faculty members for their courses. According to him, the knowledge of Sanskrit also helps in having a better command over the mother tongue and Hindi. Calling it a hidden treasure, he says, “Knowing Sanskrit will help in purifying your own mother tongue. It has helped improve my pronunciation of my Hindi and mother tongue Telugu. Sanskrit has a vast scope and has a lot of knowledge hidden in Sanskrit texts. It should be taught at school levels like maths and science are taught.”

One of the recently concluded courses of the club include ‘Samsadhani: Pravesika—Introduction to Samsadhani —A toolkit for Sanskrit Computational Linguistics’. The course was organised as a collaboration between Sanskrit Club of IIT-Roorkee and team Samsaadhanii, University of Hyderabad. It focused on the use of ‘Samsadhani’—an online computational toolkit for Sanskrit to understand any Sanskrit text. It was designed for learners having intermediate knowledge of Vibhakti, Sandhi, and Kaaraka, gained through the completion of the Subhashitam Samskritam course or otherwise.

Leaders and readers

Author, photographer, blogger, journalist and traveller Ajay Jain has driven across the Indian subcontinent. At last count, he had clocked over 100,000 km (60,000 miles) in his car. A perpetual quest for discovery led him to try his hand at different things. With degrees in engineering and management, followed by conventional careers in technology and sports management, and a master’s in journalism from the UK, he goes by the principle ‘all leaders are readers’ and that led to the formation of the club—Kunzum CEO Book Club, which is an initiative of Kunzum, a bookshop and community for readers, authors, designers, editors and publishers.

In the club, leaders from various eminent backgrounds talk about books that have shaped, inspired, educated and entertained them. Jain, the Delhi-based founder of Kunzum, shares that in his club, which has an ‘open structure’, (that is, open for people to attend), leaders talk about books that have contributed to the vision for the work they do.

He says that partnering with them makes others within their organisations read more to proactively contribute to and be aligned to the same. “As readership expands, it would also shape the culture and character of society and individuals—making this a better world to live in,” he adds.

The club started with the establishment of Kunzum as five boutique bookshops across Delhi-NCR in March this year. The aim is to build communities around books, like a 365-day-lit-fest, says Jain.

Talking about Kunzum CEO Book Club, Jain says that their definition of a CEO is not just literary but “senior management in business, startups, nonprofits and public service, politics, bureaucracy and administration, creatives and more”.

Unlike conventional book clubs, Kunzum CEO Book Club does not have a set schedule but holds at least one meet a week across its outlets. A leader is invited to deliver a solo talk, or be in discussion with others and an interested community is invited to attend. The talk covers books that matter to the primary guest, and also goes into their professional and personal lives.

Jain shares that his club is also working with publishing imprints like Harvard Business Review and Gallup to not only make their titles available to the club’s community but also try to engage with their authors and researchers globally. “As travel opens up, we intend to even sponsor their visits to India for face-to-face engagement. Expansion shall also include taking authors to organisations that the CEOs come from—so we may inspire more people to take up reading,” he adds.
On being asked about how the club will bring about a change, Jain says Kunzum’s mission statement is about bookshops being vital to shaping the culture and character of societies and individuals.

“This belief has driven us to invest in such community spaces and thus do our bit to make ours a better world to live in. In line with this, we are looking at leaders to be force-multipliers by taking the message of reading to their respective organisations. And thus, be agents of change,” he adds.

Keeping a close watch

Karan Madan, 37, is a doctor by profession—a physician and diabetes specialist based in Delhi. But he has a unique passion —horology (the study and measurement of time) and wristwatches. He writes watch reviews, and even helps people decide which watch to buy next.

His hobby has led to a community of over 4,000 watch lovers globally. He formed the club, Watch Enthusiasts India (WEI), in 2015 since he wanted to have a platform in India for watch enthusiasts. The community gradually grew and, today, in their ground events, hundreds of people travel from even other countries to participate. Madan says he loves reading and talking about modern mechanical timepieces with fellow collectors.

During their meetups, watch enthusiasts discuss and show their watches from across brands. Conversations are not just limited to watches but also lead to strong bonds and friendships. “People have travelled from Oman, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada to be a part of our meetups,” says Madan, who has about 60 watches and plans to add Rolex GMT-Master II to it. His current favourite from his collection is Graham Chronofighter and he recently acquired a Kurono Tokyo watch.

“The culture of investing in hobbies was largely missing in India and the idea of spending on yourself was alien to the Indian psyche eight to 10 years ago. But during the pandemic, surplus savings meant people could afford splurging on hobbies. People began to travel and were exposed to good things in life,” he says, adding that India is still a nascent market for luxury and there is a lot of scope for luxury brands to come in.

Anyone who loves watches can become a member of the club. “Even if you own one watch, you are welcome to the group—provided you are a watch enthusiast and knowing and talking about watches is your hobby,” he adds.

A subgroup of WEI, which is a private, invite-only group, is for select members who plan to buy and sell their watches among each other. WEI holds monthly meetups in different cities and their annual meetup happens in Delhi. In April this year, their meetup happened in Bengaluru, in May it was held in Mumbai, in July it was in Delhi. In September, they plan to hold their event in Goa. Their annual meetup will take place in November.

Taking a write turn

Most people take notes on their phones or laptops but 42-year-old Kunal Gupta, vice president in an IT startup and programme director with the Delhi Literature Festival, likes to take them in his notebook with his fountain pen. Delhi-based Gupta is also the founder of Delhi Book Lovers, an organised book community of Delhi with over 8,000 members comprising businesspersons, authors, publishers, IT professionals, students, journalists, and so on.

His love for fountain pens goes back to his growing-up years. As a student, he could not afford to pursue his passion. When he grew up, he discovered a large community of fountain pen lovers and in 2017, he started his own club—Fountain Pen Connoisseurs Club (FPCC). He initially started on Facebook but his emphasis was on organising meetups in Delhi, where he stays.

He has a unique collection of fountain pens from premium brands like Montblanc, Montegrappa, Visconti, Namiki, Aurora, Parker and Sailor. His most favourites are from Namiki, Visconti and Scribo.

During their club meets, they discuss fountain-pen friendly paper, the types of inks, pricing, aesthetics of pens and editions, material of pen, usage of pen, and more. They also discuss new possessions, what they are buying during their travels and what the members got rid of from their collection.

Gupta shares that there is a vast variety of fountain pens and they differ in nib sizes and can range from Rs 100 to even millions of dollars.

Their meetups also have members who are calligraphy experts and artists who draw using fountain pens and consist of letter-writing sessions in which the members send handwritten letters to the members from the US and exchange them via post or digitally through pictures.

Gupta suggests that there is a fountain pen for every budget and any fountain pen lover should exhibit patience. During the pandemic, he says, writing emerged as a form of digital detox. The fountain pen lovers’ community thrived then as they wrote letters and in their diaries. “We get so used to typing messages and mails that we forget to write. It is a very soothing, relaxing and calming exercise. Writing has a personal touch which sending a typed message lacks,” he says.

The club has over 1,000 members on Facebook from across the globe. During the meetups, at least 100 members attend. FPCC has regular meetups once in a month or two.

Besides collecting exotic fountain pens, Gupta also loves to explore food and has interests in finance and the stock markets.

One for the single malt

India is largely stereotyped as a whisky-drinking nation—why not have a whisky club then? The Single Malt Amateur Club (SMAC) was founded in 2011 as a platform for amateurs, professionals and connoisseurs to share experiences and information on single-malt whisky. The ‘amateur’ tag was added to empower members to shed their inhibitions and speak.

Hemanth Rao, a Bengaluru-based IT professional, whisky lover and founder of the club, wanted to bring together people from different realms who share their passion for the drink.

Rao had been exploring single-malt whisky since the late 90s. Sharing that he possesses an innate curiosity about the unique stories behind every bottle, he says this curiosity led him on adventures to hone his skills and further his collection—from the distilleries inScotland and Ireland to the hills of Solan and the shores of Goa.

Over the past decade, he witnessed an evolution in India’s whisky culture—the most important change being it is no longer perceived as an ‘old man’s drink’. “New-age whisky drinkers comprise both young men and women who are starting to enjoy whisky and are genuinely interested in the history behind their drinks,” he says.

For membership, anyone can log on to the club’s website and register. Members meet up once a month in metro cities across India. However, they were recently flown out to Singapore on a single-malt amateur whisky trail called the ‘Singapore Sling’ on their own expenses. “I have been to bars in Singapore on a couple of occasions and I realised there is a different world in terms of whisky there,” Rao says. This was their first international trip as a club, Rao says, adding that they received a lot of interest.

The whisky trail encapsulated curated whisky flights at some of the best whisky bars in Singapore. Bars like The Auld Alliance, The Swan Song, The ExciseMan, The Quaich Bar, and The Single Casks welcomed the club members as this was the first ‘whisky delegation’ from India. Rao selected pre-set whisky flights in consultation with the bar owners to provide the members a tasting experience beyond the brands and names that one would find in India. The group tasted over 50 whiskies during this trail.

Some of the rare whiskies that they tasted included a 65-year-old Glen Grant by Gordon & MacPhail, 25-year-old Brora bottled in 2008, 36-year-old Caol Ila bottled for the Kingsbury’s club, 37-year-old Lochside bottled for the Auld Alliance, a 23-year-old Highland Park from the Silver Seal Whisky Company, and so on.

During the pandemic, they had tasting sessions and conversations around whiskies, exploration of collections and so on. On the recent whisky revolution in India, Rao says India always knew how to drink its whisky but always looked up to the west. Now, he says, consuming the drink the way one likes is the trend. As a club, they are brand agnostic and discuss and consume various Indian and international brands.

SMAC is also the only Indian club that has manufacturers bottling for them. As the club expands, Rao says it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to manage his work and the club but the team is expanding as well. The club meets once every two months.

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