The Taste with Vir: Another prejudice bites the dust
Perhaps it really is time to abandon the prejudice of the past, the ones I was brought up on and the ones I held close to my heart.
I am not a member of any of India’s great and prestigious clubs. Never have been. Never will be.
It is a prejudice handed down to me by my father who refused to join any of the top Mumbai clubs, even when it was not so difficult to get in. His reasons were patriotic, or historical, at any rate. He objected to the very reason that most of these clubs had been set up. They were intended to be places where Brits could meet in the heyday of the Raj without having to deal with any Indians. (Well, sort of, anyway: The club servants were all Indians but obviously they knew their place.) (Also read: The Taste With Vir: Which city has the best food?)
Even after Independence, many clubs took time to change their membership policies. Indians were still not welcome. As late as the 1970s, I remember that the Breach Candy Club in Mumbai would not allow Indians to join but anyone with a foreign passport could use the facilities.
My father believed that these clubs were a Raj legacy that shamed all Indians. And he had contempt for Indians who tried to join once the post-Independence exodus of white people had freed up space for native members.
There was another reason too. He hated the idea of having his social acceptability judged by a panel of dodgy characters who would interview applicants to decide if they were upmarket enough to be let in.
My father had no problem with going to, say, The Taj Mahal Hotel so his objections were not socialistic. In fact, he approved entirely of the establishment because he had heard the famous story about how the Taj was founded.
There are many versions of the tale but, in essence, the story goes that Sir Jamsetji Tata was invited to a Raj club — in most versions it is the Bombay Yacht Club — to meet a Brit, only to be turned away at the door because he was a brown man. According to the story, Jamsetji flew into a rage and vowed to build a hotel so grand that it would make the club look small. The hotel he built was the Taj.
My father would not temper his hostility to Raj clubs even when it came to the Willingdon. This was set up by Lord Willingdon because he wanted a place where White people could meet the natives. According to my father this was nearly as bad as the Whites-only clubs.
Because I inherited his prejudices, I never made any attempt to join any of these clubs though when I moved to Calcutta to edit Sunday, one of the blandishments that my boss Aveek Sarkar offered me was that Calcutta is “the only city in India with real club life.” I told him that I regarded this as a disqualification and the subject was dropped.
Over time I have joined non-Raj clubs; the Indian Habitat Centre, for instance. I joined the India International Centre as a sort of retirement plan because there is nowhere else in Delhi where I have seen septuagenarians and octogenarians looking so happy. Sadly as I began to advance towards my geriatric years, my membership lapsed because a change of address meant that I had not received my annual membership bills and failed to make payments in time.
But I hardly visit even those clubs where I am a member. I have been to Soho House, Mumbai, only once in my life but I continue to pay the membership fees on the grounds that one day, I will visit all the Soho Houses around the world.
I have not been to the Habitat Centre for over a decade. And one reason we did not notice that we had stopped receiving mail from the India International Centre was because I hardly ever used my membership, saving it up for my old age.
I guess I am not a club type of guy. But I have watched them with detachment. When I moved to Calcutta in 1986, I was told that the Bengal Club was the big one. The Calcutta Club was built by people who could not get into the Bengal Club. And the Tollygunge Club was meant for people who could not get it into either the Bengal or Calcutta Clubs.
I never found out if this was true but certainly, in 1986, what little I saw of the Bengal Club suggested that it was frequented by the sort of brown boxwallah who had taken over from the white guys who ran the big companies the Raj had left behind.
I went back to the Bengal Club last weekend to speak at an event and found that box wallahs were in short supply. (I don’t suppose there were very many of the old Calcutta Raj companies left anyway; they have either faded away or been taken over by Marwaris.) The ethos was solidly Indian, mostly professional (lawyers, doctors etc.) and determinedly unsnobbish. “We are trying to get rid of all the old snobbish associations”, one member told me.
I was speaking at the Club’s Dialogue series which aims to invite eminent people to chat to the members. (This was the first Dialogue so obviously it was a sort of rehearsal and I was chosen as a stand-in for an eminent person!) The quality of the discussion, the questions from the audience and the air of stylish informality that characterized the place were all impressive.
I guess this is true of many of the other clubs which my father so despised. Most members don’t even think of the Raj associations, there is no social snobbery and many people go mainly for drinks at club prices, sporting facilities and (in the case of Bengal Club, certainly ) some intellectual stimulation.
And frankly, Indians have not necessarily distinguished themselves by the way in which they have managed some of the clubs they inherited from the British. The Delhi Gymkhana’s affairs have prompted government intervention. Control of the much-loathed Beach Candy Club finally passed to Indians and it is now riddled with disputes and problems.
So perhaps it really is time to abandon the prejudice of the past, the ones I was brought up on and the ones I held close to my heart. The Raj was a long time ago. In the time since the British left an entire generation has come and gone. Today’s India no longer even remembers the bad old days of colour bar. For them, the clubs are just friendly places to meet without paying fancy restaurant prices.
Perhaps the only difference between the 197-year-old Bengal Club and the post-Independence India International Centre is that the Bengal Club has better food. And that its members are much younger.
So, another prejudice bites the dust!