The Raj is dead. Long live the Raj.
This rings true for most British-era clubs in India, 67 years after Independence.
These clubs no longer deny Indians membership, but ‘Englishness’ remains a primary qualification for getting an access to them.
Anybody not fitting into this mould is ‘undesirable’, even if that person is M. F. Husain, who was barred from entering Mumbai’s Willingdon Club in 1988, for being barefooted.
Or, the late communist patriarch Jyoti Basu, who met the same fate at Calcutta Swimming Club for arriving in dhoti a decade later.
Even the IT giant N.R. Narayana Murthy had to prove his passion for golf to get into Karnataka Golf Club.
And now Madras High Court judge, Justice D. Hariparanthaman, has been turned away from Tamil Nadu Cricket Association for wearing the traditional south Indian dhoti.
Walk into Delhi Gymkhana, and you will see a relic of the Raj thriving.
Founded in 1913, the club still pursues a strict dress code, incomprehensible to most outsiders, as a Buddhist monk would find out last year.
As it happened, Bhutan’s second-highest ranking monk was barred from dining at the club, just because he was wearing sandals and the traditional lama attire.
Also, as a reminder to the old, feudal order, a notice at the entrance of the club prohibits “servants and drivers” from having food inside the premises -– just like it had barred the entry of “Indians and dogs” during the Raj.
Col. O.P. Malhotra (retd), Secretary of Delhi Gymkhana, however, insists that changes to the club’s rules and regulations are made from time to time.
“Every room at the club has a different dress code,” says he, recounting how one can now enter Dining Room in dhoti-kurta, salwar-kameez and pyjama-kurta preferably with Nehru jacket, among others.
But the more they change, the more they remain the same, thanks to the rigorous selection process.
“It is an arduous process,” says a member of the club willing to be anonymous. “You apply now, and you may be called in for an interview 20 years later,” tells he, emphasising on the word may be.
As if to defend the long waiting period, he adds: “Gymkhana will take even more. Last heard, an applicant is unlikely to get a call before 30 years, provided he is well-connected politically or has a family member in the club.”
Purrshottam Bhaggeria, author of Elite Clubs of India, however, supports the selection process.
“If anyone could enter the premises, then it would turn into a hotel.”
What he questions is the dress code.
“They were made during the British era, by men who used to wear suit and tie. But now, if anyone wishes to enter the club wearing the national dress, what is the problem with that? Be it a dhoti in Tamil Nadu or a kurta-pajama in north India, how can anyone stop you from wearing the national dress?”
Social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, who though wants ‘Anglophilic clubs’ to change their rules, upholds the right of these private institutions to allow whosoever they want to enter the premises.
“A dress code does not violate the Constitution, rather they are to do with a club’s code of conduct. If someone were to start a ‘pink club’ where everyone would have to wear pink, it wouldn’t be considered unconstitutional,” says he.
To this, a member of Delhi Gymkhana adds: “We don’t invite people. If they have problem with our ways of functioning, they shouldn’t join us. Most people want to join us to upgrade themselves socially, and yet they lecture us on the issue of equality.”
In Tamil Nadu, senior journalist T.N. Gopalan who has been wearing dhoti for the past 40 years, is amused by the ongoing Hariparanthaman controversy.
“Though it is ridiculous to ban dhoti, it is equally silly to raise the issue in the Assembly as there are more pressing problems.”
Journalist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, recalls the only time he was the victim of the dress code violation.
“At the India International Centre, Delhi, I wasn’t allowed to have breakfast in shorts after walking in the Lodi Gardens. I didn’t mind. I went to my room, changed into trousers, and came back. What’s there to get upset?”
When asked by Mail Today to comment on the humiliation he had meted, Justice Hariparanthaman recalls the episode where Justice Krishna Iyer, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, was barred from entering one of the clubs in Chennai in the 1980s.
“He (Iyer) had left a message in the visitors’ book that he was returning as a proud Indian,” says he.
So, next time a club stops you, do what Justice Iyer did.
Or imitate Khushwant Singh, who vowed never to enter a club after he was stopped by one. The part of the problem, as highlighted by Oscar Wilde, is: “Only those who can’t be members speak disrespectfully of clubs.”
Most of us want to be part of this for the ‘self-importance’ it provides, and when we fail to get in, we criticise it virulently.
These colonial creations have no place in today’s world.
And if you still want to join it, get in queue, it’s a long one.
And, don’t forget to straighten your tie and press your suit.
~ by Utpal Kumar and Srijani Ganguly, With inputs from Priyamvatha P. in Chennai, Soudhriti Bhabani in Kolkata, Ganesh N. in Mumbai, and Aravind Gowda in Bangalore