Whilst the gentlemen’s club may exist in many avatars today, what sets it apart really is membership, and not service, food or facilities
AN UNACKNOWLEDGED legacy of colonial rule in India is the ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ that found its way to the Raj from England (as early as 1827) with the Bengal Club. Gentlemen’s clubs, thought of as successors of coffee houses, were all the rage in 19th-century England. Every young man or old of credible reputation was respected only if he was a member of such a club—so compelling was its presence and acceptance in genteel society. These memberships were so valued that one of Earl Mountbatten’s many accomplishments was to hold the membership of 19 clubs in the 1960s! The British, known to carry a little bit of home with them wherever they went, were quick to introduce this rarefied world to India. Take, for example, the Bangalore Club, which was established in 1868. It counted Winston Churchill and the Maharaja of Mysore as its members.
Of course, the clubs of today, known not entirely uncharitably for their inexpensive food and alcohol, still cling on to snob value by having waiting lists that can be as long as decades. Even five-star hotels introduced their own version—most well-known amongst them being the Belvedere (Oberoi Hotels) and the Chambers (Taj Hotels). These are by-invitation-only and come at a pricey membership fee. And for a while (and possibly still) were all about the status quotient. An insider nugget is that hotels with these exclusive members have a special category built into their computer software that goes beyond the generic VIP, etc, tagging to identify members of these clubs and mark them out for extra attentive service.
A little over two decades ago, a south Indian businessman introduced the ‘country club’ concept as an exclusive city retreat for the well-heeled who had the cash, but not the legacy. It worked for a while, but soon dwindled (in perception) into a sort of time share option, forfeiting that much-vaunted ‘exclusive’ tag. But it made great business sense. Since then, clubs have become quite de rigueur. In the satellite town of Gurgaon, DLF builds residential complexes with club houses for the use of residents of a particular area. Newer developments come with the ‘club house’. What was once known as the community centre in the past, usually a large hall that could be rented out for functions, has evolved into something far more defined in the experience it offers. There are restaurants, banquet halls, swimming pools, gyms, etc. A friend in real estate says home buyers are willing to pay a premium for the club house and its standardised experience.
When I lived in the town of Secunderabad back in the Nineties, the Secunderabad Club (one of the five oldest clubs in the country) was the lynch pin of social activity in the twin cities of Secunderabad and Hyderabad, which were not quite cosmopolitan, but well-heeled nonetheless, with entertainment options at the time limited to house parties, dinners at pricey five-star hotels and perhaps two English film movie halls. Days of the week were marked by whether it was tambola night or movie night at the club and people furiously juggled their calendars around these days.
There was also social sanction. It was far more appropriate to go to a dance at the club than venture into one of the newly-opened night clubs in the city, which were considered dens of inequity. Never mind that access to all the pleasures these discotheques offered were available at the club, with the added benefit of acres of land that young people could disappear into under the cover of darkness! However, the club held on to its reputation of propriety, a lingering legacy that the upstart night club failed to recreate.
Whilst the club may exist in its many avatars today, membership is really what sets it apart, and not necessarily its service, food or facilities. Clubs are (even after all these centuries in existence and their many avatars) still known by who they count as members. It’s a cliche, but every club with any oomph value insists it has a 30-year waiting list.
And after that revelation who bothers checking? Unlike Earl Mountbatten, I have only one membership—the Habitat Centre (Delhi Golf Club only permits my father and is in some loop over 21 years and over, etc). There is no signing privilege as with older clubs, but there is access to some of the best restaurants in town. Their gym was once (or still is?) frequented by the most famous son-in-law in the country (known for his fitness regimen). This is not what recommends this spot, of course, but at a time when clubs are more about (understated) flash (they will deny this!), Habitat Centre is worth a mention for its laidback accessibility despite having members.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants
in India and abroad