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Barbarians At The Gates
Clubs are far more significant for who they keep out rather than who they let in. If you want to see who they keep out, hang out for a while in an expensive restaurant of a five-star hotel. You'll find them there, a well-heeled mix of the glam and the tacky, the builders, the exporters, the fashion designers, the event managers, the cash-rich but status-poor entrepreneurs, the PR men and, of course, the wheeler-dealers. There'll be the kind who pay with platinum credit cards, and the kind who pay with thick wads of dirty notes; the sort who hang out in safari suits with wives in spangled salwar suits and a dangling Louis Vuitton bag (and a hapless maid at the nearby table watching over the kids); and the sort who wear discreet solitaires, sip expensive red wine in balloon glasses and talk about that magical trip to Andalusia. They have nothing in common with each other, except the fact that for Clubland, they are all Barbarians at the gate. The arrivistes represent in their various avatars, sleazy or slick, the energy and drive that contributes to 9 per cent growth rates—but in Clubland they have to be kept out at all costs.
And who does Clubland contain? It varies from club to club, and city to city. But at the 'exclusive' clubs—the kind with colonial-era buildings and acres of green lawn—expect a sea of babus, serving and retired, and mustachioed military men and their wives. Bobbing about in this sea, a fair sprinkling of professionals from the corporate, legal and other worlds who've managed, on account of pedigree, clout or persistence, to get in through the door. (Then there are the birds of passage, diplomats and such like.)
Don't imagine that they all hang about in elegant drawing rooms and verandahs full of gracious Raj furniture and old-world charm. A few clubs are well-kept, like Bombay's Willingdon, even if (or perhaps because) they are overpopulated with decrepit Parsis. Others, like the Delhi Gymkhana, are quite tawdry, with cheap floor tiles and dreadful furniture that looks like it was picked up in Delhi's downmarket Panchkuian road. This is the place that the Pakistani high commissioner apparently wants to join, but frankly, if you spent a weekday evening at the bar, you might just wonder why.
The members list may be a who's who of the capital, but the regular crowd is really quite B-list—the same dreary, "When I was posted in..." stories being recounted week after week, in once-booming-now-quavering voices; the listless ladies with prune-like faces that only light up at the rummy table; the daddy's boys and girls who never quite made it in the real world, and whose only claim to fame is the club membership wangled for them. All measuring out their lives in cheapish booze, mutton cutlets and soggy finger chips, rubbers of bridge, tombola and fox-trot evenings, a game of squash or two. The only thing that validates their dull routine is the envy of the Barbarians, waiting to gatecrash this shabby-genteel world of fading privilege.