Last year, when the Willingdon Sports Club relented and extended full membership rights to women, there were some who were more than a little unhappy. A few offered that it was a gentleman’s club, and should remain that way. Others objected that women had been accommodated sufficiently over the years. Despite the cacophony, a motion was eventually passed allowing members’ daughters to officially apply for independent membership. The decision was significant. Willingdon, abutted by an 18-hole golf course in the heart of the city, was the last of Mumbai’s storeyed clubs to finally embrace 21st century living.
In the past few years, these clubs and gymkhanas—still clinging to arcane traditions and by-laws handed down through the glory days of the early Raj—have slowly begun to accept the realities of new India. Pressured by soon-to-expire leases, dwindling member populations, and refusals to raise prices, these havens so beloved by all have had to wrestle with tribulations their founders would likely have blanched at. Willingdon, which has long been a favoured spot of the aged, has had to find ways to attract young people, the highly coveted demographic swamping Bombay Gymkhana’s popular Friday bar nights.
“Younger people spend more money,” a Willingdon Club board member said, under condition of anonymity (the club maintains strict rules about talking to the press). “Elderly people tend to sit around for 2 hours and maybe order one nariyal pani.” Indeed, a random sampling of members gathered in the Club’s lounge proved that once certain members arrived, they rarely left before dinner time, ordering snacks from a menu, the entire contents of which totalled not more than Rs500.
Which is not to say that all ties to their colonial forefathers have been thrown by the wayside. The last time Willingdon opened membership (in the 1980s), it was so inundated with requests from the acting and political communities that the board quickly adopted a closed-membership policy. “If we say that we’re not accepting any new members,” said the same board member, “then nobody can object.”
Curiously, the Willingdon Club, named after the then governor of Mumbai, was formed on the principle of equality, letting in both Indian and British members, as a direct assault on the Europeans-only policy of the Bombay Gymkhana, Byculla Club, and Royal Yacht Club. Breach Candy Swimming Bath Trust, similarly founded to be a club for expatriates in south Mumbai—which kept its “dogs and Indians not allowed” sign well after Independence— adopted a similar stance when, upon opening membership, it received an application from a prominent but disreputable local politician. Aghast at the thought of letting him in, the Club suspended the entire application process.
The stories are innumerable, and in the case of some, legend. Everyone can recite the M.F. Husain incident, when the artist was unceremoniously asked to leave after entering the Willingdon’s premises barefooted (though the rules pointedly state that “rubber chappals and bedroom slippers” are not permitted, they make no mention of bare feet). Bombay Gymkhana’s management has few qualms about asking members to leave if they enter the formal dining room in T-shirts or shorts. The Cricket Club of India, attached to Brabourne Stadium on Marine Drive, has a designated family room for “informal” gatherings. And across the board, it is requested cellphones be switched off, or kept in silent mode, when on the premises.
For younger generations, these rules seem silly and contrarian. If these clubs are to survive, then new blood—the cellphone-addicted, BlackBerry-toting generation—should be welcomed and accommodated. For older generations, it is precisely what they hope to stave off for as long as they can. For many members—some since the 1940s and 1950s—these clubs offer a tie to social activity. They meet friends, have a cup of tea, play bridge, and gossip. For others, the clubs are a sanctuary. One member recited how an elderly man unfailingly brought his wife, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s, for her evening sit-down at the Breach Candy club. Another told of a woman who, having lapsed into senile dementia, continued to attend her bridge games regularly. Despite the struggles and frequent disruptions, her group remained supportive till the end.
Historically, these clubs were founded as places for Europeans to relive some small part of home. Writing about their founding in Bombay, poet Dom Moraes called them “symbols of their solitude thousands of miles from home”. Today, they are a refuge from the bustle of an increasingly polluted and frenetic city, where only a privileged few are afforded the luxury of stately bungalows and open spaces.
For the rest, young and old, these clubs provide just that: a moment of solitude, of sitting in green spaces, or by a body of unsullied water, where, for those brief few hours, the outside world fades away. My great-aunt, who became a member in 1950 through marriage, and then, later, independently after the death of her husband, confesses that it was the best thing to happen to her. “I thank my brothers every day for making me sign the membership papers after my husband died,” she says. “I would be utterly lost without it,” she adds, before leaving to meet her friends for a drink at Willingdon, a daily ritual that has continued uninterrupted for nearly half a century, and that has seen them through the passing of husbands, parents and friends.
For all the complaints, and especially the grumbling from those who apply and get rejected, the appeal of these clubs has barely diminished. In fact, the very idea that something as archaic—with traditions that seem so unfathomable at times—could survive has burnished the image these clubs project. “The day they start changing, they will no longer be the jewels that the British left us,” says Pavan Malhotra, co-author of Elite Clubs of India. “They will be just like any other club.” He may be right: in many ways, their exclusivity gives them the right to their eccentric ways, to take the plodding track to modernization.
That wise philosopher Groucho Marx once carped, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Had he lived in Mumbai, he may well have changed his mind.