One evening in a new club in Gurugram, as members began to trickle in, some of them noticed an anomaly in the bar area. It was nothing jarring; but something Indians notice in a fraction of a second when their eyes sweep across a room. It was too abstract, and also improper, for the members to discuss with their friends. But married couples are, in the company of each other, racists and classists, and if you had good ears, you may have heard their whispers and got a gist of things: a group of happy young men around a table did not look suave enough to be a part of the club which was meant for corporate heads (“Creative people are interesting, but they don’t have money," the club’s co-founder told some of us, correctly). It soon became evident that the young men at the bar were indeed outsiders—they were the band for the evening.
The important quality of a private social club, the kind that is not a metaphor but really a private social club, is that it is very honest about its most important objective—to keep the other kind of Indians out. The emergence of these new private clubs is a response to the near-impossibility for the upper middle class of urban India to gain admission into the legendary old clubs. In essence, the response of the new rich to the high walls of the old rich is not the demolition of such walls, but to build new swanky walls. That is human nature, and the middle class is beginning to stop pretending that such a wish for social islands where they can escape India for a few hours is debauched.
The very goal of the entire Indian upper class, in fact, is to escape India within India. Our pursuit of the good life is automatically the pursuit of islands. Affluent India is an archipelago of islands where people pay a premium not for quality but for the invisibility of Other Indians. Our residential colonies, schools, crèches, restaurants, resorts, cars and cinemas are in reality clubs where the other Indians can enter only as “servants".
Outside our islands, real India awaits. Roads are choked, air is poison, sad urchins say they are hungry, beggars show their deformities, and markets are filthy. But, India is too potent not to permeate the islands, and it does as the odours of the drivers and the heart-breaking stories of the maids who want a raise. And how much, in contrast to the fulminations of island intellectuals, Aadhaar has transformed their lives.
The Indian craving for social islands has only grown, driving up the prices of anything that might offer mediocre services but promises isolation from real India. Such islands are most successful and enduring in the richest segments, where the islands themselves cannot be purchased, they can only be inherited. Elsewhere, the islands are ephemeral. In the past few years, there has been an economic democratization of the nation and that has confused the social order in many Indian spaces. About a decade ago, you could walk into any five-star hotel and be confident of encountering only certain kind of people. Today, you can find such a broad spectrum of Indians in the lobby of a five-star hotel that you can recruit them as extras for not only Karan Johar’s films but also Ram Gopal Varma’s. Soon after the middle classes create a social island, the emerging classes quickly infiltrate. Upmarket experiments, like condominiums, micro-breweries, fusion food and literature festivals, have turned democratic and plebeian in no time.
About two decades ago, the architect Hafeez Contractor told me that he had a plan to create a giant meandering park, many miles long, along the Mumbai coast which will be filled with grass-covered dunes, café and theatres. He complained that the environmentalists were sabotaging the plan. “It’s always about saving some bloody fish in the Arabian Sea," he said. There were a host of other problems too. Contractor’s effort not withstanding, it is very rare for Indian real estate developers to see long-term value in a beautiful public space. Indian businesses are so accustomed to making easy money in affluent islands that they are not trained to see the more difficult but vast wealth in common public good.
A generation ago, Indians had fewer things to convert into islands. Schools in the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, had a spectrum of Indians. Some of us studied in schools that had the children of “smugglers" (as successful business people were called in Chennai then) and slum kids. And the whole nation, or states, watched the same films. Now schools and cinema have become islands.
One of the lessons Chennai taught me is that the best way to practise caste is by making it art. The most enduring Brahmin islands of Chennai are not their residential lanes but their music and dance. So it is not surprising to me that the most respectable islands today, which are not overtly recognized as social islands, are the arts —“good" cinema, “multiplex cinema", meaningful theatre, classical music and jazz. We also hide in “institutions", which is a Nehruvian euphemism for the regulation of the popular low-brow by the authoritarian good stock through the medium of “ethics".
It is not that the islanders do not enjoy mingling with the other Indians. They do at times. For instance, many of us do enjoy air-conditioned public transport, like the fabulous Delhi Metro. But only as long as we can return to our islands.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan