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Club hits

Despite their restrictive membership rules, colonial trappings and archaic dress (and gadget) codes, India's private clubs haven't lost their allure. TOI-Crest takes a look at the country's most exclusive clubs Spoiler alert: Memberships are not to be had, for love or small change.

It's perhaps telling that the Willingdon club is better known for whom it keeps out than whom it lets in. It is part of club lore that artist MF Husain was shown the door when he arrived barefoot and jockey Pesi Shroff, a derby winner many times over, was blackballed because of an unspoken rule barring racing professionals and actors. In fact, this club is so exclusive that even its website can only be accessed by members.

Yet, it's impossible to deny the charm of the Willingdon with its white, colonial fa?ade, woodfurnished lobby and airy verandah overlooking the18-hole golf course. Today, the club boasts a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, two bars, a garden cafê, a department store and a formal dining room with liveried waiters. But it's the little touches that set it apart - the silver bells to attract a server's attention or its pindrop-silent library, which stocks newspapers from around the world.

These clubs were originally set up to cater to homesick British officers and even today one gets the distinct impression of being in a colonial time warp. Within the club's stuffy environs, all mobile phones must be switched off, sandals and bathroom slippers are prohibited and dining is a formal affair. A cursory call to the membership desk reveals that only members' children are admitted and the phone is disconnected before one can ask any more questions. According to media reports, memberships were opened in the '80s but quickly closed after the club received a flurry of interest from politicians and actors. In fact, until 2007, only members' sons were admitted. Daughters managed to squeeze through the door of this "gentleman's club" because of the dwindling, ageing member population and the club's desire to attract young people, who would spend more.


Only for members' children


Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh


The genteel Cricket Club of India, that sprawling expanse of green on Dinshaw Vaccha Road in Churchgate, hit the headlines recently. Eleven intrepid forgers had made their way into the 80-year-old institution by tampering with the files of deceased members. A highpowered executive of a well-known textile company and the owner of an established marble brand were allegedly among the fraudsters. A verification was said to have been carried out, and much consternation expressed indoors over cold coffee and steaming chicken Kiev.

A short walk through the winding alleys of the club is almost enough to understand that excessive enthusiasm to get a membership - the coffee-shop with ridiculously lowpriced food overlooking a swimming pool, the lush lawns, tennis and badminton courts, and the well-stocked reading room and bar upstairs. Photos of past captains of the Indian cricket team line walls and cricket matches are often conducted on the grounds. When the lawns aren't occupied, one can spend entire mornings staring into the windy greens, pondering life's deeper questions: scrambled eggs or baked beans for breakfast today?
For that though, you'll need to immediately commence schmoozing with a member so they can sign you in. The membership process has been halted for now, so the newly moneyed can stop waving the cheques around. Currently, unless you're born of an existing member's privileged loins, your chances of roaming the misty, hallowed confines of the CCI are virtually zilch.


Only for members' children


5-10 years


MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar


In 1954, 10-year-old David Kearns and his brother, Donald, would spend hours swimming in Breach Candy Club's massive outdoor pool, just a stone's throw from the Arabian Sea. The boys would jump off the highest diving board, swim to the island in the centre and treat themselves to a chocolate bar or a Thumbs Up once they were done. "It was just a magical time, " recalls Kearns. "I don't think it was a time that could ever be recaptured but one always tries. "

For Kearns, now a retired physician in Atlanta, USA, Breach Candy club is one of the only places that he remembers from his childhood in Mumbai, which hasn't been radically transformed. Within the club's idyllic confines, expats still loll on colourful deck chairs, children shriek while zooming down the water slide and nubile teenagers tan on the endless, green lawn.

To gain access to this secluded paradise, Mumbai's swish-set readily cough up astronomical sums (over Rs 1 crore when the membership opened earlier this year). Despite the eyepopping figure, people were clamouring to get in and there was even a controversy about whether individuals on the waiting list had been allowed to unfairly jump the line. The hefty price tag isn't just for the clubs three swimming pools, sea-facing restaurants, tennis court and gymnasium but also for its exclusivity and colonial connection.

Though Indians have always had to pry the door open, until recently, anyone with a foreign passport could access the club premises. In 1997, Kearns was able to purchase a day-long membership but when he visited again last year he had to find another way in. Eager to share this childhood experience with his 14-year-old son Patrick, Kearns sent emails to everyone he could think off. Eventually, a virtual stranger came through. "Patrick wanted to see the pool because we told him so much about it, " says Kearns. "It was a wonderful thing for him to say that I swum in the pool. It was kind of like a notch in his belt. "

Considering what Mumbai's wealthy are willing to pay to for access, Patrick is clearly not alone.


Rs 1 crore plus


15 years if you're lucky


Ronnie Screwvala, CEO of UTV, and actor Shashi Kapoor


The only currency valued in Bangalore's exclusive clubs is personal relationship. A combination of old school ties, family allegiance and time-tested friendships could prise open doors far more efficiently than a brash display of wealth. Of course money is very important. But well-heeled members have over the years successfully cultivated a facade of disdainful attitude towards it and could even fool you into believing that they are ascetics for whom money is anything but important.

The phony airs and nose-in-the-air apart, one of the best examples of the value of personal relationships would probably be the Bangalore Turf Club (BTC) situated bang in the heart of the city. It proudly wears its colonial hangover on its sleeve. To be precise, it preens of it on the sleeve of the crisp formal suit so very mandatory for its members in many areas of the club even at the height of summer.

BTC has a mere 350 members, many suitably fattened by the numerous parties hosted by wannabe members. Pointedly, admission to this exclusive body is by elections which are held whenever there are a minimum of five vacancies caused by the death of members. Wannabe members keep track of the health of BTC members and whenever one of the members falls sick or is hospitalised, the aspirants wait with bated breath for some good news (for the aspirants that is).

Once the vacancy number reaches the magical five and applications are called for, there is tremendous activity on the party front. The member-aspirants host a string of parties, each more lavish than the previous one. It goes without saying that these parties are almost always hosted in five-star hotels with exotic drinks, food and entertainment thrown in. Gifts and much more are showered on the members and their support for the elections is actively canvassed.

Remarkably, there is no admission fee. But extravagant parties are the norm. Many aspirants host parties over many years before the members finally consent to favour them with their vote. Usually, only aspirants who are well connected (offspring of members) and well heeled manage to squeeze in. Occasionally, some rank outsider (particularly one who has lost multiple elections) finds success because of a system where members 'dump' their votes on an aspirant whom they believe has no chance to win! This strategy boomerangs and the outsider is voted into the closed ranks.

Vijay Mallya, probably the most famous of the BTC members, lost the first time he tried to become a member. This, despite the fact that his companies sponsor numerous races, and he owns many thorough-bred horses, thereby pumping in crores of rupees into the sport. A number of Karnataka chief ministers' children too have tried hard, but without success, to get into this exclusive club.


No admission fee but aspirants have to throw parties


Vacancies open up only when members die


Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar (erstwhile Mysore maharaja), Vijay Mallya, Brijesh Patel, KJ George (home minister), Ambareesh (top Kannada film star and current housing minister)

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