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Getting membership into this 118-year-old club - once the estate of the deposed Tipu Sultan exiled to Calcutta - is no easy task.
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Bombay Gymkhana first opened its doors strictly to moneyed Britishers.
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Amongst Bombay clubs, the Breach Candy Club has always been a bit of an anomaly. It was set up in 1878 for 'saltwater bathing by Europeans', and only Europeans. Only the salt water made it unique, because Bombay Gymkhana, set up three years earlier, was also exclusively for Europeans. There's an interesting story here, repeated so often it has gone into folklore. It is said that Lord Willingdon entered the club one day accompanied by an Indian friend. 'Sorry, ' Lord Willingdon was told, 'You are welcome, but your guest is not. ' The Englishman was so offended that he decided to start a brand new club which would welcome Indians. Thus Willingdon Club was born.
Astonishingly, the Breach Candy Club stuck to its 'Europeans only' policy well after independence. Later, when the absurdity of Indians being banned from a club in India dawned on people, protests began to mount and Breach Candy allowed Indians in. But only Monday to Saturday ! It was only in1964 that 'natives' were allowed in on Sundays. No one has been able to put a date on when Bombay Gym opened up for Indians, but I imagine it must have been soon after August 1947.
'Opened up' in theory, of course. Old timers tell me that till the 1960s, membership went a begging, and members would arm-twist their friends to join. But by the time I came back to India straight from university in Britain in the mid 1970s, membership was very firmly closed. Luckily, they opened it for a month in 1975, and I, with university level sports accomplishments in a number of games, got in. If I remember, I paid Rs 2, 500 as entrance fee. Now a hundred times that amount won't get you within sniffing distance of any kind of membership.
My membership was called 'Ordinary membership', which is odd for something so extra-ordinary : in all these years since I joined the Gym, ordinary membership where you pay an annual membership fee, has never once been opened up. The only available options are an occasional Life Membership, or more often, corporate membership which costs big bucks.
Why, you might ask, is membership of a club so very sought after? There's the convenience factor. Suppose I am in town for a couple of meetings, and there's a gap between two meetings, what would I do? Being a member, I walk into the Gym, have a cup of tea, catch the cricket score on TV or go to the library and read the papers.
There's the social factor. Where else could I ask you to join me for a drink without burning a hole in my pocket, and see familiar faces all round me which adds to my comfort? Then there's the sporting factor. Most new buildings now have gyms and even swimming pools, but how many have tennis, badminton, squash, cricket and all the other field games? None.
There's also the snob thing. However much I might discount this it must be true: after all, every club is a closed entity, and there are always those who are not in, and want to be. And the more difficult it is to get in, the more they want to get in. Compound that with another obstacle - in a procedurally correct club like the Gym: mere money can't get you in, however filthy rich you are. However much cash you are willing to throw around, you can't jump the queue.
Last, but absolutely not the least, there's the heritage factor. You can collect a lot of money and build a spanking new club with a lot of facilities as people have done. But can you have a name plate at the entrance which says 'Founded in 1875'? If Bombay Gymkhana has tradition and heritage, they have taken nearly 140 years to build. You can artificially ripen mangoes, you can build a new 'old' building, but you know and I know, that that's not the same thing.
The Bombay Gym, in spite of being a 'youthful' club because it encourages the playing of sports, is hidebound in many ways. I remember the time when some women, in the last few years of the 20th century, began a signature campaign to get daughters of club members the same rights as sons. I was one of the first signatories. An EGM was called and the hall was full to bursting point. There were a lot of members opposed to the move 'on principle' (and surprise, surprise, most of them had no daughters), so one expected a fight. But the daughters had done their homework well. To speak for the motion, they had lined up Nani Palkhivala, Justice Lentin of the Bombay High Court, and a few others of that caliber. After they were done, we waited for the opposition to storm to the mikes with their fiery objections, but who would dare speak after Palkhivala and Lentin? The motion was carried with a mere ten very meek and very sheepish hands raised in objection.
One of the small changes I was able to make in the club rules was to get my kurta-churidar on the acceptable list. But I couldn't change the rule that at Managing Committee meetings, all of us had to wear suits. So every Thursday I would park my car near the service entrance wearing my one good (and very tight) English suit, and sneak up the stairs so no one ever saw me. The rule still stands, and it applies to membership candidates as well. One prospective member (he is a successful Bollywood script-writer now) wrote a tenpage letter quoting historical figures who said that a suit was part of a regimentation process formulated by dictators, so could he appear in shirt and trousers? The Managing Committee said no, and he lost his chance to become a member.
Occasionally I do wonder what I would have done if I hadn't become a Gym member. Made do, I suppose, with my nose forever pressed against the glass, looking longingly in.
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