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Cover Story

The sacred club creed

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Clubs are the new cathedrals of absolute authority. Watch how obsessively antiquated rules are observed.

The Christians have their Old Testament, the Methodists have The Book of Discipline, the Muslims have the Sharia and club-goers have their Booklet of By-laws. It catalogues the rights and privileges awarded to members, and recommends permissible modes of behaviour, attire, speech and other signifiers of gentrified conduct. Moreover, the rules of a club, though finite, are of such portentous quality as to forever remain embossed on the brains of its members. "I'd much sooner forget my company creed than ride roughshod over club rules, " says a member of the pre-eminent Madras Club.

It probably explains why a certain lady member did the unthinkable to save her membership (which was perhaps more important than saving her marriage ) - she kept her husband a secret. Until very recently, clubs regarded women as appendages of their husbands - they could only be offered dependent membership. (Many clubs continue to bar women from entering their taphouse unless accompanied by a man, preferably their spouse. However, in what may be regarded as a step towards evolution, single women, widows and divorcees are allowed independent membership, although many clubs still withhold voting rights in club elections and keep them off the governing board. ) Anyway, the woman in question used to be an independent member until she got married, in which case she would have had to forfeit her membership and reapply via her husband, who would have to queue up himself for a card if he was not a member. Aware of the near impossibility of her mate scoring a membership, she paraded him at the club as her partner. However, after several months of this dangerous charade, she was caught out, and despite her stunt (or perhaps because of it) managed to keep her card.

Clubs continue to be the Elysiums of our age. Perhaps the single most valuable gift a father can bequeath his heir is a club membership that guarantees a superior social network for life, subsidised luxuries and uncountable other temporal advantages. It's why a member's offspring who has come of age (21 at most clubs) will will-nilly make it to that decisive club interview that will grant him/her full member benefits. It's not uncommon to hear of children studying at foreign universities sprinting home solely for a club interview, for the window of time made available for such interviews is often a matter of only of a few months. A couple from Canada, fearful that their children would be out in the cold if the gates of Mumbai's Willingdon Club forever closed on them, made the long haul to the city just to have their kids sit that pivotal interrogation.

Of all the laws, ones pertaining to attire betray the old stiff upper lip's stand on the stiff collar. Most clubs will not permit visitors without a shirt collar or closed shoes into their lounges and restaurants, as a result of which not a few 'notables' have been shown the door or directed to the club shop where the fastest selling item is apparently the collared shirt. Sharad Pawar was once turned away from Bombay Gymkhana for defaulting on this rule, while Khushwant Singh was guilty on both counts - wearing sandals and a collarless shirt to lunch - at Madras Club. Geeta Doctor, poet and journalist recalls, "I had forewarned Rajmohan Gandhi, but had forgotten to warn Khushwant Singh about the club rules, " she says. The party had to make do with lunch at a hotel instead.

There are rules, like these, that are reiterated loud and clear by even club attendants, and there are rules that will be silently observed. The latter explains the stark absence of film folk and politicians at most colonial clubs. "We wouldn't want them bringing their scheming and immoral ways to our genteel grounds, " sniffs an old timer. Another rule insists that the help be left at home. Some clubs have now amended this to allow maids in the play area to mind the children. Those beyond their gates complain that clubs are upholders of colonial culture in India, and their propagation of anachronistic, paternalistic rules is worthy only of critique. Insiders argue that a club would lose its singular character if it threw the rule book out. "We're not saying we favoured the British," says a Bengal Club member, "But we do like their Britishness."

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