NO, IT WASN’T racism that saw the ejection of the Meghalaya nanny, Tailin Lyngdoh, enjoying a quiet meal with her employers and a few others in the dining hall of the upper-crust Delhi Golf Club. At least on this count, Kiren Rijiju, the junior minister for Home Affairs in the Modi Sarkar, is wrong. Poor Lyngdoh found herself shown the door merely because club members reckoned that she did not appear to be ‘one of us’. The incident was a reflection of a mindset that puts a premium on one’s economic status. Her wearing the jainsem, the traditional Khasi dress, was incidental. For, a culture of exclusivity—nay, segregation—still pervades the rarefied confines of the nation’s much sought-after watering holes with the most ferociously guarded entrances. New membership is hard to come by even after an interminable wait and a willingness to pay a king’s ransom upfront as admittance fees. The British departed from these exclusive havens of social conviviality, where not too long ago it was not uncommon for signs at the door to read ‘Dogs and Indians not allowed’, but their spirit still haunts the gymkhanas and clubs that dot India’s big four presidency towns. Simply put, the ‘natives’ are yet to imbibe the desi culture. The continuing pull of Westernisation and the English language separate the social and economic hoi polloi from the well-heeled businessmen and professionals who rule the roost in these dens of wining and dining with a few standard add-on activities such as bridge and rummy, tennis and badminton, and for those inclined to improve their minds, book clubs and so on. But frankly, a vast majority of these clubs sustain themselves on revenues from the copious consumption of alcohol and food, in that order, on their well-appointed premises. Indeed, that is true of press clubs as well. On dry days, it is hard to find a journo in these otherwise packed-as-sardines places.
But back to the humiliating treatment meted out to Lyngdoh. She was in the company of her employer, a bona fide member of the DGC, when a club employee asked her to leave. Why the member did not protest is not known. Nor for that matter did any of the other diners. Social conscience was clearly trumped by the felt need to assert economic rank—how could a mere aayah eat at the same table as them, the so-called crème de la crème of society? Such cleavages in society are found in all facets of everyday life, but at such posh clubs, it apparently helps set members apart from non-members.
The week Lyngdoh was thrown out mid-meal from the DGC, yours sincerely encountered a similar problem, though nowhere nearly as humiliating. Entering the Delhi Gymkhana Club, that majestic haunt of the top babus and admirals and generals, a manager from the front reception sidled up to me, whispering in my ears, “Sir, bush shirts and Tees are not allowed. If you could tuck in your shirt…” Without a word in protest, I volunteered to tuck in my linen club bush shirt before proceeding to the bar. Upon being told what had just transpired, my host gave me another fright: apparently, you are not expected to wear loafers without socks. The fact that loafers are part of a top-order American get-up and have a sort of cult following among some people was immaterial; members and their guests’ feet must be clad in socks and shoes. Fortunately, I was spared ejection—where could I have produced socks at that moment?— even as I spent the entire evening painfully trying to hide my feet under the seat of my chair, while my eyes constantly looked out for the man who had warned me about my untucked shirt.
That evening at the Gymkhana, I was reminded of the plight of LK Advani, whose wait for membership had at long last ended bar one final hurdle: he was supposed to get the nod from the elected representatives of the club. The so-called ‘at-home’ prescribed a strict dress code and newspapers at the time speculated whether the BJP veteran would shed his dhoti-kurta for a Western suit to gain entry to the club, which commands vast acres of public land within a handshake’s distance of the house which Advani actually aspired to occupy all through his political career (but in vain). Advani stayed loyal to his standard attire and won the approval of the DGC’s ‘at-home’ squad to become a member of the elite club. It is another matter that hardly anyone recalls seeing him at the club since then.
The point is that Lyngdoh and Rijiju should take it easy. These clubs are known to behave in a snooty manner. If it is any comfort, recall how a very old club in Chennai had turned away the late MF Husain because his feet, as usual, were bare.