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The “social clubs”, the English tradition that the Indians are crazy about

Last week, I finally got an inside look at Bandra Gymkhana, the club in my neighborhood. I live right next door, and yet I’ve never set foot there before. Why ? Because I don’t have the right: entry is strictly forbidden to the public. But this time we are invited by a friend whose father has been a member for years. And, barely through the doors, we find ourselves projected into a unique temporal space, as if the XXIand century and the nineteenthand had chosen to meet here.

colonial architecture

The social clubs indeed form one of the most visible legacies of British colonization in India, particularly in Bombay and Calcutta. Word gymkhanacarried by many of these institutions, is moreover a term coined during the Raj period designating the Indian versions of the gentlemen’s club – since at the time women were not allowed there. However, the Indians have taken on the concept so much that today this “club culture” has undoubtedly become more powerful in India than in the United Kingdom. In Bombay, clubs continue to open every year as demand continues to grow.

On the visual side, imagine colonial-inspired architecture, large, manicured lawns and uniformed waiters. Like almost all clubs, Bandra Gymkhana consists of an outdoor part with sports facilities, tennis courts and swimming pool, in particular, and an indoor part with various reception rooms, a more informal dining area and, indispensable element, a well-stocked bar. Other clubs also have a library or a gym.

Multi-year waiting lists

That evening, our small group was comfortably seated under the vast courtyard equipped with Bandra Gymkhana fans. We happily gorge ourselves on ground lamb, garlic naans and fried fish (the famous bombay duckWhere Bombay duck”, which is in fact prepared with a very tender small fish, the bombil, slightly spiced then breaded). All washed down generously with beer, wine, gin or whiskey, according to taste… For a price that defies all competition.

Because this is one of the major advantages of belonging to a club. Once the membership has been made (sometimes for the year, but more frequently for ten years or for life), consumption or sports activities are indeed much cheaper than on the traditional market. You still have to become a member. This is where we will measure your interpersonal skills, because the exclusive mode of recruitment remains co-optation – except in certain clubs, such as that of Waterstones, the favorite of expats, where a business card and a well-stocked wallet can serve of recommendation. Otherwise, other clubs, such as the Cricket Club of India or Bombay Gymkhana, in the south of the megalopolis, have waiting lists for several years.

Entrance ticket at 160,000 euros

If you want to try your luck, it is when the club opens that the prices are generally the lowest. Then the bidding goes up. How far ? It depends. Contrary to popular belief, not all clubs are reserved for the elite. Each club has its level of prestige, and the city has dozens of them. Bandra Gymkhana is thus mostly frequented by members of the rather middle-class Catholic community. But a few hundred meters away, the entrance ticket is around 160,000 euros to become a life member of the Otter’s Club, an establishment popular with the business bourgeoisie and film actors.

Founded in 1973, the Otter’s Club is an excellent example of such clubs founded after India’s independence. The premises are luxurious and modern, and the party is in full swing there every weekend, to the sound of the latest Bollywood hits. I had the opportunity to go there twice at the invitation of a friend of my spouse, for whom this club is a second home. He received his professional contacts there, had a drink with his friends, dined there with his family… Like an English gentleman of the 19thand ? Perhaps. But certainly like a young Indian city of the XXIand.

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