“Can you believe it?” whispered Mrs To The Manor Born as she leaned across the bamboo table where we were sipping tea at one of Mumbai’s posh, old guard members clubs. “It was so appalling, and it just brings too much unwanted attention,” she said, referring to the inexcusable incident at the Delhi Golf Club a few weeks ago where a woman from Meghalaya was shown the door because she appeared to look like the help, when in fact, she was a member’s guest. I concurred, but pointed out that many of these clubs seem to be out of step with the times. “I don’t know about all that, but how could they be so insensitive in this age of social media?” she asked, raising her perfectly arched eyebrows. Clearly, she was less concerned about the moral underpinnings and more upset about optics for the club.
Across the country, to be a member at prized colonial era members clubs is akin to being included in an elite social registry. Most are closed to new entrants, and when the rolls do open, the price tag is prohibitive. For many, the best way to gain access is by marrying a member.
I always marvel at these privileged playgrounds, where, with the exception of the revolving door corporate members, the patrician crowd has known each other for generations — swimming, playing bridge, tennis and squash with the same families for eons. They dine together on Raj era recipes that even the Brits long ago abandoned but hey, the drinks come cheap. How interesting can it be to hang out with someone you’ve known all your life, whose grandparents knew your grandparents, and who probably haven’t moved far from the four kilometer radius in which they were raised?
That’s where a new breed of 21st century private clubs step in. Sensing an opportunity, the international Soho House chain has been planning on opening in Mumbai for years, and is finally unveiling itself on Juhu Beach this December. Indus, a self described luxury business club has already opened in Bandra’s tony One BKC building. In Gurgaon, journalist Shoma Chaudhury runs Algebra, a members-only salon, where she curates engaging conversations with high profile guests. Also in Gurgaon, the Quorum is set to debut in November in the haute, super sleek Horizon building.
I called Vivek Narain, an old friend and the founder of The Quorum, to learn more. “I want it to be an urban refuge where the dynamism will come from the community we create — people from all walks of life,” he said. “We are a social club that wants to attract people from the worlds of technology, finance, media and the creative arts.” Narain has established reciprocity with two sought after London clubs — The Hospital Club, co-founded by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame, and The Devonshire, the brainchild of private club wizard Bryan Clivaz’s. More global tie-ups are in the offing.
In the case of Soho House, known to attract an eclectic group of media, entertainment and creative types around the world, the Juhu locale sounds like smart business given that the area is a magnet for movie stars. The 10-storey building overlooking the Arabian Sea has 38 bedrooms, a roof terrace, pool and gym, and lots of common areas. Pricing at these places is not yet disclosed, but I imagine it will be significantly less than that of the main older clubs.
Is it by design that these new members-only watering holes are far from the historic power centres in which they will operate? Probably. They target a new India, where being self-made has more cache than being a third generation inheritor. Enrichment of self is more significant than mere enrichment of one’s bank balance (although it helps if you have a good one). Now isn’t that the ultimate luxury?
This fortnightly column tracks the indulgent pursuits of the one-percenters.