|Outside the regulations
For the first time in nearly 45 years as a member, I found the Calcutta Club gates closed. The durwan mumbled something about processions and I wondered momentarily if Trinamul had collapsed and the Left Front was back. The online editions of two London dailies, the Independent and the Daily Telegraph — I missed reports in local newspapers — cleared the mystery a few days later. Apparently, the club had refused to entertain one of Mamata Banerjee’s cheerleaders as a member’s guest because his attire “was outside the regulations”.
Inconsequential in itself, the protest exposed the fantasy of her promise to turn Calcutta into London. It was a reminder that London is not the London Eye which Burkina Faso can buy and install in Ouagadougou. Nor is London only the men, women and children who reside there for economic reasons but live in West Bengal and who starred in a local TV channel the other day. Sartorial and behavioural dissonances are not unknown in London’s clubland but a street demonstration with placards and petitions is unthinkable.
I remember two instances when discipline and decorum calmed ruffled feathers. The first was in a club in Whitehall more than 40 years ago when the smoking room’s post-prandial slumber was suddenly shattered by the loud voices of a group of Nigerians in brilliant robes and caps. An elderly English member who had been dozing by the fireplace when the cacophony erupted summoned the secretary, a suave young man who should have been a diplomat. “I am terribly sorry that you feel disturbed but your committee has in its wisdom entered into reciprocal arrangements with certain clubs overseas,” he said. “If you have any views on the matter you can certainly communicate them to the committee. But I am afraid I can’t place any restrictions on visiting members of those clubs so long as the reciprocal arrangements continue.”
The second time was more recent and in the morning room of a club in Pall Mall where I, the only occupant, was immersed in a newspaper. To be wished “Good morning!” was surprising enough, for silence usually reigned there at that time of day. I was even more surprised to see the grey slacks and suede windcheater of the pleasantly smiling young man who had accosted me in a faint American accent. His smart casual clothes definitely didn’t belong in an ambience where my own tweed jacket just about passed muster in the morning.
Suede Windcheater was pouring himself a coffee at the table that is always laid out with pot, milk, sugar and cups when Rene, a steward of French extraction I knew well, strolled over with a caustic “Making ourselves at home, are we?” He looked nonplussed and Rene explained the facilities were for members.
“I’m staying here,” was the slightly defensive reply.
Suede Windcheater mentioned a number to which Rene retorted disbelievingly, “That’s Mr Blank’s!”
“I’m staying with him,” was the almost apologetic explanation.
I watched Rene look him up and down, head to toe, and up again, before sauntering away with a “Never seen a member dressed so casually!” But he didn’t snatch away the coffee Suede Windcheater had poured and drive him off the premises or even order him back to the bedroom booked in Mr Blank’s name to return in a suit. That’s because Rene is a man of knowledge and influence to whom my son and I were deeply indebted once when he found us a room at the Athenaeum at the height of the holiday season when all London clubs were full. He knew that Suede Windcheater’s host, the member, is responsible for his conduct, as for his bills. Complaints had to be addressed to Mr Blank.
Similarly, it would have been unacceptable for that agreeable young American to object to Rene’s criticism. A club guest has no rights and few responsibilities, no locus standi, so to speak. He could make no demands. If he wished to object, he could do so only to Mr Blank who might or might not take it up with the club secretary or committee.
Finesse is not confined to London. When a group of men in Calcutta’s oldest gentlemen’s club spread out their balance sheets in the lounge to hold what amounted to a business conference and loudly dictated figures to parties in other cities on their cell phones, the bearer went up quietly, picked up the brass sign forbidding the use of cell phones, and put it down with a sharp rap on the glass coffee table. He repeated the reprimand three times to no avail. Those brass signs have now gone. As the sartorial protest also confirmed, many of us are more at home in puja pandals than in gentlemen’s clubs.
Eric Newby, the English travel writer, might have disagreed, but he died in 2006. When Newby and his wife sought accommodation at the Kanpur Club during their 1,200-mile journey down the Ganga, the secretary, Indian naturally, said there was none to be had. “Can we apply for temporary membership?” Newby asked. But he didn’t know a member who could propose him. Newby’s trump card was “a letter of introduction from Mr Nehru.” Jawaharlal Nehru had, indeed, given him a letter that was expected to open all doors, but it cut no ice. “The Prime Minister is not a member of the Kanpur Club,” the secretary said.
Newby didn’t throw a tantrum. He didn’t rant and rave about “racism”, “feudalism” and “colonialism” or rope in those public-spirited men and women who are forever fighting for a cause, be it flowered elastic drawers for monkeys or a woman’s fundamental right to be called ‘Mister’. Having been brought up in a world of clubs, Newby knew they are private institutions that make their own rules and regulations and can’t be dictated to by those who don’t belong. “We crept out of the building, boarded the waiting ricksha (sic) and were pedalled away,” he wrote in one of his delightful travel books.
The British newspaper reports I mentioned dredged up the old but uncorroborated story of the Bengal Club refusing to serve Lord Minto’s dinner guest, Sir Rajendranath Mookerjee. I would have thought both the Viceroy and Mookerjee were sufficiently aware of club rules not to risk the snub. Perhaps the story is also fictitious like the Daily Telegraph claim that “Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, declined an invitation (to the Calcutta Club) because he was not allowed to wear a baggy-shirt kurta.” Gopal Gandhi did refuse to go but because the club didn’t then admit women members in their own right. It had nothing to do with attire.
References to his grandfather are equally misleading. Soothing Nellie Sen-Gupta when other Congress folk were attacking her husband, Deshapriya Jatin Sen-Gupta, for socializing at the Calcutta Club, Mahatma Gandhi came up with the surprising confession, “I wish I was a member of the Calcutta Club whose members, I know, are all decent people.” Disregarding racial slights and barriers, Gandhi allowed himself to be smuggled into a Bengal Club bedroom by a correspondent of the same Daily Telegraph. The Mahatma didn’t mind not being allowed into the whites-only public rooms. His dignity wasn’t so easily shattered.
He was probably aware that a club is a home whose owners decide who to invite and how guests should comport themselves. There’s a democratic mechanism for them to change rules they consider obsolete. Most clubs also obligingly keep a stock of jackets and ties for just such emergencies. But it’s not for guests to question house rules unless there is some flagrant violation of the law or public morality. As for the London dream, a chief minister is well advised to avoid impetuous utterances and hasty decisions without thinking through the consequences or making adequate follow-up arrangements.