Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How many gays do I know...or have in my life ?

A recent blog-post by my friend Raju N – the ‘Romantic Realist’ Ed of MINT – titled “How many Muslims do I have in your Newsroom…. ?” ( click here to read the full article) had got me going. Another e-mail forwarded by a respected elder – a former ambassador – ( see excerpt below) had me further worked up. So, this was meant to be my two-penny bit on secularism and minorities. But, half way down the piece, I was way-laid by the front page news item in today’s ToI – “Homosexuality a disease, says Government” (click here) and that set me thinking - how many gays do I really know ?

Dubbed in Kathmandu

Having studied in an all-boys missionary school – there were, of course, the odd brother or father, who were rumored to have been caught with their hands tucked under some junior’s ‘half-pants’. Though looking back, I can’t be certain they displayed pedophilic tendencies or just deviant expressions of pent up sexuality. To my mind, they were at best ( or worst) duo-sexual ( I think the commonly used term ‘bi-sexual’ is a misnomer). But, even denying them the benefit of doubt – I can’t think of any “declared” or “confirmed” gay or lesbian among my circle of friends and acquaintances – barring, perhaps, just two. One is a banker in London – cousin of a classmate and contemporary of some close friends with whom he studied engineering at IIT – Kanpur. The other is a well-known author – of Indian origin – who lives in Kathmandu – the “widowed” partner of a legendary artist and editor / author. Kathmandu is known to have a large gay population – though I have met a few of them socially can’t claim to know any of them well.

So, I have often wondered if it’s possible that there are some closet gays or lesbians I know – who are able to successfully hide their proclivities with a garb of hetro-sexual behaviour (in our society – even a lack of interest in women or vice-versa is often considered “normal”). I feel a little handicapped at not being endowed with my good “buddy” Farhad Wadia’s extra sensory powers of recognizing gays and ‘hookers’ in a crowd – ( who proudly claims that he has a "GAYDAR" - short for Gay RADAR, but he is not a HOMOphobe and has many gay friends - for the record!!). Now this inquiry in my mind is not arising – as you might suspect - out of any prurient interest but a genuine social ( if not sociological ) concern.

the 'unsuitable' question

The question that bothers me is – how would we deal with a gay in our midst, either in the family or at the work-place? Though today our newspapers have miles of column-centimeters on gay rights and TV channels are also airing shows on gay issues – I have seen from close quarters how journalist friends snigger and jibe at their allegedly gay colleagues on the editorial floor. Similarly, I have heard top artists make snide comments about their gay compatriots. Perhaps because of their ingrained diversity and sheer strength of numbers, the advertising agencies and other creative shops are probably a little more liberal (and, a wee-bit less judgemental)– but, still there is a very low level of acceptance even in the so-called enlightened circles. I believe it's not perchance, therefore, that - the known number of gays in Corporate India is extremely low.

We do have a Leila Seth writing in her autobiography about how she coped on coming to know that her son is gay. And, the other day I heard Vikram Seth talk about it openly in a Barkha Dutt show on NDTV ( Read: Morality cannot overshadow fundamental rights) . But, then every mother isn’t a former Chief Justice of High Court, just as every son isn’t an internationally acclaimed celebrity author. So, how do ordinary people in our societal context handle such a sensitive issue?

the 'Man of Steel' and his AK-47

I have heard parents joke as to how relieved they were – when their son actually proposed to a girl. Or, I remember a very senior bureaucrat telling us – how he had very gingerly broached to his rather reclusive musician son – confirming our stereotypical mindset – the question, if he was by any chance otherwise inclined and the young man shot back saying “ Dad, I don’t need your permission to be gay !!” And, there was this unkind corporate gossip doing the rounds some years back on how the ‘Czar of Steel’ lost his throne because of his excessive fondness for an AK-47, his protégé with the same initials whom he wanted to anoint as successor. (Much to the credit of the latter – he ‘moved in’ with his mentor and master, literally - lock, stock and barrel, when the former was forced to ‘move out’ and they lived happily together until his rather premature demise a couple of years ago. So much, for proverbial gay loyalty).

The bottom line being, according to me, why blame the government ? – as a society we still have a very long way to go before accepting persons of alternative sexual orientation and give them their rightful place in society. It will be a while before MSM and WSW become a part of our lexicon. Many who are crying hoarse on the subject – other than those who are directly affected – are at best doing a lip service to their cause. But, I guess we have to make a beginning somewhere. And, to that extent – I admire the very open-minded and bold stance taken by the judges of the Delhi High Court hearing the petition.

I can see some of you are convinced that, I must be in the throes of acute MLC (mid-life crisis) to take up such a topic for my blog. I admit that, so far I have steadfastly steered clear of issues of personal choice or preferences. But, I was emboldened after reading a blog of my young cousin on how to chose the perfect bra. Check-out: Rheality Check (click here)

Post Script:

Ambassador Deb Mukharji's Letter to the Secretary,
Vivekakanda International, New Delhi

Shri Mukul Kanitkar, Secretary
To: VK
International Delhi **

Dear Shri

You may recall the invitation to me to speak at the
Vivekananda Kendra International in Chanakyapuri on July 2, 2008, on the current
developments in Nepal at your monthly Vimarsha programme. May I say that I
was greatly impressed by the courtesy and the efficiency of all

At the conclusion of my talk I was presented with a book
in gift wrapping which I was able to see only weeks later due to my absence from
Delhi and other pre-occupations. The book is titled 'Expressions of
Christianity:with a focus on India', published by Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan
Trust, Chennai.

The book is a compilation of articles which, in
short, viciously denigrates Christians and Christianity. The individual
pieces of information could be factually correct, as may have been the
information in Mother India of Katherine Mayo, described by Gandhiji as an
inspector of drains. While it is an unfortunate and inescapable fact that there
are people and organisations who may feel that the denigration of others
enhances themselves, I would like to place on record my deepest sense of shock
and humiliation that this kind of material is being published and distributed
under the banner of the name of one of the greatest sons of India.

May I add that such activity directly contravenes what you
mentioned to me in your introductory letter, and I quote, "In 1993 when this
precious plot of land was allotted to Kendra in the prime diplomatic area of
Chanakyapuri; the grand vision of a centre for inter-civilizational dialogue and
spreading of Sanatana thought to the humanity was envisaged." There cannot be
dialogue on the basis of denigration and hatred.

Needless to say,
such hate literature acquires some relevance in the context of what is happening
in Orissa and Karnataka today.

I would like to inform you that this
letter is being forwarded to other Indian citizens who may feel

Deb Mukharji 15.10.2008.

** Vivekananda International Centre, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi is a branch of the Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari and is in no way connected to the Ramakrishna Mission and Math

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Durga Puja Index of Bengal Economy

(a Durga Puja pandal in Calcutta depicting the 'Nano' episode of Singur)

When we were growing up in the 60s and 70s, there weren’t any “mega-Pujas”. We had the humble community “para – Sarbojonins” in every locality. Then there were the ‘heritage’ Pujas of North Calcutta - Bagbazar, Kumartuli, Ahiritola, College Square, Vivekananda Road and a few – such as Park-Circus, Madox Square, Swamaj-Sebi Sangha (Lake Road) - in the South.

The emphasis at most of the Pujas was essentially on the beauty and artistry of the ‘idol’ ( the Murti or Pratima). While the traditional ones like Baghbazar (‘Daaker Saaj’) or Madox Square stuck to their pristine style – others experimented a bit with form. The Puja committees tried to out do each other on the novelty of their “thakur” as we referred to the image of the Goddess. Ramesh Pal was the doyen of Kumartuli and having his sculpture bestowed a certain stature to the Puja. Remember on one occasion – a Puja in the Bhowanipur area, I think, had an idol made entirely of “shola” by an artist from Shantiniketan – Ananta Malakar, which became the talk of the city. Later the piece was moved to an art museum - instead of immersing it in the Hooghly as was the custom.

The pandals and the lighting were still important – but they were generally shorn of glitz and extravagance. Each year some Puja or the other tried some minor innovations or gimmicks in the form of tableau inside the mandap, architectural replica in cloth of well-known temples or monuments on the façade of the pandal or thematic lighting. But these were at best secondary attractions and ornamental add-ons, usually deployed by the lesser-known Pujas as differentiators to draw crowds. The illumination was infact a specialty of Chandernagore – which was more famous for Jagadhatri Puja, which comes later in the year.

community sarbojonins

The community Sarbojonins were all organized with modest budgets – raised primarily from contributions of the local residents, ‘topped-up’ with small amounts in the form of souvenir advertisements and product display banners. The larger Pujas like Baghbazar, Madox Square and Park-Circus generated some additional revenues from selling exhibition stalls in the Puja grounds.

An average Puja would net at best a lakh of Rupees of which they would carry-forward couple of thousands to the next year – after paying for the well-earned revelry of the organizing members and volunteers after the immersion. If some extra funds were still left over – it was used for a film show, jatra or a musical evening as a post-puja bonanza for the locality – while the festive mood still lasted. Even the most affluent Pujas didn’t have a budget of more than Rs 2 to 3 lakhs or 5 lakhs at best.

The standard contribution of a household would be in the range of Rs 10 to 50, which would go to Rs 100 if you were really well off ( the term “HNW” hadn’t been invented then). At Rs 500 you would be considered a VIP and a thousand Rupees would raise your status to that of a Principal Benefactor.the trend of 'Mega-Pujas'

The era of more opulent Pujas started in the mid 70s – which saw a revival of non-communist political configurations in the state. So, newer Pujas like the Ballygunj Evergreen Sangha in Ekdalia came up, with the patronage of the up-coming generation of “youth leaders” who were more adept at raising funds. Till then such ostentatious display of pomp were generally reserved for some Kali Pujas organized by notorious Dons of the underworld – most notable among them was the legendary “Phata-Keshto” (the subject of a recent low-grade Tollywood production starring Mithun Chakravarty). Came across an interesting article on a web-site: Puja Company - The Old world Chanda dependent Festivities are passe; the Sponsors are here (click here for full article)

Even then – the culture of inaugurating the Pujas with Bollywood stars hadn’t set-in. The opening honours were generally reserved for the local Municipal Councilor (who had to grant permission for the pandal – blocking sections of the road) or, at times, the MLA or MP. Today, lakhs of Rupees are spent on getting celebrities from Mumbai for “ribbon-cutting”.

I lived away from Bengal for almost 2 decades. Returning to Calcutta in early 2000s – I found the scale of things had changed exponentially. I was told that the budget of a regular “Para Sarbojonin” is now no less than Rs 25 – 30 lakhs. A little up-scale Puja would be between Rs 50lakhs to a crores. And, the real top-end Pujas could be as high as Rs 2 crores or even more.

I believe there are nearly 5,000 Pujas in greater Calcutta alone. At an average of Rs 10 lakhs per Puja – that’d be a whopping Rs 500 crores at a very conservative estimate. Some would place the figure at over Rs 1,000 crores. And, this is for Calcutta alone. The Pujas in the Districts, I am sure, have been scaled up in equal proportions.

rising SDP and growing Puja Budgets

Considering that most of the benefits of economic growth are believed to have accrued in rural and up-country Bengal these figures are baffling indeed. At any rate, it would out-strip by a huge margin - the highly padded statistics of increase in the State Domestic Product (SDP) and Per-capita income published by the State government. It's all the more remarkable that, this grand up-scaling of the Pujas has happened in the last 30 years, when the state has been ruled by the Communists - who shouldn't be encouraging idol worship or any other form of Puja as a matter of philosophy.

a matter of spirit

It’s another matter tho’ – very little has changed in the conditions surrounding these pandals. Food is still sold in the most un-hygienic form by roadside vendors – no one gives a damn about safety, sanitation, cleanliness or pollution. Loudspeakers and horns continue to blare undeterred. Old vegetable colours and clay that were used to making the idols are being replaced with chemical substitutes – that pollute the river and ponds, poisoning fish. The cloth and tarpaulin pandals are giving way to more sophisticate synthetic materials of construction. Nothing has evolved in the last 40 years – only the crowds continue to swell each year. At The Telegraph, we had attempted to bring back some of the pristine and simple joys of the Pujas - while encouraging a few progressive practices in keeping with the times - such as Eco-friendliness, Safety ( every year there are instances of burning down of Pandals by electrical short-circuit - caused mainly due to illegal tapping of power connections), Hygiene in and around the pandals (simple provision of toilets) and facilities for the physically challenged - thru' a contest called the "True Spirit Puja" (click here to read). But, with very limited success, I must admit - tho' I am told, much to the credit of the paper and the sponsors, the contest ( and, thereby, the concept) has still been kept alive.

who cares ?

But these are non-issues in today’s market driven economy. What matters is the increase in spends. It’s also pointless wondering if even a part of this Rs 500 or thousand crores could have been diverted to more productive or developmental expenditure – which could truly contribute to uplifting the economic index of the state. Frankly – who cares ? Not, we the Bengalis !! I am sure there must be a sociological explanation to this – going far beyond the apparent economic inconsistencies.

Also read new blog on Durga Puja by clicking here: Outlook Diary

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Nano-vision II

Like my regard for Ratan Tata has risen manyfold by his marvellous handling of the Press Conference on the Nano pull-out, I was extremely impressed by the panel discussion that was taking place simultaneously on the Bengali News Channel – STAR Ananda – which was far more objective and balanced than the very extreme dismal view of most mainline English News Channels. It was rather refreshing to hear the 2 economists (Abhirup Sarkar of the Indian Statistical Insitute and Dipankar Dasgupta also ex ISI) and 3 politicians (Subrata Mukherjee of the Congress, Saifuddin Chowdhury former CPM MP - now formed his own party PDS and, surpringly - Nepal BHattacharya - from the CPM too) and a lawyer - Arunava Ghosh - reason the entire saga that was played out over the last 2 years very dispassionately. The politicians, perhaps - realising that a strident stand at this juncture would not go down well with the people, also took a very moderte position. But that too indicates a maturity and sense of responsibity one does not normally expect from them.

The announcement didn't come as a surprise - it was the timing and the manner ( the 'when' and the 'how') that most people were waiting for. It was also of interest to many, how the CPM would react to - what would be definitely seen as - a snub on their face.

In all this drama, one major issue was forgotten : whether mere compensation was good enough to ensure the long-term livelihood of the poor marginal farmer deprived of his land, who didn’t have the competence to find an alternate source of employment or income. As Dipankar Dasgupta pointed out, it was not as if they were being offered a compensation based on the NPV of their future streams of earning. The principles of computing the compensation was also not transparent. What was required is a comprehensive rehabilitation package - not just a 'lumpsum' compensation, which was bound to disappear in no time - left in the hands of the poor farmer.

Abhirup Sarkar cited the example of his house-hold help – who comes from that area. She was adamant that she wouldn’t part with her land for any amount of compensation because she wouldn’t know how to deploy the money to see her family through, at least, the rest of her life. (Read Abhirup Sarkar's Interview on Development vs Land Acquisition in the HBL by clicking here)

One politician, - Subroto Mukherjee of the Congress, made another pertinent rejoinder to Ratan Tata’s remark that, the land acquisition was purely a matter between “ the government and the farmers” and the Tatas had no role to play in that. Subroto said that, when even a common man does a “search” before buying a plot of land for building a house – it was difficult to believe that the Tatas didn’t do a "due diligence" before building a plant over 1000 acres.

He was also surprised that, it took both the government and the Tatas 2 years to realize that this won’t be a smooth ride. Therefore, he found it a little odd to hear Ratan Tata to say today, he can’t run an operation with police protection, when that is exactly what they have been doing since the beginning of the project.

On the issue of “governance” all of them agreed that, it was unrealistic to expect the CPM to change their own administrative style built over 3 decades overnight and selectively.

It was again characteristic of the CPM leadership to advise the CM (as reported in the Calcutta newspapers this morning) – “to be firm and avoid being apologetic while presenting his case, and to tell Tata the land issue was the same everywhere and the company would be disregarding popular opinion in Bengal if it pulled out”. That is exactly what Buddhadeb told him – adding he would be making a “mistake” in pulling out.

But, the true colours of the CPM came out in calling for a Bandh next Saturday to protest against the Tata pullout. We may have another Nandigram just waiting to happen as the cadres gather their fire-power - post the Pujas or even before that.

Another sane voice, which emerged was that of Nirupam Sen – the Industries Minister. I thought, he presented the West Bengal governments side of the story very cogently with a humility that is rarely seen in a Marxist. Later, he was quoted to have said " I don't feel like living in West Bengal myself".

But, one question still remains open: what will happen to the 1000 acres of acquired land, which has been rendered non-arable by dumping tons of fly-ash to raise the ground for construction? Even Ratan Tata has maintained a studied silence over it. The land, which has been leased to the Tatas for 99 years, cannot be re-claimed unless the Tatas surrender it back to the government - which one doubts if it ever will.

In a dangerous game of political brinkmanship - all sides overplayed their cards. I, therefore, blame all 3 players (CPM, Trinamul and also the Tatas) for the final (?) outcome. While Mamata's methods may have been reprehensible and her personal style unacceptable to many of us - we cannot forget that she is also a product of a system. In condemning her (which she more than deserves) we are only attacking the symptoms but not the disease. She is merely a manifestation of a malaise, the purging of which is bound to be a very painful and time-consuming process. It is easy to say that, the ultimate loser is Bengal, which is undeniable. But, it could also be true that Bengal isn't ready yet to take that leap into the future.

I had written about this in an earlier post (Nano-Vision I - Click here to read) and I still feel that, we haven't heard the last word on Nano in Singure yet.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Raj Redux

Part I - From British Raj to Cadre Raj

Which is the best Club in India? You’d instinctively think that it must be one of those venerable institutions of Calcutta – once, allegedly, regarded as the second city of the Empire. And, being a Bengali (a ‘pseudo Bong’ - nevertheless) you’d expect me to say that too, if nothing - simply out of regional chauvinism. But, my vote would go elsewhere.

True the Bengal Club – once the residence of Lord Macaulay (click here to read the heritage of the Club) - still retains an imperial air. Though age and decline in fortunes are clearly discernable there is something very sublime and charming about it . The corridors are often adorned with Trade Union posters blending the past and the present beautifully – a testimony to the changing times, the transition from British Raj to Marxist Cadre Raj. And, on a good day - especially if you are with Ram Ray ( an acknowledged gourmand turned gourmet and the Chairman of the club's F & B Committee)– no club can beat their food (just as Ram’s friend Shobu Banerjee would say of the service at Calcutta Club on the ‘blue-moon’ night of their Foundation Day dinner). The ‘Abdars’ pamper you with their gentle fawning. The recent addition of facilities such as the health club and a pub has injected some new vibrancy and, I hope, would contribute to its long-term financial stability too (In the 70s, the Club had to sell off part of its prime property at the Chowringhee end, where a monstrous commercial high-rise came up, to avert a financial crisis) -though, I for one would have preferred to see more of “restoration” rather than “renovation” of such a grand heritage property. But, at times, one does wonder if it's in danger of becoming a “Calcutta Club – Mark II” , to appropriate another Aveek Sarkar quip.

the last Bastion of Bhadraloks

Well no one can question the aristocratic (“bonedi”) antecedents of The Calcutta Club ( click here ) – so what if it strikes you as a societal rendition of Ray’s Jalsaghar (click here for synposis and critique)– an extension of the “baithak khana” of a North Calcutta zamindar residence (read “Rajbaris), which had obviously seen better days. The bearers running after you to the car – to collect their tips – kind of completes the picture. Swapan Dasgupta wrote a wonderful piece in a Mumbai paper (click here to read full article) couple of years back – on what is probably the last surviving bastion of the “bhadralok” Bengalis (though, I think it is grossly unfair to compare its membership profile with that of the Mohun Bagan Club {click here} - another much loved institution of the North Calcutta 'ghotis').

(Flag hoisting ceremony at The Calcutta Club on Independence day)

This Club too has seen a wave of “renovation” ( euphemistically called - 'face-lift') over the last couple of years as it celebrated its centenary. But, it was more like fixing a “pace-maker” on a septuagenarian (that’s the modal age of members – almost half of whom are, incidentally, doctors and surgeons with lawyers forming another large chunk) not an open-heart surgery. But, if Bengal Club is a club with a soul, then Calcutta Club is definitely a club with a heart - as is evident in the frenetic electioneering every July. Sometimes, I think the Club exists only for the Annual Elections – as it provides vicarious gratification to the seeds of political aspirations lying dormant at a sub-conscious level in every true Bengali. That’s why it’s often said that; there hasn’t been a Bengali President of the country (Pranab Mukherjee and Somnath Chatterjee came precariously close to busting this theory) – because the Bengalis ambition ends with becoming the President of Calcutta Club. But, all is forgiven and nothing else matters when on a wintry evening - sitting on the verandah – you dig into a diced chicken cutlet while savoruing a pot of fine Darjeeling, brewed just right.

a bar with a cricket field

The CCFC ( The Calcutta Cricket & Fotball Club, click here for history) , my personal favourite, was great fun as long as long as it stayed true to its original charter of being “a Bar with a Cricket Field attached”. But, it was on the verge of losing its 200 year old mandate when the reins passed from the “chai-wallahs” to the new “corporate” honchos and business barons – who converted the banquet hall on the first floor (witness to many a ball and brawl over the years) to a restaurant and enclosed the front terrace to make a post-colonial glass paneled bar overlooking the grounds. But, the old bar downstairs is still the best in town and my friend Ansar – the head bar tender – proudly claims, his Bloody Mary and Fresh Lime Soda are “international famous”(sic). And certainly it is the most youthful, sporty and happy club in the city.

The Tolly’s ( to read about the Tollygunge Club click here) pride is, of course, the Golf Course with its pack of tame jackals. But the food remains indifferent and at night the club takes a near deserted look, except on evenings when there is a reception at the ‘Far Pavilion’ regularly let out for weddings and other social functions. It’s the current favourite of the new Corporate set and rightfully so – with the best sports facilities in the city. No wonder it is the most professionally managed club in the city – with a CEO who is actually allowed to function by the elected committee members (the President decided by consensus). But, still it would not get my top vote.

Part II - A Journey Down South

The degeneration of the clubs of Calcutta can be naturally linked to its altered economic and commercial status of the city , after the demise of the Merchant Houses and the exodus of large multi-national companies through the 70s and 80s. But, economic affluence alone can’t make a club great – as one would easily realize entering the haloed precincts of the Delhi Gymkhana, once a quintessential Raj establishment. The unseemly fracas over the Presidential elections last year, which was covered in the main-stream dailies (click here for full story) with a repeat of sorts again this time around (click here ) proves the point.

Sarkar(i) Raj

A stronghold of bureaucrats and service officers – I remember the time when the club’s Bars were sealed after an Excise raid engineered by a CBEC Member who had lost the elections. (It was a fact that, they hadn’t renewed the Bar License for over 10 years – perhaps, not feeling the need to do so with all of Delhi’s bureaucratic top brass being members). On another occasion – in a Ghulam Ali concert the audience continued to chomp kebabs and guzzle their drink – with the maestro singing away like a hired performer in a shaadi. Those of us, who waited till the end of the programme , found that there was no food left and had to head out for Pandara Road to grab some dinner.

(But, I am sure it’s any day better than the Orai Club - in the boondocks of Uttar Pradesh. A colleague, who was posted there as Manager of a new HLL unit, was asked on applying for Membership - if he possessed a gun-license. Apparently, it was unsafe to enter the club in the evenings without a gun).

The Delhi Golf Club remains the capital’s only saving grace.

Capitalists at their best

(Bombay Gym - Photo Archive)

Bombay’s obsession with pace is inimical to the development of a true club culture, which has to be, by definition, slow and unhurried. The Bombay, Gym (click here for history), the Cricket Club of India (CCI) the Willingdon are all great clubs with fantastic properties at prime locations – but are too busy and crowded for my liking. At the CCI especially – the restaurants (the quality of food and service will match any first-rate eatery or 5 Star in town) are so packed and loud they don’t feel like a club at all. But, none can match them in overall upkeep and the range of facilities, all smacking of Mumbai’s hallmark efficiency.

(the majestic facade of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club)

The only club with a leisurely - and yet not totally laid-back - culture, that retains much of its pristine ambience – is the Yacht Club ( click here for history) and I try to get there as often as I can.

Bangalore has become too cosmopolitan to have a homogenous club culture of its own. At the Bangalore Club, therefore, there is no clear dominant set. Apart from the city’s classy old Kannadiga gentry, there are the planters from Coorg and Chikmagalur, the moneyed (but highly refined) Magaloreans and, of course, the ubiquitous Malyalis and the affluent Syrian Christian community. Then there are the new Czars and Czarinas of IT / Bio-tech; and the late migrants from all over the country – who have built their post-retirement nest in this ‘Garden City’. All told – the Club, despite its very good facilities (but passable food) has a somewhat mixed character.

Up in the Hills

The clubs in the Hill-Stations – conceived primarily as holiday destinations or watering holes for the local planters – fall in a different category altogether, quite distinct from their city-bred cousins. Of them, the 127 year old, The Club at Mahabaleshwar (click here for more) has best preserved its heritage and an aura of history – while making the necessary concessions for modern-day comforts and amenities. It is everything a good club ought to be (except that – for some odd reason - it no longer has a bar). The Kasauli Club – is a quaint little gem tucked away in the Himalayan foot-hills on the way to Shimla. Being a Cantonment and an Air-force station, both Kasauli and the club has remained largely untouched by marauding crowds from Delhi, Chandigarh and the plains of Punjab.

In the Nilgiris, The High-Range Club in Munnar, once an almost exclusive domain of Tata Tea executives, ranks high. My personal favourite is the Wellington Club in upper Coonoor. Sitting outside the cottage, feet up with a book and a glass of gin on the side – occasionally staring across the lush green golf course is the stuff my ideal holidays are made of. But, it’s perhaps only appropriate that the real Queen of the Hill-Clubs
should be located in ‘Queen of Hill Stations’. The Ootacamund Club in Ooty defies comparison in its grandeur and elegance.

familiar but not obtrusive & baked crabs

That brings me to my last stop – the Madras Club in Chennai. It has kept up with the times without losing its class or character. The staff are efficient and courteous without being, in the least, obsequious.

To me a club is not just a place to meet friends, drink swim and, now also gym, – but it’s meant to transport you to a mental ‘space’ somewhere between home and work. It’s a state of mind, which makes that fine difference between being in one’s living room, a bar or a restaurant. It’s a place where you feel at home – without being home. So it’s the attitude of the members – familiar but not obtrusive – which defines the culture of a club. The members of the Madras Club have an understated and quiet dignity, which I find most impressive.

They make a mean and cheesy baked-crab - the best I have had, which would give even the Bengal Club stiff competition. Try it when you are in Chennai next time – even at the risk of your cholesterol shooting up by several points. You wont regret it - I guarantee.