The Royal Bombay Yacht Club seems caught in a prewar haze, a time when young British officers lounged in wicker chairs under the ceiling fans, boasting of their treks through the Himalayas and tiger hunts in Assam. It is a late Victorian hulk of crumbling sandstone and Burma teakwood dance floors, facing the arch of the gateway to India in a city where the heat, coconut palms and ramshackle 19th-century architecture create a feeling of sensuous decay. Inside, the club has water-splotched walls from years of monsoons, bearers in white uniforms serving steak-and-kidney pie, and a gentlemen's reading room that offers The Times of London and Punch.
Walk in the front door and enter a dusty anachronism where one of the more remarkable social legacies of the British Raj still exists.
Here in the lounge, under the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, are the Indians commonly referred to as "more British than the British." They manage enough Hindi to order a Scotch and soda from the servant, just like the real Brits who stayed on. Other Indians like to call them "brown sahibs," a mildly derisive variation on the original sahib, the English gentleman. They're the "what-ho" crowd.
Considered camp by the more Americanized younger Indians, or viewed as schizophrenic mimics by disdainful writers like V.S. Naipaul, the brown sahib often has an exquisite Oxbridge accent and may have gone to New Delhi's Doon School long before Rajiv Gandhi. If not, he'll still call him a "good chap." The club didn't even admit Indians until 1959, a dozen years after independence, and proudly retains the title "Royal" in its name. The membership is now mostly Indian, but many other Indians refuse to go near the place.
"The 'Royal' surprises people," says Kerse Naoroji, the elegant, white-haired Indian industrialist who is president of the club. "But none of us have wanted to remove it. We just like to carry on the old traditions."
The Yacht Club has never been as much a sailing club as a place where people can eat lunch or have a drink on the lawn and take in the breeze from the harbor. It isn't even on the water, and only its exceptionally rich members can afford the custom-made Indian boats, the only kind you can get in this country. Most just rent out the club's smaller wooden sloops and then come by afterward to luxuriate in an atmosphere that reminds of the old times, even if during the old times they weren't allowed in.
"Sometimes my friends say I haven't gotten over the British," says Hiro Shroff, a club member, public relations executive and former yachting correspondent for The Times of India. "But there are many institutions that are ready-made. The British left houses here -- do you stop occupying them? We're independent now, and we set the rules."
On one recent balmy day, the club was filled with the usual characters, lawyers and the business crowd mostly, some dressed in the all-white British summer uniform of trousers and an open-necked, short-sleeved shirt. There are few sandals and no kurtas, the traditional Indian tunic over pants. "I wouldn't do that here," says Shayam Chainani, a 42-year-old environmentalist. "My mother would be more upset than me."
Over at a corner lunch table is Jehangir Jehangir, a man with his own travel business and a handlebar mustache. Despite his enormous stomach, or maybe because of it, he pulls off a very pukka, or proper, style. "This is one of the last of the purely, purely British clubs going," he says. As a Parsi, he prays three times a day in ancient Persian. "I don't understand a word," he says, "and sometimes I feel hypocritical about pronouncing things I don't understand." Afterward, he asks God for good sailing weather in a more familiar tongue.
"If he's as smart as he's supposed to be," says Jehangir, "he definitely understands English. "The Dual Personality
In India, the legacy of the British Raj is everywhere. The civil service, the courts, the schools, the trains and the roads were all created by a foreign invader that united the country and ruled it for 300 years. Today, the Indian upper class remains largely Anglicized. It is the dominant minority that grew up on cricket, polo, Shakespeare and Shaw. There is a vague awareness among these Indians now of the rage for the Raj in the west, but there are no movies or television series to stir the old debate about whether England left India better or worse. Neither of the two British productions, "The Jewel in the Crown" (which ended its run on public television last night) or "A Passage to India," has been shown here because of complex restrictions on foreign films. But most Indians prefer to see it as another example of the British overlooking a country where they fell in love with themselves.
Instead, there are institutions like the Yacht Club where the debate still exists on its own. Many of the members had parents who worked closely with the British in the elite Indian Civil Service, and many still feel like the young Jawaharlal Nehru, who told the judge at his 1922 trial that while studying at Cambridge, "In my likes and dislikes I was perhaps more an Englishman than an Indian." Nirad Chaudhuri calls these Indians "effigies for show" in his powerful essay, "The Continent of Circe," and V.S. Naipaul roughs them up in "An Area of Darkness" when he describes their habits as "mimicry not of England, a real country, but of the fairy tale land of Anglo-India, of clubs and sahibs and syces and bearers."
The Yacht Club member doesn't seem like a tortured Hari Kumar, the confused Anglicized Indian who doesn't know which country to call home in "The Jewel in the Crown," but a person who, however comic and pretentious to other Indians, is essentially comfortable with himself because he was raised half-English and most likely will never have to leave his hermetically sealed, half-English life. In fact, a Yacht Club member often sees himself as doubly superior -- professionally and morally English, but spiritually Indian.
"They think of it as complexity rather than confusion," says Sudhir Kakar, a prominent New Delhi psychoanalyst and the author of "The Inner World," a study of childhood and society in India. "They see it as a positive thing." Hiro Shroff, for instance, feels that the part of his personality that is British is his "sense of discipline, keeping time, work, planning, keeping appointments." His Indian half, he believes, is his "sense of family, sense of togetherness. If my mother called on Sunday and said, 'Drop everything,' I'd go. In that, I'm totally Indian." He describes with pride how he is educating himself about his own country. "Say I'm in Madras," he says. "I'll stay an extra day or two just to learn about the local people, the local food, the local customs."
Not everyone is so adaptable. Prakash Tandon, the first chairman of the Hindustan Lever corporation and the author of a three-volume autobiography brimming with social history, recalls the early days after independence in his book, "Beyond Punjab." He recounts being invited to the Yacht Club, but felt he had to decline. "I felt doubly upset at this irony," he writes, "upset because in the past there had been places in India closed to me only because I belonged to India; and perhaps more upset that they were now open . . . I still remembered how a friend of mine who was invited to play in a tennis tournament at the gymkhana club had found his clothes removed from the dressing room on the secretary's orders." Tandon now says his son joined the 650 Bombay-based members of the Yacht Club, although he had to quit when it got too expensive. (The initiation fee is almost $1,000.)
"To him," says Tandon, shrugging off his son's membership, "it was a past he hadn't experienced." A Sail in the Morning
Sunrise. Hakim Subir, a 30-year-old Yacht Club member, is going for an early morning sail before heading to work at the leather goods business he owns with his wife. Bombay is just waking up, but the day is already soupy and thick. The beggars are beginning to work over the businessmen who emerge from the Taj Mahal Hotel, thrusting their stumps into impassive faces and pleading for khanna, or food. International financiers hurry by the ox carts, and soon chic women in silk kurtas will wrinkle their noses as they pass the public latrines reeking of urine. The waterfront smells of spices and fish.
Subir takes a small dinghy out from its dock, passing the boats that take tourists to the Elephanta Caves to see the rock temples and monkeys. The crewmen are brushing their teeth, spitting into the green water as they squat on the bow. The dinghy pulls up to an old wooden lightning owned by the Yacht Club, moored several hundred yards out in the harbor. Subir, dressed in jeans, takes the sail from its bag and hoists it. The breeze is gentle but steady. He heads out from the Yacht Club and the gateway, talking about why members of his generation would join a club that would have kept them out less than three decades ago.
"It's more an attitude of indifference," he says. "We don't feel the same intensity that our parents did." The newer generation of Indians isn't as locked in that "imperial embrace" of England and India that Paul Scott describes in "The Jewel in the Crown," an embrace "of such long standing and subtlety it was no longer possible for them to know whether they hated or loved one another." Instead, the newer generation has found its own more comfortable amalgam, like Sonia Gandhi, the wife of the prime minister, who is applauded for teaching her children the Hindi her Cambridge-educated husband barely knew. Rajiv himself, whose Hindi has of necessity improved, represents the more Westernized lives and hopes of the Indian yuppie.
"One of the reasons that Rajiv is acceptable," says Gita Mehta, the author of "Karma Cola," a book about the failed cross-fertilization of Indian and Western culture in the '60s, "is that we think he won't embarrass us abroad." But the Raj still throws a shadow. The newer generation may never have known the British, but they remember the legacy as one too fresh to forget. Their feelings are less intense but still as complicated as those of their parents.
"You always had the feeling you weren't the same as the other children," says Anuradha Patel, a Bombay psychoanalyst who studied at the London School of Economics and whose father was a high official in the British government. She is not a member of the Yacht Club, but is trying to explain what she sees as the Yacht Club mentality. "It was a whole culture that cut you off. The kind of admiration my family had for the British wasn't duplicated with the other children. Until I got to England, I always had the fantasy that I could belong there. Once I got there, I realized I couldn't have that fantasy anymore. It was a terrible disappointment. But its good effect was that I realized I was neither a special Indian nor a half-British person."
"I hate being in London," says Shoba Kilachand, the young, Brahmin editor of Celebrity, an Indian version of People magazine. "I simply will not get talked down to by some little snotty cockney girl." She recalls going to a party in Bombay, given by an Indian woman who had lived for some time in London. Traditional food was served, the kind eaten with the fingers, but the woman asked Kilachand if she'd like a knife and fork. When Kilachand said no, the woman remarked, "Of course -- that's how it is with you Indians."
Even the Indians who say they can't stand the old imperialists manage to overlook the discrepancies in their own lives. "I hate the British," says Dilip Thakore, the young editor of the Indian magazine BusinessWorld. Yet he is sitting in the bar of the Bombay Gymkhana Club, the place for the city's smart sporting set, surrounded by a painted mural of Englishmen playing polo and cricket on a dewy green lawn.
Some in fact do miss those English polo players, or at least feel a bit of the nostalgia for the Raj that has caught on in America. "The worse the present government behaves, the more they compare it to the good old days," says Kushwant Singh, a well-known journalist, writer and member of the Indian parliament who, on this particular day, is taking his tea in a souvenir royal wedding cup. "They'll say, 'the British wouldn't have done it.' Back then it was rare to come upon a corrupt British officer. Now it's rare to come upon an honest Indian officer."
"India was much simpler then," says Gita Mehta. "You had half the population. You had all these chaps in starched white uniforms running around. The trains ran on time. The assumption was that the country worked. You didn't have the sprawling urban messes we have now. So anybody with a taste for rational oligarchy would miss those days." The Barriers Fall
The original Bombay Yacht Club opened its doors in 1881, a whites-only haven for the British officers who had come in search of Rudyard Kipling's India. "India, to a young man, was a marvelous experience," says Frank Courtney, a former British Army officer and Yacht Club member who came to India in 1935 and never left. "There was a lot of sport, and we all were very much the same sort of person. I liked it almost from the word go. It was a much wider sort of experience, unlike the rather narrow horizon you get in other parts of the world." Courtney has been a Yacht Club member for 30 years, and says that not having Indians in until 1959 "was not a very clever policy -- because if they had allowed prominent Indian members, they would have seen to it that the type of Indian let in was the sort they would have wanted -- what we call 'clubbable,' " that is, acceptable to other club members.
The yacht club is not the only club in Bombay to have a racist past. The Breach Candy Bath and Swimming Trust has a pool the shape of British India -- including what is now Pakistan -- that overlooks the Arabian Sea. Breach Candy didn't allow Indians in until well after independence, and today only 30 percent of the membership is Indian. It is still difficult for them to get in, although Europeans and Americans who drop into town are encouraged to come by for a swim. The Gymkhana Club, filled on Saturday nights with the younger crowd that looks down on the Yacht Club for its spotty past, didn't admit Indians until 1947. The Willingdon Club, now considered somewhat seedy, was formed in 1917 as a reaction to the other clubs when Lord Willingdon, then governor of Bombay, invited his friend the maharajah for dinner at the yacht club. The maharajah was refused entrance, and Willingdon, enraged, began his own club that allowed anyone in of any color, provided he knew the right people and had enough money.
Kerse Naoroji was the first Indian asked to join the Yacht Club. He declined. (By that time the club had moved from its original building to the less splendid residential quarters next door.)
"I said, 'I'm not going to be the first sucker,' " Naoroji recalls. "So I kept them hanging for five or six years. I got quite a thrill out of it. They were all close friends of mine, and I told them exactly what I thought. I felt they'd kept us out for too long. It should have been more of a spontaneous move on their part." Finally, in 1959, Naoroji decided with two other friends that they'd all join together. "If I didn't want to join," he says, "nobody else wanted to join." Dinner in the Dark
Dinner, The Yacht Club. The place is cozier in the dark. Shayam Chainani, the environmentalist, a product of the Indian Institute of Technology, MIT and Cambridge, is having a vegetable cutlet and several stiff drinks. His father was a high court judge in Bombay, a man who worked closely with the British. Nonetheless, says Chainani, "He was the sort of person who never would have joined." But he doesn't think his father would have minded that his son did. "Times have changed," says Chainani, sitting amid the engraved silver sailing cups, the bearers in crisp white uniforms and a portrait of the royal English Yacht, the Britannia. "The British have gone."