"Here's to civilization as we once knew it," toasted one member of Delhi's venerable old Gymkhana Club, as almost four years of government-enforced prohibition ended for the Indian capital's 14 private clubs.
The prohibition rule was lifted at the New Year, thus bringing new life to the Gymkhana Club, where colonial British Army officers and civil service gentlemen ruled the roost for more than a century before allowing Indians inside as anything but servants. Now it is the most exclusive of Delhi's clubs, open to the very thin layer of Indian society that runs the country.
The club's large tap room, with its two fireplaces and a long, curved, copper-topped bar, was crowded when the first drink was served at exactly 7 p.m. Jan. 3. Many members, turned away at noon because the club could not get in its stock of liquor in time, showed up with their wives at night to celebrate the type of club life Delhi's upper crust loves.
Leaning against the bar in his tweed jacket and turtleneck sweater, one member recalled being served his first legal drink there when he turned 21. A military officer remembered the good days before prohibition, when the bar would be full in the late afternoon with men on their way home from work or the club's plush, green lawn tennis courts. A doctor said his father had him put in an application as soon as went off to England for medical school.
"I thought it was silly then, but I am glad I did--especially now," he said as he bought another round.
The Gymkhana Club has fallen on hard times since March 31, 1978, when then-prime minister Morarji Desai banned drinking in the capital city's private clubs as part of his personal crusade to bring total prohibition to India.
Without drinks available, attendance at many of the club's traditional functions fell off. It was no longer considered much fun, for instance, to have a Sunday brunch on the wide lawn, listening to band music, if it was not possible to get a glass of beer or a gin and lime.
"After all," said one member, "what is the fun of going to a cocktail dance if all you can drink is a nimbu panni lemonade or limca an Indian soft drink ?"
As a result of a declining attendance, the club took on a slightly seedy appearance, sort of a run-down elegance, with rooms needing a new paint job and waiters fresh uniforms.
Furthermore, the Gymkhana began taking in more members so it could collect the hefty initiation fee--close to $400--bringing complaints from some of the old-timers that it had lost its exclusivity.
In fact, with the coming of independence in 1947, the Gymkhana became the province of the "brown sahibs"--the Indian military officers and civil servants who took over from the British. Like their European predecessors, these Indians retained a slight disdain for people in business--"box wallahs," the British used to call them because the tradesmen would go from place to place with their trunks filled with merchandise.
Now, of course, it is the "box wallah" businessmen who have the money and who press to join prestige clubs such as the Gymkhana.
With the return of drinking, the Gymkhana Club has begun to prosper again.
There is no reason why it shouldn't. It has a superb location--directly across the street from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's official residence and just down the road from the palatial old "bungalows" occupied by the chiefs of India's military services.
The previously empty dining room is now pleasantly filled for lunch, and the tap room has regained its clientle, even though there are complaints that drinks cost too much since the government will not let clubs buy their liquor at wholesale rates.
The Delhi Gymkhana Club offers Old World charm, with its high-ceilinged central ballroom and whirring fans, its card and billiard rooms, its half-covered swimming pool (the shade keeps the water from becoming bathtub warm in the hot summer), its squash courts and its rows of clay and grass tennis courts.
It is one of a string of clubs set up by the British to remind them of home, stretching from the Khyber Pass city of Peshawar in what now is Pakistan to Madras and Calcutta in the south.
The athletic facilities have remained popular. With the bar open, however, the more profitable parts of the club operation are expected to be an added attraction.
"Oh well," moaned one Indian wife surveying the scene recently. "It looks as if I will have to start economizing to make up for the bar bills."
Looking at a friend, she suggested that maybe they should start a picket line for the return of prohibition.
It was not quite as happy at other Delhi clubs. The Press Club, for instance, found out that it will not be able to pay for its license until it collects something like $25,000 that, as the Hindustan Times put it, journalist members had outstanding from "their past indulgences."
And Delhi's hotels are still barred from serving liquor to Indians in public--a rule most get around by putting the drinks in opaque glasses.