While many older clubs are bogged down in internal conflicts and battling land issues, newer, private clubs mushrooming in Mumbai are cashing in and fast attracting members. Kareena N Gianani and Anita Aikara find out how
Roma Adhikari waited for almost a decade to get into Khar Gymkhana. Annoyed, the 35-year-old decided to join The Country Club in Oshiwara, instead. "I didn't want to waste more years twiddling my thumbs and dreaming of getting into an upscale club," she says. "After all, my father didn't have a membership I could piggyback on."
Today, she's very happy with her new membership. "I think the older clubs are not for families like mine, who want to splurge on a good club at the peak of our careers." Adhikari's situation is certainly less humiliating than Gautam Pandey's. A member of Club Link in Malad, Pandey, 28, was allegedly rejected by the Bandra Gymkhana for being a Malad resident. "It was really offensive," he says. "Despite being able to afford membership, I was rejected." For coming from the 'wrong side of the tracks', he feels.
The charm of the older, exclusive club still endures. Places like the Bombay Gymkhana, Willingdon Sports Club, CCI, MIG in Bandra and others have people vying for membership and being turned away; they have waiting lists that stretch into decades. In the light of some recent incidents — some clubs being torn apart by infighting within their governing bodies, or being rapped on the knuckles by authorities for the misuse of public land and keeping people out in the name of exclusivity — this attraction becomes even more inexplicable. In fact, older clubs are fiercely possessive about granting entry into their so-called hallowed space.
And say so quite openly. "Gaining membership at the older clubs is all about networking, as existing members propose the aspiring ones," says a member. "I don't think we are being snobbish — we have limited infrastructure but, well, if you don't know the right people, you just don't stand a chance."
That's why people like Shubhangi G look elsewhere. Her parents were members at a gymkhana in South Mumbai, but she couldn't get membership because she moved to the 'not-so-cool' suburbs. "New clubs definitely have better facilities," she says. These clubs position themselves as 'family destinations' offering health and entertainment facilities at par with the older gymkhanas. Sprawling lawns, swimming pools, squash and tennis courts, health centres with sauna and jacuzzi, plush restaurants and banquet halls — you name it, they have it.
They leave no stone unturned when it comes to making a pitch. At the Country Club, for instance, memberships cost Rs60,000 to Rs12 lakh and are transferable. For memberships over Rs2 lakh, the club throws in 500 acres of land for a second home or condo in townships in like Kolad (near the Mumbai-Goa highway) or Lonavla. The Parivar scheme (Rs3 lakh) at the Acres Club allows seniors to enjoy the membership of their children.
The Country Club manager, TN Rakesh Kumar, points out, "Don't you think everyone wants to unwind after a hectic day? Unlike the older clubs who have elections and restrictions of many sorts, new clubs are all about providing a cosmopolitan clubbing experience." Says Anil Kadbet, general manager of Golden Swan City Club in Santa Cruz, "Gymkhanas concentrate on sports and at other times, rent out their premises for weddings and such. Newer clubs don't do that. We are all for our patrons." Members agree. Kaushik Desai has been a member of the elite Hindu Gymkhana since 1978. But it's his membership at Acres Club, Chembur, that he is more excited about. "Membership of older clubs has become a prestige thing. But for me, a club isn't more attractive just because a certain sportsperson is a member. It's at Acres where I relax with my family and friends."
Defendants of the older clubs, however, point out that the new clubs cannot be compared to them, since they have not faced the problems of overcrowding and rush for membership. Nandini Sardesai, sociologist and member of Bombay Gymkhana, says, "One cannot blame the older clubs for allowing new members only once in a decade. Where is the supporting infrastructure? They cannot afford to inconvenience their existing members." Abhay Malik, member of the Willingdon Sports Club and Khar Gymkhana, adds: "I feel older clubs must be reasonably priced but I am all for maintaining their old-world charm. The moment they relax rules, every Tom, Dick and Harry will come sprinting in."
New clubs, however, want to draw crowds in their direction and plan to expand. "It is clear that club memberships are in great demand. We plan to branch out to Navi Mumbai, Charni Road and Thane in the next four years," says Samina Bajasrawala, chief deputy manager at The Country Club. Others try to accommodate as many people as they can. Rohan Parikh, director, Acres Club, states that his club can take 3000 members — 1000 more than the existing number. "We will see about being selective later. Right now, we can't afford to lose out on patrons."