One of the legacies we Brits passed on to India was the “Club”. One of my neighbours in Leicester recommended the Gymkhana Club in New Delhi, but that is too far away for me to use regularly. Our locality has its own club, in less salubrious surroundings than the GC, but quite impressive nonetheless. You may be asking yourself why on earth would Ian want to join a club? (Surely, he agrees with Groucho Marx’s views on clubs – he wouldn’t want to belong to any club which would have him as a member?)
The problem is exercise. I need to keep fit. I loved walking in Swaziland, but here in the streets of Delhi it is downright dangerous because of the lawless driving of cars, trucks, rickshaws and motorbikes. It was difficult to walk safely in Zambia, especially around my cottage as I regularly came across elephants. I’ve never been keen on running and, of course, in Zambia things which ran were regarded as “food” by the local carnivores. Neither am I keen on gymnasia – sweaty lycra and testosterone just don’t do it for me. But swimming I love.
I heard that the Club had a swimming pool, so after work one evening we went along to enquire about membership. The building is impressive, pink and purple stone-clad walls with large plate glass windows. The architectural style is a modern take on early 20th century Lutyens’ neo-imperialist New Delhi. The gardens are lush and green, with manicured lawns and flowering bushes. I opened the glass doors and was hit by a blast of frosty air conditioning.
“I would like to find out more about the Club’s facilities,” I told the receptionist. She then passed my request onto her boss behind her and he called over a smart gentleman, immaculately turned out in black turban, trousers and crisp white shirt.
“We don’t allow foreigners to join the Club,” he said abruptly.
“But we live and work here, just twenty minutes away in Shalimar Bagh. We might be foreigners, but we reside here.”
“It will not be worthwhile paying the fees to join,” he countered.
“My contract is for a minimum of 12 months,” I replied.
“The joining fee is US $17,000.”
“That is quite a lot of money. Can we see what the Club has to offer?”
He gave us a brief tour, showing the gym (lycra and testosterone), the bar (post modern kitsch), the dining room and the banqueting hall (caters for 500 guests at wedding receptions). It was all shiny marble, gilt and glitzy, ostentatiously nouveau riche.
“Where’s the pool?” I asked.
He led us outside, past some workshops and maintenance plant, to the 26 metre open air swimming pool. The decor here was functional, not fancy. Some of the tiles had fallen off the wall of the pool and were lying on the bottom. There were some pigeons fluttering about, trying to get a swift drink. The changing area was very basic, with a few cubicles closed by a strip of plastic sheeting and some hooks insecurely fastened to the wall. But it looked reasonably clean and the water was very tempting.
We walked back to the magnificent foyer behind reception and I was introduced to one of the Club’s senior officers. He was sitting on a banquette, beside a large statue and floral arrangement. His white hair was neatly cut and he had a definite military bearing. As we came over, he folded away the newspaper he was reading and spoke to our Sikh guide in Hindi.
He beckoned to me and asked me to sit beside him, ignoring the ladies, who took up seats to one side. He sent a flunky to bring some cold water and asked who I was, where I was from, what I was doing in Delhi. He explained that it would be difficult to arrange for a full membership, but if I wished just to swim, he could ask another member to sponsor me. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to get a fellow medic to sign for you,” he said. All I needed to do was to fill in a form, bring a passport sized photograph, copies of my passport and long stay residence visa. “We do have our own charity clinic outside the Club, for the poor who can’t afford private healthcare,” he said. I thanked him profusely and told him I’d bring the documentation in a few days.
“You realise that it is an open air pool, so it will shut next month because it gets too cold. It will open again in April.”
Nevertheless, I signed up for the rest of the month for the maharajah-like sum of 550 rupees (£6.20). Pool only.