If you climb onto the diving platform of the pool at the Breach Candy Club, and if you turn your back to the ocean expiring upon the rocks a few yards away, you look up into Mumbai. Or perhaps Mumbai looks down upon you, from its skyscraping fastnesses, the buildings rising higher and higher, pressing down upon the low, easy profile of the club, crowding it into the sea. To the left is the egg-white hulk of the Breach Candy Hospital; to the right, an apartment complex of similar height, painted a cheerful blue. In the distance hovers Antilia, the twenty-seven-floor, billion-dollar home of India’s richest man. Much closer – right across the road from the club, in fact – is the stillborn residence of a slightly poorer tycoon, a textile baron. For years now, it has been shrouded in green netting because, rumour has it, Antilia’s owner was so affronted by the thought of another luxury mansion sharing the skyline that he stalled the permits it required. At night, when the rest of the buildings burn with light, the textile baron’s house stands dark and cold, like a big rotten tooth. There, further away, are the Imperial Towers, twin condominiums sixty floors high, the tallest buildings in India. On a Diwali night, a friend told me, he had attended a party on the twentieth floor of one Imperial Tower or the other, and from the balcony, amid the fireworks, the city looked like Fallujah during the Iraq war. Not that he had been to Fallujah during the Iraq war, but somehow Mumbai seems to prod you into reaching only for the most fevered comparisons. Yet another skyscraper is under construction, a crane perched atop its shell. And curiously, nearer to earth, are a gabled roof and a pointed, clay-coloured turret – a turret! – that belong to Windsor Villa, where Salman Rushdie lived as a boy during the 1950s, and from where, as he wrote in Midnight’s Children, he could spot pink people ‘cavorting in the map-shaped pool of the Breach Candy Club, from which we were, of course, barred’. This very pool, in other words, the one excavated in the outline of undivided India, such that Kashmir lies right below your feet as you stand atop the diving platform.
The minute I saw the pool, I realized that its designers had missed a trick. It should have been laid out, really, so that the western coast of Pool India was aligned with the western coast of Real India, given that the club perched so conveniently on the shore. That way, when the sun doused itself in the Arabian Sea every evening, both Indias would have slipped in clean parallel into night. Instead, Pool India has been rotated a quarter-turn counterclockwise, so that a large lawn stretches away to its west, near Pakistan, while a smaller lawn and cafe sit roughly in Myanmar. The restaurant and bar are in southern Afghanistan. Sri Lanka is the kiddies’ pool.
In vivid contrast to the country, the pool is nearly always thinly populated. One March afternoon, when summer was already breathing down our necks, I had lunch at the club with a friend who had been a member there for two years. During a lull in the conversation, he stared at the pool as if he was seeing it for the first time. ‘People don’t swim much here, I’ve realized,’ he said. ‘They just sort of potter about, more than anything else.’ At the time, the only person in the water was a bald man shaped like a Roman senator, stroking slow, diligent breadths across the pool. After he emerged, dried himself with a lilac towel and walked away, the pool lay empty for hours. I returned for dinner that same week, on a balmy evening, and still the pool was uninhabited; it remained that way until 10.45 p.m., when an attendant rang a bell to announce the pool’s closure for the day. Nobody needed to pay the clangour any attention. The pool, floodlit and desolate, floated in the darkness like a pale blue amoeba.
By virtue of its outline, the pool is able to inject a charged symbolism into any consideration at all of the club’s affairs. In building the pool during the Raj, for instance, the British were emphasizing their ownership of India, their iron control over its borders and its topography. After 1947, when India gained its independence, the club insisted that it would continue to restrict membership to Europeans only, not quite ready to hand India – the pool, the country – over to its people. In the late 1960s, when protesters picketed the entrance to the club, demanding that Indians be made members as well, they were trying to wrest India – the country, the pool – out of the persisting fug of colonialism.
And so to the present, to the events that began in 2012, when the erection of a wall next to the kiddies’ park precipitated a schism within the club. Nominally, at least, the factions were tussling over the club’s arch commandment: that while Indians can become ‘ordinary’ members, only Europeans can become trust members, therefore entitled to serve on the managing committee and steer its business. Once, this rule could safely be said to favour white Europeans and no one else; today, in theory, its ambit includes Indians with European passports, but white people still fill most of this upper tier of membership. This is a deliciously shocking situation, so fat with political incorrectness that a brawl seemed proper and justified. But then the matter took on broader contours. There was a legal battle. There were signs of an old elite rattled by, and ready to be contemptuous of, the brazenness of new money. There were rumbles of fraud and corruption, of a mania for land and of politicians flexing their muscles in the shadows, until we appeared to be talking not of the Breach Candy Club but of India herself, the country once again in perfect congruence with the pool.
The kiddies’ park – as the members of the club uniformly call it, even in stodgy legal documentation – is a square of land, measuring just under an acre, lying to one side of the parking lot. The very presence of a park, in a city starved of open space, is a marker of a rarefied world. This park contains the expected facilities: a couple of see-saws, a jungle gym, a set of swings, a slide that shoots you straight to the ground and another that passes you through a couple of curls on your way down. A metal shelter must once have housed a merry-go-round, but it now stands vacant, and gusts of sea breeze rattle its roof. A security guard sits at a desk in one corner, watching over the children at play. Not that anybody expects grievous breaches of peace in a kiddies’ park, but it is pro forma today in India to strew security guards thickly through any establishment, protecting nothing except the fancy that the premises are worth protecting.
In the early summer of 2012, the club’s members noticed strange changes being made to the kiddies’ park. More than a dozen old, sturdy trees around the park’s periphery had already been chopped down some months previously. Now a ten-foot wall sprang up, separating the park from the rest of the club. The turf sustained fresh damage, as if it had been dug up. A new concrete road, wide enough to accommodate a truck, was laid from the gate to the park. A club gardener testified that at least some of this work had occurred under the cover of night, lending it all the rank scent of skulduggery.
Another rumour was in the air, and Gerry Shirley got a whiff of that too. In the annual general meeting scheduled for that August, he heard, the managing committee would do away with the two-tier system of memberships, so that Indians could be allowed onto the committee as well. He decided he would go to the meeting, his first in the decade that he had been a member of the club. ‘All you do at one of these AGMs usually is just pass the club accounts. It’s not exactly a popular pastime to go watch that,’ he said. ‘The previous year, I heard that only twelve people had attended.’ But even the timing of that 2012 meeting – 11 a.m. on a Tuesday – had roused suspicions. ‘What the fuck is that about? Most of us are supposed to be at work!’ Of the 3,500 or so members of the club, roughly five hundred were European trust members, and eligible to participate in the meeting. A hundred and thirty of them turned up that Tuesday morning in August, packing the room almost beyond capacity.
Shirley is a sixty-four-year-old Englishman, although he prefers to qualify his age in the following manner: ‘Sixty-four, twenty-five, nineteen,’ he’ll say, pointing first to his head that is fast divesting itself of hair, then to his heart and finally to his crotch. He develops commercial real estate, which explains the well-preserved ticker: ‘You walk up twenty-three flights of stairs on a building site that has no elevator, in this Mumbai weather, and see how much weight you lose.’ Before he moved to India around the turn of this century, he lived in Hong Kong, and although he has ranged across the continent in the course of his career, he has not lost a sliver of his East End accent. It can make him sound highly indignant and righteous; when I met him last April, in a hotel lobby as hushed as a crypt, he appeared to be keeping his voice down only with a mighty effort. He felt strongly about the club. ‘It was our little oasis,’ Shirley said. ‘It’s a hundred metres from a very busy road, but you don’t hear a single horn. You can sit there, on the lawn, with a nice, cold beer, watching the sun go down, and at that moment, all’s well with the world.’
That annual general meeting was a bizarre and acrimonious affair. The seven members of the managing committee sat at the head table, having so confidently expected a fight that they brought along not just lawyers but bodyguards as well. For nearly three hours, club business dithered along, punctuated by angry demands for information from the audience; one member recalled shouts of: ‘You cheating bastard! You’re trying to sell the land in the kiddies’ park!’ Finally, Shirley stood up and asked of the club’s secretary, Dipesh Mehta: ‘You’re not even European. How did you get onto the managing committee in the first place?’
Another member, a European woman, rose and shouted back at Shirley, he recalled. ‘“You’re a racist! You’re a racist!” she was saying. I took offence at that! I’ve worked in every country in the Asia Pacific. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.’
Amid the din, Shirley persisted with his question to Mehta. Then, dramatically, Mehta gathered up his papers, addressed Shirley and said: ‘Fuck you, I’ll see you in court,’ and stormed out. The accounts languished, unpassed.
In speaking about Mehta, Shirley lowered his voice, as if he was afraid of being overheard; at one point, he thought he spotted a fellow Breach Candy Club member on an upper floor of the hotel (‘Fuck me, what’s he doing here?’), and he refused to proceed until this man had passed safely out of eyeshot. Mehta was a lawyer of some standing in Mumbai, best known perhaps for representing a Bollywood star in a ghastly hit-and-run case but also plugged intimately into the highest, tightest networks of politics and corporations. He was a fixer, another lawyer told me. In India, such a description promises services of inordinate value. A fixer can hook up politicians andbusinessmen for mutual benefit; he can help companies wriggle out of niggling legal obligations or point them towards a bureaucrat on the make. The best fixers can, when presented with the wild thickets and tangles of India’s business environment, tame them into disciplined topiaries.
In Shirley’s eyes, Mehta was also the villain of this piece. Around the time that Shirley joined the club, Mehta became a legal adviser to the managing committee. Back then he had not been a member of the club at all, but in December 2004, he was folded into the committee wholesale, a barefaced breach of the constitution. This sequence of events, mystifyingly, went unnoticed by the club at large. ‘We let it happen,’ Shirley said, waggling his head with regret. ‘It’s our own fault.’
In the year following that heated AGM of 2012, Shirley and some of his similarly incensed colleagues thought they had found more reasons for Mehta to be ejected from the club. He had, they claimed, broken the rules a second time by inducting another Indian – a friend of his named Lalit Agarwal – onto the committee, and he had hoisted himself up into the chairman’s seat. He had razed trees and built walls without approval. He had farmed out part of the club’s legal work to his own law firm, paying himself handsomely in the process. He had hectically escalated the life membership fee, from the 20,000 rupees that Shirley had paid to a vertiginous 10 million rupees plus tax – more than £100,000. ( The London club White’s, which was founded in 1693 and requires thirty-six other members to vouch for you when you apply, charges around £1,275; the Century Association in New York, which has counted as its members Franklin D. Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger, has an annual fee reported to hover around 42,000.) Under Mehta’s stewardship, the committee grew about as transparent as a bomb shelter, refusing to release information when members asked for it.
Most of these complaints were listed in a circular that some distressed trust members drew up, calling for an extraordinary general meeting – a putsch, really, intended to topple Mehta and his committee. On the evening of 21 October 2013, forty-eight of these members convened in a college classroom, and this meeting brimmed with anger as well. ‘There were thirty resolutions put forward! Thirty!’ Shirley said, his voice squeaky with disbelief. The putschists elected a new committee-in-exile, with Shirley as chairman, and they decided that their lawyers would issue Mehta a notice, informing him that he had been dethroned by due process. Then, satisfied with an evening’s work well done, they strolled down the road to their club for a drink.
Within a week, Mehta’s committee suspended nine of the foremost rebels, including Shirley; in scolding letters to them, they cited ‘instances of misbehaviour and misconduct’ and acts that were ‘per se anti-establishment’. When the husband of one of these suspended members once tried to enter the club, he was hustled out by brawny, black-suited bouncers who had been parked at the door specifically for this purpose. The gates slammed shut behind him. Shirley and his comrades found themselves exiled, suddenly and roughly, from their beloved Eden.
There are clubs like the Breach Candy Club all over the Indian subcontinent: relics of the Raj, institutions that were set up as bolt-holes for the British, where they could retreat to row or swim or play cricket or race horses. The activity, really, was secondary; foremost, these clubs were English corners of foreign fields, intended to keep the tumult of India at bay. Within their grounds, at least temporarily, the rituals of life could be enacted as they might have been in London or Shropshire or Edinburgh. To press home that illusion, Indians were originally not allowed as members and only rarely as guests; as liveried waiters or turbaned doormen, of course, they were welcome. The clubs carried their air of unmatched privilege even into the early twentieth century, when the rules of membership began to ease. ‘You do not know what prestige it gives to an Indian to be a member of the European Club,’ Dr Veraswami says in George Orwell’s Burmese Days. ‘In the Club, practically he iss a European. No calumny can touch him. A Club member iss sacrosanct.’ Even Indians, it appeared, wished to be insulated from India.
The oldest functioning club in India is the Bengal Club, established in 1827, only three years after the Athenaeum in London. (‘It is that kind of club,’ the Bengal Club’s website says with a straight face, ‘where the flavours of fine life are to be savoured as in a brandy snifter.’) The second oldest is the Madras Club, founded in 1832 and now located in splendid white buildings on a Chennai riverbank. I’ve been there on several occasions as a guest, and every time I was warned in advance, by the member who was hosting me, to remember the club’s dress code: no sandals or shorts, no shirts without collars, no Indian clothing of any kind. Even these stiff regulations are a dilution of club policy that persisted well after the British left India. In the 1960s, a member of the Madras Club was turned away from a Sunday film show because he was wearing a white jacket and black tie; in the winter – which, in Chennai, runs to a frigid twenty-five degrees Celsius – a black jacket was mandatory at all times, he was informed. Through the shrewd deployment of such rules, the clubs have filtered the India that pressed against their gates. But the ardent aspirations of the Dr Veraswamis have also never ceased; in nearly all of these clubs, the waiting list for membership stretches to thousands of moneyed names. The gilded baton of privilege has been successfully handed off, from the British to the Indian elite.
The Breach Candy Club – or, to give it its formal name, the Breach Candy Swimming Bath Trust – was born out of the complications of pre-Suez travel. Before the canal was built, European travellers journeyed across the narrow Isthmus of Suez and waited at Aden to be collected by the next steamer bound for India. To lodge these passengers – the women, in particular – Bombay’s Europeans raised funds and built a hostel in Aden. Once the Suez Canal opened, though, ships made directly for India, eliminating the need altogether for a transit in Aden. The hostel, having thus fallen into disuse, was sold for 7,300 rupees; when this take was pooled with another 2,000 rupees in custody of the British Resident at Aden, the caretakers of the steamer fund now had 9,300 rupees. Bombay’s municipal commissioner suggested, in 1875, that the money be spent to spruce up a cemetery, but at a meeting of the city’s Europeans that March, this idea was roundly rejected. Plumping for the joys of life rather than the prettification of death, the conclave decided instead to buy itself a new saltwater pool.
Accordingly, Benjamin Disraeli’s Secretary of State for India marked out five acres on Bombay’s shore and donated them to the swimming bath. ‘It gave one an idea,’ an Indian member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation would later grumble, ‘that the Secretary of State for India . . . had been disposing of land as if it was his ancestral property.’ The name ‘Breach Candy’ had already stuck to this segment of the coast; it was said to be an anglicised corruption of the Hindustani words burj khadi, which referred to the temple tower (or burj) and the creek (khadi) in the locality. I could find no record of the people who were living here at that time; the club’s official history is confident that this neighbourhood of Bombay was ‘a barren wilderness’. A tarred shed functioned as the first bathhouse. In 1927, a new indoor pool was sunk; the following year, work began upon the outdoor, India-shaped pool, which cost 13,600 rupees. Eight years later, in settling a lawsuit, the Bombay High Court prised the facilities out of the custodianship of the municipal authorities and handed them over to the newly constituted Breach Candy Swimming Bath Trust.
The Swedish writer Jan Myrdal claimed to have seen, in 1959, a placard outside the club that read: ‘For Europeans and persons of European origin only. Dogs and Indians not allowed.’ It’s difficult to ascertain if such a sign was ever really in place, but a politer one – ‘Breach Candy Swimming Bath and Foreshore reserved for Europeans only’ – definitely was, back in the 1920s. The club’s racial policies chafed even then. City officials bickered about them in council meetings. Eminent citizens wrote letters of protest. Club members of an independent bent of mind called out the hypocrisy of their colleagues. In a column published in the Times of India in 1935, an anonymous European woman scolded Breach Candy members who ‘object to a lot of ayahs sitting around chewing their betel nut and making themselves objectionable in other ways. All I can say is that if the ayahs are good enough to look after our children they’re good enough for the inside gardens as well as the outside ones.’
When admission continued to be restricted after India became independent in 1947, the resentment started to boil into anger. Once, infamously, Mihir Sen, India’s champion long-distance swimmer, was refused entry into the pool, although the club probably behaved less brusquely than in Rushdie’s dramatization of the episode: ‘He holds a cake of Mysore sandalwood soap; draws himself up; marches through the gate . . . whereupon hired Pathans seize him, Indians save Europeans from an Indian mutiny as usual, and out he goes, struggling valiantly, frogmarched into Warden Road and flung into the dust.’ A member of the Bombay Municipal Corporation moved a resolution arguing that the club’s principles were ‘repugnant to the Constitution of India’, so in 1959 Indians began to be permitted into the club as guests of European members, every day save Sunday. ‘Some of the old users of the pool might have been surprised to find,’ a withering Times of India editorial remarked, ‘that this change did not change the colour of the water.’
Then, five years later, a further blow was landed. In February of 1964, on a Friday, a dozen political workers stationed themselves outside the club’s gates; one of them promised, to the Times of India, that their vigil would ‘continue daily . . . till such time as racial discrimination in admission to the pool is ended’. They erected a tarpaulin against one of the club’s walls and hunkered down under it during the afternoons, sheltering from the sun. Notices appeared, nailed to wooden staves and bearing slogans such as: ‘Down with Colour-Bar Swimpool’. The protest gathered steam. George Fernandes, a union leader named after George V and such an enthusiastic rabble-rouser that he was a regular lodger in the city’s prisons, threatened to lead two thousand volunteers and storm the club’s grounds. The mayor of Bombay dropped by to show solidarity.
Pinned down in this manner, the trust had at least to pretend to yield. The officials of the managing committee huddled with the state’s chief minister, who then announced the membership formula that prevails today: Europeans as trust members, nearly all of them long-time residents of the city; Indians as ordinary members; and applicants with other passports as temporary foreign members, bankers and executives and journalists and similar itinerants who could quell their vague discomfort with the rules by recalling that they were only passing through. But the revision went just so far: Indian applicants were screened with high rigour, and they could never ascend into the managing committee. When the newspaper columnist Bhaichand Patel visited the club in 1969, the Indian quota of 150 members was fully subscribed. ‘Who, one may reasonably ask, are these valiant 150 hobnobbing with the 2,300 whites without qualms or moral nuances?’ Patel wondered. He climbed to the top deck of the restaurant and looked down, upon the India-shaped pool and upon the bodies unfolded in repose upon its grassy banks. ‘Something was rotten. The thought occurred to me that if tomorrow Breach Candy were to sink emptily in the Arabian Sea, it would not be missed by the Indians.’
One afternoon, I went to meet Kunal Kapoor, who runs Prithvi, a theatre in the seaside suburb of Juhu, where old Bollywood has pitched its mansions. The ocean couldn’t have been more than two hundred metres away; we sat in a pocket-sized courtyard outside the theatre, and I could smell the salt in the air and feel puffs of breeze hit the sweaty back of my shirt. The moist fabric would cool and dry for a moment, and that was heaven; then it would be dampened again by fresh perspiration. Kapoor didn’t seem to feel the heat. His white shirt was unbuttoned until midway down his breastbone, and his brow remained unbeaded. He drank several cups of Sulaimani tea, and he smoked so constantly that it was possible to deduce how he had acquired his distinctive voice: hoarse and low, as if an attack of laryngitis had never entirely faded away. Sundry members of the city’s theatrical community would pass us and wave to Kapoor. ‘Hello! How’re you doing?’ he would growl with love.
Kapoor’s parents had also been actors. His father Shashi, who started Prithvi and is still seen there on many evenings, sitting in the cafe draped in a soft white shawl, belonged to Bollywood’s illustrious Kapoor clan; his English mother Jennifer, who died in 1984, was the daughter of Geoffrey Kendal, the impresario of a travelling repertory named Shakespeareana. They were married in 1958, and from the following year, Shashi could well have frequented the Breach Candy Club as a guest on his wife’s membership. ‘But Dad wouldn’t go,’ Kapoor said. ‘He wouldn’t go because Indians couldn’t become members. Simple as that. When he was allowed to become a member, he became a member, and then we all went.’
Kapoor has spent half a century as a member of the Breach Candy Club, and he describes his childhood there as a sort of rambunctious idyll. Rush to the club after school, and swim laps up and down the indoor pool. Then, eyes still pink from the chlorine, pelt outside and into the saltwater pool, emerging only for a snack, or to mess about on the rocks, or to attempt foolhardy stunts such as jumping from one diving board to another and thence into the pool. ‘My friend did that, missed a board and broke his leg. The number of times we’ve been carried across in our swimming togs by our parents, into the Breach Candy Hospital, with broken arms or cut heads or cut legs!’ Climb the trees, and be shouted down by Mr Parks, the club manager, for doing so. Train hard to make it into the club’s swim teams. A little later in life, sneak kisses with girls behind the stepladder of the small island embedded in the middle of the pool. It was a perfected ideal of boyhood, as lived in swimming togs.
For teenagers, the club threw a party every monsoon, with a live band and dancing and hectic flirtations; adults were absolutely barred, except for Mr Parks, who orbited the flock like a watchful sheepdog. On Christmas Eve, the children of the members trickled into the club late in the afternoon, sat around a gigantic tree, and lustily eyed the presents their parents had deposited earlier in the week. From across the pool, Santa Claus made his way towards them atop a floating sleigh, pulled by his reindeer – members of the swim teams, their heads adorned with antlers. Once the presents were distributed, there was a band with bagpipes, and stalls with coconut shies and cotton candy, all manned by the club’s members.
It sounded wonderful, I said. Kapoor patted his moustache – brigand-like, twirling up at the ends – and drank more tea.
Part of the club’s yesteryear charm lay in its reluctance to think of itself as a club at all; to Kapoor and other diehards of the time, it was a swimming pool with attached facilities. Its restaurant was so basic that the chips were the best thing on the menu; when Kapoor’s mother heard another member complain about the food, she shot back: ‘If you want to have a good meal, go to the Taj Hotel or the Oberoi. You come here to swim.’ The European expatriates transiting through the club – diplomats, British bankers, Dutch employees of Philips, Eastern bloc academics – held on to their committee posts briefly, and they amicably named their own replacements before bowing out. There has never been any voting or any other democratic nonsense. ‘If you look at the politics of elections and committee elections at other clubs, we’ve never had that,’ Kapoor said. ‘It’s a nightmare. There’ll be election posters going up, and mud-slinging.’ The fees were kept low, even as they climbed into the millions at the Willingdon Club just down the road.
Most importantly, the pool stayed fixed at the heart of the club’s life. Kapoor recalled a story, absurd but true, about the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, where a few years ago a member had tried to pass a resolution demanding that the club sell its boats. ‘Because they were a drain on the budget!’ Kapoor said, incredulous. The newer members of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club were rarely sailors, he complained; they were there for the bar and the gym and the hobnobbery. ‘That’s the problem with the Breach Candy Club too now. Nobody swims.’ Instead, people sought membership purely because membership was difficult to secure; for them, the sole benefit of belonging to this elite club was belonging to this elite club.
It was on this tide that Dipesh Mehta had washed into the club. Kapoor didn’t think that he had ever even seen Mehta around at Breach Candy, but he remembered him from another context. A decade or so ago, Mehta had applied to join the Amateur Riders’ Club, which owns a bunch of horses, hutch-like changing rooms in a corner of the racecourse, and very little else. Kapoor was on the club’s membership panel that year, when Mehta came up for his interview. ‘He didn’t even ride,’ Kapoor said, marvelling. ‘I still don’t know why he wanted to join. This is another thing that happens in our society. People like to be members of clubs, and people like to be on committees. I’ve seen people who have on their visiting cards, “Ex-chairman of so-and-so club”. They take it as some kind of social or professional stamp, being on a committee.’
Kapoor had no quarrel with most of the members of the Breach Candy Club’s committee, except that they had fallen so completely in thrall to Mehta. I asked him if he’d ever met Vikram Malik, a British citizen and the committee’s secretary, who was being blamed by the putschists for boosting Mehta. ‘I’ve always had very pleasant interactions with him. He seemed to be a nice guy.’ But Mehta was a man of unsavoury reputation, Kapoor had been warned. ‘A friend told me: “He isn’t the kind of guy who’ll shoot you from the front. He’ll shoot you from the back, or he’ll shoot you in a way that the bullet ricochets into you.”’
It sounded mystifying, these awesome, supervillain-like powers that were being ascribed to a lawyer. Then Kapoor articulated an even bigger puzzle. Why was he doing all this? Why did he persist in the face of so much opposition? ‘Why not just back down gracefully and walk away? Why stick on in this manner?’
I called Vikram Malik. He had once been a captain in the army’s Gorkha regiment, but now he was a realtor.
‘That’s right.’ He had a lovely voice, gracious, deep and honeyed, as if he were about to introduce La Traviata on a classical music radio station.
‘This is Samanth Subramanian. I’m a journalist, and I’m calling about the recent events at the Breach Candy Club.’
‘I’m in Mumbai right now, and I was hoping I could get your perspective on what’s been happening there.’
‘Is there any time over the next few days when we could meet?’
There was a short silence. Then he hung up. He never answered my calls again.
I’ve never liked Mumbai. I lived there once, for six months in 2003, and fled, and when some of its residents talk to me about their fondness for the city, I think of them as hostages, victims of a classic case of Stockholm syndrome. Mumbai feels like some giant Malthusian experiment, its resources stretched thinner and thinner by its multiplying population, so that the city edges closer and closer to absolute collapse. It hasn’t collapsed yet, Mumbai’s admirers will point out. But lives within its periphery collapse every day, in brutal and tragic and unnecessary ways, severed from the kind of support and opportunity that a successful city should be able to offer them. Mumbai gears its resources unashamedly towards its wealthy. Its land and water go to them first, its best roads lead to their houses, and their lungs work most of the time in air conditioning, away from the smoggy outdoors. Everything can be grabbed by using money or influence, in a manner that is only a semantic shade away from outright theft.
This sensation was amplified during the weeks I spent haunting the Breach Candy Club. A national election was under way, and at the sordid heart of all debate was the issue of corruption – the easy pliancy of the state before mighty corporations and politicians. The incumbent government was trying to overcome a spate of corruption scandals; the challenger, from a disturbing party of the Hindu right, claimed that he could build an efficient, corruption-free administration. His hardened acolytes believed him wholly; many of the others craved his vaunted efficiency enough to vote for him, even though they suspected that he was corrupt himself. The country grew obsessed with venality. We started to expect power to be selfish and dysfunctional; we assumed that unvarnished greed was a mainstay of the human condition. Those were enervating, disheartening times.
The putschists of the Breach Candy Club – who, in classical vein, called themselves the Forum – invited me to one of their confabulations. I took a taxi to Malabar Hill, where a duplex apartment had recently sold for 9.5 million dollars and a sea-facing bungalow for 67 million dollars. Mahesh Jethmalani, a Breach Candy Club member who was acting as a legal adviser to the Forum, lived on the top floor of a building that sat on a bluff overlooking the bay. Across the water, in the accumulation of dusk, the buttery lights of Nariman Point, Mumbai’s financial district, sparkled into life.
I arrived early, not entirely by accident, and so for the first hour I sat on the periphery of the group, pretending hard that I wasn’t eavesdropping. Kunal Kapoor was there, and Gerry Shirley, and a couple of other Europeans and many Indians; in the midst of the dozen-strong circle sat Jethmalani, who called himself Tony, and who was a leading light of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was the party that was selling itself hard to India, asking to be voted into power, and Tony had been travelling ceaselessly on election work; on his only free evening in weeks, the Forum had commandeered his living room.
A lawsuit, filed against Dipesh Mehta by Shirley and his fellow exiles, was already marinating in the Bombay High Court, but it transpired that the Forum was also attempting back-channel negotiations, to persuade Mehta to see the error of his ways. He had agreed to a meeting, but he was being temperamental about whom he would and would not talk to, and a mild squabble broke out at Tony’s apartment about the composition of the three-member delegation to be dispatched to Mehta. It wasn’t a popular assignment. Kapoor, for instance, said: ‘We know he’s vindictive. I have a theatre to look after, which is a pain in the arse.’ He was constantly dealing with municipal officials over whom Mehta, that consummate fixer, might have influence, Kapoor said. ‘He can create havoc for me.’ The others murmured in sympathy. They understood, they said.
The conversation drifted to what Mehta was demanding as a price for walking away: a redraft of the constitution, which allowed both Indians and Europeans onto the managing committee, abolishing the two-tier membership altogether. This proved divisive in an unexpected way. Most of the Indians preferred to leave the system in place, at best offering woolly criticisms of it: ‘It’s true, it’s out of whack in today’s environment,’ or ‘The right thing to do may be to move with the times.’ But Suvir Malaney, a Forum elder, told me: ‘What does it matter? We’re living in a global economy. Mehta’s just using racism as a way to get people to support him. It’s divide and conquer.’ Later, Kapoor admitted this to me: ‘In the wrongness of the membership rule, there is a check.’ The existence of this unfair regulation, he meant, had allowed the club’s European management to run it cleanly and well; Indians would have only played messy politics and wrecked the serenity of the place. I recalled Rushdie’s line, describing the Pathans bouncing the swimmer Mihir Sen out of the club: ‘Indians save Europeans from an Indian mutiny as usual.’
One courageous voice piped up: ‘As an Indian, I think that you can’t do this any more. As an Indian, I should like to vote.’
He was squelched instantly. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel!’ Tony pronounced. ‘I don’t care a damn about voting rights. I’m never even going to attend an AGM. It’s all you guys who have nothing else to do who’ll attend these AGMs.’
It was among the Europeans, oddly enough, that I sensed prickles of disquiet with the plan to keep Indians out of the committee. This was precarious terrain, they seemed to feel, and they could not holler their support of a policy so easily perceived as discriminatory. Only Shirley demurred, in an aggrieved tone that wondered why he alone was able to divine the future. In Mehta’s renovated constitution, he said, every one of the club’s members would be able to elect the trustees who served on the committee. ‘Don’t forget, out of three and a half thousand members, only about five hundred are Europeans,’ he said. ‘If we take away the two-tier membership, the minute the next AGM gets called –’ and here he snapped his fingers – ‘thank you very much. They’d vote him back in, and they’d shut us out.’
After the Forum had made its decisions for the evening, I was summoned into the circle. Tony, who was revelling in his abilities as both expansive host and legal luminary, asked me in a single breath: ‘Would you like some coffee? What can we explain to you about the lawsuit?’
What I really wanted to know, I said, was why this rule of permitting only Europeans on the committee wasn’t dropped years ago.
‘Why? Right here in Mumbai, you have a Hindu Gymkhana, which allows only Hindus to join. You have a Parsi Gymkhana, which allows only Parsis to join,’ Tony said. No Indian law explicitly forbids this sort of selectivity. ‘There’s nothing wrong with having a sectarian club.’
I had meant to ask about the rule’s moral standing, not its legal one, and over the next hour I returned again and again to this question. But each time, I was offered the Hindu Gymkhana and the Parsi Gymkhana by way of an answer. Other clubs did it, and it wasn’t strictly illegal; it was the sort of simple exoneration that children declaimed in schoolyards.
Another thing that puzzled me, I said, was how Mehta had insinuated himself and then his friend Lalit Agarwal into the committee, thumbing his nose so defiantly at the constitution. Didn’t these changes have to be approved anywhere?
They did, it turned out – by the charity commissioner, a state official who oversees the operations of registered trusts. The Forum’s faith in the government was frail. Officials could be bribed or squeezed, particularly by a fixer with outsized powers. In its lawsuit, the Forum claimed that Agarwal hadn’t even been a member of the club when he entered the committee – that Mehta had fraudulently prepared a backdated membership application, featuring the name of a sponsor who was now conveniently dead as well as a Gmail contact address, even before that email service had properly launched.
All this sounded like too much trouble for what was essentially a migraine of a job, involving the scrutiny of swimming-pool maintenance contracts, the appeasement of whiny and entitled members or the balancing of the club budget. What was in it for Mehta? I wondered. Why did he want this position so much?
This set off a loud rustle of theories, the sound of brooding suspicion that has become ambient everywhere in India. Any post, even the chairmanship of a swimming-bath trust, can be massaged for personal gain. A contract, awarded to a favoured vendor, earns a plump little kickback; so does a nudge up the membership waiting list for a wealthy applicant into the club. The club’s premises themselves, the stomping grounds of the city’s rich and powerful, are invaluable to a fixer-lawyer, a man who relies on connections not only to secure new clients but to then hurry their work to a satisfactory finish. ‘Today, if I have the right to offer someone a club membership – say the Ambanis – I’m doing a huge favour for them,’ Archit Jayakar, one of the Forum’s lawyers, said, referring to the first family of Indian industry. ‘It’s an IOU. And you can make IOUs with several hundred people.’
And then there was the land. Always at the heart of it all, in Mumbai, there’s the land – precious, irreplaceable land that is in chronically short supply. Almost everywhere in India, the real estate market defies the boundaries of logic, but it is a particularly ridiculous animal in Mumbai. A city that once called like a siren to middle-class strivers now no longer wishes to offer them affordable homes. Instead, even though Mumbai’s infrastructure is decaying, its skyline holds sheaves of luxury apartments – ‘bespoke sky bungalows’, as one developer described them – that can cost upwards of 20 million dollars apiece. These were outrageous prices, I thought, until Donald Trump, the maven of New York real estate, arrived in Mumbai in the summer, with plans to build a seventy-five-floor tower of four-bedroom apartments, each of which will sell for 80 million dollars. Land is prized and valued here as if in the lushness of a realtor’s fever dream. A patch even an acre large – the size, say, of a kiddies’ park in a swimming club in a ritzy Mumbai neighbourhood – can be leased long-term to a ravenous developer, making the club’s management money on the side in return for its malleability.
This was the endgame, Jayakar said. Mehta was backed by two of Mumbai’s most powerful politicians, so he could, if necessary, sidestep any regulations that prevented him building this condominium right in the front yard of the Breach Candy Club.
‘But we don’t have evidence of that,’ Kapoor pointed out, carefully but glumly. Jayakar admitted this was true. Somebody had seen construction plans filed in the municipal office, he said vaguely, but the plans weren’t there any more.
Shirley hadn’t contributed to this discussion at all. ‘It’s all bloody conjecture. That’s the bloody problem,’ he told me, many days later. ‘There are plenty of opportunities to make money – big money – at the club. But I understand that Mehta lives with his mum, and that he has a huge staff and is worth millions. So what does he want with kickbacks?’
‘But then what is it?’ I asked.
He leaned in towards me, so that I could see the mottles of a red spot on his chin, a razor nick that was slowly healing. ‘I think he wants to go down in history by changing these rules. It can only be an ego thing. He wants to go out saying: “Fuck you, Europeans.” He wants to be one of the people who beat down the old British Empire.’
Dipesh Mehta eluded me altogether. When I first called him, in March, he was faultlessly polite, said he’d love to talk about the club, and requested that I call him the following week, when he would be home from his travels. Over the next five months, I made roughly one hundred calls to his mobile phone, almost working it into my daily routine, slotting it in between breakfast and a shower or just before dinner; he didn’t pick up. I also tried him from other people’s phones. Mehta would answer, recognize my voice instantly, apologize for being so busy and suggest, with not a trace of guile, that he return my call as soon as he got out of the meeting he was in. Twice, I went without an appointment to his office, in the suburb of Bandra, but he wasn’t in. ‘Send me an email telling me what you want to talk about, dear,’ he once said, when I had reached him from my mother’s phone, ‘and we’ll definitely meet after that.’ He called me ‘dear’ smoothly and happily, as if the dozens and dozens of calls he had ignored had forged an intimate bond between us. But Mehta, and his version of the truth, dangled in the shadows, out of reach.
This felt familiar. India has become a country where the powerful can feel confident of kneading the system to their benefit without overly worrying about public opinion. They have little need to talk to the people, through the media, and so they choose not to. The ensuing vacuum of information frustrates and confuses us; it invites us to spin delirious fears about the way India is really being run. On some days, everything can feel opaque; in fact, the existence of this wrap-around opacity is often the only transparent fact in sight.
By way of poor proxy, I listened to Mehta’s lawyers. For two days, I occupied a corner of Court No 19 in the Bombay High Court, a Gothic Revival building from the 1870s, with high, raftered ceilings and bare walls and benches of hard wood worn smooth by anxiously shifting bottoms. The Forum turned out in force on both days. Shirley sat at the back, impassive and unhappy; in the lawsuit against Mehta, he was named as first petitioner. He remained alert even through the otherwise slackening texture of a day in court: the buzz of the first hour, then the settled keenness, the post-lunch torpor, the gradual straying of eyes to clocks, the dense energy of a system at work dissipating through the afternoon.
This was supposed to be a swift hearing – a hearing, in fact, to decide if a court could even sit in judgment upon this spat between Mehta and the Forum, or whether it was the sole preserve of the charity commissioner. But on the first day, after three other suits had been disposed of within fifteen minutes, Mehta’s lawyer began by reading from a fat casebook marked with blue, pink and yellow fluorescent stickers. He had a voice that loped along without tiring, and an evident fondness for reciting the letter of the law in its ornate fullness.
‘How long will this take?’ Justice Roshan Dalvi asked after an hour. She was a tiny woman with salt-and-pepper hair, and since she was forced to bend forward to speak into the microphone, she chose not to use it at all. Instead, she leaned back and muttered so that only the lawyers in argument really heard her well.
‘Between the two of us,’ Mehta’s lawyer said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it took till the end of today.’
I may have been mistaken, but I thought I saw Justice Dalvi sigh. She turned to the bailiff and asked him to adjourn the twenty-five cases that remained on the day’s schedule. ‘Now continue,’ she said.
The lawyers knew what they wanted. It was in the Forum’s interests to convey, in the most ominous possible tones, the nature and magnitude of the fraud for which they held Mehta responsible, so that the court, shaken to its core, would insist on adjudicating this grievous lapse in justice. Mehta’s lawyer, on the other hand, worked like a butcher stripping fat from a bone. Again and again, he sliced past these claims of fraud, tossing them aside to arrive at the fundament: that the law, properly interpreted, gave only the charity commissioner the powers to resolve club disputes. The court had no business here. This line of attack made sense: if Mehta could really co-opt or pay off the charity commissioner, as the Forum worried, then he would win through easily and gloriously. This single official, the charity commissioner, held the keys to the kingdom. But if Justice Dalvi thought her court should take on this case, Mehta’s lawyer cautioned, ‘it will be like opening Pandora’s box, and 30,000 or 40,000 other similar cases will come your way’. He must have barely restrained himself from waggling a finger in warning.
For all of the first day, the arguments went back and forth; when the second day began, a member of the Forum’s legal team assured the court that he needed only another twenty minutes, and yet we had staggered well past 1 p.m. when Justice Dalvi declared a recess. A couple of hours later, she announced that she was reserving judgment. Another two weeks would pass before she ruled in favour of the Forum and permitted the lawsuit to remain in the courts. The hearings about the actual allegations of fraud started later still. The suit became one among the 30 million cases making their slow, sticky way through the interminable entrails of the Indian judiciary.
Emerging from the court on the evening of that second day, I found that Mumbai had suddenly turned breezy and cool, with a smudge of rain cloud hanging above the city. I took a taxi to the Breach Candy Club, where a friend had signed me in for a swim before dinner. Lapping that enormous outdoor pool from tip to toe was too daunting, so I traversed its breadth instead, between Bengal and Gujarat on the map. The salt water desiccated my lips in minutes and crept past my goggles into my eyes, so that they were burning before I’d finished five laps. I spluttered through another ten with difficulty before stumbling out and finding my way to the changing rooms through a film of tears.
When I left the club later that night, after dinner, my eyes were still streaming. The insides of my glasses were speckled with teardrops. I looked up and down the road for a taxi, and everything swam before me in a watery haze, so that I seemed to be witnessing the absolute dissolution of the city. Only the very tops of the skyscrapers stood firm and bright above the murk, and in those moments without clarity, it was easy to assume that this was all there was to Mumbai, these forbidding towers and the privilege they contained.
Image © Wolfgang In Der Wiesche, Bom By Night 1