There is a scene in Zinda Bhaag that is set at the fictitious but familiar-sounding Imperial Punjab Club. One of our protagonists, a waiter at this establishment, is humiliated and falsely accused of stealing the Blackberry of a rich old Pakistani man with a British accent (a.k.a. Coconut). (The wife who spends his money simply looks on with cold malignancy.)
The scene was intended to be a send-up, both funny and tragic, a comedic expose of the pretentious Punjabi elite and their callous attitude towards anyone outside their own class.
Now I grew up going to just such a club, and truth be told, they’re pretty mean to their own class, too. The “Imperial Punjab Club” bit rang true for me, based as it was on a similar club in Lahore; let’s call it the Imperial Club. I waited out my misspent youth in that club’s bakery, avoiding the tennis lessons I had been sent to attend. Since school was such an unmitigated social disaster, I would find comfort in the activities at the club after school, none of which were team sports.
The colonial-era clubs (there is one in Karachi too) have long been arenas of privilege and power, places where old money and new ambitions affirm each other’s existence over mulligatawny soup. When they were built, the clubs didn’t allow “Indian” members, something that only changed closer to the time of Partition. Since then, memberships have become stamps of approval denoting who is worth what, socially speaking. The one in Karachi has in these years maintained its reputation. But its Lahori sibling hasn’t fared so well: she’s broke, on her fourth marriage, and still she won’t give up her credit card.
Before the 2000s there weren’t as many “clubs” in Lahore as there are today. There was a large one in central Lahore (let’s call it Golf Center), then the IC and that’s about it. This was before the rise of trendy gyms or the new sprawling country clubs. I was a member of Golf Center, a pleasant enough (and enormous enough) tract of land on the Mall with a golf course and an extensive pool that I stopped using after I found a turd drifting in the deep end like a deadly submarine. The Imperial Club was much smaller, both in scale and membership, and was housed in a building that still smells like a recently scrubbed toilet.
Legend tells us that at one time the IC had expansive grounds in what is now a government building. Kicked out by the government (one can only imagine the hysterics), the club’s members settled for a house in a secluded neighborhood as their new location. That’s where the club stayed; and it has since evolved into a watering hole for the Punjabi geriatric gentry. It is among the more stifling environments here, ideal for octogenarians who believe in the “good old days” and the fictitious part they played in such a period, which usually means everyone in the club has a tight sphincter, a loose toupee and loves talking about what’s “going wrong” with the country. (“You, Grandpa Grumpy,” I usually mutter as I’m leaving the bakery. “You’re what went wrong with the country. Or don’t you remember running it? My mistake. Of course you do…”) One cannot enter most of the club except in full formal regalia (they list cravats and bush shirts as appropriate attire, which gives you an idea of the time period they have in mind) lest you disturb the sanity of the old men playing cards.
[quote]The society aunties in the pool would submerge most of their bulk underwater, like crocodiles, but leave their heads out[/quote]
So dried up is the atmosphere here that the keepers have tried, over the years, to inject a little zest into it. For this they opened a damp room at the back of the pool and called it ‘Le Pretentious Pointe’. My own time there was spent mostly at the pool, where I would pretend to do lengths. (I would much rather suffer in the bakery.) Most of the time the pool was taken over by the Water Dragons, a group of six society aunties who would submerge most of their bulk underwater, like crocodiles, but leave their heads out (expensive perms, I’m sure) as they waited for their next prey of gossip to float past.
The IC can’t compete with other establishments, not really. The Golf Center is huge and well-stocked and friendly; other places are moneyed and well-stocked and friendly and even have cinema halls. I suppose it’s because the IC has so little to its name that it keeps up the charade of being the bastion of Old Power. I think that’s why I am so angry at it. It is, in every way, the symbol of the old elite’s continuing indifference. There isn’t a shred of evidence within that club that anything untoward is happening in the country, and I think it’s because either they don’t care or feel too relegated to try to help. They just want to play some bridge, after all.
The median age of the members is about 97. Membership used to be a status symbol, and to a few it probably still is, but in no way does that matter now. Your membership at the IC has become an indicator of being out of the times, willfully myopic and decidedly boring. Were it to have the beautiful grounds of the Karachi club (whose membership is rich but diverse and young), or the energy of the Golf Center (also young, though dubiously dressed), perhaps it could survive. But it probably won’t.
I made the mistake of going there for tea the other day. In the entire club they didn’t have a place where I could sit down, inside or outside, mainly because I was wearing a shirt with slacks and not “formal clothes”. Who, I ask you, wears “formal clothes” in a garden (most of which you’re not allowed on) in the Lahori summer? Who? No one born after 1947.
My own feeling is that the IC and clubs like it should realize where their strength really is: upmarket End-of-Life Care. The idea is golden. You have all those “senior” members in need of TLC. Properly exploited, that is money in the bank. They could have a club graveyard, where members could choose plots based on bank accounts and the number of generations of the family, thereby insuring good after-life real estate. One could be buried under a tree; or in a crypt in the billiards room, with one’s initials emblazoned on the door; or as far away from “new money” as one’s own money can buy. There could even be specialized arrangements for cremation, embalming, audio-visual tributes, even an impromptu ‘Who’s-still-breathing?’ game, if the girls are feeling really raunchy.
I even have a name for this revamped graveyard of Lahori high society: how about The After Hours Club?
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