Last saturday, I was not in Pietermaritzburg. I was in New Delhi. Also, I was not ejected out of the first class apartment of a train in apartheid South Africa. I was turned away from Rick’s, the very nice bar at the Taj Mahal Hotel on Man Singh Road in post-independence India. “Sorry sir, we have a no-toes policy,” said the man at the front desk, behind whom there was a gaggle of gollies having a good late Saturday evening.
I was flabbergasted. I have visited Rick’s often, wearing my very decent black Bata Hush Puppies sandals (or their variants) in the past and I rather liked their Rusty Nail cocktail enough to sing hosannas about it to friends and enemies alike. This time, too, I was in modest attire that would have been approved by the mothers and daughters that Maharashtra Minister of State for Home Siddharam Mhetre is so concerned about as they negotiate the ways of gori cheerleaders whose fathers and brothers are thankfully so far away.
I looked at the gentleman behind the pretend lectern and asked him with as much corrosive irony I could muster, “This is India, right? It’s mid-April and it’s already summer and you want me to wear shoes and socks?” He smiled back at me the way a young Günter Grass still in the Waffen-SS would have smiled back at Polish violinist Szymon Goldberg. “Sorry sir, no toes.”
With frostbite impossible in 40° C Delhi and no Salvatore Ferragamos in my car outside, I decided to beat a retreat, mentally shaking my fist not at the creature called ‘club rules’ but at some of the ludicrous rules that fall under the list. Now it’s important for me to let you know that I do approve of club rules. Not for me a private party where ‘Gypsy Queen’ Livleen Sharma or ‘Knee-Breaker’ Atal Bihari Vajpayee or ‘Party Spark’ Manmohan Singh can waltz in despite being told that it is a strictly daaru, punk rock and non-economist congregation.
But what has closed shoes in a five-star bar, posh as it may be, got to do with keeping things ‘exclusive’? It’s just a notch better than a New Year’s Eve party a few years ago in Tollygunge Club in Calcutta — where else do they still suck up to the ‘Olde Home Country’ rules? — where I was told that I would have to “wear a tie, sir” to get anywhere near the buffet table and flashing lights.
I did take a quick look at the men standing at the entrance of Rick’s. Yes, they were all wearing shoes that gave out no clues that their wearers had toes. Also, the no-toes rule applied to everyone — foreigners included. But hang on. What about the women? None of the women was stopped from flashing their toes as if it was a Tinto Brass movie. And my science is strong enough for me to know that toe-jam is a gender-neutral secretion. So was it something else that the maître de camp at Rick’s didn’t like about me but was too sensitive to point out — thus taking the easiest recourse of blaming my sandals? Was it the dodgy way I had said, ‘Hi’ to him at first? Was it because I knew that he too enjoyed wearing sandals when he wasn’t playing F&B?
I don’t think so. If the rule said, ‘No toes’, there would be no toes allowed. If the rule said, ‘Ties only’, there would be no open necks in the house. I have a strong suspicion that despite India reportedly taking over the galaxy and SRK being watched with great interest at the White House, firang customs still mark class — or whatever defines exclusivity in these parts. Belching is disgusting. Blowing one’s nose into a hanky is perfectly all right. Why oh why oh why? And why bother adapting rules to suit our surroundings when importing them wholesale can do the needful?
Thus, we have a Bus Rapid Transit system, tried and tested in Bogota, that will definitely make things world-class in Delhi. That’s why we have authors who make the grade here only when they get wah-wahs from the Great White Yonder. That’s why I still haven’t come up with anything original to sublimate my anger against the Taj Man Singh management and have to pitifully resort to a Groucho Marx remark: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
Mayawati-ji, I understand you at last!