A history and analysis of the culture of clubs in Bangladesh
In his book, The British in India- Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, Allen Lane, a noted British author, writes extensively about the British legacy of clubs that they left behind and the culture it spawned in major cities of India. In a poignant narrative in his book Allen Lane, he describes a typical station club as follows:
“For many people, nothing is more emblematic of British India than images of “the Club”… men and women are sitting in cane chairs on a verandah, while servants in turbans and cummerbunds are serving them iced drinks; they might be watching fellow members playing croquet, and they can hear the sounds of other members hitting tennis balls; soon the band will begin to play. Inside the clubhouse men are sitting in armchairs reading newspapers and magazines; from across the passage the sound of billiard balls can be heard.”
The history of station clubs
Originally known as station clubs built for British army officers stationed in nearby cantonment and the British civilians who were posted there, the clubs were social centres of the town where civilian officials such as the district magistrate, judge, and army officers from the cantonment socialized and mingled over a drink for chitchats, playing cards, billiards, or perhaps tennis.
Allen Lane writes, “It was a place you went for leisure, exercise, and conversation, where you could be serious or frivolous as you wished. It was a place where, as one civilian recalled, ‘the annoyances of work’ were ‘removed.’ If the judge and the magistrate had disagreed over a case in court, they could have a cigar and a peg afterwards and remain friends. It was a place you went for leisure, exercise, and conversation, where you could be serious or frivolous as you wished.”
Yet, for many years -- not until after WWI -- this place of mingling was not open to the natives. The members had to belong to the ruling aristocracy of white civilians, or army officers and their families. The Indians were admitted only when quite a few Indians had entered the mandarins -- the Indian Civil Service and the Indian Army.
The rejection of locals or natives by these clubs also led to the formation of other social clubs mostly initiated by local elites and professionals. There were also clubs that were set up by other professional or ethnic groups such as oil companies, railways, tea gardens, etc.
Building camaraderie and prestige
The aim of all these clubs became more than socialization, to build camaraderie among fellow professionals, and prestige for their institutions to the extent that membership of a particular club became a badge of identity for those who belonged to it. The older the club, the bigger the prestige, and more difficult to get admitted into it.
Another British technique to reject any member from entering the club precincts was the practice of “blackballing.” The British wanted their club to “be a preserve of their own.” An applicant could be refused membership even if a single member objected to his admission.
This “blackballing” could be based on principle, prejudice, or practical consideration. Given this wide latitude, a club hopeful had to belong to the class to which the members belonged ( ICS, army, or an aristocrat) or be a chum of these members.
It was natural, therefore, that people who could not find their way to these “prestige” clubs formed their own. A good example of such a club formed by people who could not join the British Club of Chittagong -- known as Chittagong Club founded in 1878 -- was the Chittagong Institute, popularly known as the Chota Club of Chittagong, built by local professionals in 1927.
Popularity and attraction of the clubs did not fade with the departure of the British. In fact, the attraction and prestige increased manifold because of the networking and social connection that the clubs provided for other professionals and businesspeople in the post-independent subcontinent.
There were many clubs that were handed down by the British to the aspiring middle class of the newly independent countries who found the clubs as venues for more than socialization but for social climbing. The business class sought to expand their business by connecting with the politically and bureaucratically powerful, and politically powerful found a new base for financial support.
Where in colonial times, the clubs provided a leisure time for the civilian officials and an opportunity to rest, the clubs in our times became dens of fortune seeking nouveau riche to garner more wealth by connecting with the politically powerful and hobnobbing with people of power.
At the time of the Partition of India, there were a handful of clubs spread in major cities of India that were known for their history, membership, and contributions to society. Dhaka Club was one of them. But the attraction of the club and its fame also became its bane.
The membership reached a saturation point that led to the building of other clubs in the city to satisfy the demand of a growing middle class that wanted its money to bear fruit by building a network of friends and clients.
A change in culture
This demand has now led to creation of clubs that defies club-to-population ratio of a residential area. This exponential growth has less to do with people wanting to rest and socialize, and more to do with people’s desire to hobnob with people in power and use their money to gain access to these people.
This penchant for clubbing is not for recreation in billiards and tennis which was an object of pursuit in the old station clubs; it is for hanging your hat in a place that is frequented by the powerful and rich who will hopefully make you richer.
Belonging to an old club of prestige gave you a label of recognition, but belonging to these newfound clubs -- such as the Boat Club which was as removed from the sea as a camel from the desert -- was a showy display of money.
Like political parties that grow because the leaders of a party want to be the big honchos and create a new party, the social clubs in Dhaka have also grown because the aspirants for membership in a club of “prestige” cannot accommodate them, and they would not mind spending a fortune to form another club for the wealthy.
The wrong reasons
There is nothing wrong in forming a social club so long as it confines its membership within its peer group and engages in activities that fall within the traditional meaning of leisure and relaxation. But it falls out of its orbit when it attracts people for the wrong reason.
Today, the club culture of Dhaka and perhaps other cities in Bangladesh is one of a display of wealth and pandering to the powerful for preserving that wealth. Belonging to such clubs is a badge of honour. These clubs are no more the station clubs of yore that the British created for its expatriate civil servants and army officers for social get-togethers. The clubs today are created by the wealthy and for the wealthy.
The government cannot rein in the clubs, but it can rein in the membership of these clubs by forbidding its own officials from seeking membership of the clubs. The government can regulate the clubs from a plethora of licensing laws that could be applied to them.
But in the end what matters is the discipline that a club itself can impose on its own members. Blackballing an individual who is not liked by the members can and should be applied to all who are members of the club. A club is a club when its members behave as they should.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.