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.