Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Shanghai Club

There are many country clubs in my area. They set back from the main town centers, surrounded by tall trees and golf greens, bordered by winding two-lane roads. Because my Dad loves golf, I am a member of one of these country clubs. Growing up I’d take tennis lessons, and I’d go with my siblings to the pool at the end of June as school died down and beg my mom to buy me an Italian ice from the snack bar.

But as I got older I started to feel more and more uncomfortable as we pulled into the long driveway, and parked our car facing the yellow dining room building with the patio jutting off to the right. The strict pool rules, the mothers with their bright pink tennis skirts, prep school boys with their golf shoes, and the graying old men who didn’t have to look you in the eye when they wore your sunglasses. Then my parents told me the stories of membership, and all of the obstacles young couples had to climb through in order to be accepted into a community that in the end wanted to a consume a large sum of their money. The process seemed strange for me. It seemed wrong. People must be interviewed? I’d ask. They need recommendations? What kind of criteria is this? What defines a good member?

When I came across the passage about the Shanghai Club in Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay, I immediately thought of the country club my family belongs to. Chandra presents the strange and unfair membership process before he expands on the role of Mr. Fong, as Freddie rejects T.T. from joining their gym. He writes: “There was nothing to be done about it, the rules were clear and ancient and unamendable…if you weren’t in you were out, there was no middle ground” (48). Chandra is smart to set this scene up before he brings in the quick progression of popularity the Shanghai club attains. This idea of prominence that Freddie unjustly bestows on Sheila and T.T. is accepted within this society, as it is in the community of country clubs I’ve come to know. Due to personal issues Freddie (most likely forced upon him by his wife) ostracizes a family that wants to use their clubs facilities to exercise. There is no reason, no questions asked, and eventually Dolly and Freddie come to know the pain that they throw upon others.

Chandra illuminates this need for elite belonging and power when he writes about the Shanghai club, an establishment that no one seems to understand or care about until they know that the memberships are given out sparingly. Once the competition is initiated the community needs to fight to be in the running. Those accepted celebrated, and those left out rolled their eyes and pretended not to be bothered. Dolly is especially affected by the outcome, as she is not one to receive a letter in the mail. The narrator describes her behavior during the process, stating, “She grew to resemble a kind of stately ship in sail, constant and beautiful, unmoved by choppy waters” (52).

The idea of prominence in this passage can resonate throughout any culture, as trends form without reason and people gain popularity just because of the beliefs of one person and the power of manipulation. Even as the opening night arrives, there is no solid evidence of the club being especially brilliant. Chandra writes, “Everything was quite ordinary. But it was quite transformed that night by an extraordinary electricity, a current of excitement that made everyone beautiful, a kind of light that came not from the dim lamps but from the air itself” (56). The opportunity to become accepted into a club over others was enough to stir the determination and anger from the people of the community. This ideal, even though it didn’t have reason and couldn’t be defined, turned people against each other. It made people feel privileged or marginalized, and what was most heartbreaking was that need for power seemed to replace meaning behind the club and become the meaning itself.

There are groups like this lurking in every area, ripping apart every homeland, and making people measure their worth arbitrarily. After reading this I started to think of all of the groups that I’ve wanted to join in the past, and the goals I’ve tried to achieve. I wondered what, exactly, motivated me be a part of the things I’ve been a part of, and in the end if it was worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment