It was a weekend and I felt like dancing. In Delhi, Turquoise Cottage in Adhchini and later, in Vasant Vihar, were the places to be—great rock music and a fun group of people coming together. I was with a couple of friends, and I called another friend over.
Delhi throws up gatekeeping with sickening regularity—and ‘posh’ places regularly debar entry to those it thinks don’t match their ‘standards’.
‘It’s a great set list tonight, you have to join us,’ I told him. He agreed, and said he would come soon. Sometime later, I got a call from him. He was at the door to the nightclub, but they wouldn’t let him in. The reason: he was in a cotton kurta. ‘But it’s a cool FabIndia kurta,’ he complained. The bouncers were adamant—TC only allowed Western clothes. I had to go and rescue my friend. One long conversation, a great deal of negotiation later, he was let in. The mood was dampened, and a serious blow was delivered to the idea of the City that night – the idea that we could go where we wanted, make impromptu plans. That idea didn’t feel very strong. TC, such a familiar place, suddenly seemed obnoxious, being the gatekeeper for the wrong sort of ideas.
Delhi throws up gatekeeping with sickening regularity—and ‘posh’ places regularly debar entry to those it thinks don’t match their ‘standards’. The latest case in point- the Delhi Golf Club asked Tailin Lyngdoh, a governess from Meghalaya, to leave the premises. The lady was dressed in Khasi robes, and it is also reported that she was told she was dressed like a dustbin. Just to put this in perspective, let us look what a few other places in Delhi have been up to: Delhi Gymkhana club has notices that say drivers and maids are not allowed—accompanied or otherwise. In 2016, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Mohini Giri, complained that her office staff was asked to leave the Gymkhana club as they ‘looked like maids’. The Aam Aadmi Party called for a probe against Shiv Sagar restaurant in Connaught Place because it refused to serve accompanied children who looked like ‘street children’.
Let’s step back here. I have three things to say. Firstly, observing rules is one thing. Using them bluntly to degrade people and perpetuate discrimination is quite another. In the case of the Ms Lyngdoh, her outfit was an ethnic one. The issue becomes even more relevant as she is a lady, and a lady from the little-understood North East of India. Her being a lady is relevant because women are often tied down to wearing traditional clothes in many parts of the country. My grandmother, despite having an array of clothes to choose from, only wears sarees. Completely unlike her grand-daughter, who feels no tie to either Indian or ‘modern’ clothes. North Eastern Indians have been vastly misunderstood. The simple fact is, a traditional lady from the North East is not going to turn up in a peplum skirt. She will be in a very different kind of skirt—and not recognising that is the bystander’s shortcoming, not hers.
Secondly, the way clubs, restaurants and nightspots discriminate, under the garb of gentrification, reeks of class and caste hierarchies. It is as if in their quest to be exclusive, they cannot think of better rules than excluding the ‘other’. It doesn’t matter if the ‘other’ is well-behaved, healthy and abiding by all other house rules. As a woman who is often out in the city, I am most happy if you throw out someone because he or she is inebriated. Should you throw out someone because he or she is badly dressed—a marker that you are the judge of?
Thirdly, it is important to note that there are different kinds of victimhoods at play and these need to be differentiated. Many will claim that these incidents are not so bad, because on one evening in a metropolitan city, they may not have been let into a five star because they were in their United Colours of Benetton thong slippers.
But there is a difference. And the difference is in shaming.
What happened to me and my friends was bad, but it was not discrimination, merely differentiation. We are able to raise our voice, move to another restaurant, and seek access to recourse. For men and women—and again, I will emphasise, women particularly, who are discriminated against with class or even caste undertones—the victimhood is much deeper. Being called a street urchin, a maid, a beggar—this is all class-based shaming which has no place in modern India.
I’ll end with one thought. What is cool is a construct. The Jenner sisters are currently championing distressed and torn tee-shirts, with torn sleeves and gaping holes, following from the distressed jeans fad which has been around for a couple of years. Perhaps this may not be allowed in a few ‘choice’ places. But people who wear luxury distressed items have a choice. And then there are those who don’t have the luxury of choice and modern clothing.
It is not just the discrimination meted out against them that is a problem, but also their lack of voice and agency.
Finally, to all the Gatekeepers of Cool in India, gentrification is not what you wear or how stylish your clothes are, but how you behave, and how cool your values are.
Neha Sinha on a reality check on rules and behaviours. Sinha is a Wildlife Conservationist. Work in field conservation and environmental policy.