Raj Bhatt is a professor of anthropology at a university in California and father of two young sons. Raj’s wife, Eva, grew up in the town where they live and had been a member of an exclusive members’ only tennis club as a child. So when Raj and Eva marry, they naturally join the Tennis Club, or TC, as Raj calls it, which has, unsurprisingly, a mostly white clientele.
With race relations in the United States yet again at a critical point, Sameer Pandya’s new novel, Members Only, is a timely story about prejudice and white privilege, set mainly at a private tennis club and a university in California.
Raj has a seat on the TC membership committee. When fifteen couples apply for five open spots, Raj and the other committee members pay close attention to the applicants and their suitability. One of the applicants calls Raj by a name that is not his—Kumar; none of the other committee members speak up. The final couple that evening are African American doctors named Bill and Valery. Raj perks up when they walk into the room, hopeful the club will accept more members that look more like him.
When it comes out that Bill had played tennis at Stanford, he downplays his skills on the court. Raj responds in a way he thinks is funny and utters the worst type of racial slur. Bill and Valery are noticeably uncomfortable while the committee members freeze in horror. No one addresses it, but Raj knows he has terribly misspoken. Yet he also feels confused because he has been called the very same word many times and witnesses have never flinched.
If Bill knew the invisibility that I’d felt, which I suspected he did, then I hoped that would mean he and I could see each other clearly. That he would know exactly what I meant—that I was nothing like the others on the committee, that I was reaching out to him, albeit in a stupid way.
After Bill and Valery leave their interview, the rest of the committee turns on Raj. He apologizes profusely, but the damage has been done and there’s soon a campaign to not only kick Raj off the membership committee, but also out of the club completely.
The novel takes place over a single week, and soon after the tennis club debacle Raj runs into trouble at his university when students take offense from a lecture he’s been giving for a decade.
The more I taught, the more I learned that students needed me to be clear about the exact point I was trying to make so that they could repeat it on an exam. And so I ended the lecture with a simple slide that read: ‘Americans have been so obsessed with these gurus not only because they fulfill our Orientalist desires, but also because they offer an alternative to the culture and religiosity of Christianity. They offer a counterpoint to the emptiness of Christianity and Western life.’
It doesn’t take long for this lecture to go viral on right-wing websites, accusing Raj of being anti-American. White pride groups on campus stage protests and hunger strikes, and Raj finds himself fighting outrage at both university and club.
In a multi-racial society, race relations are themselves multi-lateral. Pandya bankshots questions that Americans face and ignore every day. Who has the right to call out racism? Does a white tennis club member have a finer insight on racism than an Indian immigrant? And how can college campuses accommodate free speech if the result is stifling professors who have a different worldview from the dominant one in the US?
These questions and more are smoothly woven into the first person narrative of dilemmas at club and campus. Pandya writes in the interview at the conclusion of the book that he didn’t “set out to write a book of auto-fiction”, but he, like his protagonist, can’t help but ponder racial identity, immigrant stories, and campus politics. Members Only is a thoughtful guide to these issues as they continue to make the news in the US on a daily basis.