Delhi playboy Charlie leads a life of idle luxury full of money, drugs, sex and parties. A cocaine overdose kills his ditzy girlfriend, thrusting him into a maelstrom of conspiracy, murder, blackmail and promiscuity.
As his world is upended Charlie finds himself at the mercy of an enigmatic woman, an unscrupulous swami, a society-obsessed policeman, a slippery drug pusher and a disloyal valet.
The only person who can help him is his missing aunt. Holed up in the country palace that his grandfather had won in a game of cards from a raja on Diwali, Charlie plots his revenge.
In this excerpt from his new novel Killing Time in Delhi, Ravi Shankar Etteth shows a Delhi people don’t generally Delhi’s know about: the ultrarich who live in the fast lane and are high on hypocrisy, borrowed money and dubious deals.
By RAVI SHANKAR ETTETH
Millennial Delhi girls have their own Thesaurus. Hundo p. Arjun Kapoor should really glo up or get off. Ranbir Kapoor is on fleek. Tiger Shroff needs some milk. As a xennial, an older millennial born in the seventies, I needed a Dating Dictionary.
‘Hey Charlie, don’t stay so salty. Wantsome?’ Rita asked, waving a Ziploc packet of white powder in the air. I shook my head. She shot me a look that was part contempt and part exasperation.
With cocaine, I drew the line. ‘Put it back, and take a shower,’ I said.
She made a face and put it back in her bag.
Though I am not a member of the Zero Watt club, I can’t claim to be a guy with any hidden depths either. I see life in monochrome, and people more or less as one-dimensional. Things that happen are just that. So, any observations I may have are superficial, because I don’t believe in looking for hidden meanings behind everything. God is not into meanings. He is too busy creating random sequences for a lark. It’s people who look for cosmic consequences in life. You’re born, you drink, have sex, and cash in your chips when you’re done playing. Everything in between is a bonus. Dumb luck. That’s my playbook.
I looked out through the windows at the vast expanse of the lawn my house sat on. In that sprawling bungalow, I lived in a suite of rooms with a large lounge and a larger bedroom. French windows opened out into a wide veranda dotted with giant potted palms, shaded by a decorative, latticed sandstone screen and wood fretwork covered with fat-leafed creepers. A fan with a long stem and wide blades stirred the air on summer evenings. Not tonight though, with the night mist grazing on my lawn.
The air had the crispness of crushed ice. A circus of flies floated aimlessly in the smoky nimbus around the lamps lining the gravelled path that led to the remains of an old Mughal tomb which intruded on to my property. There had been a case in court since my grandfather’s days, slapped on by the Archaeological Department claiming ownership of the dead Mughals, but I couldn’t care less. In the unhurried Hindu way, the wheel of karma turns slowly but surely and the courts took their time. It would be settled one way or another. Everything in the world is. The old bones of a nobleman and his wife who died six hundred years ago were of no interest to me. But whenever I passed my bedroom window, I liked the view, the perfect symmetry of the tomb’s pink dome showing through the embrace of a large amaltas tree which guarded the granite boundary wall of my bungalow and bloomed with golden flowers in the summer. I felt happy I had my own dead Mughal.
I padded across to the mantelpiece upon which I remembered flinging my cigarettes earlier in the evening. I shook out a stick from the packet that lay beside the little blue Lladro figurine of Krishna and lit it. My parents had brought the statuette home from a Valencia honeymoon.
‘C’mon Charlie, I told you the Jogis are waiting. Move your ass.’
‘What you really mean by “the Jogis are waiting” is that you can’t wait,’I said and blew out a ring of smoke.
‘There you go, yaddayaddayadda. Dude, getting high is the only reason anyone parties in Delhi. In fact, it’s the only reason to live,’ Rita threw shade at me, rummaging in her handbag. I groaned. She victoriously held up a lipstick. I sighed in relief. She walked up to the mirror on the mahogany dresser by the window.
‘Then why live at all?’ I asked, stubbing my cigarette in the ashtray. I climbed back into the massive mahogany four-poster bed my grandmother had died in.
‘What d’you mean, why live at all?’ Rita barked, now annoyed. Her fair, triangular face looked real dog- faced when she got annoyed. Like just now. She had just finished dabbing her lower lip, the fuller one, with blue lipstick. The upper lip, yet to be done, was pale pink. Her mouth looked half- developed. I shrugged noncommittally.
‘What else does one do in this beautiful, rocking, shitty city except party hard? `C’mere, Chaitanya.’ She held out her hand and wiggled her fingers with nails painted matching blue.
I grudgingly got up. I usually gave in whenever Rita called me by my name.
My name is Chaitanya Seth. But people call me Charlie. That’s what people in Delhi do. It’s supposed to be trendy to have foreign-sounding names.
She stood on her toes and kissed me lightly. ‘I like you, Charlie. I wish you would loosen up.’
I grunted. The smells and images of our recent sex lingered pleasantly in my mind and on my body. I doubted Rita loved me. She loved my money . I was rich. Very rich. Mine was old money. At least two generations old. My maternal grandfather and paternal grandfather, who were business partners and best friends since school, owned houses in the British part of Delhi when the Raj had still been in business. Then they bought more houses at cheap rates from English families anxious to bust out of Delhi after India became independent. English merchants caught in the spindrift of an empire in retreat were anxious to sell off their shops in Connaught Place, the gleaming white colonial shopping circle, which was visualised as the centre of New Delhi by its creator Robert Tor Russell, warrior, airport designer and architect. Property was the best investment for anyone with money.
My mother’s father was neighbours with English families on Amrita Shergil Marg, then called Ratendone Road. My paternal grandfather died of a heart attack when my father was in school. Father had lost his mother when he was only a baby. My maternal grandfather consolidated the business under his name and put my father through boarding school and then a degree-vacation in London, after which he married my mother and moved into his in-laws’ house.
As the years passed, the rents from the various properties my grandfathers had accumulated were enough to run a small country with some change to spare. My mother grew up riding horses in the woods and meadows in and around Willingdon Crescent. She had a sister who lived somewhere overseas. My aunt got caught up in some scandal—the details were sketchy—after which, she left her people and friends behind and never came back. I have some vague memories of her.
My mother had a passion for Italian sports cars and vodka. On most nights, my parents partied hard, till early in the morning. One day, she drove her new Ferrari up a tree near Hailey Road just before dawn on her way home with my father, after partying at the Oberoi Maidens hotel. This happened when I was eleven, leaving me an orphaned schoolboy with a gilded future, much like my father. It killed my grandmother, who shut herself up in her room, after losing both her daughters, and wasted away. I remember her only a little more than my aunt. My grandfather, a stern, tall man who was always in a three-piece suit in winter and a linen shirt and jodhpurs in summer, packed up his things and moved to his country home that sat snugly at the foot of the Aravalli on the outskirts of Delhi, where he spent his time shooting leopards and riding, until he met a violent, tragic death. All the affection I ever received from him was an occasional pat on my head, with a rare ‘Good boy ’muttered under his breath, or being asked to join him in hunting and riding now and then.
(Excerpted from Killing Time in Delhi by Ravi Shankar Etteth; Westland, 2019; Rs 395, with the author’s permission)
(Ravi Shankar Etteth is a Delhi-based journalist, satirist, graphic designer and author. He has been the editorial cartoonist of Indian Express, creative director of Observer Group of Publications, editor at India Today and Sunday Standard, and CEO and editor-in-chief of Voice of India and Millionaire. In 1996, Etteth published his first book of short stories, The Scream of the Dragonflies. Subsequently, he published five more titles—The Tiger By The River (2002), The Village of Widows (2004), The Gold of Their Regrets (2009), The Book of Shiva (2016) and The Brahmin (2018). He is now a columnist and consulting editor at New Indian Express.)