"We’re talking about the Delhi Turf Club! The most exclusive club in the country! Regular people have to wait thirty-seven years and pay a seven-and-a-half-lakh waiting fee to get what I’ve got for you and your younger brother for just one lakh!”
These lines, on page three of Anuja Chauhan’s enjoyable new novel, Club You To Death (a romantic thriller? a thrilling romance?), are so perfectly in sync with my city that it hurts. Obsessive social stratification, an unmissable air of superiority and cutting to the financial heart of the matter—as any Delhi tragic will tell you, that’s amore. And, as it turns out, an “elite” Delhi club is the perfect setting for Chauhan to unleash her comedic chops.
The aforementioned Delhi Turf Club (DTC) becomes the scene of the crime when on the eve of the club election, hunky personal trainer/Zumba instructor Leo is poisoned using a party drug called “Pinko Hathni” (hathni means female elephant in Hindi). We find out that Leo had concealed his Bihari roots (pretending to be half-Jamaican proves to be a good career move) and was blackmailing a wide cross-section of the club’s patrons into donating to the orphanage he grew up in.
There are suspects galore in the orderly manner of an Agatha Christie tableaux. General Mehra (nicknamed “Behra Mehra”, behra being deaf in Hindi), the retired war hero whose life is literally an Amitabh Bachchan film; Urvashi Khurana, whose entrepreneurial exploits make her a strong electoral challenger to the general; her husband Mukesh, who’s fed up with rumours about his wife and Leo. There’s no shortage of suspicious behaviour outside this trio as well, as ACP Bhavani Singh, the nearing-retirement crime branch policeman who’s assigned the case, realises.
Singh enlists human rights lawyer Akash “Kashi” Dogra and DTC insider Bambi Todi to help him on the case—because we are in an Anuja Chauhan production, Kashi and Bambi happen to be exes and childhood friends. And while their old-sparks-anew, will-they-won’t-they routine is entertaining enough (further complicated by the fact that Kashi is now living with Kuhu, the “JNU ki Bangalan”, as his mother calls her contemptuously), it’s the veteran cop Bhavani Singh whose characterisation is the most impressive.
Singh is a neatly written antithesis of the machismo-driven Bollywood franchise cop; an anti-Singham if you will, an old school moderate in a world where excess has been normalised (“if you strain, you will only get haemorrhoids in the brain,” goes one of his four golden rules). He’s fit but not jacked, progressive but not naïve, shrewd but never a show-off. It is instructive to note just how many of pop culture’s dominant “cop traits” are conspicuous by their absence here—an intimidating physique, a predilection for sudden brutality, a season’s pass on the stoicism-cynicism-nihilism Ferris wheel. He is the kind of protagonist who grows on you almost unnoticed, until you are clearly visualising their face and/or reading lines in their voice (in Singh’s case, with “not” being pronounced “naat”, à la the iconic 1970s Bollywood villain Ajit’s exaggerated vowels).
Singh’s calmness is also representative of Chauhan’s adroit handling of this novel’s politics; on more than one occasion, his thoughts feel like a kind of tightly edited director’s commentary on proceedings. Consider this scene, when the otherwise whip-smart Urvashi Khurana expresses her unlikely diagnosis of why a chest-thumping nationalist party has swept to power in India; the “elites” (like her fellow DTC members) were simply too rude with them. Urvashi isn’t wrong about the generational privileges of the elite, of course. It’s just that politeness as an antidote to fascists (or authoritarians of any stripe, really) is just the kind of well-meaning but naïve idea that would come from someone in her (affluent, unthreatened) position.
Singh immediately recognises this part of her personality; in his thoughts, he terms it “la-la land”. In fact, this is standard procedure for Club You To Death—a three-card monte wherein one, an irritable or ignorant character, says something obviously outrageous, followed by two, a saner course-correction, typically by a younger character, and three, a comic resolution via a typically punchy bit of dialogue, which may or may not employ Hindi-English linguistic jousting (not everybody will enjoy what Chauhan does with “la-la land” a little later in the same passage, for example, but you have to chuckle at the insouciance).
Generally speaking, Chauhan pulls off the Hinglish register much more often and effectively than the vast majority of Indian writers across genres. Like the moment when Bambi Todi’s group of female friends is introduced to us: “They’re all called Pia/Kia/Tia/Sia/Dia/Lia—and so naturally, they’d ended up being nicknamed the Ghia-Lauki gang.” Indeed, one of the pleasures of reading Club You To Death is to see a funny, fast-paced and quite ruthless reproduction of a certain kind of Delhi argot.
What of the actual love triangle (Bambi-Kashi-Kuhu) on display, then? And the other potential romances-in-the-air, those familiar, assured romcom beats that made Chauhan’s name? Well, they are all here and they play like a greatest hits package, to be honest. But then Chauhan’s fans wouldn’t have it otherwise. It’s a bit like Mark Knopfler talking about how after all these years he’s still asked to play the soaring climactic guitar solo on Sultans Of Swing. Yes, it’s an old tune but if Knopfler were to materialise over a cuppa, trusty acoustic in tow, could you really stop yourself from making that request?
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.