A deadly cocktail in Delhi
- Ravi Shankar Etteth’s new novel takes a swipe at Lutyens’ Delhi’s upper crust
- Sex, drugs and crime come together in a heady swirl in this entertaining book
Acertain kind of book predictably gets described as a “heady cocktail" of sex, drugs, crime and money. Killing Time In Delhi is such a book. As with other quaffable novels that suggest endless parties and rapid repartee, high-polish beauties and dark underbellies, Killing Time is about society’s upper crust, specifically one member of the historically moneyed Lutyens’ Delhi elite.
Chaitanya “Charlie" Seth shares an old-chummish nickname with cocaine; girlfriend Rita is also addicted to it. Charlie wastes his days, but also kills time in Delhi in another sense: He’s a youngish relic of an antiquated, feudal way of life. “I am disgustingly snooty and class-obsessed," he notes, “even with a dead body parked in my closet." About that dead body—it’s not a spoiler. In an opening paragraph engineered for the double take, Charlie tells us, “Rita croaked a little after midnight on the first day of the best November I’d had in Delhi in many years."
Author Ravi Shankar Etteth keeps Charlie’s first-person account of the rest of his fateful November well supplied with tongue-in-cheek sarcasms. After Charlie’s under-reaction to Rita’s overdose, he’s confronted with a grotesque murder, a mysterious femme fatale, a suave swami, a cop with a grudge, and visions of his own past: a tragic but gilded childhood, and the loss of his one true love, along with any chance at real happiness. Worst of all, his Man Friday suddenly seems to have a life and ambitions of his own.
Killing Time never lets up—it’s well-paced—and while the twists and reveals aren’t always unexpected, there’s enough psychological drama to keep the tension high. Part Salingeresque social commentary, part Wodehousian comedy, the novel reflects the fact that Etteth is a prolific and exuberant writer. His previous six books have ranged widely in terms of genre, geography and setting, though they share the element of a quest or a mystery.
In Killing Time, there are a few blips (“Wellington Crescent" instead of Willingdon Crescent), as well as inconsistencies in the first-person narrative that make it difficult to separate Charlie’s observations from what could conceivably be the author’s own. Technically, we have a window seat looking over Charlie’s world view. But his assertion that “I see everything and everyone like cardboard cut-outs. My perception is not 3D. I prefer to keep it that way" is both untrue and a convenient excuse for when some characters do come across as caricatures.
Observing, for example, that a transgender character is not “even a real man" may be the sort of political incorrectness one expects from an unreflective Richie Rich, but what about his observation that “Lutyenites are among the world’s most awful snobs, making a virtue of being low key, and using that as the high point of contempt"? The women, in particular, come across primarily as sex objects—whether it’s desirable Mandira or Mrs Jogi who “had more miles on her than a vintage car and was unlikely to be ridden again". Charlie literally has a Barbie tattoo—a memento of “The Girl", the one woman he put up on a pedestal.
Perhaps Etteth nailed the internal monologue of a shallow-but-deep Delhi guy all too well. The reader of this laddish novel still finds herself having to root for someone who not only “did very little except make whoopee, drink and diss people at parties", but also thinks things like “I love scuttlebutt like a Bengali loves hilsa". Like other “literary" characters who return to India, the best he thinks he can be is who he is abroad, “in another time and place when I was someone else".
What we’re actually supposed to be rooting for is upper-class Charlie getting his comeuppance, becoming “a nobody" in an all-or-nothing game of social levelling played by those around him—but only so that he might once again find meaning in his empty life. The best we get, and he gets, is an escape from Delhi, from killing time to living it up, “first class". With a cocktail in hand, no doubt.