Blood and Champagne
By Anjana Basu
Two o'clock in the morning. Dawn is somewhere on the other side of tomorrow. The miniskirts are swinging, the sequins catching the light, and Malini Ramani has got the tallest pair of block heels this side of Suez. For a Thursday--no, early Friday morning--this is a happening party. All the beautiful people of Delhi have already been here and gone, but there are still Mercedes parked outside, yes this is "the scene."
What a good idea to have a party where anyone can just walk in. Someone did just that right after the clock struck two. He walked in from the dark, demanded a drink and when the pretty girl behind the bar refused, he shot her in the head and then walked out again. Leaving the music to wind down, the bearers to stare and Malini herself to go teetering over to cover the poor thing's face. Poor Jessica, she died young but quick, let's hide the booze before the police get here. And then it really was Friday morning, with nowhere to run to and Jessica Lall, thirty-four, former model, had been shot in the head over a drink by Manu Sharma, the politician's son.
The last time high society recorded a shooting like this was when Captain Nanavati shot his wife's lover in cold blood. That was in Bombay in the '50s, and it caused such a scandal that it made it into the pages of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Of course, high society has had its corpses since then--a prominent badminton player found mysteriously dead while his wife dallied with a friend of the Gandhis; a politician's wife thrown to the crocodiles by the man's mistress--but nothing so visible, and certainly nothing with blood-in-the-champagne about it.
"Our children don't do this kind of thing in public," was what the mothers sniffed. How could they? The children were brought up by relays of ayahs and sent to the right schools. No one who went to the right school could possibly be a murderer!
Even now, no one can quite figure out what combination of ingredients led to the disaster at the Tamarind Court, though ever since it was built the place has been bad news. A bar-cum-restaurant on Heritage property? Unheard of! cried the social activists. The place was built on land reclaimed for a song near the fabled Qutb Minar historical monument. Malini Ramani and her mother Bina were the prime movers of the project. News followed wherever the Ramani women went. Bina Ramani had rehabilitated another piece of Heritage property, the crumbling pleasure houses of the Mughul Emperors, turning the ruins into a "village" where destitute women could stitch pieces of needlepoint embroidery and run up expensive outfits for the jet set.
Hauz Khas Village, part Mughul ruin and part modern-Gothic, became a complex of restaurants and boutiques that made Bina Ramani an entrepreneurial byword throughout the nation. She planned to do the same for the Tamarind Court property and too bad if it was Heritage land--no one wanted it for all these years anyway. Qutb Colony, as it was called, danced briefly through lines of newsprint, but no one could find a legal reason convincing enough to keep the Ramanis from continuing their plans. And so it was built--charming, chic and very expensive--and then run by Bina's daughter, Malini. The restaurant soon made food-column news and so did the cluster of shops round about that were fabled to be the most expensive of their kind in the capital. It was the latest phenomenon--Hauz Khas Village and its Indo-Saracenic chic were suddenly passé. The beautiful people were now all to be found at Qutb Colony. They were there every night, including Thursdays (the day is significant because on Thursdays liquor cannot be sold in public bars and restaurants) when the Tamarind Court held an open party. Anyone could walk in, buy coupons for food and drink and be part of the moveable feast. "What a good idea!" chorused the butterflies, "It takes a Ramani to think of something like this. You don't have to go to all the trouble of throwing a party. You just hook on to Malini's." There was, of course, a cut-off time--the bar was supposed to shut down at one a.m.--and what most people didn't know was that the Tamarind Court didn't have a liquor licence. But why should they care?
Jessica was behind the bar--most of Malini's friends served behind the bar at some time or the other during the evening. It was the impromptu bartending that gave the place its party feel. Sort of like a forfeit in a game: you played and then did time out for playing. Whoever was tending looked after the guests while every one else got down on the floor and shimmied. Jessica just happened to be the one behind the bar at two in the morning on 6th May. "The girl must have said something to him," Manu's friends insisted weeks after the event. There was some banter about his having wanted "a sip of" Jessica herself, perhaps he misunderstood. "He wasn't the sort to just kill someone." Of course, they added, when he was drunk he was a lout.
And he was very drunk indeed when he staggered into the Tamarind Court with his two friends. People remember him reeling in, perhaps they heard the altercation over the loud music. But they only really paid attention when he whipped out a revolver and fired the first shot at the ceiling. The second went through Jessica's head.
No one moved a muscle to stop him, they were too busy disbelieving what was happening--though Bina Ramani later claimed that she had confronted him. The people outside were less drunk and more observant. They heard the shots. The licence plate and the make of the car were recorded. Soon the cops were all over the Tamarind Court, looking for someone to blame. It had to be someone else's fault. The politician's son had fallen into bad company. Look at all those shameless girls in mini skirts! The place had no licence, evidence had been tampered with. The list went on and on.
Jessica Lall's sister was interviewed the following night on Star TV News. So was the Delhi chief of police, who announced grimly that his men were on the job. Bina Ramani was arrested even before they arrested Manu Sharma who, in officialese, was "absconding." The police had many reasons for arresting her: the heritage property scam, unlicensed sale of alcohol, the fact that she had a British passport. More noise was made in the press about the party than was made about the fact that a politician's son had committed murder and fled the state. Of course, Bina was out on bail five minutes later and began issuing statements through her friends about her grief at Jessica's death.
Rumors about Bina Ramani began circulating all over again through the upper echelons of Delhi society: She had arranged a marriage for the Hindi film star Rekha that ended with the husband hanging himself after barely a year. She had been friends with a Mafia don. She was divorced and was flaunting her current marriage to a Canadian citizen, Georges Mailhot. She had given up her Indian nationality but insisted that she had not. Basically, she was besharam, shameless.
The police shut the Tamarind Court and took away Bina's marriage licence. They said this was so that she could not use the licence anywhere outside the country. Manu Sharma gave himself up a week later, having realised that there was nowhere to run, though he insisted confidently that he had done nothing wrong. He and his friends are currently in custody. In the meantime, the Delhi party scene has been slightly dampened. No one knows if some drunk will walk in and pop open a skull instead of a bottle of champagne.
Someone in Lucknow did in fact shoot a shop attendant just a month later, but that was in a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlour. The killer was drunk, and the attendant didn't have cassatta, the gunman's favourite flavour. So, possibly under the influence of those Delhi headlines, the killer whipped out his gun and shot the ice cream attendant through the head. Like the killer in the Tamarind Court, he was recognised by other people present at the scene and, like the first killer, he had the right connections--the son of a chief of police who had committed suicide as a result, people said, of his son's vagaries. The national press tossed it around in two columns but, possibly because there were no sequins or other traces of glamour, quickly lost interest.
Jessica's murder still creeps back into print here and there. The gunman's friend, Vikas Yadav, who accompanied him to the Tamarind Court is complaining about having been tortured while in police custody. Meanwhile, no one has quite decided what to do about the murderer himself. He did, after all, give himself up and he is still the son of a Member of Parliament. And anyway, those Ramanis are a shameless lot. But, given the brevity of people's memories, it won't be long before the Armani suits are out again at midnight and the corks popping once more in Qutb Colony.
(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)