A Deadly Cocktail in Delhi

Book Review: Killing Time in Delhi ♦
By Ravi Shankar Etteth

A certain 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.

“I see everything and everyone like cardboard cut-outs. My perception is not 3D. I prefer to keep it that way.”

“In Delhi,” Charlie observes, “the party never ends, parties where minor royalty, mid-level cops, bottom-feeder society hacks, tax evaders, unimpressive impresarios and coke dealers are sought-after guests, not necessarily in that order.” Killing Time never lets up either—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 time period, though they share the element of a quest or a mystery.

Apart from a few blips (“Wellington Crescent” instead of Willingdon Crescent; “zoomba” for zumba), Killing Time in Delhi is probably Etteth’s most polished book, as well the one that most fully inhabits his adopted home city. There are some inconsistencies in the first-person narrative, however, 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 (in The Gin Drinkers by Sagarika Ghose or The Great Indian Love Story by Ira Trivedi come to mind), the best he thinks he can be is who he is abroad, “in another time and place when I was someone else”.

Originally published in Mint Lounge.

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