Book review:Killing Time in Delhi, Ravi Shankar Etteth

Book review:Killing Time in Delhi, Ravi Shankar Etteth

A capital send-up. Tongue firmly lodged in side of cheek, the author spins a tale about the denizens of Delhi  

There are two ways to read this book. One is to treat it as a lark and breeze through it, emitting a chuckle here, stifling a grin there. The other is to read it as a close-to-the-bone deriding of the vainglorious, shallow, greedy, grasping, aspirational,

In this, Ravi Shankar Etteth’s seventh book, he has turned the spotlight mercilessly on the haut monde, the seriously wealthy and even more seriously powerful, the wheelers and dealers, the circles that trade in dope, liquor and other assorted pleasures of the flesh, all within the radius of zip code 110, stretching across to Gurugram’s 122. However, the satire has such wider roots, it applies in differential degrees to virtually all the one-percenters across India.

There are two ways to read this book. One is to treat it as a lark and breeze through it, emitting a chuckle here, stifling a grin there. The other is to read it as a close-to-the-bone deriding of the vainglorious, shallow, greedy, grasping, aspirational, ruthless A-listers of the country, the ones who control all the money and all the power, and confine it to their self-anointed, rarified circle.

KTID’s hero is a world-weary rake who goes by the name of Charlie Seth. One not-so-fine morning in New Delhi, his archetypal dumb blonde of a girlfriend keels over and cops it from a drug OD. Momentarily alarmed and undecided about what to do with this inconvenient dead body (he has it stashed in the freezer temporarily, you understand). Charlie emerges from his preternatural languid lassitude (the kind that comes from always knowing the score), and before he knows it, he’s on a roller-coaster ride, puzzled at times, the clear glimmer of motivations and action coming through at other times. His lassitude becomes a thing of the recent past and yes, he’s rather entertained by all that is happening to him.

It’s as if Charlie is in a play not quite to his liking or comprehension. A motley crew of characters old and new enter the act, placing him firmly in the centre, even as they flit about pulling at the plot. There’s a mysterious but comely young socialite, a social climber of a policeman, a formerly loyal valet Chow who forcibly puts Inspector Clouseau’s one-time assistant Cato in mind… and what happens to Chow is one funny tale.

Charlie is forced to go on the run and when his so-called friends and acolytes transfer their allegiance elsewhere, and his town house as well as farmhouse gets usurped easy as silk, it would seem that the clouds amassing overhead are dark and threatening, and bode ill for our Charlie. But a missing aunt (who remains missing all through, so no spoilers here), a loyal female assistant who seems to come into her own when Charlie’s chips are down, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of 18-year-old Scotch whiskey, filthy lucre, a gorgeous Lamborghini, a sprawling family pile called Silver Cloud, and a languid life reboot, all set things right.

Etteth keeps Charlie in mocking mode, not allowing him to come across as too jaded. However, none of the characters are savoury or too prepossessing. Their warts all appear to balloon into caricatures, but they are recognisable caricatures; the reader knows or has heard of, or has read about this lot before, on Page Three, in the pink pages, in gossip mags. The tone the book adopts as its de facto mode is biting, but the scathing humour stays at centre-point all through.

The language mocks itself and the speaker all the time, the pace is not too slow, not too hurried, and the references are expectedly au courant and razor- sharp. Sentiment, mawkish or sweet, is conspicuous by its absence, and that to this reader was the most entertaining omission. So, does KTID have a moral? No, this is not that kind of a book. Rather like the denouement of the cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the wrong lot get what they seek, the right lot have their world turned upside-down, and the lemmings in-between blindly follow their leader du jour. No justice is served, and while the reader finds out whodunit, whydunnit and what happens next where the murder of Charlie’s foolish girlfriend is concerned, the grimly funny wheel of life in Lutyen’s Delhi continues to turn, albeit with a whole new cast of characters.

But then the best satires do just that, don’t they… show and tell it like it is, without any real or fake justice being meted out. Quite an entertaining read, KTID, as long as the reader doesn’t mistake the story for one of crime and punishment.