July 25, 2020
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Slippery Barbie Tattoo

Neon-lit, pulpy prose tracks the scapegrace Charlie in his myriad mishaps across Delhi

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Slippery Barbie Tattoo
Killing Time In Delhi
By Ravi Shankar Etteth
Westland | Pages: 206 | Rs: 599

The title is a pun in a book filled with neon prose and pulp fiction. Charlie, who prefers to be called Seth, has his girlfriend distastefully OD on him just before a party.  Charlie being Charlie, he abandons the body to his Chinese manservant as he flits off to his evening at the Jogis.

Charlie dodges kisses and dubious wheeling dealing only to stumble upon another corpse in the Portaloo. Unfortunately, he has no alibi since his hosts cannot tell when he arrived at the party and the girls he glimpsed on his way have vanished. The pol­iceman Nik has an axe to grind, bec­ause Charlie has never invited him to a party and is determined to arrest him for something or the other, des­pite Charlie’s line to the commissioner of police. A mysterious femme fatale who smells of Shalimar app­ears and winds her tendrils around Charlie’s heart.

Etteth cocks a snook at the high life in Delhi where Moet et Chandon is inferior champagne and only drunk by social climbers in a world where forgettable women chase after Lam­borghinis. He specialises in metaphors—traffic as thick as the head of a Gurgaon bouncer for example—and they pepper the pages striving for effect while upping the hilarity. Shiva is referred to as ‘the smoky dude’ by a swami who materialises with equal strangeness in Charlie’s life. The glamour quotient is high, with short Chanel miniskirts and legs that stretch all the way to heaven. It goes side by side with the violence quotient—a shikari grandfather who has his throat torn out by a leopard in a wild act of revenge in a dream estate called Silver Cloud. Sort of like James Hadley Chase meets Judith Krantz.

Perhaps there are too many femme fatales—Asha the loved and lost wife with the dimpled chin, who was more attractive than Princess Di, the only one who really held Charlie’s heart until…. Then, Sheena, the efficient and beautiful secretary who reigns over Charlie’s office and organises his fashion show. And finally, supremely Mandira, strangely familiar, strangely haunting, who takes complete charge of Charlie’s life. Would we miss Asha if she weren’t there, apart from the poetry of her dimpled chin and Charlie’s Barbie tattoo?

As the story proceeds, it gets more nuanced and tangled until Charlie is knotted so tightly that he doesn’t know how to breathe. There are touches of dark comedy and surreal moments when the manservant Chow reimagines himself as an Antonio Banderas figure.

Etteth sketches characters in a few strokes—possibly it goes with having been a graphic novelist. Rudra Pra­tap Deo, the princely fugitive from Bastar with a posh accent and ‘hair as white as cocaine’, who does not smell of eau de fear. Buffet Bhat, the grossly overweight freeloader whose fallen body rests on its blimp of a belly. Etteth’s language conjures up a cloying world that is yellowing at the edges, like a spider lily as it rots. Is it overload, is it overdrive, or is it a way of killing time? Whatever it is, it has its own dark poetry. 

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