THURSDAY nights at the Tamarind Court Cafe were "cool". Balloons bounced among the chairs, a makeshift bar and romantic canopies set the rest of the atmosphere. Delhi’s perpetually jaded, perpetually hungover social set had made it a point to drop in ever since bar nights started four weeks ago. And April 29 was no exception. Four of co-proprietor and socialite Malini Ramani’s friends "helped" out at the bar as usual, Jessica Lall among them.
It was 2 am on April 30 when Manu Sharma demanded another round of drinks. The request was refused, but Sharma was insistent. Malini said flippantly, "You can have a sip of my drink if you pay me a thousand rupees." Sharma’s risque response: "I’ll pay a thousand bucks to sleep with you."
As Malini left in a huff, Sharma drew the semi-automatic that was his constant companion and shot Jessica fatally in the head. He and his three friends walked out; nobody stopped them. Delhi society was in shock the next day over the death of the well-liked girl-about-town. To be killed over something as petty as a drink not served—who could have seen it coming?
Anyone who wasn’t blind or an outsider. The capital’s sophisticated veneer masks a powder keg combination of arrogance, anger, violence—and the apathy and cowardice that helps them function. Social functions in the city have always been accidents waiting to happen. That April night, it was a bystander whose luck ran out.
1997: During a high-profile party held at a farmhouse, the bride’s brother smashes a bottle of vodka over a friend’s head. The provocation? A wrangle over a woman, and too much in the way of alcohol and uppers in the bloodstream.
Partying is a high-risk activity in Delhi, with midnight brawls the norm, unlike other metros. Mumbai has a huge underworld presence, a widespread drug culture. But socialising is safe—the night is unlikely to end with a friend in hospital, or in the morgue. Says Aseem Kapoor, director, food & beverages at the Hyatt Regency in Delhi: "In Mumbai, people don’t show off. Here there is a lot more money power, more demonstrations of one’s might."
Concurs Rajeev Kapool of the 32nd Milestone, which houses the once-popular discotheque Fireball: "People don’t want to hear no for an answer. They can get whatever they want, they’re buoyed by a feeling of power. I see it as the failure of the system." Or perhaps as North Indian machismo at its worst. In close proximity to states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana, where guns are brandished at the least provocation, Delhi can hardly remain immune. Bangalore, Mumbai and Calcutta all have gentler, more urbane cultures, thanks to the accident of geography. Says designer Rina Dhaka, who was at Tamarind Court on the night Jessica was shot, "The male in North India is far too aggressive."
Guns and knives have long since been a favourite accessory in the capital. Fireball saw a shoot-out sometime back; the Hyatt’s swanky nightclub Djinns witnessed a stabbing incident on the dance floor recently. Says a dealer in antique guns, "The point is not that guns are being sold but that they are falling into the wrong hands."
There are 54,000 licensed guns in Delhi, twice that number of unlicensed weapons. Says sociologist Ashis Nandy, "The gun culture in Delhi is not confined to criminals. It’s more widespread. The security fads of our politicians have been a contributing factor." It’s a good point. What was the threat to Manu Sharma that required him to be armed and protected? Why do parents allow their children to be armed? In nearby Chandigarh, status is defined by the number of guards and guns, as it is in Delhi. Not so long ago, a scion of a prominent industrialist family rocked the sedate Delhi Gymkhana Club when he ordered his AK-47-toting guard—a throwback from the Punjab militancy days—to brandish the weapon in the face of his closest friend.
At Djinns, ipan’s Arjun Sawhney accidentally knocks over a glass of water at the bar. It spills on a group of people. "Why the f*** can’t you be careful? Be grateful we haven’t asked you to buy us drinks." Sawhney’s relieved that at least the innocuous mistake didn’t end in a fight.
As it did on another night at the same place, when someone dropped a beer bottle on the dance floor. Within minutes, all hell had broken loose. Says Sawhney, who’s tripped the light fantastic in both Mumbai and Delhi, "Delhiites are not urbane. Their whole life is a sham, which is why they are constantly on the edge. The entire focus here is on the physical, not on the cerebral."
Add money to power, swirl in rapidly-changing social values and you have a virtual Molotov cocktail of risk. Says bureaucrat and author Pavan Varma, "In Delhi, if you don’t have money and influence then you are a true orphan." It shows up most clearly in the Don’t-You-Know-Who-I-Am syndrome: to be flashed when skipping a red light, boarding a flight, hustling one’s way into the newest nightclub.
There are warning signs, but few take note of them. Just a few years ago, Manu Sharma drove into an area of the Santushti shopping complex where cars are not allowed. He fired shots into the air when people objected to his behaviour, telling them: "Don’t you know I am related to the President of India?" With the help of his security guards and a nebulous ‘connection’, Sharma got away scot-free. Perhaps if he’d been hauled up then, he might have realised that such behaviour just wouldn’t wash. And Jessica Lall might not have died.
October 1998: Photo-journalist Dilip Mehta is woken up by the chowkidar. His brand-new Tata Safari has been set on fire by his neighbour, a cocky youngster on his way back from a party. The boy’s father watches passively as his son, pretending outrage, wrestles Mehta to the ground and thrashes the hapless chowkidar.
Looking back, Mehta makes a bitter appraisal, "The real corruption lies with the parents. In this connection-ridden city, it’s always ‘we’ll-get-him-off-the-hook’. Calcutta and Mumbai have a different ethos."
It’s there behind more headlines than most recognise: the parents who’ve turned a blind eye to their progeny’s activities, the family that bails a miscreant out of a tight spot. Says psychiatrist Dr Achal Bhagat, "Kids have grown up seeing their parents bend rules, then how do you transmit morals?" Family therapist Reenee Singh agrees: "If parents didn’t shield them, such things would not happen. In Delhi, money and status helps you buy your way out of situations." In the infamous bmw case, it was Siddhartha Gupta’s father who helped his son and Sanjeev Nanda clean the incriminating evidence off the killer car. The parents of Alok Khanna, one of Sharma’s accomplices, blame anything and anyone except their son for the predicament he finds himself in. Says Nandy, "It’s often the children of the super rich who end up in such situations. They think that moral norms are the last refuge of fools."
Pavan Varma sees the ills that plague Delhi as symptomatic of the sickness that afflicts the nation. He says, "There is a cultural void in India... and a class which is culturally adrift and dangerously confused."
One cold-blooded murder down the line, the chatterati seems to have foregone introspection in favour of personal survival. Socialite mother-and-daughter duo Bina and Malini Ramani have been more worried about possible excise cases than helping the police. Few were willing to go on record because the Ramanis are "socially powerful", numbering such people as godman Chandraswami, conman Romesh Sharma, and actor Richard Gere among their friends. Few want to risk being ostracised. The attitude carries over to the most unlikely places. Tony Gill and Alok Khanna, two of Sharma’s friends who were present that night, work at Coca-Cola. But the transnational initially refused to admit that they were employees, threatening libel suits against anyone who made that claim.
Amnesia’s an occupational disease in this scandal-infested city, and it sets in all too soon. Romesh Sharma’s excesses gave way to Sanjeev Nanda’s wild driving, and then to Manu Sharma. Drawing room conversation may revolve around the limits of parental responsibility, the pressure on the young to keep up with the pack for a while longer. But then, someone will cite a ministerial uncle when he’s caught speeding; or allow the Delhi summer to spill over into yet another nightclub brawl. Or pick up a gun, and start shooting.