Bugsy Malone meets PG Wodehouse

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Bugsy Malone meets PG Wodehouse

Sunday, 24 February 2019 | Gautam Mukherjee

Bugsy Malone meets PG Wodehouse

Killing Time in Delhi

Author : Ravi Shankar Etteth 

Publisher : Westland, Rs 599

Killing Time in Delhi is a frothy and truly enjoyable tale that has no ambition to seem profound and is yet enough to establish what a prolific writer Ravi Shankar Etteth is, writes Gautam Mukherjee

This short novella is a racy and enjoyable read. The language has spark and wit emanating from every page. Steroid infused phrases such as “When I staggered in, the show had already started and the sight of coltish, long-legged, anorexic teenagers convinced me there was a white Biafra nobody had told me about,” describing a fashion show, abound. Another short jab describes a corrupt, and it turns out later in the book, a murderous senior policeman: “He swiveled on his hip, slowly scanning the people like a cut-price Superman”.

Killing Time is a frothy tale without any ambition to profundity that starts off like an English counties Wodehouse bumble despite an accidental drug overdose that provides the first ever-shifting body, and the whiff of blackmail. It then settles down into a facsimile of hard-boiled 1940s style Private Detective whodunnit for the digital age. This particularly in the profusion of laconic Bogartish imagery, and quite an education in the good life brand names. To wit: “Sheena’s  body was large, rich and generous, firm and soft in the right places” and, “Look Ratty’s got a new Hublot. And it’s real rose gold, worth lakhs and lakhs”.

“It’s a Tourbillion Power Reserve, dude, Ratty said, and spread out the fingers of his hand to indicate it provided five days of power reserve”.

The murder and blackmail, too, is kept light and conversational, more a  musical Bugsy Malone, complete with sexy siren and child actors with adult tropes, rather than that full-blown Mafioso with dreams  and a heart, Bugsy Seigel. The plot line is deliberately improbable, almost a lampooning of several echoing genres in the page-turner section, but the exuberance of the writing is a delight. 

The author has a sneering, off-hand affection for the gaudy rich and likes describing them in a party setting. “I gestured to the nearest golf cart. Delhi’s money bags hire golf carts manned by men in white uniforms to bring guests to the house and drop them off at the gate during parties. This practice, introduced by a classy Pakistani woman in a half hat and birdcage veil and married to a meat exporter with shady political connections, was immediately adopted by garment exporters, real estate developers and such like, who form the upper crust of what passes for high society in this town”.

Here is an excerpt on the self-same cocaine snorting beau monde: “The pusher was a fixture at the trendiest parties, always wearing a cheerful grin and pink jeans. He was in his twenties ,  with the skin of a baby and the smile of an old man bored of hoarding secrets. And bored he was too, of the inside view he had of Delhi’s rich-ridiculous and indiscriminately libidinous. Most of the pretty boys thought he was gay and tried to score some of the white powder by promising services of a low sort. Some pretty girls who got the shakes in the morning pleaded with him to pimp them to old men in exchange for cocaine. He never did being a hard man with a soft heart”. Ravi Shankar Etteth, a senior journalist and political cartoonist for his day job, is also a prolific writer of novels, churning out the last couple, quite different from each other in content and style, published just months apart.

Is this one in his authentic voice, influences included? I certainly hope so, because if his aim is to entertain the reader, this book succeeds. Etteth’s earlier books tended to dwell on the very profundity and philosophical underpinnings this one has scrupulously avoided. And to good effect.

There is a godman of sorts in the book, one Shamsher, who greets the protagonist every single time by saying “By Shiva the smoky dude”. And Shamsher seems to bring out the James Hadley Chase in Etteth: “The fight suddenly whooshed out of me. Whatever quan the swami had with Nik, in Mandy’s and Shamsher’s bowling alley I seemed to be the main pin”. The names of characters in the book, happy to be cardboard cutouts, are a Wodehousian hoot — Coke Rao, Buffet Bhatt, Bonnie Jogi, a former air hostess, and Cadillac Pimp — “because he drove the car and also because he was a pussy farmer”.

There is quite lot of parody: “Rudra Pratap was from Bastar or some such place that is all forest and full of guys with bows  and poison arrows, who will shoot any stranger wandering in their domain. There are also leeches, snakes and leeches. I knew this because an outdoorsy girl, an acquaintance of mine, had once told me”. A murder is plain comedy: “Nik whipped out a short knife from his overcoat pocket and buried it deep in Bhatt’s neck. Rao screamed and threw the packets in the air and rushed out. Meanwhile, Bhatt collapsed slowly with a gravitas the Titanic would have been proud of”. And those packets are, of course, cocaine. Nik is a murdering cop, and Bhatt was an etiquette teacher and freeloading glutton earning Buffet for a first name.

Almost the entire book is a first person narrative in the voice of the protagonist Chaitanya Seth, who goes by Charlie because: “ It is supposed to be trendy in Delhi  to have foreign-sounding names”. The hyper-tone in the book,  funny as it is, can start grating on your nerves like the canned laughter after every gag in an American sitcom. Etteth knows it can be too much of a good thing. So, he wisely winds up the tale in just 197 pages of this good looking hardback.