Buffet Bhatt had faced dislike and derision all his life and there was no reason for this to change after his death. You had to give it to him for taking it with the panache with which a debauched medieval knight hoisted rivals at a tourney. His defence was to return the contempt manifold – he was a freeloader, whose self-importance was his armour as much as Coke Rao seemed to be his bodyguard.
Coke Rao 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 the lives 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.
Hell, he wasn’t even a real man. Only a few who were close to him, the few who did not buy from him, knew he was a girl from upscale Jor Bagh who had had a sex change operation. I had a passing affection for him and called him home once or twice a year for a drink. I never bought coke from him – I don’t like drugs or losing control – but he gave me the goods on the low, down and rich of the city; I love scuttlebutt like a Bengali loves hilsa. Gossip is my cocaine.
And like every other glitteropolis, Delhi has a dark sub-world where fashionable people make money in unfashionable ways.
Rao started pushing drugs to finance his surgery after his widowed mother caught him stealing out of the house one night wearing a false moustache and a sports bra. He lost the moustache but kept the bra.
“I still have a bit of the tits god gave me, bro, they grew back a little. God thought I was too good a creation to waste,” he had told me once.
“You’re epic, dude,” I told him. “But your buddy has bigger tits.”
‘Amen,’ Coke Rao said solemnly.
As I stood by the door of the Portaloo, I figured god hadn’t loved Buffet Bhatt’s tits enough to save him. God hadn’t even given him a dignified kick-off.
Ratty came back, pushing his way through the gathered voyeurs and peered inside once more. He then rushed away. The ecstasy seemed to have worn off him. Or maybe it was just a joint. I saw him throwing up into a hedge pruned in the shape of an ostrich. Delhi is big on animal hedges – I even once saw an emu hedge.
There was a sudden commotion. The crowd parted to let a short man in an overcoat and pomade-slick hair striding in as if he was shopping at Harrods. He had dead eyes and a mouth like a scar. Ratty smiled in relief and clapped him heartily on the shoulder.
“There’s gonna be a shitstorm, bro,” someone announced.
“Brah,” corrected a middle-aged man next to him, who had an MBA from Harvard and now owned chicken farms, which supplied eggs au naturel to the embassies.
“It’s not bro, it’s pronounced brah,” the Harvard chicken man elaborated.
The short man with the Harrods attitude knelt by the entrance to the toilet, cupped his weak chin in his palm and considered Bhatt’s corpse as if it was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. He then cleared his throat and stood up. Everyone gazed at him with the expectancy of participants in a TV game show who had answered a particularly simple question. He swivelled on his hip and slowly scanned the people around like a cut-price Superman. Many shrank back in fear. His eyes fell on me.
“Hi, cop,” I said.
“Hi, Ssarlie,” he said. “How’zz Rita?”
His taste in clothes was Austin Powers, but accent was unvarnished cowbelt Haryana. I was annoyed that Rita had blabbed to everyone that we had a thing going. It passed when I remembered she was recently deceased.
“Not Charlie, cop. To you, it’s Mr Seth,” I said. I could tell him off because I had money. Money enables you to say most things to most people. The policeman, however, looked unperturbed.
“Charlie found him,” Ratty interrupted nervously as if he was a suspect.
“How?” Inspector Harrods asked.
“Dead,” I replied brusquely.
“When did you know woh oopar chala gaya?” the cop asked disbelievingly, as if I was high on pot.
“I saw two girls running away from here, looking terrified and I came to check out what had happened.”
The suspicious look on the policeman’s face deepened. “Oh? And where are these gurrrls? Call them here.”
I described the girls to Ratty as best as I could but he drew a blank. Parties as big as the Jogis’ have more gatecrashes than a centipede has legs. Uninvited girls who are good-looking or white never get thrown out. I knew their type. I could guess where those two girls would be now – in their car, a Maruti Alto or a Hyundai Santro, burning up the gas heading for home, probably in one of Delhi’s outback colonies where women wear salwar kameezes and polyester saris, and the men run grocery shops; people with a stern, unforgiving pride of their own kind. Their daughters crash parties in miniskirts and platform shoes ordered online from Myntra or Flipkart, having changed their salwars in their cars to reappear as Kareena Kapoor knock-offs.
“So no gurrls, eh?” the cop asked.
The triumph in his voice seemed misplaced. He sounded chuffed about interrogating me.
I shrugged and met his eyes, which shone predatorily from behind his Sener Besim spectacles. Delhi is so sold on brands that the city looks like a giant boutique.
The cop, Nik Sharma, short for Nikhil Sharma, hated me.
I never invited him to my parties, but the worthy residents of the newly wealthy Delhi love to invite policemen to their homes. It gives them a sense of power to tear up traffic tickets after jumping a red light in their Audi Q7s. Few of them know any real cops. They entertain mainly lower rung policemen, treating them like Sherlock Holmes, but played by Mr Bean instead of Cumberbatch.
Nik reached out and took Buffet Bhatt’s wrist. “Still warm, must have died recently, after the party started,” he announced.
No shit, Sherlock.
“When did you come in, Ssarlie?’” he demanded.
I couldn’t remember the exact or approximate time.
“Okay, chalo station,” Nik said.
I sighed, pulled out my cell phone and called the commissioner of police, who had gone to school with Uncle. He yelled at Nik, who shrank into his overcoat looking even shorter and plumper. Oh, how Delhi is all about who you know.
“Have you thought of calling a doctor?” I asked and walked away, leaving the creep to nurse his wounded ego.
Excerpted with permission from Killing Time In Delhi, Ravi Shankar Etteth, Westland.