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The Rediff Special/ Suhasini Haider

'The hostess with the mostest'

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Bina Ramani When former model Jessica Lal was shot at point-blank range at a bar in New Delhi by the son of a former Union minister last Thursday, one would have thought there were enough details in the story just there to send Delhi's media into a frenzy.

Surprisingly, though, the media's attention has been diverted almost equally to the owner of the bar itself, Bina Ramani, 'the hostess with the mostest in town'. She has been the subject of almost as many column inches as the murder itself, with allegations that she ran the bar illegally, and even tried to destroy evidence at the scene of the crime.

In terms of sheer profile, few Indian socialites have had the spotlight on them quite as much as Ramani. Besides travelling and living all over the world, she has opened boutiques, partied on plush yachts, hung out with the international jet-set, and lived the good life at all the chic parts of the globe.

"Before Bina, there was no figure in Indian society circles, with perhaps the exception of Maharani Gayatri Devi, who was even known internationally," says a close friend and admirer of Ramani's. "So far the Indian chatteratti has been dominated by pudgy actresses, and the behenji wives of the top industrialists."

To be fair to her, Ramani has had no short cuts on her way to celebrity status. While she was born Bina Lalvani, in the family that created the Binatone television (in fact she is the Bina of Binatone), she had little access to their fortune. While explanations differ on whether Bina was cut off when she divorced her first husband, Andy Ramani, or merely that the Lalvanis' businesses have dipped, insiders insist that Bina has never been fabulously wealthy.

In fact, after her divorce from Ramani -- an Air-India employee based in New York -- came through, she returned to India and set up a business in order to survive. She took to exporting garments from India to the US, which gained her many contacts along the way.

One thing everyone agrees on is that Bina is extremely charming, a wonderful raconteur, and has the gift of making friends easily. Speak to most of her acquaintances in Delhi, and the most repeated phrase about her is that she is "loads of fun". So much so that she even charmed Indira Gandhi into giving her an exclusive interview during a visit she made to discuss selling some precious stones to the then prime minister!

Not all her friendships have been great successes for Ramani. In 1984, she met Chandra Swami through her good friend, now Law Minister Ram Jethmalani. As his disciple, Ramani joined the international set that formed Chandra Swami's flock, Adnan Khashoggi and the Sultan of Brunei included.

Ramani is credited with introducing them to Pamella Bordes whose presence at one of Khashoggi's parties caused a furore in Delhi. When Chandra Swami got mired in a number of cases in India, Ramani upped and left his fold. She now denies more than a fleeting acquaintance with him.

In the same years, she also helped arrange the ill-fated marriage between actress Rekha and Mukesh Aggarwal, who manufactured cooking ranges. The marriage ended and Aggarwal, tragically committed suicide. Ramani, who had claimed credit for the match, skipped away, heaping the blame on Rekha in interviews given then.

Another unfortunate connection was to alleged conman Romesh Sharma, who referred to Ramani as his 'sister'. She had met him, according to her, when she was looking for a venue for her marriage to Canadian Georges Mailhot, and he had been most obliging. Not only did he give her the use of his now infamous 'Jai Mata Di' farms and all its guesthouses, he also laid out his long line of cars and drivers at the disposal of her guests.

While critics wondered aloud why he would do all this for someone he didn't know, friends said it was just another example of how charming Ramani could be. For all that, her discomfiture last year, when Sharma was arrested for his alleged link to Dawood Ibrahim, was obvious even as she sought to disassociate herself from him as well.

Weaving through all these acquaintances and friendships, Ramani was far from the stereotypical 'idle rich'. Far from that, she has had to work harder than most. She ventured into the world of Indian fashion with some success.

She set up her boutique Once Upon a Time (not to be confused with the restaurant where Jessica Lal was killed, as she has now renamed the boutique as Ramani's). She is also credited with discovering and setting up the Hauz Khas village, which is now one of Delhi's fashion hotspots, housing scores of designers and popular eateries.

Even though each of these ventures have been surrounded by controversy, Ramani succeeded primarily because she was able to cater to the entertainment-starved elite of Delhi. Her nightclub No Exit in the village, for example, drew huge crowds of teenagers to it until it had to be shut down for lack of the requisite permits. She then set up the Tamarind Court Cafe, a restaurant that metamorphosed into the ill-fated Once Upon A Time bar, scene of last Thursday's killing.

Even though both restaurants had not got liquor licences, Ramani and her daughter Malini served alcohol there with reported impunity. While Ramani protests the licences were on their way, and that she had spent a year trying for them, the actual fact was that she was reassured by the presence at her bar of top bureaucrats, police officers, influential businessmen and industrialists.

'Journalists just hate anyone like me who is prominent'

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