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The Rediff Special/ Mahesh Nair

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

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The sad, ironic aspect of being human is that we live vicariously and die personally. We think others lead a much more interesting life. We spend a great deal of time passing judgement on other's people lives, admiring or criticizing them. If somebody is rich or beautiful or famous or successful or powerful, we gleefully devour any nuggets of their personal life. Subconsciously we are always comparing notes. Has he become Rich through dishonest means? She may be Beautiful but is she happier than me? He is Famous but does he get private moments like me? Will I sacrifice what she did for being so Successful? She may have Power but is her life more peaceful?

Journalists like me are paid to live vicariously. Can I tell you what Jessica Lall was thinking when Manu Sharma pulled out the .22 bore pistol and shot her point blank?

Can I explain how Bina Ramani (a British passport holder) married to George Mailhot (a Canadian passport holder) and mother of Malini (a US passport holder) has become one of the most successful businesswoman in New Delhi and a veritable diva of the cocktail circuit?

Is it possible for me to explain why Amod Kant, who is the most high profile cop in India (cases investigated include that of Harshad Mehta, V Krishnamurthy, Chandra Swami, Romesh Sharma), runs Prayas, a welfare centre for under privileged children?

If you find me asking more questions than giving answers, don't blame me. That's life. This article is about how we, the vicarious residents of the New Information Age Colony, party in our minds. How we lech at other peoples lives, how we feed on the carcass of successful people's tragedies, how we wear our social moral pretensions like a low-cut evening gown with nipples thrust tightly.

It is about our collective memories swinging from one incident to another, refreshing our thirst by sipping in the gory details and forgetting instantly without the slightest trace of a hangover. Call it Mind Games. Or The Top Ten Favourites of Medulla Oblongata.. We aspire therefore we are.

Let me begin with what's still hanging in fresh within the folds of our memory. Jessica Lall was a 34-year old former model, television anchor and event management executive who liked to be a bartender on Thursday nights at Tamarind Court. Why would somebody like that want to be a bartender? People say Jessica was bubbly, fun-loving person who could put people at ease within minutes. She liked parties even if she had to work there. Especially if it was a party where the rich and famous of New Delhi land up. Remember this feeling is different from working part-time at the neighbourhood McDonald's.

On the early morning of April 30 Jessica was shot dead by Manu Sharma because she refused to serve him a drink. Why did Jessica refuse to serve him a drink? There are many versions. One has it that she found Manu Sharma already drunk and unpleasant. Another that it was closing time. And yet another that she knew Sharma and had agreed to go on a joyride with him. But since Manu did not turn up in time she fixed up an appointment with another friend which enraged the drunk Manu when he walked in later. Manu tried to pull her out for a joyride. Jessica slapped him. Manu drew out a .22 pistol and shot her in the head. The bubbly, fun-loving person who could put people at ease within minutes was dead.

The police have some questions. Why was the restaurant serving liquor when it had no permit? Why was it serving liquor in the wee hours of the morning which even permitted bars are not allowed to do?

I have some answers. Nobody asked these questions before the shootout. Those who did were convinced by restaurateur Bina Ramani that it was a very stupid thing to do. If you see a Joint Commissioner of Police like Y S Dadwal at a party enjoying himself late in the night, what would you be thinking about before gulping your Bacardi? Not Section 112 of the Delhi Police Act which prohibits sale of liquor without license.

I met Bina Ramani almost a year ago when she had come to see a friend of mine who suffers from AIDS. She was helping us raise some money for a treatment centre. "You know AIDS is a terrible thing," she said in her gruff husky voice, "I feel so much for AIDS patients. I used to spend hours visiting a hospice in New York which treated them. Some of my best friends have died of AIDS. I was speaking with Richard (Gere) in the morning and he said he also wants to help. Maybe we could have a small function for the cheque giving ceremony and you could call some photographers and press people."

In Delhi it doesn't matter who you are but who you know. This is why Bina Ramani matters so much to Delhiites. She knows kings, prime ministers, tycoons, models, artists, politicians, policemen, excise and telephone company officials by their first names. Do you?

To look at ignored archaeological ruins in your city as a piece of valuable real estate and turning it into an ethnic-modern shopping complex calls for immense enterprise and connections. Bina Ramani does it with ease. She did it with friend Suresh Kalmadi carving out an entire Hauz Khas Village, a shopping area for the rich, from nowhere. She did it again in Mehrauli , near the Qutab Minar. All this with a British passport.

So what happens when Bina Ramani makes a mistake or errs by the law? She doesn't do it alone. The guest list on that fateful night at Tamarind Court reads like a who's who the city's celebrities. Many of them were doling out Rs 100 for a coupon to be exchanged for a drink. If serving liquor without a licence is a crime, is paying for a drink in the same place also a crime? If a fashion mall set up in a protected archaeological area is illegal, then is leasing a shop within it legal? There is no such thing as collective guilt.

Two days after Jessica was shot dead, a rich businessman living in New Delhi's posh Maharani Bagh colony with Bollywood connections decided to throw a private "traffic light" party. The guest list was impressive. Many people who were at Tamarind Court landed up here to dance away the blues. The host had called pop singer Whosane as deejay. The dress code was impressive too. You had to wear red if "available"; yellow if "undecided"; and green "if taken and uninterested". Manisha Koirala wore white.

Why do the rich and the famous party? Just like we do: to have fun. What sort of fun do these people have? Well, noveau fashion designer Jatin Kochar once went to a party in Malcha Marg, the hub of diplomats in New Delhi, which allowed guests to wear only one piece of clothing. He wore an underwear, but the hostesses kept gleefully darting their manicured fingers inside his undies to check out whether he had only piece on him. I haven't had that kind of fun ever in my life.

What about Manu Sharma? What kind of a man do you think shoots a woman if she spurns his request? Sharma is the scion of a powerful political family from Chandigarh. His father was a former Union minister. In the past five years there have been at least seven "shootouts" in Chandigarh which featured scions like Sharma. What would these scions have to say to Sharma if word spread that he had returned home after being slapped by a woman bartender in front of Delhi's elite?

Now Sharma has confessed his crime. His lawyers are saying he was not in control of his actions when he shot Jessica. That he was drunk. Do drunk people shoot? Whose fault was it that he was drunk? Was it his fault, his friends, or the stewards at Tamarind Court who had been serving him for over an hour?

In South Delhi a stone's throw away from Vasant Vihar, there is a cluster of jhuggis or hutments. According to the record books it is an illegal occupation of the land but there is little that can be done about it. The people who live in it are poor; most of them serve as domestic help to the rich who live across the road. If they are thrown out, the rich will suffer.

It's in the midst of this place that Prayas, a welfare educational home for the children of the domestic helpers, is situated. A couple of months ago I had met Amod Kant here. He was excited about the opening of one more branch of Prayas in another part of Delhi. As we stood and talked, watching the children play kho-kho, Kant confessed that he was getting tired of life in the police force. He was thinking whether he should hang his boots and devote more time with children at his pet project.

I asked him whether he was getting frustrated fighting a losing battle, chasing high profile criminals who eventually went scot-free. "I don't think I am fighting a losing battle," he clarified, "Take the case of Romesh Sharma. We have lined up 17 cases against him and put him behind bars. He may eventually come out, but Sharma as an institution has been demolished. We need to identify more such Romesh Sharmas and go after them."

Two days before Jessica was murdered, Kant had persuaded Hollywood hero Steven Segal to visit Prayas and cheer up the kids. Segal obliged. He also promised his other friend Bina Ramani that he would drop in at Tamarind Court for the party on April 30. In a small place like Delhi I am sure Ramani and Kant have met and interacted before. But I wonder what were they thinking of each another when a day after the Jessica shootout Kant told the press, "The rich are less forthcoming with the police. They should co-operate more." On May 7 Bina Ramani, her husband and daughter were arrested under Amod Kant's orders and later released on bail.

Do you think one more institution was demolished?

The sad thing in Delhi is that we don't ask any of these these questions. They don't matter. Brutal murder is so frequent here that it seems odd for the front page to go without a mention of it any day. I picked up the newspaper today and read that an 82 year-old woman was strangled to death in Kalindi Colony, a stone's throw away from where the Maharani Bagh "traffic light party" was held. This was the fourth instance of an elderly person being bludgeoned to death within five days. But would you be reading this article if it was about why 60-year-old Usha Pandit was murdered by a carpenter at her middle-class home in Janakpuri?

The truth is most of us in Delhi and elsewhere -- the middle and upper class, the media, the yuppies -- are unmoved by death. We are interested only in the gossip behind it. Especially if it involves well-known personalities. Remember the vicarious pleasure we derived reading reams on the murders of Shivani Jajodia, the NDTV producer, Monica and Rajesh of Zee TV, Shivani of The Indian Express and Irfan Hussain, the Outlook cartoonist? These were some of our favourite flavours of the month.

It's Jessica's turn now.


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