India Ink

Transcontinental Tabloid Turmoil

A man refused a late-night drink at a tony hot spot pulls out a gun and fires it twice. The first bullet goes into the ceiling. The second kills the woman behind the bar. It's not much of a murder, as one report put it, by the standards of an increasingly lawless town. Except that the alleged killer was the son of a former cabinet minister, his victim was a onetime model, the bar was in the most stylish shopping complex in the city, and the murderer waltzed away in front of hundreds of swells.

The city in question is New Delhi, India. From the vantage of a metropolis that hardly lacks for violent crimes of its own, it may seem odd to report on a killing half a world away. Yet the shooting of Jessica Lal, a 34-year-old invariably characterized as "bubbly," is so suffused with soap-operatic connections to America that it may as well have happened here.

For starters, there was the chic shopping complex owned by Bina Ramani, a New York "socialite" who also runs the Soho store Asian Opera. A fixture on the Merchant-Ivory social circuit, Ramani is a high-energy businesswoman with international connections extending from the British nobility's expatriate flotsam to the nabobs of Planet Fame. Richard Gere once hosted a Bombay AIDS fundraiser chaired by Ramani. And her Qutab Colonnade, located on the outskirts of Delhi, is an obligatory destination for boldface gargoyles (Madonna, Steven Seagal) on the celebrity world tour.

The "sullen multitude" got an eyeful: Bina Ramani (center) comforting a friend of the late Jessica Lal.
AP/Wide World
The "sullen multitude" got an eyeful: Bina Ramani (center) comforting a friend of the late Jessica Lal.

Tamarind Court, the restaurant where the murder occurred, was located in an open-air courtyard frequented by Delhi's idle classes. "The crime and its aftermath," as Peter Popham wrote last week in the London Independent, "constitute a sort of fairy-tale" in a city where "a tiny political elite and their brattish children live lives of conspicuous luxury" while the "sullen multitude looks on enviously." Thanks to Jessica Lal's murder, the sullen multitude got a rare eyeful.

Probably the least expected effect of globalization has been the export of Western-style tabloid narrative to India. Since liberalizing its trade policies in the early '90s, the vast subcontinent has become a kind of dumping ground for Western culture. It's a phenomenon observable in everything from the upper-class vogue for New Age anodynes (reiki and Viennese voodoo are currently the rage) to the more obvious glut of MTV. What India lacked until lately, however, was Amy Fisher­Joey Buttafuoco­style saturation coverage. It lacked a headless body in a topless bar.

In the weeks since Lal's shooting, the capital's major papers have printed dozens of stories daily under headlines that wouldn't be out of place in the Post. "Poop Goes the Party!" blared one. "We Are No Murderers!" bleated the proprietors of Qutab Colonnade. "The Silence of the Lambs" ran a banner on a dispatch larded with the sort of pseudo-psychological blather that most Americans could recite in their sleep, post-Columbine.

"It's been out of control," says Ramani's younger daughter, Gitanjali, manager of Asian Opera. Even the police "have been relatively better than the media," added her sister, Malini, who was briefly detained after the murder on charges of serving liquor in violation of Delhi's 90-year-old excise laws. "I have read things about myself that have left me speechless."

In a country where Hindu newspapers still print pages of ads for traditionally arranged marriages, and where such stop-the-presses headlines as "Pachyderm Tramples Tigress" are commonplace, there's an unfulfilled hunger for the Dynasty-style dross of the West. Not since the days of serial killer Charles Sobraj has a crime so deliciously fit the bill.

The Ramanis' regular weekly party at Tamarind Court drew perhaps as many as 600 people to a white-walled mansion in what was once a rich man's zenana (harem) and, later, a state-run asylum for the insane. The crowd on Jessica Lal's last night included Buddhist personal-trainer-turned-action-star Seagal, along with designers Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit Bal, and a customary horde of New Delhi's jeunesse dorée. In renovating the ruin, which overlooks the 14th-century minaret Qutab Minar in suburban Mehrauli, Ramani had shrewdly anticipated not just the capital city's rampant sprawl but also changes in the way the Indian rich shop and play.

"The aspect of the crime that has most fixated local commentators," wrote Popham, "is the location. Qutab Colonnade is a complex of small art galleries and shops and the Tamarind Court restaurant and bar is its focus and it is so elegant and well designed that amid the grunge and mediocrity of Delhi it scarcely seems real. Bina Ramani, its creator and owner, lived for many years in New York, and since coming home she has worked tirelessly to infuse the city with some of the energy and pizzazz of Manhattan." For energy and pizzazz read mostly invitation-only and velvet rope. Bypassing prohibitive local laws, Ramani sold liquor to her closest "friends" using special coupons. "Sometimes people brought their own liquor like in the West and contributed to the cost to help us out," she explained. "As the atmosphere was really relaxing, a large number of people started turning up and it was then that we decided to introduce a system where invited guests could contribute." In an irony oddly not remarked upon by the Indian press, uninvited guest Siddharth Vashisht "Manu" Sharma, who shot Lal for refusing him liquor, was the grandson of a distillery baron in the Punjab.

It was near 2 a.m. on April 30 when Sharma and two friends strolled into the Tamarind Court, where the overcapacity crowd had dwindled to about 200. Malini Ramani and Lal were in a service area closing for the night. Demanding whiskey, Sharma was told by Malini Ramani that he could have a sip of her drink for 1000 rupees, or about $35, her sister claims. "It was a normal remark, and I guess only a madman would react in such a violent way," Malini would later say. Sharma apparently approached Lal next and, when she told him the bar was closed, pulled out a .22 and fired. It was the second bullet that caught Lal in the forehead. Sharma then walked to the courtyard and smiled his way out through the crowd.

After an "intensive, weeklong manhunt," Sharma surrendered to police near his family home in Chandigarh. By then, Ramani and her husband, a Canadian national named George Mailhot, and her daughter, Malini, had all been arrested, on a variety of charges, and their passports seized. (They are currently free on bail.) Ramani was charged with running an illegal business, and police are considering possible charges of evidence tampering, after they learned that waiters had been instructed to scrub away the dead woman's blood. Ramani was also the subject of a paparazzi blitz and a public denouncement by the victim's relatives. "Ms. Bina Ramani has called us up several times to stick to the story that it was a private party," Lal's sister Sabrina was quoted in the Hindustan Times. "Instead of expressing concern over the incident, she told me not to react since high profile people were involved."

And the "whole thing, the killing, the Ramanis, Qutab Colonnade," as one Delhi native said, "has been all anyone here has talked about." Partly this was because there is little else to discuss in a government town with a lame-duck administration in charge. Partly it's because of the incident's souped-up Aaron Spelling script. Even here, in some quarters of Delhi-on-Hudson, the gossip has been of little else besides sainted Lal; demonic Sharma; the poor, besieged Ramanis; and the collapse of Indian civilization as it used to be known. "I haven't heard one single person speak about it," Ramani's close friend, former pop star Asha Puthli, insisted last week, somewhat unpersuasively, on a day when the Times of India's local Web site was still posting saturation coverage. "Why would people talk about a crime in India in New York? I mean, at most, their mistake was to clean up the evidence of a murder site. You do know that they wiped up the blood?"

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