Murder of a Model
A week before she died, it was business as usual at the Colonnade where Jessica Lall tended bar ....
By Sayantan Chakravarty and Harinder Baweja
Not since an upright naval officer shot his wife's lover and sent the staid world of the 1950s Bombay into a flap has high society seen anything like it. The bullet from a .22 revolver that pierced 34-year-old Jessica Lall's temple in the early hours of April 30 didn't merely snuff out a young life, it killed the pretensions of an entire class. As the fun-loving model and part-time bartender collapsed on the floor of Delhi's No. 1 "happening place", it was not merely a killer and his three associates who were on the run. Suffering from shame and lapsing into collective amnesia were the rich and beautiful people of the Indian establishment. It took one wild act of an intoxicated son of a politician to expose the lies, duplicity and depravity of India's creamy layer.
It was, some say, a tragedy waiting to happen. It was the seventh and last Thursday night of the summer season at the Tamarind Court in Qutab Colonnade, a tastefully refurbished haveli in Mehrauli overlooking the Qutab Minar. Depending exclusively on the chatterati bush telegraph, the occasion proved a magnetic draw. With the mercury touching the mid-40s, politics on temporary hold and the World Cup exodus still a fortnight away, the Colonnade became a natural draw for relieving the two commodities that Delhi isn't ever short of -- money and boredom. "There are very few places to go out in the city," says Malini Ramani, the life of the party and moving spirit behind the Thursday bashes. "My friends kept telling me you have such a nice place, why don't we have parties here. Thursdays were my lucky days so I decided to make it a fun day. Anyone could walk in because the restaurant was open anyway."
Anyone who was anyone did precisely that. It was a virtual who's who of the rich, young and not-so-young. All out for a boisterous night of fun. The fashion designers -- Rohit Bal, Rina Dhaka and Tarun Tahiliani -- were naturally there. No party in Delhi is complete without them. As were the art dealers, Rohini Sharma, Vishal Dhar and Ritu Walia. The CII convention having just concluded, outgoing president Rajesh Shah dropped by. As did Natasha Nanda of Escorts and Neeraj Kanwar of Apollo tyres. Jeh Wadia, son of Bombay Dyeing's Nusli Wadia, was there with Hollywood actor Steven Seagal. Former minister Kamal Nath's son Nakul was there. There was even a policeman in the form of Joint Commissioner Y.S. Dadwal. Others were there too but they are not telling any more.
It was indeed a happening night. Blessed with the services of disc jockey Moody's of Fireball fame, the loud techno music and the surfeit of balloons tagged to the chairs captured the mood. It was the time to let your hair down after purchasing coupons discreetly marked QC. Behind the bar Jessica, resplendent in a white shirt knotted at the belly button and denim shorts, served away furiously. "It was a wonderful party," says Tahiliani who arrived at 12.45 a.m. but didn't have a drink. "It had the nicest ambience where you could sit overlooking the Qutab Minar."
It wasn't only Tahiliani and the other celebrities who thought so. For Manu Sharma, the 24-year-old son of former Union minister Venod Sharma, it was too good a Thursday to take the train to Chandigarh with his mother as was planned. He had experienced a few Thursdays at the Colonnade and wanted more. At 10 p.m., he drove to the Friends Colony house of Amrinder Singh Gill (Tony), 32, a general manager of Coca-Cola bottling unit in Delhi. They were joined by 30-year-old Alok Khanna, a colleague of Tony, and Vikas Yadav, son of Rajya Sabha member D.P. Yadav, a rough and ready politician from Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh. The four downed a few drinks and then drove down to Mehrauli in two cars.
It was a curious group -- two yuppies and two political brats. Tony and Alok were archetypal upper middle-class south Delhi boys. Both MBAs, colleagues in Coca-Cola say they were "highly professional and nice guys" who were on the fast track. They may have loved partying but that was nothing unusual for young professionals of that age. But Manu and Vikas were different. Sons of politicians, their idea of fun was tinged with recklessness. Manu loved cars and guns and was an inveterate party-goer who couldn't hold his drinks. So did 25-year-old Vikas who ran a sugar factory in Sambhal and had already imbibed some of the fierce ways of his controversial father.
The group reached the Colonnade at 11.15 p.m. They purchased a wad of coupons, sipped their drinks and did what most single males do -- ogle at the uninhibited girls with their daring dresses, bare legs and provocative dancing. They mixed little but got more and more drunk. Particularly Manu.
The bar, an innocuous notice proclaimed, closed at 12.30 a.m. But that night, thanks to the heavy rush, the supplies ran out by midnight. A friend of Jessica came to the bar and asked for a drink, only to be told that it was all over. "Why do you close the bar so early?" she asked. "Bina (Ramani) has applied for a licence but till it comes it's all a private party," Jessica replied. "Why don't you give me one under the table?" she persisted. Prompt came the reply, "It's a big table and everything is under the table."
Manu too had the same idea. Around 2 a.m., when only the stragglers were left, he walked up to the bar counter and asked for a drink. He was told the bar was shut. He persisted and offered to pay Rs 1,000. Malini, who was passing that way, heard him. By her own account, she told him, "I won't give you a sip even if you give me a thousand bucks." The police have quite another interpretation of "sip". Says Joint Commissioner Amod Kanth: "Liquor is not the only reason Manu shot Jessica. She probably said something provocative for Manu to say 'Can I have a sip of you?'"
It's impossible to know what Manu heard or thought he heard. Before anyone could react, he flashed out a gun. "It's a toy," someone sniggered. Manu fired once at the ceiling. The next shot and Jessica keeled over, shot in the head. It took some time before the shooting registered on the revellers. Most were just too inebriated. The music went off gradually. "There was much confusion and people became leaden-footed," recalls an eyewitness. Rohit Bal and some waiters rushed to the unconscious Jessica, bleeding from the head. Cell phones began locating ambulances, doctors and the police. In 20 minutes, they took her to Aashlok Hospital in Hong Kong-based businessman Sanjay Mehtani's car.
In the melee, Manu swaggered out brushing aside Bina who tried to collar him saying, "Where is the gun? Who are you? Why did you shoot Jessica?" A composed Manu replied, "I haven't done anything." So confidently that Bina thought she had got the wrong man. Manu's three friends slunk away in Alok's car and made their way to Tony's house. At around 3 a.m., Manu joined them. All were aware of the crime and their first thought was how to get away. After a week of playing hide and seek in Himachal Pradesh, Manu surrendered. Speaking from his cell phone after his arrest, he sounded unfazed. "I did nothing. Yes, I am innocent. I don't care for what anyone presumes."
Manu's brazenness may be understandable given the magnitude of his offence. Less comprehensible, however, is the behaviour of Bina, the socialite owner of the Colonnade. Even as she rushed Jessica to hospital, she was busy containing the damage. According to DCP (South) Sudhir Yadav, "Surender Garhwali (a waiter) was specifically asked by the Ramanis to clean the place so that the blood stains from Jessica's body could be removed quickly." It's a charge that Bina denies. "The staff had to come back to work the next morning and they were desperate to get home. Like every night they cleaned up before leaving." Under Section 201 of the JPC, the penalty for suppressing or tampering with evidence is life imprisonment or death.
It's an explanation that isn't being readily bought despite the fact that Bina's husband George Mailhot provided the police the number of Manu's Tata Safari. The reason is her curious behaviour immediately after the incident. "Her one-line instruction to all of us after the shooting was 'get your story straight, it was a private party and no liquor was sold'," says cosmetologist Rubina Sharma who was present that night. According to Jessica's sister Sabrina, "Bina put up this private party story even in Aashlok Hospital when my sister was there and even when she was declared dead. It's absurd, it was no private party." Bina, according to Sabrina, went further: "She intimidated this young man who was giving a description of the killer as if she were protecting her son or relative." Bina told him: "Be careful about what you say. You don't know what you could be up against. These are dangerous, gun-toting politicos."
The remark is strange because Bina has consistently maintained the four boys and their names were "not known to us". In that case, how did she link them to politicians on the night of the murder? Says Bina: "He seemed to have that kind of clout. Who else would brandish a weapon, either a politico or someone who has political support. Half our politicians are criminals." The profundity is repeated in her public statement: "A cult of violence is threatening our society and city and is a threat to every civilised gathering, as ours was."
It may have been an eminently civilised party but it glosses over the fact that Bina was running an illegal operation. She had no liquor licence and broke every rule in the book by selling alcohol in the guise of a private party. It's an offence she now admits to. "I told a partial lie. I know there is a penalty for selling unlicenced booze and I'm prepared for it. It wasn't such an important issue at that time. I'm not trying to pass the buck but everyone is bending the law because it is so outdated." Bina was only one step away from getting a licence but she couldn't wait. This is not the first time a Ramani establishment has come into the news for running an illegal bar, the penalty for which is a maximum of two years imprisonment and a Rs 2,000 fine.
These transgressions didn't seem to bother the Ramanis. With their formidable connections, rules have become instruments of convenience to Delhi's beautiful people. Says Mehrauli sho S.K. Sharma, "It is difficult to touch these people. They are big, they treat us like inferior beings." For Bina, in particular, a casual brush with the law seems a seasonal occurrence. Yet, from Chandraswami to Romesh Sharma, the controversies left her social standing unaffected.
The problem begins when the disease becomes infectious. Delhi has traditionally suffered from an epidemic of contact-itis, whereby the worth of an individual is measured by the range of his connections. "As long as I can remember, my mother has always been on the 'you should be meeting new people and expanding your horizons' trip," wrote Malini in a column for a city magazine. It was a lesson Manu had already imbibed. He had formidable connections and he was rich. Coming from Punjab, he also acquired a taste for guns. The combination was explosive. Perhaps as explosive as the Katia rape in Chandigarh and the obnoxious conduct of the sons of Om Prakash Chautala, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kalraj Mishra. In a world where money talks, he couldn't comprehend why a thousand rupees couldn't buy him a drink. And so what if he was breaking the rules of an illegal bar? What made him inferior in the "dahling" circles? In his world, in the world of Vikas in the wild west of Uttar Pradesh, you could get away with everything. Tampering with evidence. Even cold-blooded murder.
It was the arrogance of a boy who had bullied his way through. Was he outlandish? Wasn't he merely mirroring the code the more refined elite seem to have set for itself? Manu and Vikas, sons of earthy politicians, were replicating a law of the jungle they saw around them. Remember the BMW case last winter? Some did it with style, some with better accents and social graces. In the end, it amounted to the same. For India's elite, the moral codes governing right and wrong have broken down.
-with Ramesh Vinayak and Vijay Jung Thapa
© Living Media India Ltd