Seven years ago, Vivek "Vicky" Rai, the playboy son of the home minister of Uttar Pradesh, murdered bartender Ruby Gill at a trendy restaurant in New Delhi, simply because she refused to serve him a drink. Now Vicky Rai has been killed at the party he was throwing to celebrate his acquittal. The police arrest six guests with guns in their possession: a corrupt bureaucrat who claims to have become Mahatma Gandhi; an American tourist infatuated with an Indian actress; a Stone Age tribesman on a quest; a Bollywood sex symbol with a guilty secret; a mobile-phone thief who dreams big; and an ambitious politician prepared to stoop low.
Swarup unravels the lives and motives of the six suspects, offering both a riveting page-turner and an insightful look into the heart of contemporary India.
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By Vikas Swarup
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Vikas Swarup
All rights reserved.
The Bare Truth
Arun Advani's column, 25 March
SIX GUNS AND A MURDER
Not all deaths are equal. There's a caste system even in murder. The stabbing of an impoverished rickshaw-puller is nothing more than a statistic, buried in the inside pages of the newspaper. But the murder of a celebrity instantly becomes headline news. Because the rich and famous rarely get murdered. They lead five-star lives and, unless they overdose on cocaine or meet with a freak accident, generally die a five-star death at a nice grey age, having augmented both lineage and lucre.
That is why the murder of Vivek 'Vicky' Rai, the thirty-two-year-old owner of the Rai Group of Industries and son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh, has been dominating the news for the past two days.
In my long and chequered career as an investigative journalist I have carried out many exposés, from corruption in high places to pesticides in cola bottles. My revelations have brought down governments and closed down multinationals. In the process, I have seen human greed, malice and depravity at very close quarters. But nothing has revolted me more than the saga of Vicky Rai. He was the poster boy for sleaze in this country. For over a decade I tracked his life and crimes, like a moth drawn irresistibly to the flame. It was a morbid fascination, akin to watching a horror film. You know something terrible is going to transpire, and so you sit transfixed, holding your breath, waiting for the inevitable to happen. I received dire warnings and death threats. Attempts were made to get me fired from this paper. I survived. Vicky Rai didn't.
By now the facts of his murder are as well known as the latest twists in the soap operas on TV. He was shot dead last Sunday at 12.05 a.m. by an unknown assailant at his farmhouse in Mehrauli, on the outskirts of Delhi. According to the forensic report, he died of a single lacerating wound to his heart made by a bullet fired at point-blank range. The bullet pierced his chest, passed cleanly through his heart, exited from his back and became lodged in the wooden bar. Death is believed to have been instantaneous.
Vicky Rai had enemies, for sure. There were many who hated his arrogance, his playboy lifestyle, his utter contempt for the law. He built an industrial empire from scratch. And no one can build an industrial empire in India without cutting corners. Readers of this column will recall my reports detailing how Vicky Rai engaged in insider trading at the stock market, defrauded investors of their dividends, bribed officials and cheated on his corporate tax. Still, he didn't get caught, always managing to exploit some loophole or other to stay out of reach of the law.
It was an art he had perfected at a very young age. He was only seventeen the first time he was hauled up in court. A friend of his father had given him a swanky new BMW, the five series, on his birthday. He took it out for a spin with three of his buddies. They had a noisy and boisterous celebration at a hip pub. While driving back at three a.m. through thick fog, Vicky Rai mowed down six homeless vagrants who were sleeping on a pavement. He was stopped at a police checkpoint and found to be completely sozzled. A case of rash and negligent driving was lodged against him. But by the time the case came to trial, all family members of the deceased had been purchased. No witnesses could recall seeing a BMW that night. All they could remember was a truck, with Gujarat licence plates. Vicky Rai received a lecture from the judge on the dangers of drink-driving and a full acquittal.
Three years later, he was in court again charged with hunting and killing two black bucks in a wildlife sanctuary in Rajasthan. He professed he didn't know they were a protected species. He thought it funny that a country that could not protect brides from being burnt for dowry and young girls from being picked up for prostitution should prosecute people for killing deer. But the law is the law. So he was arrested and had to stay in jail for two weeks before he managed to obtain bail. We all know what happened next. The only eye witness, Kishore – the forest ranger who was driving the open jeep – died six months later in mysterious circumstances. The case dragged on for a couple of years but ended, predictably, in Vicky Rai's acquittal.
Given these antecedents, it was surely only a matter of time before he graduated to open murder. It happened seven years ago, on a hot summer night, at Mango, the trendy restaurant on the Delhi–Jaipur highway, where he was throwing a big bash to celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday. The party began at nine p.m. and carried on well past midnight. A live band was belting out the latest hits, imported liquor was flowing and Vicky Rai's guests – an assortment of senior government officials, socialites, current and former girlfriends, a few people from the film industry and a couple of sports celebrities – were having a good time. Vicky had a drink too many. At around two a.m. he staggered to the bar and asked for another shot of tequila from the bartender, a pretty young woman dressed in a white T-shirt and denim jeans. She was Ruby Gill, a doctoral student at Delhi University who worked part-time at Mango to support her family.
'I'm sorry, I can't give you another drink, Sir. The bar is now closed,' she told him.
'I know, sweetie.' He flashed his best smile. 'But I want just one last drink and then we can all go home.'
'I am sorry, Sir. The bar is closed. We have to follow regulations,' she said, rather firmly this time.
'F**k your regulations,' Vicky snarled at her. 'Don't you know who I am?'
'No, Sir, and I don't care. The rules are the same for everyone. You will not get another drink.'
Vicky Rai flew into a rage. 'You bloody bitch!' he screamed and whipped out a revolver from his suit pocket. 'This will teach you a lesson!' He fired at her twice, shooting her in the face and the neck, in the presence of at least fifty guests. Ruby Gill dropped dead and Mango descended into bedlam. A friend of Vicky's reportedly grabbed his arm, led him out to his Mercedes and drove him away from the restaurant. Fifteen days later, Vicky Rai was arrested in Lucknow, brought before a magistrate, and managed yet again to obtain bail.
A murder over the mere refusal of a drink shook the conscience of the nation. The combination of Vicky Rai's notoriety and Ruby Gill's beauty ensured that the case stayed in the headlines for weeks to come. Then summer passed into autumn, and we moved on to new stories. When the case finally came to trial, the ballistics report said that the two bullets had been fired from two different guns. The murder weapon had inexplicably 'disappeared' from the police strong-room where it was being stored. Six witnesses, who claimed they had seen Vicky Rai pull the gun, retracted their statements. After a trial lasting five years, Vicky Rai received a full acquittal just over a month ago, on 15 February. To celebrate the verdict he threw a party at his Mehrauli farmhouse. And that is where he met his end.
Some will call this poetic justice. But the police call it an IPC Section 302 crime – culpable homicide amounting to murder – and have launched a nationwide search for the killer. The Police Commissioner is personally supervising the investigation, spurred, no doubt, by anxiety that the promised sinecure of the Lieutenant Governorship of Delhi (reported six weeks ago in this column) will vanish into thin air should he fail to crack this case.
His diligence has yielded good results. My sources tell me that six suspects are being held on suspicion of murdering Vicky Rai. Apparently Sub-Inspector Vijay Yadav was on traffic-control duty at the farmhouse when the killing occurred. He immediately sealed off the premises and ordered the frisking of each and every one of the three-hundred-odd guests, waiters, gate-crashers and hangers-on there at the time. The place was practically bristling with weaponry. During the search, six individuals were discovered to have guns in their possession, and were detained. I am sure they must have protested. After all, simply carrying a gun is not an offence, provided you have an arms licence. But when you take a gun to a party at which the host gets shot, you automatically become a suspect.
The suspects are a motley lot, a curious mélange of the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. There is Mohan Kumar, the former Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh, whose reputation for corruption and womanizing is unparalleled in the annals of the Indian Administrative Service. The second is a dim-witted American who claims to be a Hollywood producer. Spicing up the mix is the well-known actress Shabnam Saxena, with whom Vicky Rai was infatuated, if the gossip in the film magazines is to be believed. There is even a jet-black, five-foot-nothing tribal from some dusty village in Jharkhand who is being interrogated at arm's length for fear that he might be one of the dreaded Naxalites who infest that state. Suspect number five is an unemployed graduate named Munna with a lucrative sideline as a mobile-phone thief. And completing the line-up is Mr Jagannath Rai himself, the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Vicky Rai's dad. Could a father stoop any lower?
The six guns recovered are equally assorted. There is a British Webley & Scott, an Austrian Glock, a German Walther PPK, an Italian Beretta, a Chinese Black Star pistol and a locally made improvised revolver known as a katta. The police appear to be convinced that the murder weapon is one of these six and are awaiting the ballistics report to match bullet to gun and pinpoint the culprit.
Barkha Das interviewed me yesterday on her TV show. 'You devoted much of your career to exposing the misdeeds of Vicky Rai and castigating him in your column. What do you plan to do now that he is dead?' she asked me.
'Find his killer,' I replied.
'What for?' she wanted to know. 'Aren't you happy Vicky Rai is dead?'
'No,' I said, 'because my crusade was never against Vicky Rai. It was against the system which permits the rich and powerful to believe that they are above the law. Vicky Rai was only a visible symptom of the malaise that has infected our society. If justice is really blind, then Vicky Rai's killer deserves to be brought to account just as much as Vicky Rai did.'
And I say this again to my readers. I am going to track down Vicky Rai's murderer. A true investigative journalist cannot be swayed by his personal prejudices. He must follow the cold logic of reason till the very end, no matter where and who it leads to. He must remain an impartial professional seeking only the bare truth.
Murder may be messy, but truth is messier. Tying up loose ends will be difficult, I know. The life histories of all six suspects will need to be combed. Motives will have to be established. Evidence will need to be collated. And only then will we discover the real culprit.
Which of these six will it be? The bureaucrat or the bimbo? The foreigner or the tribal? The big fish or the small fry?
All I can tell my readers at this point in time is – watch this space.CHAPTER 2
Mohan Kumar glances at his watch, disengages himself from the arms of his mistress and rises from the bed.
'It is already three. I have to go,' he says as he hunts for his underwear amidst the tangle of clothes at the foot of the bed.
The air-conditioner behind him stirs into action, expelling a blast of tepid air into the darkened room. Rita Sethi looks crossly at the machine. 'Does this wretched thing ever work? I told you to get the White Westinghouse. These Indian brands can't last the summer.'
The shutters on the windows are down, yet the oppressive heat still manages to seep into the bedroom, making the sheets feel like blankets.
'The imported A-Cs aren't tropicalized,' Mohan Kumar replies. He has half a desire to reach for the bottle of Chivas Regal on the side table but decides against it. 'I'd better get going. There is a board meeting at four.'
Rita stretches her arms, yawns and slumps back on the pillow. 'Why do you still care about work? Have you forgotten you are no longer Chief Secretary, Mr Mohan Kumar?'
He grimaces, as though Rita has scraped a fresh wound. He has still not come to terms with his retirement.
For thirty-seven years he had been in government – manipulating politicians, managing colleagues and making deals. Along the way he had acquired houses in seven cities, a shopping mall in Noida and a Swiss bank account in Zurich. He revelled in being a man of influence. A man who could command the entire machinery of the state with just one phone call, whose friendship opened closed doors, whose anger destroyed careers and companies, whose signature released bonanzas worth millions of rupees. His steady rise through the echelons of bureaucracy had bred complacency. He thought he would go on for ever. But he had been defeated by time, by the inexorably ticking clock which had tolled sixty and ended all his powers in one stroke.
In the eyes of his colleagues, he has managed the transition from government rather well. He is now on the boards of half a dozen private companies belonging to the Rai Group of Industries which together pay him ten times his former salary. He has a company-provided villa in Lutyens' Delhi and a corporate car. But these perks cannot compensate for the loss of patronage. Of power. He feels a lesser man without its aura, a king without his kingdom. In the first couple of months after his retirement he woke up on some nights, sweating and itchy, and reached dimly for his mobile to see if he had missed a call from the Chief Minister. During the day, his eyes would involuntarily turn towards the driveway, searching for the reassuring white Ambassador with the revolving blue light. At times the loss of power has felt like a physical absence to him, akin to the sensation experienced by an amputee in the severed nerve endings of a stump where a leg once used to be. The crisis reached such a point that he was forced to ask his employer for an office. Vicky Rai obliged him with a room in the Rai Group of Industries' corporate headquarters in Bhikaji Cama Place. Now he goes there every day, and stays from nine to five, reading a few project reports but mostly playing Sudoku on his laptop and surfing porn sites. The routine permits him to pretend that he is still gainfully employed, and gives him an excuse to be away from his house, and his wife. It also enables him to slip away for these afternoon assignations with his mistress.
At least I still have Rita, he reasons, as he knots his tie and gazes at her naked body, her black hair spread out like a fan on the pillow.
She is a divorcée, with no children, and a well-paying job which requires her to go to the office only three times a week. There is a gap of twenty-seven years between them, but no difference in their tastes and temperaments. At times, he feels as if she is a mirror image of him, that they are kindred souls separated only by their sex. Still, there are things about her he doesn't like. She is too demanding, nagging him constantly for gifts of diamonds and gold. She complains about everything, from her house to the weather. And she has a ferocious temper, having famously slapped a former boss who was trying to get fresh with her. But she more than makes up for these deficiencies with her performance in bed. He likes to believe that he is an equally good lover. At sixty, he is still virile. With his height, fair skin and full head of hair which he dyes diligently every fortnight, he knows he is not unattractive to women. Still, he wonders how long Rita will stay with him, at what point his occasional gifts of perfume and pearls will prove insufficient to prevent her from falling for a younger, richer, more powerful man. Till that happens, he is content with these stolen afternoons twice a week.
Rita fumbles underneath the pillow and retrieves a pack of Virginia Slims and a lighter. She lights up a cigarette expertly and draws on it, releasing a ring of smoke which is immediately sucked in by the A-C. 'Did you get tickets for Tuesday's show?' she asks.
'The one in which they will make contact with the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi on his birthday.'
Mohan looks at her curiously. 'Since when did you start believing in this mumbo-jumbo?'
'Séances are not mumbo-jumbo.'
'They are to me. I don't believe in ghosts and spirits.'
'You don't believe in God either.'
'No, I am an atheist. Haven't visited a temple in thirty years.'
'Well, neither have I, but at least I believe in God. And they say Aghori Baba is a great psychic. He can really talk to spirits.'
'Humph!' Mohan Kumar sneers. 'The baba is no psychic. He is just a cheap tantric who probably feasts on human flesh. And Gandhi is no international pop star. He is the Father of the Nation, for heaven's sake. He deserves more respect.'
'What's disrespectful in contacting his spirit? I'm glad an Indian company is doing it, before some foreign corporation trademarks Gandhi, like basmati rice. Let's go on Tuesday, darling.'
Excerpted from Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup. Copyright © 2008 Vikas Swarup. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Bare Truth,
2. The Bureaucrat,
3. The Actress,
4. The Tribal,
5. The Thief,
6. The Politician,
7. The American,
8. The Possession of Mohan Kumar,
9. Love in Mehrauli,
10. Operation Checkmate,
11. Mail-Order Bride,
12. The Curse of the Onkobowkwe,
13. The Cinderella Project,
20. The Bare Truth,
21. Breaking News,
22. Breaking News,
23. Breaking News,
24. The Bare Truth,
25. Breaking News,
26. Sting Operation,
27. The Truth,
What People are Saying About This
“[A] Bollywood version of the board game Clue with a strain of screwball comedy thrown in...
[A]lthough the story’s geographical span is even bigger than India, the whole thing feels handily confined to the kind of isolated, air-tight setting that Agatha Christie’s readers love. Thanks to such a schematic setup 'Six Suspects' is gleeful, sneaky fun….Mr. Swarup, an Indian diplomat, brings a worldly range of attributes to his potentially simple story. [His] style stays light and playful, preferring to err on the side of broad high jinks rather than high seriousness. A fizzy romp seems to be the main thing he has in mind. Oddly enough, that ambition turns this formulaic-sounding book into a refreshing oddity. It bears no resemblance to any of the cookie-cutter genre books of this season.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"Charming, atmospheric, and driven equally by character and plot, Six Suspects is bound to be popular with traditional mystery fans and readers of international crime fiction, as well as the legion of Slumdog devotees. Highly recommended."Booklist
"Enriched by the sights and smells of contemporary India, this mystery shows Swarup to be a skillful prose stylist and deft handler of plot, who's likely to win more readers."Library Journal
"The author of Slumdog Millionaire has another blockbuster of a story that begins with a murder, then delves into the lives and motives of the six suspects. The reader becomes intimately involved with each suspect while being treated to an eye-opening account of life in India."Romantic Times BOOKreviews (4 1/2 stars)
“The author of Q&A (2005), the novel that became the film Slumdog Millionaire, returns with an equally high-concept tale that uses a murder investigation to launch a riotous tour of contemporary India…a teeming, beguiling Indian panorama wrapped in a clever whodunit.”—Kirkus Reviews
Reading Group Guide
1. What were the flaws of each of the suspects? Did you find each of them likeable, despite their flaws? Who did you identify with most? Did you have a favorite?
2. When we first meet the suspects, each is making a decision that will change their lives. In what cases were these good, bad, or foolish decisions? Could any of the characters have avoided their downfall? Do you believe in fate?
3. Do you believe that Mohan Kumar was actually possessed by a spirit, or do you take the doctor's view? What do you think the author intended? If Mohan had been your husband, father, or employer, would you have preferred he stay Gandhi?
4. Vikas Swarup has chosen to relay each character in a different way. The chapters about Shabnam Saxena are told through her diary entries. The chapters on Jagannath are told through phone conversations. The chapters on Eketi are often actually told from the point of view of Ashok, the welfare officer. Did you find this method effective? How did it contribute to your understanding of each character?
5. The Motives section takes up the bulk of the novel and it deals with each suspect's individual journey. Does the solving of the main crime become secondary to the lives of the suspects? Did you find that being steeped in the character's lives enriched the solving of the mystery at the end?
6. It seemed that Shabnam genuinely wanted to help Ram Dulari in the beginning. But at some point she began to feel threatened by her. When did this happen? Was she ever really able to give selflessly of herself? Do you think her wanting to help Ram Dulari had something to do with her feelings for her sister? Does she redeem herself by the end of the novel?
7. Six Suspects has been called a social satire on India. In what ways is the book satirical? Did this add to your enjoyment of the novel? Which were the parts you found funniest?
8. How did you feel about the portrayal of the American, Larry Page? Do you think he is a typical American? Do you think his portrayal speaks toward how the world views Americans?
9. What do you think Shabnam and Larry would be like as a couple? Do you think they would be happy?
10. In the cases where the suspects were referred to by their professions, do you think they would correspond to their American counterparts? The corrupt politician in Washington? The Hollywood celebrity? The pick pocket in the big city? Or were they uniquely Indian? What do you find most appealing in reading international fiction? Learning about a different culture, or finding people and situations you can relate to?
11. A character like Eketi would have no real counterpart in the U.S. Were his motivations harder for you to understand? Or did they tap into a greater human need?
12. Family ties can be very strong, either from obligation or love. How did these relationships affect the characters' choices? Discuss how the characters were either helped or hindered by their families.
13. Many of the characters are impressed by beauty. Eketi falls in love with Champi, who is actually disfigured. She in turn, cannot see Eketi because she is blind. Are these two characters fortunate to not be so swayed by physical beauty, or are they missing out?
14. There is a theme that runs throughout the novel, of dual identities, or identity confusion. The corrupt Mohan Kumar becomes virtuous Gandhi Baba, Ram Dulari metamorphoses into Shabnam Saxena, Larry Page is mistaken for his namesake the Google founder, Eketi Onge is forced to become Jiba Korwa, Munna Mobile becomes Vijay Singh, and mafia don Jagannath Rai masquerades as a messiah of the poor. Do you find these questions of identity to be true in life? Have there been times in your own life when you have been mistaken for someone else, or perhaps even found yourself taking on a different persona? When you've noticed someone else taking on a different identity or name? What were the reasons for that?
15. Each of the suspects is either from the lower or upper class. Class is a theme that Vikas Swarup also wrote about in his first novel. What is the commentary here? How does class play into the plot? What is its effect on the characters?
16. How did you feel about the resolution of the novel? Do you think the characters got what they deserved? Did you agree with the murderer's reasoning for killing Vicky Rai?