Mumbai’s Empty Parlor Games

There was a time, only a few years ago now, when I prided myself as a host of parties — soirees, as some plummy guests called them. Before one such gathering, I was asked: “Are you having another sorry this week?” Rather than correct my guest’s French, I simply furnished the time, and the usual address: my sparse studio in the north Mumbai enclave of Juhu, overlooking a pond and a parking lot dotted with identically hooded black and yellow rickshaws.

This was to be a Sunday brunch, for an artist from Delhi. Around 30 guests appeared, a miscellany of writers, socialites, artists, publishers, venture capitalists and tag-along out-of-towners. As the afternoon wore on, though, I felt a creeping sense of unease. I overheard a middle-aged photographer offer a young model a pro bono “portfolio shoot,” and she rolled vixen eyes. A moment later, she accepted his offer, the trade of pictures for sex implicit.

An interior designer boasted to an art collector of having designed the home of one of our pre-eminent business magnates. Since I happened to personally know this magnate, I knew that the designer had been summarily fired from the job, on account of the heroic scale of his unprofessionalism, including a penchant for fielding prospective clients at the under-construction apartment without either the homeowner’s knowledge or permission. But the art collector only listened, entranced by the decorator. The two agreed to meet later over lunch to discuss a work proposal, a proposition that made me very nervous. Who had I just unleashed on the innocent collector?

Presently, a guest — someone I hadn’t invited — was introduced to me as a “lifestyle expert.” I caught her tweeting images of the pond outside my apartment, the sight of which I held beloved and private. “You could be anywhere!” the lifestyle expert said, as if this was a compliment. “You know, the minimal décor of your apartment makes me feel like I’m back in New York!” I suppose she could not see the slum bordering the pond — 70 percent of Mumbai lives in slums — for the smog outside the window was industrial strength. Indeed, her Instagram filter made the pond, the slum and the hills in the backdrop appear like an impressionist painting: From a distance, this country was awfully pretty.

At various points during the brunch, guests at my studio had expressed moral outrage against the various scams afflicting modern India, the scale of which ran like a parallel economy. This lot of middle and upper-middle class Indians railed against our political classes and their corruption. As a cozy counterpoint, there was fiery talk about supporting Arvind Kejriwal, an anti-corruption activist whose political affiliation, the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common People’s Party), had dominated the 2013 polls in Delhi.

But such drawing-room rage and social media moralizing registered in me with great suspicion. Our middle classes — originally pegged, in 2007, at 250 million strong, but recently revised to reflect reality down to around 70 million — and especially our elite were probably guilty of the same kind of dodgy brokering that they publicly reviled. The wheeling, the dealing, the fooling, the fabricating — it was all on at my brunch, but at a modest farmers’-market scale, and veiled in new India’s urbane cool.

So why was this lot shocked, even surprised, by our epic scams? In a sense, the government officials who extorted big bribes, or the sleazy politicians caught watching porn in Parliament, were only their peers, but with one key difference: Their trade magnificently dwarfed the minor-league operators at my brunch.

Still, I nursed no moral superiority. This party, and others like them, had happened in my own home, after all, both in the small, contained sense of my residence, and the larger, expansive sense of the country I lived in. What I indicted, indicted me.

It was only last November, when the magazine editor Tarun Tejpal was charged with sexually assaulting a young colleague, that the revulsion and disbelief I’d nursed in quiet fermented into sadness. Mr. Tejpal had founded Tehelka, a left-leaning magazine that covered the hot-button topics that guests at my studio animatedly debated, including an impassioned cover story on Jyoti Singh Pandey, the young woman gang-raped outside Delhi in December 2012. Mr. Tejpal, once the Indian intelligentsia’s poster boy of public morality, is now living on rice and daal in a Goan jail. (A court deferred his plea for bail on Tuesday.)

The outrage Indians feel in this case has been spurred by the perception that Mr. Tejpal has tried to cover his tracks: He claimed the incident had been consensual. But his strategy was dubious; he had already apologized over email to the woman for his “misconduct.” Still, he continues proclaiming his innocence. Mr. Tejpal’s defiance made me believe the bug of duplicity I’d encountered in my studio was actually a widespread and deep-rooted malaise in India.

After the Sunday brunch, I’d rung my sister to express helplessness about the company I’d begun to keep. I was bored with Mumbai, worn out by people raiding my address book, disillusioned by friendships failing thanks to an institutionalized fraudulence that, quite frankly, everyone at my studio that day was guilty of, and no one knew quite how to repair.

For the moment, I decided, I just had to move out of Mumbai. Perhaps the guest with the bad French had been right all along, I thought on my flight out to Goa. I had been hosting a sorry: an apology party for the way things were.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is the author of the novels The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay and The Last Song of Dusk.

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