April 6, 2014
Bina Ramani's disarmingly sincere autobiography gives voice to an India that has gone through gargantuan societal changes since the 1960s. Few women from the subcontinent have had such jaw-dropping access to the rich, creative and politically powerful – not only in India, but in the UK and the US as well. From the scions of global finance, politics and the world of art – from Indira Gandhi, Yono Oko, and Jackie Onassis, to Zubin Mehta, Shammi Kapoor and Richard Gere – Bina’s career as India’s great matron of the Indian fashion world, coupled with her behind-the-scene work on behalf of AIDS and women’s issues has brought her face to face with some of the most famous and influential people in the last half-century.
Bina’s story is one of extreme privilege, victimization and survival.
In 1999, Jessica Lal, a beautiful New Delhi model was volunteering as a celebrity barmaid at a crowded socialite party, (thrown by Bina at her Tamarind Court – a refurbished harem palace overlooking the Qutub Minar in Delhi) when Manu Sharma, son of a famous politician, pulled out a .22 pistol and murdered Jessica in cold blood.
Manu and his thug henchmen managed to escaped the party, but were later arrested, brought to trial and found not guilty in spite of eye witnesses attesting to Manu’s guilt. It was an audacious case of corruption, of political power prevailing over justice. Instead, Bina Ramani became the scapegoat for public outrage. Both Manu’s father’s political connections and an onslaught of Indian yellow journalism at its most outrageous – which is saying a lot when it comes to Indian yellow journalism -- conspired to point the finger at Bina, to a woman who “had it all,” as if, somehow, her association with the international elite automatically made her the underlying reason for a young drunk’s wanton violence on a defenseless woman. It was political deflection at its best.
After seven years of unjust and unremitting persecution to Bina and her family – including confiscation of passports, raids on her home (with leaks to the press about the contents of her lingerie drawer, among other salacious “news” bits), and a brief incarceration -- Bina was finally vindicated. In December of 2006, the trial court judgment was overturned, and Manu Sharma was found guilty of having murdered Lal. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The murder of Jessica Lal, of course, has been told a thousand times with varying degrees of veracity. Two years ago, Bollywood made a B-movie with a laughably mischaracterized Bina Ramani, who was portrayed as a simpering coward. If there is one thing Ramani is not, it’s a coward. In the event, now, finally, the reader can hear the real story from the person who was best qualified to report the events of that fateful night.
But this book is so much more than that. Bina Ramani’s autobiography is a front-row-seat view of how a female grew up in the deeply conservative nascence of independent India, yet managed to navigate her way to her own fiercely independent sense of self-worth. It’s a no-apology account steeped in courage.
Bird in a Banyan Tree: My Story, by Bina Ramani
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Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Rupa Publishers (November 1, 2013)