Rahul Raina | 'Part of my thinking was trying to put my version of Delhi onto the map'

Rahul Raina | 'Part of my thinking was trying to put my version of Delhi onto the map'

With its witty, ruthless skewering of the Indian middle classes, Rahul Raina’s roistering, whip-smart and deliciously fun Delhi-set crime caper, How to Kidnap the Rich, is the first great state-of-the-subcontinent novel of the 21st century. Yet, Raina tells me over Zoom from his home in Oxford, the first germ of the idea for his début came from a somewhat unlikely source: America’s “Varsity Blues” university admissions scandal.

That investigation revealed a widespread bribery conspiracy of the rich and famous gaming the system for their children’s entrance to some prestigious higher learning institutions—including Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California (USC)—often through bogus athletic scholarships. The scandal touched Wall Street and Hollywood, with c.e.o.s and celebrities getting jail time, perhaps most notably the “Desperate Housewives” actor Felicity Huffman.

Raina says: “When I saw that, I thought: ‘That’s so Indian.’ Even though it happened in the US, the culture of it was so familiar—looking for that sliver of privilege, that one bit of advantage over the rest. That you know, say, the water polo coach at USC who can be bribed to help your kid get accepted to the college... that’s the sort of thing that happens in India all the time.”

And happens in How to Kidnap the Rich, which is told from the perspective of Ramesh, an “examinations consultant” who has a profitable and highly illegal business of taking the all-important secondary school exit exams—of which a score in the top percentile will ensure a place at a posh university or a lucrative job—in his students’ stead. In his early twenties, Ramesh is young enough to still pass as a high school kid, but is nothing like the pampered and indolent children of his clients, having been brought up in poverty by an abusive single dad.

When Ramesh takes the All India exam for social media- obsessed Rudi, he does a tad too well, getting the top score in the country. Rudi is assumed to be “the Topper” and becomes instantly famous, is showered with money and tabbed to be the star of the game show “Beat the Brain” (sort of like ITV’s “The Chase”). As Ramesh is the actual brains, he goes along for the ride, posing as Rudi’s manager. But it starts coming apart when a dogged police investigator suspects the Rudi/Ramesh switcheroo, then a kidnap, a double kidnap, a reverse kidnap and Pakistani spies are thrown into the mix.

How to Kidnap the Rich is an exaggeration of exams-obsessed India, but not by much. In real life, there are a range of tests in a variety of subjects across the states, so there will be many Toppers each year. None get as famous as Rudi, but there is plenty of media coverage. I went down a rabbit hole of reporters breathlessly relating the stories of 18-year-old Toppers explaining their arduous test prep regimes, the things that got them through it all (“listening to [pop star] Himanshi Khurana helped me relax!”) and the inevitable fulsome thank-yous to their selfless parents. A Rudi/Ramesh situation is not unheard of: last autumn, a test prep coach in Assam was arrested for sitting in for a boy who topped an engineering entrance exam.

One of the key themes in How to Kidnap the Rich is generational disconnect. Raina says: “Parental pressure, the dreams and aspirations of parents, is such a huge part of the system, especially with that growth and wealth in India. You get so many parents saying, ‘You need to study and succeed because you have it so easy, I had to walk 15 miles to school, dodging landmines and paedophiles...’ But more than that, there is a disconnect between generations in the way they vote, the way they see the world. India wants to be modern and rich, but it is built upon a patriarchal, old society that wants to impose its views on young people. The pressure to succeed is intense. You can get 99.3% in an exam and you feel your life is over because you didn’t get 99.4%. I have loads of friends around my age who have had terrible problems with mental health, who are in their mid-twenties and feeling that they have failed in life because they haven’t gotten a job with KPMG.”

Setting the scene
The setting of How to Kidnap the Rich is not exactly picture postcard. As Ramesh says early on: “This India, my India, smells like shit. It smells like a country that has gone off, all the dreams having curdled and clumped like rancid paneer.” And later: “Why I carried on living in Delhi, I don’t know. I spent my whole life complaining about it, the bitch heat, the bitch sweat, the bitch traffic... Delhi isn’t saffron. Delhi isn’t spice. Delhi is sweat.”

For all that, though, Raina’s Delhi is exciting and pulsing with promise. He says: “In books set in India, it’s always in Kolkata, Mumbai, Kashmir, Kerala, or the hill stations the British used to go during the empire. Part of my thinking was trying to put my version of Dehli onto the map, because Dehli as a city often gets ignored.”

Perhaps Raina can see India more clearly because he has a foot in both East and West. Raina’s family first moved to the UK when he was five, but for the next decade they shuttled back and forth as there were difficult circumstances at home: his family is Kashmiri Hindu and they suffered during a time of political instability in the late 1980s and early ’90s; in the end, they lost their land in Kashmir.

When they finally decided to stay in the UK for good, Raina’s adjustment wasn’t the smoothest: “English is my third language, and I can remember in my teenage years still having problems with English, accents, code-switching and all that stuff. This accent [a posh-ish estuary English] is not my ‘real’ accent.”

Raina adds: “There’s a feeling within my family that it’s cursed. That is not a joke. One day, my mum and I worked out that the average person in my family dies at about 50. So there’s always that sense, even though I’m now 28, that I don’t have very much time left. So many people in my family have died violently and young—about four or five people in my family have been murdered. There’s a feeling that things just don’t go right for us.”

Perhaps the Raina family fortunes are turning, as the reception for his début is the stuff unpublished authors’ dreams are made of. His submission sparked a bidding war among agents (won by RCW’s Sam Copeland) and Little, Brown’s Ailah Ahmed landed UK rights by fighting off six publishers at auction. The hottest title at the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair, the book has gone on to be sold into eight territories, while Riz Ahmed’s production company bought the rights and is developing a series for HBO.

While admitting the process has been “a whirlwind” and that the money is nice, Raina is remarkably grounded about it all. That’s partially because of some “pandemic perspective, where so many are struggling,” and that he suffered, too: he was stricken with coronavirus last year and lost three stone while ill. He is also kinda busy.

Raina’s day job is running his company, which employs 30 people—remember, he’s 28—and provides link-ages between UK small businesses and big businesses in India. “I’m taking part in that whole Brexiteer free-trading fantasy,” he jokes.

He also used to volunteer for charities for 30 to 40 hours a week on top of his day job. So, his writing time for How to Kidnap the Rich was between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. He says: “I realise I’m privileged in terms of shopping a book around here, rather than in India. Here you can research the agents, see them all interacting with each other on Twitter. In India, someone like me wouldn’t have access to getting published. But here I don’t have the privilege a lot of people have, either—I couldn’t say I did English at Oxford, or a creative writing MA at UEA. Maybe that’s why I didn’t talk about myself in my pitch. I just wrote: ‘Here’s my manuscript, it’s set in Delhi, I’m 27, I work for charities sometimes.’ I guess that worked out.”

Book extract 
The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault.

The others—those were definitely me.
I was lying in a haze of brown bottles. Rudi was on the floor, face streaked with a little vomit. I was meant to be looking after him. Rudi had been doing coke,
a disgusting Western synthetic drug. What was wrong with our drugs, the genteel natural Oriental ones like opium or khat?

That posh shit.

The statue of Saraswati was watching us unkindly from the corner. I could smell the stink of the camphor incense I’d bought to cover up the stale funk of beer and sweat and turmeric- laced street food.

Rudi’s flat was—how do our elites say it?—uber classy. Flat- screens, silk carpets, modern art on the walls. Tasteful recessed light- ing. We were ten days from Diwali. The place was cluttered with presents from hangers- on, advertisers, politicians. Hampers of food, boxes of sweets, flower arrangements,Japanese electronics, greeting cards stuffed with money.

It was one of those wet, warm afternoons where everyone was scratching their backsides and our great nation’s GDP was failing to hit the World Bank’s targets.

I wasn’t usually the one drinking. But hanging around Rudi as much as I had recently, trying to watch him like this, had taken its toll.