ON THE EVENING of 26 December, Polina, a young woman from Ukraine with a round face and large green eyes, was celebrating with six of her girlfriends—expats all, mostly models and hairdressers. A Christmas tree glittered in the corner of her apartment, and a Ukrainian spread of potato pancakes, beetroot soup and chicken sausage was laid out on the table, next to a few bottles of red wine.
The apartment, on the first floor of a new building in a South Delhi colony, had the feel of a posh college hostel, with white marble floors and two large bedrooms, each of which had two bunk beds. When I arrived, two of Polina’s roommates were padding about in their nightgowns; one was drying her hair. A widescreen LCD television was mounted on one of the white walls, and a few of the women were watching the movie Outsourced, a romantic comedy about an American call-centre manager who moves to Mumbai; they laughed through a scene that featured the protagonist’s uncomfortable first encounter with an Indian public toilet.
It was Polina’s 24th birthday, and the television was soon switched off in favour of some anodyne dance music as candles were lit on her birthday cake. She took a deep breath before blowing out the candles, and laughter filled the room. A few minutes later, while the girls were still eating their cake, Polina’s mobile phone rang. Her responses were brief—“Yes, yes, okay”—and she stood up as she talked and began to walk away from her half-eaten piece of birthday cake, from her friends who had stopped laughing. She walked out the door and briskly down a flight of stairs, into the back seat of a Honda City waiting near the curb. I followed her outside, and she rolled down the window. “GK two,” she said to me. “I text you the address.”