Saturday, 15 April 2017

Book Review: Adi Sankara & Other Stories, by Susan Visvanathan

Three short stories by Susan Visvanathan. The first one a mango slice, the second a pineapple with a slice missing and the third a pine cone. The mango from which the mango slice comes must have been a big one, though the slice is not large, possibly not more than one-sixteenth of the mango, or even one-thirty second. The pineapple, on the other hand is rather small and even if the missing slice weren’t missing, it still wouldn’t have been much bigger than a large mango. The pine cone comes from a tall pine tree and one can only guess how tall the pine tree would be.

Adi Sankara’s philosophy is well known to all Indians, whilst his personal life is remarkably murky, despite the existence of around fourteen biographies. Visvanathan’s Adi Sankara is a quick glimpse into what must have been Sankara’s childhood in Kaladi. It whets one’s appetite and leaves the reader hungry. One feels Sankara’s hunger for food and his fear of the crocodile as keenly as his hunger for knowledge. It was an exciting time then in Kerala with Islam having made an entry, the Buddhists confident and everywhere and the Syrian Christians laid-back and as powerful as the caste Hindus. Adi Sankara’s travels take him all over the sub-continent, to Pataliputra, Nalanda and Magadh. Surely there’s so much more to Adi Sankara, but Visvanathan hides the rest of the mango.

I liked the second story, Beyond the Ferry, best of the three. Jehangir, a village in Kerala where many children are born deformed, thanks to Thalidomide poisoning. Abe, a poor boy who has no physical deformity, other than that inflicted by his poverty. Shazia, a girl whom Abe befriends, but cannot hope to marry. Sayir, a rich old merchant from Benaras who comes to Jehangir to marry poor Shazia, still barely a child. Suleman, Abe’s friend, who doesn’t known Shazia from Adam until he ends up working for Sayir and meets his Sayir’s wife, renamed Tazia. When the story ends, Abe has done well for himself – he is an engineer and is still looking for a wife. Tazia has been divorced by Sayir and returns to Jehangir with Suleman and Abe spots them. Visvanathan makes it clear that Abe is unlikely to marry Shazia, though she is recently divorced, because Abe wants to marry a girl who his mother would approve. They don’t care about dowry, Abe’s parents, they are only looking at the girl’s personality. Yet we know that Shazia will not wed Abe.

The pine cone is from a cold land, where the snow fell steadily, the sun hardly rose, the poplars rose in straight lines and the bleak greyness of the sky was hard to imagine. The western world is in the dark ages. Nevertheless, certain things were always the same even in those ancient times and faraway lands, in that Kings spent an inordinate amount of time fighting and plotting for lands and power, they married to create alliances and not for love and their families were usually neglected. Visvanathan’s writing is so exquisite that one can feel the physical hardship experienced by wandering royalty in those centuries before the industrial age, where the cruel weather made it so easy for a weak child to die, even when the child was a prince!

In an era where the best writing is considered to be that which can be read on mobile phones in sms format and delivers instant gratification, Visvanathan’s craft work is a thrown back to an era which is rapidly fading from our collective memories.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Short Story: 10 Most Influential Under 35

The television was a mite too loud, Sangeeta thought and she reached for the remote control, which was not within easy reach. Sachin saw her reach out and warned, ‘don’t change the channel.’

‘I won’t. Just the volume, too loud,’ Sangeeta muttered through her samosa.

‘Didi, I’ve kept your saree on your bed,’ the maid told her from behind and vanished.

‘What’s the time?’ Sangeeta asked, even as she turned around to look at the timepiece on top of a large bookshelf which groaned under the weight of her book collection.

‘Plenty of time,’ her mother commented. ‘Eat well. They won’t give away your award to someone else even if you are late.’

Sangeeta groaned not just because she was trying to lose weight, but also because it was five thirty and she had to be at the venue by seven.

‘We must leave by six. Daddy, what are you wearing today?’

‘Don’t worry about me. You go get dressed.’

Sangeeta finished her samosa and ran upstairs.

‘Daddy, I’ve picked a shirt for you. It’s on your bed. Wear it with anything black,’ Sangeeta shouted from the top of the stairs before disappearing once again.

When Sangeeta reappeared in the living room, her father was still in front of the TV, flicking through the channels, scratching himself through his loose pajamas. Sachin sat nearby, immaculately dressed in smart casuals and a serious professional look on his face which belied his playboy lifestyle.

‘Ghosh, Daddy, why aren’t you dressed already? Please get dressed. We need to leave in five minutes.’

‘I don’t need much time to get dressed, don’t you know that?’

There was something wrong, Sangeeta sensed. For one, Sachin stared woodenly ahead.

‘Mummy, are you ready?’ Sangeeta directed her voice upstairs.

‘Coming. Where is your Daddy?’

‘He is still here. I’m asking him to get dressed.’

‘Damn! This isn’t working. I think the batteries need to be changed. Do we have any batteries in the house?’ The remote control was being subjected to some harsh third degree treatment by her father.

‘Daddy, for goodness sake, forget the remote. Get dressed. We will be late otherwise.’

Her father continued to stare ahead. ‘I just need a minute to get dressed. Don’t worry about me. Actually, why don’t the three on you go on ahead? I will take a taxi and get there just in time for’

‘What rubbish! We are all going together.’

Sangeeta’s mother appeared. ‘Mummy’s what’s wrong with Daddy?’

‘I don’t know. If he doesn’t want to come, he can stay here. Let’s go.’

Time stood still for a few seconds. ‘But why?’ Sangeeta blurted out.

Everyone was silent. ‘Come on Daddy, 10 Most Influential Under 35. Not a mean achievement. You know, Suja was lobbying so hard to make it to this list.’

‘What’s the big deal? You were influential when you were under thirty and you will be influential when you cross forty. In a few years, we’ll have 10 Most Influential Under 40. I can attend that.’

Sangeeta slowly sat down, tears in her eyes. ‘But this is important to me! Why aren’t you’ She choked on her own words.

‘Why couldn’t you make it home last week when that boy and his family came to see you?’

Sangeeta’s tears flowed freely now. ‘I really couldn’t. I was stuck in that meeting. I just’

Surprisingly Sachin came to her rescue. ‘Sangeeta don’t cry. This isn’t the time for that. Let’s go. Let Daddy stay here.’

‘Why is it that you haven’t liked any of the boys we showed you? What do you think you are?’ Her father’s voice almost broke with emotion.

‘Daddy, if I meet someone I like, I will marry him, I promise.’

‘Fine, after you marry someone, I’ll start attending these functions.’

‘Daddy please, please come. I need you.’

‘You don’t need me. You don’t need anybody. You are very selfish. Go to hell!’

Sangeeta started sobbing uncontrollably. ‘You made her cry,’ her mother accused her father.

‘Like hell I did.’

‘We’ll be late. Who’s coming?’ Sachin asked.

‘Okay, stop this nonsense. I will come, but you people go ahead. I will join you.’ Sangeeta’s father had a grim look on his face.

‘I can’t not go for this one,’ Sangeeta explained through her tears. This is so very important.’

‘I need five minutes to get ready. Do you want to wait for five minutes or do you want to’

‘We’ll wait Daddy. Let’s go together.’

Sangeeta’s father smiled and said, ‘give me two minutes.’ However, he continued to look very unhappy.

‘Hurry up Daddy,’ Sangeeta urged him. ‘we are going to be late, but don’t worry.’

‘We won’t be late. I’ll get you there in 40 minutes,’ Sachin promised them all.

‘Like hell. You will drive carefully or I can take a taxi,’ her father warned Sachin.

‘Don’t blame me for Sangeeta not getting married!’

‘I’m not blaming you for Sangeeta not getting married. I’m warning you against driving recklessly.’

Sachin threw the car keys to the table and plonked down on the sofa. ‘You could have allowed her to marry that Bengali guy! Then we wouldn’t have had all this’

Sangeeta sat down and buried her face in her hands, sobbing silently.

‘Are all of you happy?’ Sangeeta’s mother demanded.

‘Sangeeta, honey, I’m so sorry. Let’s go. You are my angel. I only want you to be happy. Give me two minutes, I’ll be right back.’

Sangeeta continued to sob for another minute before she straightened up. ‘Why is everyone doing this to me?’ she demanded through her tears.

‘You go get dressed,’ her mother ordered her father who hesitated for a second before going upstairs.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Short Story: WTF

‘wtf”, Ashok’s text message read and my heart sank.

‘listen there are others like you. i was only trying to help them,’ I texted back. However, it was too late, because when I gathered the courage to call Ashok thirty minutes later, he did not answer.

I logged in and deleted my facebook status update. Over fifteen people had liked it already.

I went back to bed and tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I watched a movie and later, as dawn broke, went for a run. I always feel good after a run and the shower made me feel even better. I forgot all about Ashok until the bell rang.

‘Come to the station right away,’ the policeman commanded, even as he looked at the plate of half eaten fried eggs.

The Circle Inspector waved Ashok’s note in my face. ‘Sandeep Kumar is responsible for my death,’ it stated cryptically.

‘Oh shit! He actually killed himself!’

‘What did you do?’ the Circle Inspector asked me in a not unkind voice. He was in his early fifties and had lots of grey hair. A man who had risen up through the ranks. This definitely wasn’t the first time someone committed suicide and left behind a note blaming someone else for his death.

I took a deep breath and said, ‘Ashok contacted me last night saying he wanted to talk to me. He said he felt suicidal.’

‘And then?’ They didn’t like the pause I took, but I needed to breathe before I could speak again.

‘I spoke to him for over an hour. Ashok had just lost his job and he is divorced. He thanked me at the end and that was it. I went to bed.’

‘So why’s he blaming you?’

‘I just don’t know.’

They kept me at the station for another hour and then let me go. ‘You must be available if we need you. Don’t leave the city till this case is closed.’

I humbly nodded.

Would they find out about that facebook status update, I wondered. Thankfully Ashok didn’t have many friends and I was sure we didn’t have facebook friends in common. That update had received fifteen likes, which meant at least fifteen had read it. Would any of them hear of Ashok’s suicide and inform the cops? I needn’t have worried since the cops knocked on my door later that evening and took me to the station once again.

‘We’re charging you for abetment,’ the Circle Inspector told me. Ashok’s brother was sitting across the table from him.

‘What did I do?’ I demanded.

Ashok’s brother wordlessly showed me his phone. It had a screenshot of my facebook update. ‘Talked a good friend out of committing suicide. So easy and feel so good.’

‘Get yourself a good lawyer. It shouldn’t be too difficult to convince the judge that you didn’t mean anything.’

‘Didn’t you know that Ashok would read your update?’ his brother tearfully demanded of me.

‘Sorry,’ I said and felt really stupid. ‘How did you see this update?’ I asked even as a constable indicated that I follow him. Ashok’s brother was not friends with me on facebook.

He hesitated. ‘Ashok had liked your update and so it appeared in my feed.’


Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Short Story: A Brief Encounter at the Lower Parel Peninsula Junction

Mumbai is notorious for its traffic jams and ever since I moved to this vibrant city six months ago, I’ve spent more time waiting at traffic signals than anywhere else outdoors. Today morning, on the way to office, while my Uber cab was waiting at the Lower Parel Peninsula junction for a red signal to disappear, my I-Phone lost its connectivity for a few seconds, sufficient time for me to observe that the black and yellow taxi which had drawn up along-side had a single occupant, a pretty woman. At first I thought she was in her early thirties, then I realised that she was a fair bit older than that. I glanced away and then made a semi-circular motion that allowed me to look at the woman again. She had applied her make-up with care, but was not well-off. Her clothes were neither stylish nor fashionable. Rather, the salwar and kameez were well-worn. A lower middle-class face. I quickly looked at her again, for the third time and decided that she was not pretty at all, rather, she had very average looks, even though she had obviously taken a lot of trouble to appear her best.

I smirked to myself. Probably a secretary or receptionist working for one of those run-of-the-mill outfits. I could picture her working for a paan chewing boss who sat on a sagging sofa and entertained guests with piping hot sugary tea served in small steel glasses, a plate full of greasy samosas dripping with oil, by the side.

I went back to my I-Phone and lazily flipped through Facebook. There were no new status updates and the two friends who had their birthdays had already been wished.

The traffic hadn’t moved and the woman and her taxi were still there. The woman stared straight ahead, as if she were craning her neck to look ahead. She appeared to be a bit nervous or even anxious, as if she were psyching herself for a tough day ahead. Why did she have to be worried as she headed for work? That she was headed towards an office, I had no doubt, since she looked as if she was on her regular commute and her black hand-bag had a well-worn look.

I looked at the woman again. There was a tenaciousness about her that was attractive. Even her clothes showed a bit of fighting spirit. They were not new and were faded, but had been maintained well. The handbag was neither branded nor new, but it could have been taken anywhere without embarrassment. It wasn’t tacky and didn’t have a cheap look either, though I was sure that the woman hadn’t bust her bank in order to buy it. A fighter, she had obviously worked hard to raise above her social settings. I could imagine her struggling with her English while studying at a suburban arts college close to her home, her hard work helping her acquire greater fluency as she progressed. The woman herself was an example of how something which is average can be shown to be much better than it is. A quick glance would mark her out to be a beautiful woman. Her hair was tied up in a loose, but elegant ponytail and her make-up was immaculate, neither pan-cake like nor too light. I looked at her again and decided that she was actually quite attractive.

The traffic showed signs of starting to move. I saw that the woman was rolling down her window. Was she planning to buy something from one of the loitering children selling trinkets? No, she was asking me something, the fingers of her palm half-turned in the universal sign for a question, her lovely lips forming an O. Was it me? Yes, the woman was definitely looking at me and saying something. Did she require directions?

I too rolled down my window with a smile. Should I ask the woman for her name and number once I had answered her question, whatever it might be?

The woman said something short and sharp once again. The traffic was starting to move.

‘What?’ I asked

‘Why are you staring at me so much, you nasty @#$%?’

I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t been staring at her at all. Actually I had been, but it was not the sort of staring which required to be penalised. I was at a loss for words. I quickly turned around in my seat and looked straight. My driver, a man fairly younger than me, gave me a nastier look without a hint of any sympathy. My heart was beating fast. To be accused of something so cheap and downmarket was not the best way to start the day, was it? I hazarded one last look. The former object of my affections was looking straight ahead, annoyance writ large on her face.

Why had I stared at that woman so much? I hadn’t even found her particularly attractive after the second glance. I had done so because I found her to be curiously different. If she had been someone from my class, an attractive upper middle-class woman on the way to office, I would have looked at her surreptitiously. A quick glance, followed by a circular movement that would allow me a second view for a few nanoseconds. It would never have been more than that. Did I stare at this woman so intensely because I was sure she was not from the upper classes and hence someone who would be tolerant of masculine stares? I just don’t know, except that these days, while commuting by cab I am a lot more circumspect when I look at women, any woman.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Short Story: The Exit

‘Could you please give me another 30 mins?’ Radha asked her with exquisite politeness.

Pratiksha frowned with annoyance, and muttered ‘okay’. As if she had a choice.

‘You have the forms I sent you, right?’ she asked Radha, but Radha had already disconnected.

Time seemed to stand still. Everyone was busy working, with occasional eruptions of laughter or office banter. Everyone ignored her. Once she smiled at one of Ahmed’s jokes and slightly turned her head in the hope of connecting with someone, but no one met her eyes.

Someone clapped her gently on the back. ‘All the best Pratiksha. Keep in touch.’ It was Simoné. Of all people.

‘You’re off early?’ She so wanted to slap Simoné’s fat ass.

‘I need to. School play.’

Why not? Boss would have so benevolently assented when Simoné asked her for permission to leave early, in her usual simpering way.

‘You keep in touch, okay?’ Simoné repeated and started to walk away fast, her expensive shoes making a tiny pitter-patter sound, as if the school play would not start if she didn’t make it on time.

‘Of course Simoné. I will,’ Pratiksha called after Simoné, speaking louder than required. The extra volume did have some effect. Two of her colleagues moved their necks a bit. She would never keep in touch with Simoné, of course. Simoné had done more to mess up her life at Harvey’s than anyone else, except Boss of course.

She decided to get herself another coffee, even though Boss’s cabin was on the way. She made it safely to the orange and brown monster, but on her way back, Cappuccino in hand, she was spotted. Pratiksha wanted to ignore the wave which beckoned her inside. I’ll come back later to say goodbye, but right now, I’d like to enjoy my coffee in peace, before it gets cold, she wanted to say. She opened the door gently and went inside. How could a working cabin be so spick and span?

‘I’m going to miss you so much.’ Pratiksha tried not to stare at Boss’s bright pink lipstick, but failed, as she had failed many times in the past. Should she tell Boss before she finally left that the lipstick was two shades too bright and made her look silly? Sort of like a middle-aged whore. If only she could bring herself to say that, she was sure that Boss’s painted mouth would go agape like a gold fish and it would be so funny!

‘I’m going to miss you too Ma’am. In fact, I will miss everyone here.’ Pratiksha’s voice almost sounded sincere.

Boss gave her a knowing smile and adjusted a wispy tendril of perfectly dyed hair which was out of place. ‘Always remember what I told you. Attention to detail. If you get that right, you will go places.’

I am not a fucking twenty seven year old to be told that, Pratiksha wanted to scream. She had been, for all practical purposes, number two in the department, being not so much younger than Boss.

‘Yes Ma’am,’ she said.

‘You’ll be there for the house warming, right?’

‘Of course. I so want to see your new flat. Everyone’s been raving about it.’

‘I wish I hadn’t got carried away. I’m totally broke.’

‘I’m sure it’s all worth it.’

Pratiksha’s mobile rang. ‘It’s Radha. For my exit interview. It was supposed to have been twenty minutes ago.’

‘HR is always like that. They are so slow and inefficient.’

Hopefully they would be civilised and hear her out, Pratiksha hoped. Radha had been involved in her recruitment and she ought to remember some of the promises made when she was poached from her previous job.

‘Tell them all that you think is relevant. It will be useful for everyone, including me.’

‘Of course Ma’am, but I’ve already told you whatever I had to say.’ Pratiksha walked out quickly clutching her lukewarm Cappuccino.

Radha had brought someone else with her, which was unusual. Wasn’t an exit interview meant to be a one-on-one thing, something like a confession in a Catholic church? Pratiksha tried to imagine Simoné at confession, kneeling and blurting out her sins to a potbellied clergyman and it made her smile. Radha smiled back.

‘This is Selvi, she will do your exit interview. I have this meeting I cannot get out of.’ Radha practically ran away before Pratiksha could say a word.

What the fuck? Selvi looked as if she were still in college. What was the message being conveyed to her by having her exit interview taken by someone so junior? That whatever she had to say would be ignored?

Selvi gave her an encouraging smile and took out a sheaf of forms. ‘I’ve gone through your responses. Shall we start?’ Who the hell gave Selvi the right to sound so confident, especially when she had such a pronounced south Indian accent and was so young?

‘You’ve written that you felt suffocated on account of the way you were treated by your boss. Did you say this directly to your boss?’

‘Yes I did. Smothered was the word I used, not suffocated.’

‘Yes, yes, but did you tell her that?’


‘And what was the response?’

Boss had smiled at that. ‘I had already put in my papers, so it didn’t matter. Also, I think Mandira felt threatened by me and so she made my life miserable.’

‘Why didn’t you discuss it with her before putting in your papers? It may have made a difference.’

‘I don’t think so.’

Why do you, Selvi’s lips formed the words, but she didn’t. Instead she started to read from the forms which Pratiksha had completed.

‘Mandira has a patronising attitude towards everyone in the department. She micro-manages things and there is little freedom while executing. She refuses to differentiate between someone with five years’ experience and someone with fifteen. She encourages everyone to call her Ma’am or Boss even though the rest of the organisation is on a first name basis. There is no proper hierarchy within the department and everyone directly reports to Mandira. She used to get my reportees to ignore me and talk to her directly. Later she took away my assistants and made me do a lot of junior level work.’

‘Hmm, but everyone likes her.’ Selvi gave her an odd look. Why are you an exception? The unspoken words hung in the air like an accusation.

Pratiksha smiled. There was a lot more she could have written, but now she was glad she didn’t. What a waste!

‘I wish you had discussed all this beforehand. It would have’

‘Never mind. I’m sure you’ll pass on my feedback to Mandira and the CEO.’

‘Of course.’ What on earth would that achieve? Selvi seemed to wonder.

She got back to her work area and to an air of expectancy.

‘She’s here,’ Ahmed shouted.

Someone picked up the phone and said ‘Ma’am, she’s back.’

Boss came marching in, carrying a large box, gift wrapped in pink.

‘Did you think we would let you go just like that?’ Boss demanded.

It matches the colour of your lipstick, Pratiksha wanted to say.

‘So how long have you been with us?’ Boss enquired.

‘Almost two years.’ Everyone else was a long-timer. Boss herself had been with the organisation for over twenty years.

‘Times flies,’ Boss said. Everyone nodded.

Ahmed came close and whispered in her ear. ‘Boss really liked you. She hates to see you leave. If you change your mind even now.’ Pratiksha gave Ahmed an incredulous look.

Boss is so sweet, even after Pratiksha said so many things to her face, she’s giving her a farewell gift, they all seemed to be thinking.

Take a deep breath, deep, deep breath, she told herself. This too shall pass. And it did.

‘We’ll see you next week at the house warming,’ they told her in turns. Pratiksha kept nodding, though she was pretty sure that she wouldn’t go.

Finally it was over and she walked out, clutching a box with her personal effects. Ahmed came running after her.

‘Listen, you’re attending the house warming next week, aren’t you?’

‘Yes of course. Definitely.’ One more white lie didn’t matter. They wouldn’t miss her.

‘We’re pooling in money to buy Boss a gift. You want to contribute?’ Ahmed had a playful smile on his face.

If she was planning to attend the house warming, she would want to contribute, wouldn’t she? On the other hand, if she was planning to bunk, she wouldn’t.

‘Of course. This is so convenient. I was wondering what I could get her. Pooling is such a good idea. Pratiksha parted with two crisp thousand rupees notes that were still warm from the ATM and walked away quickly before Ahmed or anyone else could make any other demand on her.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Short Story: A Tale Of Two Speeches

My mom gave me an encouraging smile as I wriggled my leg under the table. I wasn’t nervous, not in the least. Rather, I felt infinitely superior to the lesser beings who were all around me, some of whom awaited us in the college auditorium. I’ll keep it simple,’ I told my mom who didn’t look too pleased at my proposal to dumb down.

‘You do what you think is right,’ Sheela auntie told me. Sheela auntie was my mom’s best friend. She didn’t need to give any such instructions to her son Arun who looked very comfortable in his skin, finishing off the last of his sweet nectar-like coffee with a loud slurp.

‘Some more coffee for you Arun?’ my mom asked.

‘Yes, please Kala auntie. This is lovely coffee. One of the things I miss over there. The coffee one gets there is atrocious. Like a bitter pill.’

‘I’ve got used to it,’ I said. My mom gave me a pained look as she rang the bell.

The attendant who came in beamed at all of us.

‘Krishna, one more coffee for Arun.’ Krishna was in his early fifties and I’ve known him since I was a toddler, just as I’ve known Sheela auntie and Arun since my infancy.

‘What about you moné?’ Krishna asked me even as he nodded in response to my mom’s order. Mon literally meant ‘son’, but in Kerala, it was liberally used by all and sundry when addressing a much younger man.

‘No, not for me.

‘When do you leave?’ Krishna asked me, as he started to walk out.

‘In a week’s time.’

‘And you moné? Krishna stopped at the door, his hand on the doorknob.

‘I’ve just got here. I’m not going back,’ Arun said with a chuckle.

‘I wish,’ Sheela auntie said. ‘He’ll leave in two weeks,’ she told Krishna.

‘Get him married before he goes away,’ Krishna advised her and left.

‘If only these kids would obey us in matters such as these,’ my mom started one of her usual tirades.

‘Oh never mind them. I’ve got used to the idea that Arun may not marry the sort of girl I have in mind. It doesn’t matter. I’m good at adjusting, even when I don’t get what I want.’

‘Oh Arun is a sensible boy. Unlike Shibin. Shibin just doesn’t care how I feel.’

‘But Shibin will make you happy. You always get what you want.’ Sheela auntie’s voice had become mellow. A little too mellow. It wasn’t too long ago that my mom had pipped her to the principal’s post, a position both women had aspired to, ever since they joined St. Theresa’s as junior lecturers.

Krishna came back with a cup of coffee for Arun and lingered.

‘What’s it Krishna?’ My mom’s voice was sharp. We were in the principal’s office and she reigned supreme in there.

‘Oh nothing!’ Krishna left in a huff. Arun chuckled.

‘He wants to talk to me regarding his son. He’s been pestering me to find a job for him in America.’

‘As if you are working in the Gulf! ‘You can’t take all and sundry to America!’ Sheela auntie was annoyed.

‘He knows that,’ my mom said. ‘He’s not that stupid.’

‘It’s okay Mummy,’ Arun told Kala auntie. ‘I’ll speak to him anyways. I do have a friend in Qatar who may be able to’

‘That would be wonderful,’ both women chimed in.

I looked at my watch and said, ‘didn’t we say 11:00 a.m.?’

The four of us trooped out, walking through long corridors, past classrooms, some noisy and some suspiciously silent. ‘B.Com, first and third years. M.Com, both years,’ my mom whispered to me, as I followed her. Sheela auntie and Arun brought up the rear.

‘You have nothing to do with any of them right? Even when you used to teach?’

‘Nope, why would a physics teacher have dealings with commerce students?’ I gave mom a knowing smile, even though I no longer shared her contempt for students who studied subjects other then science, engineering or medicine.

‘Sheela would know them somewhat. She takes English for First Year B.Com.’ Mom spoke loud enough for Sheela auntie to hear.

‘I must have taught all of them, but I am so bad with names, I doubt if I can recall more than a few names.’

‘But what about your current class? Surely you would know their names?’ Arun was bemused.

‘The English literature department has eight teachers. We take turns to teach B.Com students. I devote most of my time for the M.A students, especially the final years.’ I realized that contempt for other disciplines was not the monopoly of science teachers.

‘Arun, if you want an introduction, why not say so? Your mother would not mind introducing you to any number of pretty young women.’

‘Ha! Ha! Very funny.’

There was no time to say more since we were suddenly inside the auditorium, which was half full. There must have been around two hundred students in there, in ages ranging from the late teens to the early twenties. I was suddenly conscious of being a single man, albeit in my early thirties. I turned around to look at Arun who showed no signs of nervousness, let alone look flustered as I was.

The Head of the Commerce Department walked over to us, followed by three colleagues. Gracy auntie was also an acquaintance, but I didn’t know her as well as I knew Sheela auntie. I was sure that Arun didn’t know her all that well either, Gracy auntie was around five years younger than our mothers and they weren’t close, but Arun greeted her like a long-long friend, as he did with her colleagues who were even younger. One of them actually blushed. It helped that Arun was a few inches taller than the average Malayalee and rather good-looking.

‘This is such an honour. Two boys from our town, children of our own faculty, both did MBAs from the US and now both of them are successful investment bankers in New York.’

‘I’m not an investment banker. I do econometrics modeling for a fund. And I did an M.S in Finance, not an MBA.’

Gracy auntie gave me a knowing smile, but I was sure she didn’t have a clue about the difference between investment banking, which Arun did, and econometrics modeling for hedge funds.

We walked over to the podium and took our seats. Gracy auntie started to speak and I tried to focus, but failed. Both Arun and I were expected to speak about what we did in the US, sort of a how-we-did-it, as in, how did each of us make it out of Kerala and do our Masters in the US and find employment in a supposedly lucrative field. Unlike Arun who did bread and butter investment banking, what I did was highly specialized. Econometrics involved the use of mathematical tools and models to price call and put options and to assess volatility in the market. My main role was to prepare models to price and value the derivatives the hedge fund I worked for invested in. I was currently working on a more efficient framework for pricing options using time integration schemes and nonlinear financial integration modeling, but I was sure that the audience would not appreciate any of that. I had to keep it simple and relevant. I realize that my mom was prodding me with her feet, none too gently. Grace auntie had finished her introduction and another teacher, I think her name was Vimala, was speaking, rather reading from a prepared sheet.

‘Shibin did his chemical engineering from BITS Pilani and then went to Texas for his Masters in Finance.’ Now he works for’

I frowned. I distinctly remembered writing in the bio I had prepared the previous night that I went to Austin for my Masters. University of Texas, Austin, that’s what I had written. What was the harm in saying so? Did Vimala know a lot about the US to modify what I was painstakingly written out for her benefit?

‘Arun did his mechanical engineering from NIT Warrangal and worked in Jamshedpur for two years before doing an MBA from Duke in Carolina. Duke in Carolina! Just like that. I was surely Arun had written Duke University, Fuqua School of Business, Durham, North Carolina. Was Vimala too scared to pronounce ‘Fuqua’? I turned sideways to look at Arun who seemed to be having a small laugh at the faux pas. ‘Now he works for XYZ, a top investment bank in New York.

Soon the introductions were over and I was facing the multitude. I took a deep breath as I started to speak. I knew I would end up speaking first, since my mom was the principal. If Sheela auntie had pipped my mom in the race to for the top job, I would be waiting for my turn, as Arun was. Arun didn’t seem to mind.

‘I use econometrics to build financial models for a hedge fund. How many of you know what a hedge fund is?’ I asked the students and waited for a response. There was none.

‘I’m sure you know what a mutual fund is.’ There were a few nods. ‘A hedge fund is a fund, in that it pools money from a number of people and makes investments, like a mutual fund. However, unlike mutual funds, a hedge fund collects money from a limited number of sophisticated individual or institutional investors, in other words, knowledgeable investors who can also afford to place their money at risk and invests them in a diverse pool of assets, using contrarian tactics, often with complex portfolio construction.’

I looked at the students again. Most of what I said had clearly gone above their heads. One would expect students studying commerce to know what a hedge fund was, but this was small town India where the smartest and the best joined either engineering or medical colleges.

‘Let’s focus on the basics,’ I said. ‘What’s a fund? Silence. ‘A pool of money.’ Why do people pool their money? Why is a fund managed by a professional fund manager? Why is a fund regulated by a regulator? In India, we have SEBI. In the US, a fund would be regulated by the SEC and FINRA.’ I continued to ask simple questions and give answers. After a while, I started to receive some responses and though they were rather silly, I felt encouraged. I continued in that vein for half and hour and concluded by saying that though I hadn’t spoken about what I did for a living, I hoped that I had added to their knowledge about investment management in general and funds in particular. There was some muted applause and I sat down feeling satisfied. My mom beamed at me. Sheela auntie gave me a congratulatory nod of her head. Arun however avoided my eyes.

‘I am an investment banker and I do leveraged buy-outs at XYZ ,’ Arun announced. I waited for Arun to explain what a leveraged buy-out was, something rather straightforward, but he didn’t. Instead, he spent ten minutes taking about XYZ, the i-bank he worked for, how it had a pedigree of over 100 years and how it had offices all over the world and its bankers led a jet-setting lifestyle. Then he went back to talking about leveraged buy-outs, using a lot of technical jargon, which sounded quite complicated, but actually wasn’t.

Arun mentioned a few anecdotes about his clients and their top honchos, taking care to disguise their names and identity. He then went back to talking about leveraged buyouts and the hostile takeovers which usually followed such a buyout. Soon, Arun had his audience at the edge of their seats even though they did not understand most of what he was saying. He gave a recent example of a leveraged buy-out, one which had hogged headlines in the financial press, but was actually handled by another investment bank, but who cared? The audience behaved as if Arun was a rock star or as if they were watching the latest Hollywood thriller. In vain I waited for Arun to say that a leveraged buyout was merely the acquisition by one company of another using a whale lot of borrowed money, at times even pledging the assets of the target company. If only Arun would give that basic clarification, most of what he said would make sense. Just another form of M&A, I wanted to stand up and say, only to make things easier for the young ones listening to Arun.

I turned to look at Sheela auntie and my mom. Sheela auntie was beaming, this time genuinely, though I was sure she didn’t understand any of the jargon Arun used. My mom was also listening intently, though at times she turned her head this way and that, to scan the students. I knew that she wasn’t too happy even though she hid her feelings well.

Arun spoke for almost an hour. Towards the end he concluded by saying that he hoped to see a number of St. Theresa’s students working as investment bankers in New York, London and other parts of the world. If they studied well and showed single-minded determination, they could easily reach where he had got to. The audience was ecstatic and gave him a standing ovation.

As well left the auditorium, Sheela auntie and Arun were all smiles. I too smiled at them and congratulated Arun for his excellent speech. I decided to look at the whole thing philosophically. After all, Arun’s victory had little value, but my mom didn’t say a word to me for the rest of that day.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Book Review: Magic in the Mountain, by Nimi Kurian

It’s a long while since I read a book essentially meant for children. A children’s book need not be about children, but Magic in the Mountain is, which would normally make it all the more unsuitable for an adult. Nevertheless, since I’ve followed Nimi Kurian’s writings in the Hindu for a while now, when I heard that her first novel has been published, I couldn’t resist buying Magic in the Mountain’s kindle edition, even though, as I just said, it is not really meant for those above the age of fourteen.

Nimi takes us to Coonoor, a little hill town nestled in the Nilgiri mountains. We meet two young kids, Priya and Pradeep, in tragic circumstances – their parents have been killed in a road accident. Aunt Sheila, their mother’s sister, is kindness personified and whisks the kids off to Coonoor where she lives. Coonoor is a magical place on its own but when Priya and Pradeep meet special characters such as Kitty the kitten and Sanjana Banerjee who is forever knitting, it takes on a special aura.

Magic in the Mountain reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five until Nikhil put in an appearance and then I was reminded of Blyton’s Barney Series. The two kids go exploring on bikes and because Nikhil doesn’t have one, he helps himself to Mr. Swaminathan’s bicyle without his permission. I’ll not disclose any more here, rather, I’ll will leave it to you to read this book for yourself and find out.

Nimi’s Coonoor has remnants of the 70s – it has Imperial Stores and Babu Tailors. However, environmental degradation has done much damage to the hills and Priya and Pradeep can only look on helplessly. Into this setting arrives a big, bad mystery, personified by Mrs. Manju Sinha, aka Madam Ladida, who knows a bit of magic and has two assistants in the form of a red blanket which can fly and a snake which doubles up as a butler. Alok, the evil Scientist, called Upset by his former classmates, is Madam Ladida’s main ally, until things change towards the end.

The kids land up in all sorts of troubles and their poor aunt is also dragged in. However, they have some sensible allies such as Professor Varadhachari, Subbiah, the park superintendent and Mr. Swamination, the proprietor of Imperial Stores. I do not want to say any more and give away the plot, save that it revolves around damage to the environment, a subject which is of interest to everyone in these days of climate change and its devastating consequences.

Nimi’s language is limpid as the tale unwinds with decent speed. I’m sure kids will love Magic in the Mountain and many an adult too!