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!