Friday, August 27, 2010

Vizzy

This is one of my numerous attempts at being a fiction writer. I had submitted this to a contest without any success.

Howrah station was hot, squalid and crowded. From afar it was a majestic red Victorian building, the custodian of the nation’s lifeline. In the days of the Raj, the Railways had been the place to work. A job in the Railways was the ticket to respectability and a good dowry. My grandfather had worked in the Railways – his favourite boast was that he knew all the abbreviations of the station names as a Control Room operator. His father had used his friendship with the local Burra Sahib to get him that job. Now the station was just dirty. Paan stains dotted the walls, as the faint stench of urine pervaded the entire place. The presence of ten baskets of fish packed in ice and straw didn’t help too much either.

It was mid morning and I was looking forward to catching the train. Business had been good, so I was treating myself to an air-conditioned ticket ride home. I looked up at the sky – filled with crows searching for the fish they could smell. Hawkers and porters were everywhere, coexisting peacefully with the vagabonds, the homeless and the several rats that scurried past the sleeping villagers waiting for the train home. “One day I shall fly”, I promised myself. For now, I anticipated the cool confines of the AC III-tier coach with the liveried attendants to hand out blankets and pillows.

My reverie was broken by the shrill sound of the train’s whistle, and the ensuing melee. What had once been a languid trance had in a moment transformed into a free-for-all, as the mad rush began for the general compartment’s elusive seats. People flung bags, handkerchiefs and babies towards the doors, as the porters bulldozed their way past the hapless jeans-clad newly-married couple trying to find their compartment. The elderly couple seemed unfazed by all this, while the voluptuous American girl went stocked up on her mineral water. I waited, safe in the knowledge of my reserved air-conditioned top berth, as I scanned the passenger list to find out who my companions for the next thirty six hours would be.

The train was moving. The voluptuous American girl was not an American girl. She was probably from Sweden, and as tall as me. Her name was Helga Larsson (F24). She was very beautiful. I had to impress her. I took out my new Nokia phone with mp3 and camera, and made a call. “Sell all thousand Reliance shares!” I barked in English for all to hear. “I need to offload some shares at peak value,” I explained to Mr. Mehta (M46), hoping to start off a conversation. He had a nice-looking daughter too, Shreya (F20), and she was staring at the cover of the Richard Bach book (Illusions) that Helga was reading, while her mother Kanta (F40) was busy unpacking lunch. The sixth member in our cubicle was Rustom Merchant (M47), though that was not his real name. This story is really about him.

Though I rarely read anything but the business and sport pages, I had read Illusions a few years ago, and I was glad for that. I  hated the book, but now I could be the brooding philosopher debating the existence and purpose of God himself. She was in the last few pages. Good. Scope for an interesting evening chat, over salted mangoes, peanuts and Pepsi, I thought.

“What do you do, son?”

My reverie was shattered by this question, which was asked in Bengali. This was Mr. Ghoshal (M54) on the side berth. He was short, bald and had a grey beard. He was travelling with his son Sumit (M17), most probably to admit him to one of Bangalore’s numerous colleges. Like me, he too had studied the passenger list and picked out the only fellow Bengalee near him.

“I am an investment banker,” I said, with a discreet glance in the direction of Helga. She didn’t flinch, but Shreya sure seemed impressed. Investment banker. I liked the term. Now you may be thinking what a hot-shot investment banker like me was doing on the Howrah-Bangalore train, instead of jetting to London or San Francisco club-class? Well, I roughly did the same things as most investment bankers did, but worked for myself and only myself. I managed a portfolio of shares. I studied the stock market as thoroughly as any wunderkind on Wall Street. I had my clients too, who trusted me with a lot of money and I used PowerPoint slides on them with devastating effect. My office was a garage and I didn’t have a projector to show my slides (I used my monitor), but my clients trusted me to make their money grow. Why, the other day, Mr. Kesavan had entrusted me with half his provident fund! Heck, to the outside world I was a mere stockbroker, but I preferred to call myself an investment banker. We achieved the same results, albeit on different scales.

“Uncle, what firm are you with?”

Damn Shreya. She may have looked nice, but was an obnoxious little twit. She called me uncle! If only, like me she hadn’t checked my age on the list (M31). Anyway, does a gap of eleven years make you an ‘uncle’? And she had to bring up my past.

“You can call me Raj. That’s what most people call me,” I said with a smile.

“Actually Mr. Raj, I am in my third year engineering and am seriously preparing for CAT. Can you give me a few tips?”

I looked at her blankly. Then I looked at Mr. and Mrs. Mehta. They were smiling benignly at me. Mr. Ghoshal was preparing his next question in his head, while his son was slyly stealing glances at Helga’s voluptuous body.

“She is very good in studies you know. But we are business family. Not much education. She wants to do MBA and pursue investment banking career.”

The conversation had switched to Hindi. Helga had finished Illusions. Now she was reading a fat Linda Goodman book on astrology. I was losing hope. Here I was amidst two beautiful women, but one was in her own world, while the other, the apple of her parents’ eye, was in reality a horrid little wench, hell-bent on raking up my past.

I have no past, at least not a past worth talking about. When I make my first billion, I’ll have to hire one of those spin doctors to build the legend. No rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags, family intrigue or tales of passion. I had been a mediocre student, and had somehow managed to graduate with second class. No fancy business diplomas for me. I had a bit of money with which I started trading in the stock market. Nothing spectacular. Business had been steady, and I had never worked too hard or lost sleep on trading. I was content making small but steady margins and the occasional loss. Slowly, the news of my prowess at day trading spread in my neighbourhood, and a few local uncles, real uncles, asked me to manage their savings, which I did for a small fee. Business was now growing steadily.

I never had a girlfriend or an affair. Many of my friends did, and I envied some of them. I, however, was content to be in the company of guys similar to me, discussing the merits and demerits of every girl we knew. I had invented a nice definition for ‘girlfriend’ – a man’s future ex-wife! Age was, however catching up with me. I was thirty one, single, and secretly dreaming of the lifestyle of the Greek shipping magnates that more than one book described. As of now, I am yet to go on a date.

Helga was now dozing off. Her ample bosom heaved, but I couldn’t look. Neither could Mr. Mehta or Mr. Ghoshal. Rustom Merchant seemed to be oblivious to everything around him. He was doing nothing, and had a blank look on his face.

“I don’t believe in fancy stuff like MBA. I am a self made man, and have my own firm. It has no name, and my clients trust me.”

I couldn’t believe what I said. Here I was, trying to justify myself to the precocious twerp. She couldn’t have cared less anyway. I bet she was busy in her own world of SMS, college fests and boyfriends. Pah! How I hated such females back in college! They never spoke to me.

“Do you believe in astrology?”

“This existence is all Maya. I am here in India on a spiritual quest for Karma.”

Sumit Ghoshal, had managed to strike up a conversation with Helga Larsson. He had a strange shit-eating smile on his face. His obnoxious little father and Mr.Mehta family seemed to have formed a tag team to keep me away from Helga though. The man had started bombarding me with questions in Hindi, all for the benefit of the Mehtas.

“How do you deal with the stock market fluctuations?”
“Do you chase the IPOs?”
“I want my son to do MBA too, after his biotechnology.”

The little twit. He surely was enjoying his journey. Shreya had climbed to the top berth now, where she was playing with her cell phone. The spoilt brat! I mumbled my way through these queries, listening to the sweet lilt of Helga’s voice.

“Swami Paramananda’s teachings have showed me the new meaning of life. I believe in the Oneness of Purpose and the Multiplicity of Paths”

“Is it better to join ISB or go for foreign MBA?”
“I don’t know; I am not an MBA.”
“My daughter is interested in going to foreign…”
“My son is very brilliant and hard-working. Bangalore colleges have good placement no?”
“Should I sell my Reliance Gas shares before it’s too late?”

“Why don’t you come to the virgin beaches of Gokarna? They are clean and unspoilt, and it’s a real spiritual trip down there. I am planning to go there next month”

That was Helga talking. Suddenly there was silence. Mr. Ghoshal had a smile on his face. He was obviously not the conservative father. Far from it, and worst of all, he turned to Sumit, and said with a broad smile

“Yes, Sumu. Why don’t you go? At your age I remember that I went to Puri with my friends and got high on the beach with some hippies. What an experience! Ha ha ha! Nearly got arrested by the police….sigh…those were the days…”

I could have choked myself and dropped dead right there. That lucky bastard! Here was his own dad asking him to go on a wild trip to nowhere with the prettiest white-skinned woman with the loosest of morals that I had ever set eyes upon!

“Of course, you keep my little secret and I shall never mention this to your mother…ha ha ha…she will divorce me and go off to Gaya forever…ha ha ha!”

If Mr. and Mrs. Mehta were a tad uncomfortable they were trying their best not to show it. It would’ve been different if Shreya was in Helga’s place though. For the first time, the stoic Rustom Merchant, whose story this really is, seemed to have a smile on his face.

I was feeling drowsy, and a niggling doubt had begun forming in my mind. I had seen Rustom Merchant before. No, we were not acquaintances. I believe he was someone famous. Where had I seen him? Page 3 of Bangalore Times? Bombay Times perhaps? No, he didn’t seem to be the party animal. Was he a famous sportsman? Arjuna awardees were had lifetime Railway passes, I think. Surely he was not a cricketer, so what sport did he play? Hockey? No, he was a bit too short for hockey. Swimmer? Possible. But there were not too many male Indian swimmers who would command a place in my memory. Athlete? Possible. Bangalore was home to the Sports Authority of India, where most serious athletes trained.

I dozed off, but couldn’t sleep. No, he was not a sportsman, on second thoughts. What was he then? A businessman? Certainly not a hotshot – they didn’t travel by train nowadays. A politician’s spoilt son? I couldn’t recollect a famous Parsi statesman. Business it had to be. I jogged my brain; the idea of not being able to recollect something at the tip of my tongue was killing me. Ratan Tata, Ness Wadia, Russi Modi…only the big names occurred to me. Nope, Rustom Merchant was not a famous businessman.

“What happens when an IPO is over-subscribed?”

Sumit Ghoshal’s wanted to know all about stocks and the stock markets. I wanted to request him to fuck off, but tamely humoured him.

“I think they have lotteries for the retail investors, and try to give most of them at least a few shares to keep them happy. They return the remaining money, but make a killing on the interest during the few days they have it.”

“Why Sumu, you should concentrate on your studies now. The stock market will come later.”

Ghoshal was at last talking sense!

“No Baba, it’s always good to know stuff…I was just asking.”

I hated Sumit Ghoshal. I looked up. Little Shreya Mehta was reading Cosmopolitan on the top berth. So much for CAT and the IIMs, I thought. When I was much younger, I would always sneak a Cosmopolitan at the first railway station after the train left. There were women around me now. I was dying to read about sex tips and the latest trends in negligees, but sadly had to pass up on this trip. Besides, the mystery of Rustom Merchant was literally eating me up by then.

The eunuchs had arrived. I hate these cross-dressing goons and their weird chants. Do the math and you realise that most of them earn more than the average software professional. They were ruthless as usual. My friend had once stood firm with a six-foot all, muscular eunuch. Many pleas were tried. His body was compared to the six-packs of Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar by the doting she-man. My friend had refused to budge. Curses inflicting impotency followed. My friend laughed, secure about his manhood. Next had been the body grope, where he had received a brief massage below the waist. My friend pretended to enjoy it with a benign smile. Then the strip-tease had begun. The pallu of the saree had come off. My friend looked the other way. He finally gave up when the second hook of the blouse had come off, and parted with fifty rupees and a lot of cold sweat. I know what you must be thinking right now, but I swear it was really my friend, not me. Anyway, I had the ten rupee note ready, and so did the Ghoshals and Mr. Mehta. Not too many people challenged the eunuchs, and they in turn seldom troubled women or old people.

Rustom Merchant didn’t pay. A eunuch nudged him. He gave a cold stare. The eunuch seemed flustered, and the entire gang backed off. There was something in Rustom’s eyes that scared me, and evidently the she-males too, for they didn’t try any wise tricks, but just carried on, blessing me with a beautiful wife and three bonny boys. Mr. Mehta was promised a rich son-in-law, and Sumit Ghoshal would grow up to be the next Amitabh.

Was he a criminal? A master forger? An art thief? A stock market scamster perhaps? Was he on the run from the law, maybe after defrauding investors in his chit fund? That was it. I hoped he wasn’t a murderer or a feared mafia don, because that was not a pleasant thought. Was there a reward for turning him in? I could do with a few lakhs. What happened to whistle-blowers? Did the gangs come after them? Would I regret turning him in? What number do I contact? All these thoughts came in a flurry, though the important question remained unanswered? Who was Rustom Merchant, for that was obviously not his real name.

Helga seemed very attracted to Rustom Merchant, for she kept stealing furtive glances at him, from behind the new book she was reading. Rich Dad Poor Dad. I was not surprised. I had read somewhere that the women are attracted to the bad boys. They have the charisma and the animal instinct ingrained in them. I was evidently not a bad boy. Would she make the first move? Was he playing the playboy to perfection? The brooding man waiting to pounce on the vulnerable and lonely woman?

The answer struck me like the Courtney Walsh bouncer that had found a gap in Manoj Prabhakar’s helmet’s grill, and it chilled my blood to the bone. Sitting in front of me was no brooding Parsi trader or ill-paid sportsman, but one of India’s, no, the world’s most dreaded fugitives. I was sure as hell – Rustom Merchant was none other than Jacky Carneiro. Yes, the same Jacky Carneiro who has toyed around with the Indian, Portuguese, Greek and Thai police for over two decades. The same Jacky Carneiro who had earned the nickname of Carneiro the Carnivore, for his ability to seduce beautiful women on the beaches of Goa and Greece, before beheading them. The same Jacky Carneiro who engineered three perfect jailbreaks in three different countries. The same Jacky Carneiro whose real-life exploits would make a Jeffrey Archer character seem like a bumbling school kid. The same Jacky Carneiro was sitting opposite me, sipping a mango drink from a tetrapak now. I had recently read about him in a magazine and I knew that Interpol was willing to pay a lot of money to get him.

What was I to do? What number did I call? Did I have to identify myself? Would they note down my name and address? More important questions. What if Jacky managed his fourth jailbreak? How did he deal with people who ratted on him? Would he behead me once he escaped? I was not a gorgeous woman, and I didn’t live close to a beach, but who knows? What if I called the police? Would the average police phone operator know about Jacky Carneiro? How would I collect the money? Would it be tax-free? Maybe I could buy a large number of shares in the next major IPO. Maybe real estate was a better bet…

The train stopped at Vizianagaram; a short stop, but I needed some air and exercise. I got down and stretched my limbs, before proceeding to the tap marked “Drinking Water”. I filled up the two bottles I had, and boarded the train as the whistle blew. The Mehtas were asleep and Mr. Ghoshal had gone to the loo, probably for a quick smoke. His son was doing the day’s Sudoku. Helga and Jacky were gone. In their places were Mr. and Mrs. Reddy (M50 and F44) respectively. They had reserved tickets up to Bangalore.


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Placebo


It was a beautiful afternoon at the Parc Buttes Chaumont, one of the prettiest green spots in Paris. I was lying on the grass, taking in the fresh air, chirping birds and the beautiful people lounging around. In short, it was bliss. After an hour or so of absolute laziness, I started eating a crepe I had bought in a bakery nearby. 

The man had a diabolic scar under his right eye. "Salaam," he said to me from a few metres away. "Salaam," said I. He was about thirty five years old, and was apparently picnicking with his wife and a few other girls in their late teens or early twenties. Probably sisters. Or sisters in law. Or just friends. They were certainly too old to be his daughters. "Good day, isn't it?" he said, in heavily accented French.

Why was he trying to be friendly? He took out a bottle of chilled Heineken beer and offered it to me. "Never accept food or drinks from a stranger, especially if he looks suspicious," my childhood training kicked in immediately. "I don't drink alcohol," I blurted out in my barely comprehensible French. I lied. It was a very hot day, and I had just been kicking myself for not picking up a beer before entering the park.

"Ah, religion!" he smiled. Clearly he was violating one of the tenets of his religion. The atheist and the wino in me were squirming by now. The women in his life were looking at me with amused smiles. He then took out a 1.5 litre bottle of diet coke and offered that to me. "Coca?" he said. That's what the french call their coke. I pointed to wards my stomach and made a grimace. "Desole," I said in my pidgin French. Sorry. His wife started laughing. She poured out an orange drink in a plastic cup, held it out and said, "Fanta?"

It would be really rude to turn this down. I weighed the situation. It was 4 pm, and I was thirsty. My water bottle was almost empty. I was craving beer, or at least something cold. There were hundreds of people around. The man was there with his family. What was the chance of him wanting to mug me? And what would they gain from poisoning me? I accepted the Fanta with a smile, and slowly drank from the glass.

The thoughts of being drugged still lingered though. My stomach felt queasy, even though my brain tried its best to convince me that nothing was wrong. I lay on the grass for another half hour, battling my prejudices. Finally I got up, and slowly and unsteadily staggered out of the park. I felt giddy, and desperately searched for a public toilet. The first one I found was closed. I walked around in a trance till I found the second one, where I vomited out the entire contents of my stomach. Damn you, placebo effect!