Investor Relations

Author: 
Vinod Puri

Born in 1941, Vinod Puri was brought up and educated in Amritsar. He attended Government Medical College, and subsequently trained as a surgeon at PGI, Chandigarh. He left for USA in 1969, and retired in 2003 as Director of Critical Care Services at a teaching hospital in Michigan. Married with two grown sons, he continues to visit India at least once a year.

Street urchins trailed after him, chanting ‘Lamboo hai!’ or ‘Americki uncle’. Assorted children from five to twelve would appear as if magically as soon as he stepped out on the street. They followed behind the tall figure in cheap flip-flops. They gleefully imitated each one of his gestures and movements as he went about his business.

His slightly stooped posture, thick glasses and a black brush-cut mustache did not inspire fear among the children playing rough games in the street. He often glared at the children as if a withering glance would stop the taunts.

Sometimes he would grab a bigger kid by the sleeve and demand, “Kyun saale?” But he never hit a child.

Worli Sea Face

On hot and humid evenings, he would come out in white Adidas and stroll to the sea-wall in the old Bombay Dyeing compound. A cool sea-breeze would be welcome to dozens of strollers. Siri Ram would stare for an hour at the mud-flats that stretched out to the sea. Unlike the other men and women he did not talk to anyone.

It was well known in that part of Mumbai that Siri Ram had lived most of his life in America. But how he seemed to have adapted to the Indian life in its native form after all those years was what aroused everyone’s curiosity. The merchants and traders in the crowded bylanes of Prabha Devi were aware of Siri Ram’s legend. Some even knew of his American nickname ‘Sam’. In the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai it was not unusual to have this Western sounding name. When Siri Ram had left for America as a young bright student, the city itself was named Bombay. Moreover, many of the street dwellers knew that originally Siri Ram belonged to Ahmedabad.

“But why has he come back?” The adults would often ask that question. They had continued to ask that question for the last two years that he lived amongst them.

“His angrez wife took his money and threw him out.” Mohan Patil, the confident fruit seller at the street corner maintained.

“Naw, that is not what happened!” Prakash Chand the Punjabi halwai maintained, “I should know! His wife is from my city, Phagwara, near Jalandhar. My wife used to work in the house of babu Siri Ram’s in-laws.”

“Then he must have divorced the Indian wife and married a mem!”

Mohan Patil would not give up his notion of a clever foreign woman who had swindled Siri Ram of his fortune. But of all the petty shop keepers, it was Bhim Sen, the pan-wallah who knew most about Siri Ram or for that matter anyone else. People of all ages stopped by to buy cigarettes or pan from him. Sitting underneath the calendars of buxom Indian actresses and goddesses, his customers exchanged information laced with gossip. He wore a thin muslin cap and kurta which were known to belie his origins from Utter Pradesh. He spoke the chaste patois of Lucknow. So, he told anyone who asked, “People are all wrong! Siri Ram is a big man from America. Only time will tell.”

The lonely Siri Ram acted as if he was unaware of all the wild guesses and conjectures people made about him. He lived modestly in a two room third floor apartment. He ate most of his meals at the Rainbow restaurant which advertised Western cuisine along with Chinese on its signboard. He did go out to Prakash Chand’s shop in the morning to buy half a kilo of milk for his tea and other needs. A woman came and cleaned his apartment every day except Sunday. But she usually had very little to do. Siri Ram seemed to be quite a tidy man. The cleaning woman had reported to the street dwellers that Siri Ram had many thick English books on a shelf. She had also reported about some of the fancy gadgets like computer, fax machine and microwave that he had in his flat. Bhim Sen believed that Siri Ram was not the usual Gujarati Patel who had made money in America from running a motel.

He was a college professor. Even in the backwaters of Mumbai the legend of Patels and Shahs who had become wealthy in America running ‘hotels’ was well known. After all many of them had sent for their relatives to help with the work.

Siri Ram rarely went out of Mumbai and very few people visited him. His older brother from Ahmedabad would show up once in a great while. The brother dressed in a white shirt and pants would arrive in a taxi with a small basket in his hand and leave in a couple of hours. Siri Ram likely took a rare trip to visit his brother and his family. Therefore, it was something of a surprise when a nattily dressed man of about fifty alighted from a taxi and asked for Siri Ram’s address. The man took off his shades as neighbors pointed to the apartment building and told him the apartment number. The man checked a piece of paper he had in his hand and carried a small suit case with him. The enterprising teenager loitering about the building had read the name Jeevan Mehta on the luggage tag. The neighbors watched in amazement as for the next two days as Siri Ram seemed to turn into a different person.

He would come out of his apartment well-dressed and in shiny brown shoes instead of the flip-flops. When they went to eat at the Rainbow restaurant, he ordered beer and lots of dishes. The two young waiters Ghanshyam and Heera passed on the gossip that Jeevan Mehta spent twelve hundred rupees on lunch and even tipped a hundred rupees instead of Siri Ram’s measly five rupees. While paying the bill with an American Express credit card, Jeevan Mehta had dropped a calling card. The two waiters for days displayed the card to all those who were interested like a trophy. In bold red letters under his name was written ‘Investor Relations’.

The young men were intrigued by the term and later asked many of their acquaintances, as to what it meant. Few of them had a clue and they all figured that it must be some well-paying job in America. Ghanshyam wondered whether he should try to get into ‘Investor Relations’ instead of an IT job.

Rainbow restaurant

The neighbors in the adjoining flats reported late nights, loud talk and lots of laughter. The cleaning woman later confessed to finding many beer bottles along with two empty Black Label whiskey bottles. But it was the story pieced together with help of Ghanshyam and Heera from the Rainbow restaurant that Bhim Sen the pan-wallah found clues to Siri Ram ‘Sam’s’ mystery.

In over heard conversations, between serving egg rolls with beer followed by Manchurian chicken and shrimp fried rice, the two of them put together the gist from snatches of happy talk.

After all, Ghanshyam and Heera were college graduates and just about ready to find IT jobs, as they claimed. They passed the story on that Siri Ram and Jeevan Mehta were partners in a lot of businesses in America. Jeevan Mehta lived in a different state and helped recruit out of state investors. They seemed to be particularly amused about the Indian doctors, too numerous to count! Siri Ram regaled Jeevan as to Drs Sehgals and Kapoors along with the ‘stupid’ Khannas, all Punjabis who seemed to fall over each other to invest with him. Apparently, all of them were trying to save taxes by investing in money-losing businesses. And of course, Siri Ram along with his sleeping partner Jeevan Mehta was happy to supply the opportunity!

Heera reported that when he brought the second bottle of Kingfisher beer to the table, Jeevan slapped Siri Ram hard on his back, “Mona bhabi, what a wife! She is good with those Punjabis, even the Guptas, who think they are great businessmen? You are a lucky man.” At which Siri Ram nodded his assent, “Are you keeping in touch with Jack?”

“Yes, don’t worry about it! Jack is a good lawyer and he is working very closely with Mona bhabi.” Mr. Mehta assured Siri Ram.

After Jeevan Mehta’s visit, the neighbors were almost prepared for a visit from a middle-aged Punjabi man who turned out be a Dr. Narinder Sehgal. He asked around for Siri Ram’s whereabouts but did not look for his apartment. That also happened to be the weekend Siri Ram was visiting his brother. People did not know his brother’s address. Dr. Sehgal seemed to be interested in that as well. The waiters Ghanshyam and Heera were anxious to share the information after Dr. Sehgal tipped them handsomely.

Siri Ram and Jeevan Mehta used to devise partnerships in strip malls and sold the deals to small groups of Indians. Their sales-formula as explained to the owner of Rainbow restaurant was to tell all the investors that everyone was a general partner. Thus, one thought that he had as much control as Siri Ram over the business. Siri Ram continued to teach at the University while managing his businesses and collecting managing fees. His academic credentials and demeanor were his greatest selling point.

Dr. Sehgal confirmed that now Siri Ram had several law suits pending against him. The law suits were filed not just by the Punjabi doctors but by the South Indians and even by the Gujratis. The doctor said that to escape the heat, Siri Ram had decided to come back to India temporarily. He had to take an early retirement from the university. He had even told people in America that he was trying to sell his palatial house. This rumor had the effect of getting him some sympathy from a few friends he had left in town.

Dr. Sehgal explained to Bhim Sen and others in the street that his and his friend’s losses had amounted to hundreds and thousand dollars or as he put it, “Crores of rupees!” Their accountants had warned them of pending tax bills. That is why the angry doctors desperately needed to find him. Siri Ram had taken monies from one partnership and put it in another partnership without informing the investors. Since he had done it for many years even the profitable businesses were losing money. As large sums were borrowed from the banks, the doctors had to come up with the money or sell properties at huge losses.

Dr. Sehgal knew who Jeevan Mehta was and was surprised to find that he had visited Siri Ram. According to Dr. Sehgal, Jeevan Mehta had continued to maintain a low profile. He had apparently tried to pacify them with phone calls. Now the portly Dr. Sehgal smiled to himself, “So Jeevan was here?” as if confirming a hunch. He stayed in Mumbai for three days and visited Prabha Devi every day, once even going to the Sidhi Vinayak temple. He talked to the fruit-seller Mohan Patil and halwai Prakash Chand, and the owner of Rainbow restaurant. He spent a lot of time at Bhim Sen’s pan-shop. The pan-wallah was happy to supply him whatever information he had and in return pumped him for juicy tit-bits. But Siri Ram seemed to have sensed danger and did not come back during those three days.

By the middle of the week, one morning Siri Ram was back in his flip-flops with a pitcher for milk. When Prakash Chand told him about Dr. Sehgal, Siri Ram nodded but did not seem interested.

The same afternoon, a police inspector in a jeep came into the street and sent up a constable to Siri Ram’s apartment. He brought Siri Ram to the inspector who asked him to get into the jeep. Now a small crowd gathered and wanted to know if Siri Ram was going to jail. The inspector irritably waived them away, “Jao, do your work! Don’t bother the police.” As they drove away, speculation about Siri Ram mounted. Those in the know like Bhim Sen connected police inspector’s visit to Dr. Sehgal. He had contacts in the police station as well. However, by evening Siri Ram had returned in a taxi, quietly ascended to his third-floor apartment and closed the door. None of the neighbors had the guts to inquire about his troubles. Had he bribed the police to avoid jail? Or was it all a big misunderstanding? One of his neighbors, a Mr. Shinde even gave a legal opinion that Mumbai police was unable to do anything to Siri Ram, “Because he is an American citizen!”

Siri Ram tried to get back to an anonymous life but now it was difficult. Everyone seemed to watch him all the time. His stoop seemed to increase; his glasses appeared to fog easily forcing him to pull out a white handkerchief from his khaki pant pockets to polish them. The children appeared to have become more vicious in their taunts. Some of the bigger ones tried to step on his flip-flops while walking behind him, hoping to trip him up. Bhim Sen would call out to him, “Hey Professor Sahib, stop for a minute!” Siri Ram would amble over to the small shop but did not divulge any information to the pan-shop owner.

Another six months passed. Siri Ram suddenly seemed to become animated. The cleaning woman revealed that Siri Ram’s wife was coming to see him in Mumbai. There was even a possibility that his son and daughter, both in their twenties would accompany their mother. Siri Ram was waiting at the end of the street when a hotel van pulled up. His face fell when his children did not emerge from the van. Instead, a balding American who was even taller than Siri Ram stepped out along with Siri Ram’s wife. “Hi Sam, how are you?” He shook hands with the American, “Hi Jack. Good to see you.” All three of them entered the street and went to Siri Ram’s flat. Siri Ram’s wife of medium height was dressed in a beige Sari, she had short hair, an oval face, fair skin with regular features and wore bright red lipstick. She was wearing two gold necklaces and ear rings. She had said “Hello” to Siri Ram but not touched his feet or covered her head. The street-dwellers were used to the manners of the educated, westernized Indians. She was flanked on both sides by Siri Ram and the foreigner. The curious neighbors noted that the three of them were closeted in the apartment for at least two hours. They overheard loud angry voices at times.

Siri Ram took them out eat at the Rainbow restaurant. Ghanshyam and Heera, the two waiters were in attendance. They later reported that Mona, Siri Ram’s wife sat next to the man called Jack in the booth and Siri Ram sat on the other side of the table. Siri Ram seemed to ask Jack a lot of technical questions.

Phrases such as tax write-off and recap, depreciation and mortgage were tossed about. Later, the waiters had to ask meaning of many of these terms from their educated customers. They noticed that Jack was quite comfortable putting his arm around the attractive Mona. Siri Ram, sitting on the other side of the table looked on with an angry scowl on his face.

After lunch, Mona and Jack boarded the hotel van and Siri Ram returned alone to his apartment. By evening, Bhim Sen the pan-shop owner had put together an astonishing story. Mona was leaving Siri Ram and planning to marry the American known as Jack. It so happened that Sam could not go back to America. The doctors out of spite had made Siri Ram’s application for American citizenship an issue. The authorities in America had determined that Siri Ram had lied about his felony conviction in one of the many law-suits that he faced. His wife Mona had worked so closely with Jack for the last three years that she had come to like him. She had her own job as a secretary and a substantial income from Siri Ram’s investments. The children were away at college. She really felt alone in the big house that Siri Ram had built. Of course, Siri Ram was clever enough to have the house along with many of his investments in Mona’s name.

In days and weeks after Mona’s visit, a curious change seemed to take place in the street dwellers. The children stopped bothering Siri Ram. The young men who loafed around the pan shop of Bhim Sen did not block Siri Ram’s way. They still stood around and insolently scratched their genitals in public. Siri Ram seemed to blend with countless others going about their business. He usually did not even turn around if someone yelled, “Hey Sam!” Bhim Sen the pan-wallah was the loudest as he shook his head from side to side when Siri Ram passed in front of his shop, “Wah re kismet! Who would have thought?” And he left his sentence incomplete as his customers tried to figure out what he meant.

Comments

A splendid story. Thank you.
Poor Sri Ram.

Thanks Joginderji. All of us living in the diaspora are often befriended and defrauded by people of own ethnic groups. So 'poor' Sri Ram's tale is not uncommon.

Hi Vinod,

Thanks. I enjoyed reading it. This is fiction seems to be based on some real-life experiences, places and perhaps people!
You should definitely write more fiction. You definitely have the ability to engage the reader.
Acchi

Thanks Acchi. Yes, there always facts mixed up in fiction. So this story is no different. Do people living in India know that people like Sri Ram and Jeevan Mehta live in America and Canada? I don't know.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.