It couldn’t only be a rich coincidence that the title of Prajwal Parajuly’s delightful novel, Land Where I Flee, has the word “land” to flag off the travel trail. Journeys of the most common kind are made on land, true, but in this novel set largely in the eastern Himalayas, where four grandchildren come together to celebrate their grandmother’s eighty fourth birthday, the “chaurasi” whose astrological significance Parajuly explains in a note – “With 12 full moons a year, it takes 84 years for one to witness 1,008 full moons. The 84th birthday is, thus, celebrated as a day of gratitude to the moon” – there are many kinds of “movements”, and not all moony.
“Flee” is a strong word, stronger than the centrifugality that blood ties often bring upon us, especially in the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, which is the time the four siblings, having lost their parents in a car accident, leave the Neupaney family home for various reasons: a girl for fear of the consequences of failing a board exam, another for a safety valve out of the restrictions of a sanctuary life, a son for the commonest cause of finding and furthering a career and another son flees, not once, but several times, because he, like many writers, sells family truth as pornography.
The family home, both nest and cage, cause of ailment and cure, is the axis around which the novel and its characters move – a better metaphor might be the staircases that Parajuly affectionately points out about Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital city. People, places, family, friend – all is a staircase. Run, Flee.
To return to the title for a bit: the “land” in it, both as noun and verb. Parajuly, master storyteller, manipulates the narrative in such a way that we never forget that the “land” in the title is an important suffix to a greater demand, a collective voice for Gorkhaland, a political movement which also travels: “The alcohol flowed out, motionless. Like the movement. ... This is Gorkhaland, not Hitlerland”.
Subtlety is a technology that Parajuly has mastered early in his career – caste in his novel, for instance, is not a barbed wire that scratches; it is so much a part of the footwear of Nepali society that one slips into it without shoe bites. Parajuly does not put a question mark at the end, an act that might turn fiction into propagandist literature, but allows an accretion of details that collect in front of what would be an exasperated exclamation mark.
“‘Such a nice, long, pointed nose on such a fair face – you look as good as a Brahmin,’ said Aamaa.” This is a compliment for all purposes, and yet when it comes from Chitralekha, the grandmother, to Ram Bahadur Damaai, a man from a lower caste, the reader adjusts his spine against the wall. Parajuly refuses to play prompter. His job is done.
Land Where I Flee is a special novel about “special” people, special in the sense of politically correct nomenclature that goes these days and special by virtue of the interesting people who walk in it – the doctor from America who hides his male lover from his family, the granddaughter who hides her poverty, another whose burdensome marriage scars her face with age marks, the other grandson who puts secret family history out to tan into a successful writing career.
The novel, perfect in its control of speed in the narrative, could be a mix of two games, hide and seek and treasure trail, is also “special” because of the character of Prasanti, the eunuch. I have not encountered a more delightful character in recent Indian fiction in English. “How brave the eunuch servant was to live life on her terms. She was her sexuality, revelled in her in-betweenness, lusted openly, lived unapologetically. ...Was Hanuman, the Brahmacharya god, like him a homosexual?”.
If for nothing else, read this novel for Prasanti.
Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight
Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.
Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.
In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.
One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.
Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.
Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.
It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.
Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.
The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.
The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.