For a man with a mistress, Pradhan Savle was a terrible liar. That was Edamarra Edwin’s first thought. His second thought, naturally, involved the mistress, but he quickly curbed that.
As he stood chewing the fat with the old broker in the marble expanse of Prominent Steel’s hallway, a laboured peace hung over them, as with animals at a watering hole. The young partner from India’s largest law firm asked after Savle’s family and the ageing broker from India’s largest private bank replied with an equal banality. As they kept up these rituals of the corporate wild, Savle’s eyes swept the hallway like a bird of prey staking out its quarry. When Prominent’s chairman and Edwin’s client Jignesh Parikh toddled into the lobby, Savle swooped away to accost him.
In his wake, Savle’s lie gnawed at the tall, spare Keralite. Edwin pondered the floor with a ruminant hunch of his uneven shoulders. His arms of chestnut brown were crossed into a hug as he felt his ribs out for memories of old injuries. For many years before he became a partner at the firm, Edamarra Edwin had fought welterweight on India’s amateur boxing circuit. With more pride than talent, he had persevered for years without so much as a nodding acquaintance of the technique. Eventually, a labral tear in his left shoulder had made sparring impossible and he quit. He said he had quit, but on most days he was just one aggravation away from relapsing with a punch to someone’s face.
His wardrobe didn’t even pretend to have quit. His shirts were all bought off the rack. Their sleeves were always cuffed up, and he hadn’t worn a tie since his mooting days in law school. The only people whom he didn’t strike as an unkempt lawyer were those who mistook him for a spiffy lumberjack.
No matter how long Edwin grappled with it, Savle’s mendacity yielded no meaning. Eventually, he stepped into the boardroom, whispered instructions to his senior associate Anjali Mathur, and began to wait for Jignesh Parikh there.
The air conditioning in Prominent Steel’s plush boardroom kept out the stench of the Arabian Sea. Edwin recalled the fetid wall of thick Bombay air when he had first stepped out of an airplane in the city eight years ago. Even an ocean couldn’t be discreet with seven-hundred-thousand litres of human waste a year, he had thought. The smell was ubiquitous.
As were the Gujaratis. That was the other thing which had struck him early in the city. Edwin’s driver, Bapat More, had told him that the Gujaratis had acquired Bombay from the Parsis. Edwin assumed the takeover had been quiet and subtle, like the mild-mannered Palanpuri Jains of his acquaintance. Both men were wrong. The Gujaratis didn’t take the keys to the city from the Parsis. They took it from the Marwaris who had held it briefly, and the handover had been loud and raucous. Even in Bombay’s crowded trains, where more people are sardined to work each day than Hong Kong’s population, there had been roisterous dancing the day Reliance Industries surpassed the Aditya Birla group on the Bombay Stock Exchange.
When Prominent’s mousy chairman freed himself from Savle’s badgering in the hallway, it was a quarter past eight. Edwin heard his client’s stutter before he saw him enter the board room. On a good day, Jignesh Parikh’s resting heart rate would confound modern medicine. Today, his otherwise feckless lenders had gathered to coax out a sale of Prominent to a long-detested rival. Nostral Iron & Steel. Calcutta Marwaris. Edwin was there to prevent the unthinkable.
Jignesh Parikh was trembling so violently that Edwin paused billable work to imagine his client bursting all twelve cranial nerves at the oak table. Pandemonium ensued as his vegetarian client hosed down blood over the gathered Shylocks.
In reality, it was all his hangdog client could do to shamble away to a corner of the conference room mumbling his pleasantries through a chokehold of guilt that only a novice to bankruptcy feels.
In another part of the same decrepit Nariman Point o neighbourhood where many giants of Indian industry are still headquartered, Prakash Gandhi was meeting with Prabhat Mhatre. The demimonde of “operators” to which Gandhi belonged, is found only in Bombay, and in Bombay it thrives. These men (they are invariably men) are usually accountants by training, but they find the conservatism of accountancy stifling. They frequently appear on the M&A circuit by a founder’s side as brokers, or partners, or financiers, sometimes unclear which. But what they are most known for, and what they get their name from, is for operating the levers of the Indian stock market. As middlemen or as principals, they inhabit segments of the Indian stock market where large institutions do not venture. Those turgid swamps of penny stocks ebb and rise with swarms of Prakash Gandhis.
Incidentally, Prominent was one of the few takers of Prabhat Mhatre’s lumpy low-grade ore. Two months ago, Gandhi had helped Mhatre’s mining firm raise a billion dollars in bonds. However, the mining baron had bet on the losing party in the elections, and two days after he had issued those bonds, the Supreme Court put a stop to all of his mining. Their Lordships said something about a smothered stream bed.
A few years before that, Prakash Gandhi had helped Jignesh Parikh borrow from a consortium of banks to buy his feuding cousins out of Prominent. Jignesh’s branch of the family had always owned a stub of 15 per cent while his cousins owned the bigger block of 35 per cent. After Jignesh had bought his cousins out, that 35 per cent block was pledged to the consortium of lenders. His own 15 per cent stub remained unencumbered. That was in 2007. Indian securities, fatted on cheap US money, covered all manner of reckless loans.
In the recession of 2008, Prominent’s share price sank so low that the 35 per cent block no longer even covered the principal. When his lenders sought his stub of free shares as additional security, Jignesh Parikh got quite graphic about where he would plug that stub. South Bombay’s patois of Gujarati is very satisfying when it is very uninhibited.
What Gandhi knew, and what he had warned his cantankerous client about, was that the lenders wanted him to refuse.
Excerpted with permission from Kill the Lawyers: Small Tales from Big Law, Shishir Vayttaden, Bloomsbury India.