July 29, 2009

(written in honour of Katpadi Katsa’s upcoming nuptials)

Kitty Aunty has always enjoyed weddings. But in the past few years they have been incredibly important to her. Now that her children have left the house and she no longer teaches junior school, being the centre of all weddings is how she occupies herself. Kitty Aunty has heard of the notion that a wedding is the bride’s special day, but thinks that this is a lie spread by Hollywood movies and American sitcoms. She knows that a wedding is a beast with a life of its own, which will devour the bride and groom if they’re not careful, and that only she can tame it.

And so it is Kitty Aunty who runs the weddings of her extended family behind the scenes. She knows how to negotiate a discount on the bride’s designer lehnga, and where to get equally good dresses at less obscene prices for the mothers and sisters. She knows the caterer who provides the best paneer tikkas. And the ladies who have evening tea at the Gymkhana Club still speak in awed tones of the time Kitty Aunty bargained over the groom’s juttis with a group of young and ruthless saalis, and convinced them to settle for a chaat party.

But the money and the catering and the dresses are just side businesses for Kitty Aunty. The really important job for her is information gathering and networking. For the past many years, she is the one who goes and meets the in-laws and their extended families, discusses how the wedding should be held, and finds out everything about them. The in-laws are always slightly perplexed that they are meeting Kitty Aunty rather than parents. They are also perplexed about whether she is a tai or a masi or a bua or a chachi or just a plain auntyji but they adjust.

And all this meeting in-laws and gupshup over chai leads to the whole point of the wedding. At the reception, if Gungun Mausi wants to know who that boy in the cream sherwani or the girl in the green choli is, only Kitty Aunty will be able to tell her. She will be the only person who will be able to tell Gungun Mausi their names, what they’re doing, any scandals centred around them or their families, and if they’re single and looking to get married. Kitty Aunty never does anything as crude as matchmake. But without her, matchmakers would never be able to operate. She knows this, and takes her function very seriously.

But she is not enjoying tonight’s wedding. The boy and girl have had a love marriage, which is fine by her. And the boy is not Punjabi but that is fine by her too. After all she is liberal and these days it’s better if children do things on their own. But the guest list is driving her crazy.

The bride and groom had gone to college together, and most of the guests are their batchmates and juniors and seniors. Not only do they outnumber the relatives, but very few relatives beyond immediate family have even been invited. Almost three fourths of the guests are the couple’s friends. Worse, they are all each others’ friends. Nobody is asking Kitty Aunty who anybody else is, because everyone knows already. She feels useless and exasperated. She had grown accustomed to being at the centre of all information. Now she is at the periphery. She has to ask guests who other guests are.

It’s fine if a girl and boy who get married don’t have the same caste or background, she reflects. But she draws the line at them having the same friends.

Subprime Borrowing

June 21, 2009

It all started because the UPA government was embarassed by Sainath blasting them for privatising Neyveli Lignite Corporation while farmers were dying in Vidarbha. They decided to show that they were doing something, so they passed a law making moneylending illegal and imposed stiff penalties on anybody who was collecting debts without a banking or chit fund license.

Unfortunately they didn’t count on Sweety Singh. Sweety Singh was rich, unemployed, always ready to stir up trouble, and enjoyed filing frivolous PILs. Once the bill had passed into law, he appeared before the Hyderabad High Court. In his affidavit to the court, Sweety claimed that he was appearing on behalf of a young man called Balaji Venkateswara who had a few millenia ago taken a loan from a moneylender called Kubera, and that Kubera was harassing Balaji for interest repayments to this day. Sweety claimed that Kubera had used most of the dirty tricks in the subprime lenders’ books – resetting interest rates, taking interest only payments and not letting the principal balance be paid down, and allowing negative equity – the loan had been taken for wedding expenses, and not the purchase of an asset.

To Sweety’s own great surprise, the High Court admitted the case and issued a show cause notice to the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Trust, asking why it should not be charged with illegal moneylending and harassment of borrowers. Things got complicated because the TTD trustees were actually appointed by the Andhra Pradesh government. YS Reddy immediately announced that the trustees would be sacked and that the hundi collections at Tirupati would be diverted to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund instead of going to pay interest to Kubera.

Naturally, there was a huge uproar. Hindus were aghast at this attack on tradition. Hindutvawadis alleged that YSR was doing this because he was a Christian and that the whole thing was a plot by Sonia Gandhi and the Catholic Church. In his Rediff column, Rajeev Srinivasan announced that the Indian cricket team’s latest series defeat was because of the attempt to seize the hundi collections. Because it was a rediff column, the commenters further suggested that it was a Chinese and Pakistani conspiracy – that is, the ones who weren’t bitching about how smelly Gults were. Murli Manohar Joshi was thrilled and mounted a simultaneous rath yatra and campaign for the BJP leadership. The whole nation was so preoccupied by the crisis that the news channels even stopped running stories about boys who fell down wells.

Finally the crisis was resolved by a young summer intern at Citi called Savitha Sundaram. By this time, the situation at Citi was so bad that senior managers actually had time to read their interns’ reports. When Savitha’s line manager read her report, he realised that it was a work of genius and worked madly to get her plan approved and implemented.

Two weeks later, Citi announced that it would be buying the original debt from Kubera. As a bank, it was entirely legal for it to lend money and collect debts from Balaji Venkateswara. Moreover, since Venkateswara was clearly a subprime borrower who hadn’t repaid the principal for centuries, the debt could be acquired for paise on the rupee. Vikram Pandit presented a cheque for 1 rupee to the Srilakshmi Kuberar temple in Ratnamangalam and so acquired the loan. Citi then created yet another CDO, this one with the hundi collections at Tirupati as the underlying, and sold it back to TTD.

The Tirupati temple kept getting the money from the hundi collections without actually being responsible for collecting on the debt, and the Andhra Pradesh government was no longer in the embarassing position of breaking the moneylending law. Citi also charged the temple a very minute fee on all the cash that poured through. It was less than 0.1%, but Tirupati got so much money that Citi flourished. Moreover, the value of the cash flows was enough to bring its balance sheet back to health, and it started repaying TARP money.

In this way Savitha Sundaram and Sanatan Dharam saved global capitalism.

Section 292

March 23, 2009

Kalpeshbhai had wanted to be a smuggler when he was growing up. In the movies of the 70s and 80s, the villain would always be a gold smuggler who would have an exotic lair, many henchmen, and a moll who would do cabaret dances on command. Kalpeshbhai was attracted to the lifestyle immediately.

Kalpeshbhai also knew that while the gold smugglers of the movies performed such basic mistakes as sending their henchmen to fight the hero one by one, he would go one step better and just get things over with by shooting him. That would take care of the main disadvantage of being a smuggler which was that somehow Amitabh Bachchan or Vinod Khanna always brought you to justice. Kalpeshbhai had no such intentions. He planned to be India’s biggest and most successful gold smuggler. In fact he dreamed of a time when Manmohan Desai would be inspired by his life and make a movie where Ajit played a gold smuggler who would eat dhokla and khandvi instead of biryani. It was a constant preoccuptation with him. At his accounts tuitions, while his cousin Sailesh would disappear around the corner with Savita Patel for fondling and giggling during the breaks, Kalpesh would sit at his desk, daydreaming about bringing in huge consignments of gold.

Unfortunately things did not work out for Kalpeshbhai. Not only did Manmohan Desai and Ajit die before he got the chance to become a smuggler, but the Government of India itself legalised the import of gold, making smuggling a pointless activity. He could always have become a drug smuggler instead, but he had also seen The Godfather and had decided never to do that. So he finished his B. Com. and started helping Saileshbhai in his electronics trading and honeymoon package tours businesses instead. However, his dream of becoming a criminal mastermind never left his heart.

Kalpeshbhai did not realise that it was in his destiny to become a smuggler after all. The first step came at Saileshbhai’s honeymoon resort in Alibag for couples who could not afford to go to foreign. Saileshbhai made every attempt to provide the appearance of foreign, including morphed pictures of the happy couple in front of the Eiffel Tower, and iPods along with receipts from Sim Lim Tower; but the lady honeymooners would still grumble that they were not able to do all the shopping they could have done in foreign. Saileshbhai was conscientious about customer service, and would always ask what he could do better, but for some reason the ladies were never forthcoming.

Kalpeshbhai then had the bright idea of asking their old friend Savitaben to help out. Savitaben conducted interviews with the honeymooners before they would leave Alibaug, and after a week explained to Saileshbhai what the problem was. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code made it illegal to import, sell, exhibit, or purchase a wide variety of merchandise in India, so the good housewives of Kandivalil had to do their shopping in foreign.

It was then that Kalpeshbhai realised that he could become a smuggler after all. He immediately flew to Bangkok, and spent a fortnight in Thailand meeting contract manufacturers. By the time he returned, Kalpeshbhai had left heavy cash advances for the production of a wide variety of silicone and latex items, moulded into interesting shapes, and some even motorised. Not to mention leather items, metal items, and water soluble cellulose with added flavours. He also found a ship owner who was keen and eager to ignore such absurd paperwork as bills of lading and customs invoice, and would unload directly onto a launch off the coast of Alibag.

On his return, Kalpeshbhai firmed up the marketing end of things. Saileshbhai’s honeymoon resort was of course a firm customer, and Savitaben agreed to sell his merchandise on a retail basis through discreet word-of-mouth and referral advertising. Word of mouth spread very rapidly in fact. People all over Mumbai had realised that marriages were made not in Heaven but in Malad, and could always do with a little help. They rushed to Savitaben to purchase the marital aids which Kalpeshbhai had smuggled in.

Kalpeshbhai is a very satisfied man these days. The unfulfilled demand in Mumbai means that he can charge enough to cover the costs of purchase, Coast Guard and customs bribes, and shipping, and have enough left over to furnish his home as ornately as an 80s movie smuggler’s lair. And while he has not yet fulfilled his ambition of capturing Amitabh Bachhan’s ma, behen, and maashukaa and tying them up in his lair, he is happy in the knowledge that he faciltates the tying up of other people across Mumbai. And although Manmohan Desai is dead, he is reasonably sure that Madhur Bhandarkar will make a movie about his career sooner rather than later.


February 22, 2009

He has been out of Delhi so long that he has forgotten what weddings there are like. So when the invitation card says 7 pm, he arrives at 7.30. Once there, he discovers that the bride and groom and their relatives are nowhere to be found. He is the only guest over there, apart from one slightly chubby girl who is standing outside and talking on her cellphone. He has a vague suspicion that he has seen the same girl at every wedding he has ever been to, and that she is not actually a guest but a prop that all caterers carry along. Effectively, he is the only person there.

On the bright side of things, this means that Kitty Auntyji is not around. And the catering staff is on time and they are serving tandoori mushrooms and paneer tikkas.

He is slightly outraged. He has shaved on a weekend, put on uncomfortable shoes and ironed a dress shirt, and for all this effort, landed up at an empty banquet hall. It isn’t fair. So he grabs the tikkas from the passing waiters and broods.

When he used to be in Bangalore and go to his friends’ weddings there, Dig weddings would start promptly and end as promptly so that all the guests could move on to lunch. TamBram weddings would also start promptly though they would do this six hours earlier and end with breakfast instead. And moreover they did not impose these ridiculous dress requirements. He used to go in jeans, t-shirt, and stubble, and nobody bothered. He wonders what it is about Delhi weddings that encourages this tardiness.

He suddenly realises that he has already found the answer – in Bangalore, weddings are centred around breakfast or lunch, which cannot be put off. In Delhi, weddings and receptions are held at night, and dinner can be put off to midnight or even further as long as the guests are fed enough snacks uptil then so that they don’t revolt and march off. But this has started a vicious cycle of later and later dinners, and in turn has led to guests and organisers coming later and later. Now it is impossible for any wedding in Delhi to start on time. The snacks which seemed like such a good idea thirty years ago have led to the collapse of punctuality.

It is all the fault of the paneer tikkas that he is standing here out in the cold with nobody talk to. He reflects gloomily on this. And then, because he can’t help it, he has another one.

Recession Honeymoon

February 4, 2009

Saileshbhai had been able to get some good out of a bad situation since he was a boy. In those days, his mother used to insist that he drink milk everyday though he hated it. So he would take the glass down to the housing society’s playground and give it to the Kapoor’s Alsatian Jupiter. The Kapoors, who were Punjabi, thought they should have a big dog with a pig name. Pluto was the smallest planet and fit only for Pomeranians. Anyway, after a week of this, he became friendly with the Kapoors, and Cuckoo Aunty started calling him up to have Maggi. In this way the young Sailesh turned milk into Maggi.

He continued to get some good out of everything his whole life. He had bad marks in maths in Class IX, but this meant that he joined maths tuition classes along with Savita Patel, who allowed him to squeeze her breasts. Three years later, Saileshbhai couldn’t get into Narsee Monjee for his B Com. So he enrolled in the nearby Thakur College and used the time he saved commuting to start his business doing wholesale trading of electronics. Now Saileshbhai was the biggest distributor of iPods and Sony Handycams in the Western Suburbs.

But even the current recession had Saileshbhai stumped. Business had dried up. People were so busy paying their home loan EMIs and credit card bills that they were no longer buying consumer electronics. He would lie awake, wondering what good could happen now.

After a month of sleepless nights, Saileshbhai had a brainwave and got into the package tour business. He catered to honeymooners who had to economise because the recession had wiped out their demat account balances. He offered two weeks in Singapore and Penang for five thousand rupees, All Countries of Europe tour (Jain cuisine available) for twelve thousand rupees, and East-to-West America Las Vegas Special for eigtheen thousand rupees.

The competition was stunned. They couldn’t understand how he made any money at those prics. But the honeymooners poured in. The tours were a roaring success. And the honeymooners recommended Sailesh Honeymoon Travels to all other newlyweds they knew.

Saileshbhai had understood his target market. He knew that honeymooners didn’t want to travel, but to show their relatives pictures of themselves in foreign. So he sent them not on Amazing South Africa Tour, but to a guest house in Alibag where they were left to themselves to do whatever they felt like. Being honeymooners, they usually didn’t leave the guesthouse much. Two weeks later, he would drop them off to their homes (Free Home Pickup and Drop!), along with a photo album with their photos morphed in front of the Eiffel Tower or Mount Titlis. He also tied up with the Original Equipment Manufacturers in Dharavi for the I♥NY souvenirs and the Merlion keychains. And he offloaded his electronics business inventory to the couples who wanted to show that they had shopped while they were abroad.

Eventually, the India Tours and Travel Journal interviewed Saileshbhai to undestand how he offered such incredibly low prices. Saileshbha smiled and said that he was always able to get some good out of bad. He never revealed anything more.


January 28, 2009

(A short story in the style of Neha Vish’s fiction fragments. With sincere apologies to her for ripping her off, and to my readers for inflicting this upon them.)

He feels happy. After six years away, he is now home again. He doesn’t have to put aside some amount of his salary to buy furniture for his flat any more. He can spend the evenings talking to his parents and grandmother. He will also be well fed by his mother who has made gaajar halwa for him. The carrots in Delhi are longer and pinker and the halwa you get from them is dark red unlike the orange halwa made in South India. This is the good life.

That evening, all his relatives have come home to welcome him back to Delhi. His grandfather had wanted many children. So now he has many uncles and aunts and even more auntyjis. They are all here. They are talking to each other in Lahori Punjabi and asking him when he will get married. He doesn’t mind. He is just happy to be home.

Suddenly something shatters his sense of peace and calm. His Kitty Aunty is talking. He had never noticed this before. But now, seven years after he last met her, he realises that he cannot tolerate the the way she speaks. Her voice is incredibly high pitched. She starts her sentences by calling his mother, and ‘Veena’ emerges in a shriek. He glowers. Why is this woman who he does not even know well mutilating his mother’s name and giving him a headache? He moves to a corner to escape the shrill tones and daydreams about throwing bricks at Kitty.

Once he is in the corner, he feels even more annoyed. Her voice still reaches here and she has started to laugh also. The laugh is even more excruciating than the speaking. He remembers the dubbed Japanese cartoons he used to watch when cable TV first came, and how the alien princesses in those would giggle manically whenever they were plotting some villainy. It feels like that.

He wonders why he never noticed this about Kitty Aunty before. And then he realises that it is because his time in Bangalore has spoilt him. He has started taking the South Indian accent, with its enunciation of vowels and middle vocal range, for granted. And Kitty Aunty now feels like an intrusion on this comfortable and pleasant way of speaking.

Suddenly he realises that though he is at home, he will feel out of place unless he can hear the Bangalore accent. And that Kitty Auntyji might be too high a price to pay for gaajar halwa.