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Business as Usual

Riva Razdan | Updated on January 26, 2021

Prized view :The skyscraper strewn night sky of Bombay wasn’t all he observed as he stood at the glass window of the corner office   -  ISTOCK.COM

Mr Pandya rose from his recently inherited Japanese swivel chair and walked to observe his recently inherited view. The skyscraper strewn night sky of Bombay wasn’t all he observed as he stood at the glass window of the corner office, looking upon Marine Drive and its golden lamp posts glittering in an arc that twisted and winked, trickster-like, against the steel-grey Arabian. He also remarked to himself, with steely satisfaction, that Bombay was for the Shrewd.

Pandya’s hand twitched for his phone, but not to call his wife. Never to call his wife, even though it was to her that he owed his illustrious new title of Director of Mistry Communications, the advertising company that had been defining Indian brands’ relationship with their consumers since 1952. He wanted to call his father. Mostly to tell him that he had been wrong. Pandya had made the right decision when he chose to switch from Engineering to Arts. From the shoddy public college in Mahim to the posh St Xavier’s in town. From the local train to a gleaming green Esteem — bought with a loan taken out against his father’s medical practice — so that he didn’t smell like public transport when he sat next to Mr Mistry’s darling stepdaughter in FYJC English.

Vivek slid the phone back in his pocket. There was no point in calling his father and trying to persuade him that he was more than just a pretty boy with a ‘gift of the gab’.

For one thing, his father was right. He did owe his position to his gift of the gab (better to owe it to that than to his wife). For another, his father was dead.

But he had been so for the last twenty years. There were no fresh tears Vivek had to cry over it. Especially not tonight, at the close of his first successful week as the Director of Mistry Communications.

He walked over to the desk of the more recently deceased man and dialled his secretary.

“Hullo?” The voice was cool, faintly accented. Completely unlike the matronly Catholic lady his wife had appointed as his assistant.

“Mrs Gomes?”

“She had to leave early because her grandson’s nanny didn’t turn up or something? Anyway, I’ll be filling in for her, Mr Pandya. Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

Vivek found himself opening the drawer of his wife’s glorious stepfather’s desk. There they were, his pearl-studded cufflinks. He thought them too dandy during Johnny Mistry’s lifetime — pearls are exactly what you get when you allow your sap of a stepdaughter do all your shopping — but now he found himself pinning them onto the sleeves of his own Brooks Brothers shirt.

“Ah, Amalia?”

“You got me, Mr Pandya.”

There was a familiar smile in her voice.

“I didn’t realise you had returned to work with us.”

“You don’t mind, do you? Johnny Uncle had told dad that it would be all right. It’s summer in New England. And you know getting an internship in the States is hell at the moment —”

“Of course, of course.” He didn’t really want to get into a political discussion with the fiery philosophy undergraduate. “Well, America’s loss is our gain. We could use young blood around here to re-energise our social media department.”

“Like you need help,” she laughed lightly. “Congratulations on bagging the Stumble account.”

Pandya chuckled with false humility. It had been something of a coup for him to get Stumble, the renowned dating app, to make their foray into the Indian market with an old establishment company like theirs. The board had been worried that the millennial-run Filter Media would be the obvious choice for Stumble but Pandya had pulled the international account out from under Filter’s feet, making up for a lack of youthful sensibilities with forty years of conning Bombay into seeing things his way.

“Is there something specific you called for though?” the young girl prompted.

He paused, wondering now how to celebrate the night — perhaps he should go home. But then his wife wasn’t going to be in the mood for celebration. She was mourning, in fact. Vivek imagined returning home to find that she was lying in bed, again, eyes red-rimmed from crying over old videos of her and Johnny Mistry cantering together with their thoroughbreds at their farmhouse in Pavna. He refused to have his sleep disturbed by whingeing and neighing again.

“Uh Amalia, do me a favour and book me a table at the Chambers. I’d like to have dinner there tonight.”

“Absolutely. Is that for you and —”

“Just me tonight. Thanks.”

“Sure thing.”

Pandya was about to ring off when he heard a slight intake of breath. The ghost of floral perfume suddenly filled his senses and then disappeared.

“Is there a problem, Amalia?”

“No, sir.”

She never called him ‘sir’.

“I’d just like to say... Congratulations. Johnny Uncle chose the right successor.”

Pandya paused. “Amalia,” he said then softly, “how would you like to join me tonight?”

***

Dhruv didn’t like the Taj Chambers.

He thought the patrons self-important sixty-year-olds who had inherited everything they boasted — including the prestigious membership that he, a real captain of industry, had been denied. He didn’t need to ask why. He knew that these pedigreed men basking in the golden halo of their chandelier-lit dining room resented his brand of upfront, upstart Ahmedabadi aggression in business.

Dhruv didn’t bother to appease them. His straight talk and shoving may not be stylish enough for this set but it had shoved his Filter Media right into the big league. Right up there with behemoths like Mistry Communications. What had begun as a little social blog in his room in IIT Bombay had grown, in only three years, to a million-hits-a-day social media site that Forbes was calling Bombay’s home-grown Huffington Post’.

High life: He simply wasn’t interested in their machismo. It was hollow to him. The drinking, the women, the false glamour of it al   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Still Dhruv wouldn’t have been granted admission to Chambers tonight if it weren’t for his soon to be father-in-law. The Member and Patron. Who was now sitting opposite him, regaling him with tales of yachting at the yacht club in his twenties and taking girls around Studio 51 or 21 or 24 or whatever it was called. Sanjana’s father had been nice to him even when he drove an i10 — which led Dhruv to suspect that there really were some gentlemen in this gentlemen’s club — but still he couldn’t bring himself to pretend to relate to the memories of Mr Jethani and his boys’ school pals. He simply wasn’t interested in their machismo. It was hollow to him. The drinking, the women, the false glamour of it all. If it weren’t for Sanjana, he wouldn’t still be sitting here, listening to Mr Jethani relive his youth, one tired sentence at a time. But there was Sanjana. And thank god for Sanjana. And for her sake, he would have stayed and listened to her old man drone on all through the Emergency and up to the turn of the millennium, which is when his investments really started to take off, son!

Dhruv tuned out and cut up his fish tikkas, fantasising about the day the eloquent promoters of the club would approach him, a Thane-born nobody, to be a member of the Chambers. If Filter had landed the Stumble account that week then the prestigious gold letterhead would have already been on his desk, he was sure. Nothing humbled these Old Money types like access to the Whites’ dollars. Well no matter, it’s not like he wanted to spend his Friday evenings with old men anyway. He just wanted to be able to tell them, in as smooth a tone as they used, to F**k right off.

But as Vivek Pandya walked in with a pretty twenty-something girl in tow, Dhruv suddenly began to see the merits of being a member of the Inner Circle.

It all seemed perfectly innocent.

Pandya wasn’t hiding her. He was walking one step behind her, in a respectful, almost fatherly manner, as the maître d’ approached them. The elderly manager knew the girl, if the genial smile he gave her was any indication. She had probably accompanied her father here as a child. Their tête-à-tête lent the whole thing even more innocence than before. Everyone else in the stuffy Edwardian restaurant had settled back into their leather armchairs, more interested in their Scotch than in Pandya’s altruistic mentoring of one of the young set.

Dhruv, however, kept watching. Running a social media site had taught him this: In Bombay, if you kept watching long enough, the curtain of respectability is willingly parted, for anyone who has been sharp enough to spot a shift in the fabric.

It parted tonight for Dhruv. When Pandya placed his arm on the small of the girl’s back, to guide her to a private table on the lawns, it parted.

Dhruv rose, right in the middle of Sanjana’s father’s diatribe on the export market, and crossed the lawns to the table of the new director of Mistry Communications.

***

“Daddy doesn’t want me coming back at all. He’s keen to do that whole 500k investment thing. Like the scheme that boosts local employment? Set up a company so that I get access to a green card,” Amalia punctuated her chatter with delicate sips of her rosé.

Vivek let her conversation wash over him, enjoying the rushed movement of her pink lips as he sipped his cognac on Johnny Mistry’s expense account. Yes, he had ended up exactly where he should have been — on the lawns of the Taj Mahal hotel, gazing at the imposing Gateway of India at night while a svelte young girl discussed contemporary matters with him. He felt like a King and a Cosmopolitan all at once. Powerful yet current. It was a wonderful moment. A sparkling crescendo after years of cunning negotiation.

“Mind if I join you?”

Amalia turned to stare at Dhruv. Most girls did. She was taking in all six feet of him with the impish grin of a college girl.

She mustn’t be a day over 21, Dhruv thought to himself as he pulled a lawn chair from the neighbouring table and sat right down between the pair.

“Do I know you?” Pandya asked in a chilly tone. He was rattled by the appearance of this robust young man with his full head of hair.

“Only through our sales teams, Mr Pandya,” Dhruv replied affably. “I’m Dhruv Patel.”

“Oh,” Pandya grinned now, recovering his composure. “No hard feelings, I hope?”

“Oh none, none at all,” Dhruv said. “I mean, did you poach two of my salespeople and my movie star brand ambassador to destroy our pitch to Stumble? Sure. But then, all’s fair isn’t it?”

Pandya chuckled. “Poach, Steel, Destroy,” he grinned at Amalia conspiratorially. “Those are some harsh words, son. I wouldn’t use them.”

“What words would you use then?”

Amalia smiled mischievously.

“He’d say that we recruited talent by offering competitive retainer salaries to worthy sales professionals who felt unappreciated in their previous roles.”

Dhruv’s head whipped to her, surprised. “That’s very good,” he nodded, chuckling. “Any chance I can recruit you by offering a, whatsit — a competitive retainer?”

“You can’t afford me,” she twinkled at him.

“You don’t know what I can or can’t afford.”

“You can’t afford me, Mr Patel, because I don’t work for money.”

Pandya clutched his glass tighter, trying not to react. There was no reining in Amalia. There never was.

Dhruv’s eyebrows shot up. He glanced to his left. A pink twinge, he noticed, had appeared in Pandya’s cheeks.

“What are you doing at Mistry Communications then?”

“Amalia’s studying philosophy at Cornell. She’s helping out our social media department as a summer job,” Pandya’s voice had risen, insistent. A little too insistent.

“If you’re putting in the time, why not get paid for it?”

“Then I’d have to do what people asked me to. This way I can come and go as I please,” Amalia dimpled and put her napkin down. “And on that note, excuse me —”

She rose, patting the back of her sleek pencil before sashaying towards the restaurant. Vivek allowed himself one glance at her svelte form and then quickly averted his eyes. Too late. Dhruv was grinning at him with too much familiarity.

“You should rejoin your father-in-law, Mr Patel. Guests are not supposed to wander around unattended by their inviting Members,” Pandya said gruffly.

Dhruv’s eyes flickered at this barb but his smile did not fade.

“I’ll join him in a minute, Mr Pandya. But first, I’d like to thank you for so graciously hiring my company to handle the digital advertising of Stumble for you.”

Pandya looked at the boy confused for a moment, then he burst into scornful laughter.

“Are you a coke-sniffer like your brand ambassador? That’s how I got him by the way. We sent one case filled with lines and another filled with cash. Those Bollywood producers obviously aren’t paying their actors enough these days. Or perhaps it’s the whole Narcotics Bureau business —” Pandya laughed sharply again. “Whatever the case, you should know that you have to start playing a little dirty if you want to keep playing with us, son.”

“Oh, I’m well aware of that,” Dhruv said, coolly. “That is why I’m not above telling your wife about your affair with the Anands’ pretty Cornell-educated daughter.”

Pandya’s laughter faded slowly, like it was being lost to the ocean breeze one decibel at a time. He picked up his glass of whisky and took a long swig of it.

“This is disgusting. This is why people like you, with your lewd imaginations, are not allowed in places like this —”

“Bluster all you like Mr Pandya, but mine is not an empty threat. I built my business on being able to leverage information I acquired from the internet. I can either put the full force of that business releasing evidence of you and Amalia Anand or in destroying it.”

Pandya quickly did a mental search; rifling through the years for any incriminating evidence. What did this fellow have that made him so cocky? Was it that time in the conference room at Mistry Communications? Or that other time at the airport hotel in Bangalore? No, they had been very careful. And he had bribed everyone well. He was about to take another confident swig of his whisky and tell Dhruv to ‘Get Lost’ when a waft of floral perfume suddenly shocked him to his core.

Spring 2018 in New York. Her second year of college. An assignment of Amalia’s was overdue — a class on the Female Gaze. She had secretly taken selfies of them asleep and submitted it to her professor.

It was the reason he had ended things. The pretty girl was simply too unpredictable.

“Your face isn’t even in it!” She had cried when he asked her to delete the photos, stat. It was true. It was Pandya’s hairy naked back and his left profile smushed sleepily into a Lexington hotel pillow. Her face was turned to him, young and mischievous, her arm stretched out to fit the two of them in the photo.

There was enough of him in there, he knew, for Shaila to know that it was him.

Amalia had sworn that she would delete them. But then she had also sworn to never return to Bombay or Mistry Communications.

Pandya drained his whisky and called for another.

“You’d destroy a young girl’s reputation for a goddamn pitch?”

“I’m not the one destroying her reputation, Mr Pandya.”

Dhruv pulled out his phone and began to tap at it with deft fingers. “I’m not the one following her on Instagram. @Imli Anand, isn’t it?” He held up a picture of Amalia and her similarly bikini-clad girlfriends holding pina coladas up to the camera, grinning. “I wonder what Mr Anand would think if he knew.”

The colour vanished from Pandya’s face.

“As tangy as the truth,” Dhruv continued, reading her profile. “Now isn’t that ironic?”

By the time Amalia ‘Imli’ Anand returned to the table, Pandya was sweating bullets and Dhruv had returned to join Mr Jethani.

“Is everything okay son?” Jethani asked, looking up from the group of cuff-linked men who had descended upon him.

“Absolutely,” Dhruv said, grinning. “Mr Pandya has invited me over to have coffee with him and his wife tonight.”

“Really? Vivek invited you over?” Even with twenty years of breeding, Jethani’s friend couldn’t disguise the shock in his voice.

“We have some business to take care of.”

“But he just got here,” another gentleman said, narrowing his eyes in further suspicion at Dhruv. The director of Mistry Communications joined them then and answered for himself.

“My wife is in mourning. I’d like to be close to her tonight,” Mr Pandya said, evenly. “Shall we, Mr Patel?”

Warm thoughts: Dhruv looked out of the window, trying to think of Sanjana... Of her reading Anna Karenina industriously, wrapped in a blanket at their home in Juhu   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

As they got into Johnny Mistry’s Bentley, Dhruv looked out of the window, trying to think of Sanjana. Of her smiling eyes and good-natured laugh. Of her reading Anna Karenina industriously, wrapped in a blanket at their home in Juhu. It made him feel clean again.

It seemed to obliterate — albeit momentarily — the surge of sickening pleasure that had started to dart around in his stomach.

Sanjana must never know what transpired tonight.

Patel turned to Pandya, almost pleadingly now.

“No hard feelings, I hope?”

“Bombay is for the Shrewd,” Pandya shrugged coolly. Then, as though knowing what his young adversary was experiencing, he nodded with satisfaction. “Welcome to the club. There’s no going back.”

The car drove on, with both men no longer looking forward to the rest of the evening.

 

Riva Razdan lives in Mumbai, and her debut novel ‘Arzu’ will be published by Hachette India in January

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Published on January 26, 2021
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