The Investigator

Shovon Choudhury | Updated on March 29, 2019 Published on March 29, 2019

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An elderly lady rushes into the bank manager’s room, and kisses him on both cheeks. “Live long, my son,” she says, sobbing tears of joy. She is followed by a midde-aged man carrying a large box of laddoos. He shoves one into the manager’s face, ignoring his protests as he picks up another.


“At least two,” he says, “at least two.” There are scenes of unprecedented merriment at this local branch of the State Bank of India. As I watch, three young ladies shower rose petals on a deputy manager. Someone else comes in leading a cow, who is saluted by the security guard. “I want them to have fresh milk with their tea,” explains the owner of the cow. “Why are you all so happy?” I ask. His eyes well up. “I never thought this day would come,” he says. “Finally, a public sector bank is giving money to the public. Of course, first they had to give money to Jet Airways, to ensure that the owner’s remaining 25 per cent stake does not become completely worthless. But then some kind soul in the finance ministry said, Why just Jet? Thousands of members of the public had their flights cancelled. Since we’re refunding everyone else, let’s refund them also. I was feeling hopeless, but now I am optimistic. Of course, ideally Jet should have been punished for stealing our money, but now that State Bank of India is paying back what Jet owes us, I have no complaints.”


“The great thing about democracy is the constant spirit of renewal,” says the officer from the Motor Vehicles Department, sipping his tea. He would have offered me some, but apparently the department is suffering from financial constraints. “Nothing ever gets stale. Everything stays fresh.” He pauses for a minute while a driving licence applicant hands over ₹ 6,000, looking hopeful. He folds his hands. “You’ll get your licence in six to eight weeks,” he says, patting the applicant on the cheek. “Meanwhile, please try to learn how to drive.” He turns back to me.


“Things happen so quickly these days. In the old days, we would have taken six months to give him a licence, even after the necessary payments, but you can’t stop the march of progress. Take the elections. Every so often, India sees the largest democratic exercise in the history of democracy. Old people are swept out. New people are swept in. The public always has such high expectations. They feel confident that when the new government comes in, they will transform everything. When it does come, I and my millions of colleagues will be here to support them, armed with the knowledge and experience gained from all the previous governments.” The door swings open, and a constable breezes in, smiling broadly. “Don’t forget about us, we’ll also be there,” he says. He holds out his hand, palm up. “Meanwhile, kindly hand over my ₹ 3,000. ”


I am in a dimly-lit room with an anonymous donor. I cannot see his face, or make out his nationality. His voice is a little muffled because he is munching on cashews. Even in the dim light, I can make out that they are extremely high-quality cashews, full-bodied and shapely. An air of great contentment surrounds him like a fog. “Ever since I read Ayn Rand as a little boy, I wanted to be a capitalist,” he says. “I have bought and sold so many things. Thanks to this recent initiative of the Indian government, where political donations have been made unlimited and confidential, now I can buy a country.”

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 “How do you set the price for a country?” I ask. I’m genuinely curious. My father used to constantly complain about politicians selling the country, but he never revealed the price. “That’s a very good question you’ve asked,” says the anonymous donor, and adds, “Like every other investment, you have to take a judgement call. It all depends on what you can get out of the country. In the circles where I move in, we call it future revenue potential. Since you seem to like cows, you can use them as a metaphor. How much milk will this cow give? That’s what we have to consider. Right now, coal is looking good. Things have been quiet, people have stopped asking questions. Aviation is also quite perky. Public sector banks are being exceptionally kind. It’s a little rough on Vijay Mallya, though. What was his fault? Most probably, it was jealousy. He shouldn’t have surrounded himself with bikini models. That’s not the sort of thing you do in public. Military aircraft are also giving good returns. Who says you even have to do a business? All I have to do is make large losses and wait for the banks. The secret to lasting success in India is to be an unsuccessful businessman. I can make losses. I’ve done it before. I have cousins in foreign countries that will ensure it. They’ll send me bills. I’ll send them money. They’ll send me nothing. I’ll make losses. Then the banks will step in, and we’ll split the money. It’s easy. The government owns the banks. All we have to do is buy the government. India is so inclusive. I am a foreigner, but even I am allowed to buy. The hospitality here is unparalleled.” “Who do you want to see win in the elections,” I ask. He is shocked. “We respect the will of the people,” he says. “We will wait for the results, and then we will buy whoever they support.”

Shovon Chowdhury is chief Truthdigger and author of Murder with Bengali Characteristics

The Investigator is a monthly round-up of all things droll and newsy. All views are personal. Really personal. @shovonc

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Published on March 29, 2019
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