Fine champagne with a three course dinner in a tony suburban restaurant had the ability to bring Pedro, Cynthia and Rodney together with Bablu, Abul and Minu’s aunt. And of course the wealth managers were there. But I may be getting ahead of the story…
The technological revolution in this early twenty first century is bringing massive social and economic changes. And it has brought financial opportunities to some young people all around the world. When our small information technology company was bought out by a well-known private equity firm, some of the early employees became millionaires. It was the culmination of all the efforts and upheavals of a start-up company. People said that we finally made it. Friends congratulated us. Relatives back in India boasted about us to their neighbors. We became mini celebrities of sort. And in Silicon Valley, flocks of wealth managers wanted to help us – any way they could! Mails came in with pictures of beautiful lake front properties on the hills. And sales people telephoned to see if we would like to rent private plane trips.
“It can actually be more economical than commercial flights,” one salesman casually mentioned.
No, we didn’t choose the private flights. But we ended up agreeing to a private meeting. It was a meeting cum dinner. A wealth management company arranged the information sharing meeting with our coworkers.
“The limousine will pick you up at 5pm,” a charming female voice informed us to stay ready.
“Limousine?” I gawked when I shared the information with Shoma, my wife.
“I need a nice evening dress,” she beamed.
I smiled at her promptness.
“Why?” my skepticism did not deter her. “You don’t go to that kind of restaurant in just any dress; and particularly in a limousine.”
“Okay,” I felt a warm oomph inside. We had never been in a limousine before. It had been well above our means.
This time though the limousine did arrive; and on time. A charming young Caucasian driver came out of the spacious car. “Good afternoon Mrs. Roy,” he pulled his white gloves taut and opened the back door for my wife. “My name is Angelo.”
“Thank you Angelo, I am Shoma” she acknowledged the driver and glided inside the limousine with an aristocratic air. She deeply inhaled the aroma.
I entered from the other side and touched the plushness of the blue velvet seat.
“Did you bring some cash?” Soma softly asked me when we got comfortable inside.
“You should give him a tip,” she smiled. She was enjoying the goodness of life.
“You have to do that with such drivers,” she feigned annoyance. “When has someone ever opened a car door for you?” she said tersely.
“Oh,” I quieted down at that point.
It was a fair question that she asked, I thought to myself, as the driver started the limousine. The elegance inside the car made me to think about my past. There was indeed an occasion when someone did open a car door – a back door – for me. It was a paramilitary officer with a rifle hung across his shoulder. The bayonet was attached above the barrel. He helped me up into the back of a van that one night. He had to. Because I had my arms hand-cuffed behind my back and my waist tied with a thick rope. It was a black police van with solid steel net all around. A military police officer had picked me up early dawn that day and drove me to a drab police lock-up. I had been shoved with rifle butt on the dirty floor behind a wall. Beaten and kicked mercilessly I have been hungry all day. Only in the evening they brought me two chapattis. And now I would be moved. To somewhere I was not informed of.
“Is the temperature comfortable Sir?” the young Limousine driver looked back from his driver’s seat. He was extra careful to provide the best comfort for his valued customer.
“It’s perfect,” I assured him.
“And you Mam?”
“I am alright,” Shoma replied. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” the young man seemed to be too happy to chat with us. He might have been the regular driver for the wealth management company for giving rides to their preferred customers.
“May I offer you a bottle of water?” he asked Shoma. “I have mineral and sparkling.”
“And for you Sir?” he looked at us through his rear view mirror for approval.
“I’m all right,” I smiled back. “Thank you very much. It’s only half an hour to the restaurant. We are ok till then.”
“Are you sure Sir?” he insisted.
As the police van started moving out of the police lock up I tried to look out to see which direction it was driven to. Outside the gate a frail widow in a white sari had been squatting on a pile of dusty bricks. She wore a pair of round glasses with brass rims and had a side bag hanging from her shoulder. She looked like an elementary school teacher in her outfit. The dim yellow light from the street lamp barely made her visible. Swarm of flies buzzed in the dusty haze around the lamp. The lady stood up as the van got near the gate, raised her frail hand and tried to say something to a passenger inside the van as it drove near her. A young man in the van stood up. He was hand-cuffed and roped around his waist like me. One of the police guards sitting near the door swiftly placed the barrel of his rifle on the young man’s shoulder. The message was clear. The young man sat down immediately. It was past ten at night and the darkness engulfed the van as it drove fast away from the police station.
“It’s a beautiful car,” I tried to be chatty with the limousine driver.
“Thank you Sir,” the driver felt complimented. “I try to take good care of it. I have another limousine but I drive this one personally for the wealth management company.”
“So I guess this is your own company?”
“Yes, Sir.” He was proud.
“Where are you from, if I may ask you?” I asked him.
“From Colombia, Sir,” he replied. “It’s in South America.”
“How long have you been in America?”
“Well,” he cleared his throat. “My family escaped the country when I was a baby.” He took a breather. “There was political unrest there. Death squads were terrorizing the countryside. And my parents fled.”
I stayed quiet. A cold feeling moved down my spine. And my past flashed before my eyes.
I didn’t think of fleeing from that police van that night. No one else did either. We were afraid of being killed. News of young men being shot and left dead by the roadside was regular news then. Police reported the deaths due to ‘encounter’ with the insurgents. We shivered inside the moving van as late winter wind blew through the car. Any false move would have been certain death. I imagined that there would be a report in the morning news-paper that to free their comrades the Naxalites had attacked the police convoy on the way to the prison, and in the ensuing fire-fight the police killed all the detainees! Reports abounded of dead bodies, mouths gagged and handcuffed, strewn along rural roads; or beheaded corps lying along marshy lands.
Around midnight the police van stopped in front of a large building – the central jail. The sentries opened the gate and we were led inside a large parking area. The doors were opened and we were led out of the van and inside a large office with a high ceiling. Behind the wide table of the jailor’s office on the wall there was an old grandfather clock, ticking away time. The rope around my waist was removed and then the hand-cuffs. It was quiet in the dead of night. Only a few armed sentries were working. And some people in prison uniforms were helping them out. I later learned them to be the convicts. And this office work was their part of punishment.
I had to fill out long forms – name, address, date of birth. And my left thumb was imprinted. My height was measured and I was weighed on a tall balance. And then I was given an enamel bowl and a grey blanket, coarse and thick. When the paper work was approved by the jailor a convict helper and a prison sentry took charge of me. As we were moving ahead I noticed that the large office room was partitioned by a wide gate, made of wooden beams riveted on black metal frames. The wood beams had been painted in green and was painted many times over, leaving thick uneven layers of dried paint. It had a wheel on one end, indicating that the heavy gate needed the wheel to be opened. There was a square cutout in the middle of the gate so that people can squeeze through without opening the whole gate. The convict showed me the way as I galloped through the cutout. And the sentry followed behind me. Through long, quiet and half lit corridors I was led to another wide section, where rows of people were sleeping on the floor along the walls. I was given a spot on the inside row along a middle wall. I unfurled the blanket on the floor, put the bowl under the blanket near the wall, to be used as a pillow, and went to sleep. It would be my space in the prison – not as a convict but as a political detainee. To be charged as an extremist plotting to overthrow the government!
“The traffic is good today,” the limo driver mentioned casually. “We shall be there shortly.” It took barely half an hour to reach the posh shopping mall in the high end of the city. The service manager of the wealth management company was waiting outside the restaurant for us. She was impeccably dressed for the occasion. And she was all smiles.
“Hope you had a comfortable ride Mr. Roy,” Linda, the manager, said as she led us from the limousine to the restaurant. A waiter opened the door at the entrance and we walked past rows of dining tables full of evening customers and then to a room, reserved only for the high-value clients. City lights gleamed below through the wide windows. A group of gentlemen were waiting there.
“This is Ma-nik,” Linda tried to pronounce my name correctly as he introduced me to the gentleman in the middle.
“How do you do, Sir,” he stood up to shake my hand from the other side of the table and handed over his official card to me. “I am James Robbins.”
“He is our vice president,” the manager said.
Seated next to James on my right was Ron Gold, the private banker and Marty Shen, the portfolio manager. And on my left and next to James was Ms. Long, the service manager, Bob Levin, the legal expert and Allen Wu, the insurance expert. All Ivy League educated finance experts working for this famous wealth management organization.
“Congratulation over the sale of your company,” Mr. Robbins was sincere. “We are all very happy, By the way, please call me Jim.”
Bablu’s bed on the floor in the prison was on my left. Thin and malnourished, he was a petty thief and pick pocket. And on my right was Abul, a subsistence farmer and day laborer. Abul killed his neighbor with an axe. Across our row and near the window grills were the lifers from the upper social class of the outside society. They managed to get their space near the light that trickled from above the high walls behind the tall steel grills. Most were convicted for killing their wives, lovers or opponents in love triangle. ‘Lifers’ were the ones who were sentenced for life without parole.
“All stand up,” we were woken up early in the morning by the loud commands of the sentries asking everyone to stand in line for the morning head count. “Hajour,” the prisoners’ responded loudly as their names were called. This routine repeated three more times during the day – to check if anyone escaped. I got habituated to the routine soon. Bablu was quiet and cunning. But out of frustration over his long prison stay he mentioned one day that he had forgotten how long he had been in the prison. Abul, on the other hand, knew that he would never leave the prison alive. After the morning head count we rolled up our blankets next to the wall, went to the bathroom and took our bowl to be filled with Khichuri, made from unpolished grains. It felt coarse, smelled stale and tasted peculiar. I was introduced to Somu, our ‘mate’, the cell commander. His place was a few beds away from mine, on the opposite row and near the corner next to the “window’. It’s a floor to ceiling opening with tall and thick iron rods, next to a narrow passage before another tall wall of the next cell began. Our mate had a few more belongings than others and he arranged those in a neat small pile, tied to one of the rods. The mate was in charge of keeping ‘order’ among the prisoners in our block. Somu was convicted for stabbing one of his close friends to death. That friend had an illicit affair with his sister-in-law. It was committed in a rage, in the spur of a moment during an intense argument. “Had it been pre mediated,” we were told by some inmates, “he would have been hanged.”
Besides Somu, there were other lifers as well. Many of them looked polished and appeared to have come from well-off families. All seemed to have committed similar murders, tied to love triangles of some sort. They seemed to be embarrassed to us, the ‘political’ detainees. And the political prisoners were high on the social ladder. Then there were the common criminals like Bablu, the pick pocket. In the prison heirarchy, he was no man. To gain my ‘political’ favor, he fanned me during hot nights.
“Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen,” with a bow the maître de of the restaurant touched his heart with his right hand and held his left hand behind his back. “I am Rodney, your host tonight,” he introduced himself with a professional smile. “And helping me are Pedro and Cynthia,” he pointed towards the middle aged man and the lady standing next to him. Pedro served the menu as Cynthia moved quickly to position the cutlery and napkins on the table.
“May we help you with your drinks,” Rodney opened his notepad.
“What do you have?” Marty Shen, the portfolio manager, asked as he lightly browsed through the beverage section of the menu.
“Well Sir, we have Champaign,” Rodney bent over and pointed to the menu book in Marty’s hand. “And, of course, we have spirits and continental liquors.”
“You have Dom,” Marty slowly read from the menu. “Which vintage is it?”
“Marty is our champagne expert,” Jim lightly joked at Marty.
“It’s two thousand eleven’s crop Sir,“ Rodney mentioned. “if I remember correctly.”
“Eleven?” Marty seemed satisfied.” I shall go with a glass.”
“Don’t they have a crop every year?” Jim asked Marty.
“Not quite,” Marty was indeed an expert. “They would not just release a batch if the grape quality is not up to the standard.”
“Really?” we all were surprised.
“It’s all about the flavor and the notes it comes with.”
Cynthia brought back baskets of lightly warm, soft breads wrapped in crimson napkins. She spread the baskets around the table. Sweet buttery aroma filled the air.
“If you don’t mind ladies and gentlemen,’ Linda, our service manager, drew our attention. “Ron, would you like to discuss the accounts Mr. and Mrs. Roy have? And Marty may give a description of the products we offer to our clients.”
“Well,” Bob told Linda. “May I ask you, Mr. and Mrs. Roy, if you have had a trust set up for the family?”
“Trust?” I didn’t know what to say. “Is it a kind of account we should have opened?”
“Well Bob,” Linda said with genuine sincerity. “That is something we may want to start with …”
“Are you folks ready to order your food?” Rodney came back with a smile. “Or do you need some more time to decide?” he paused a bit. “But allow me to mention that the soup of the day today is Lobster Bisque. It’s a rich and creamy soup with crostini, butter, cilantro and leak. It’s a favorite here. And our Chef’s special is Steak au poivre prepared with filet mignon.”
“If you would allow,” Rodney was as civil as a professional host could be, “Pedro will take your order for the appetizers.”
“Once you have your trust complete,” Linda looked at Shoma and then at me, “Marty can discuss an initial portfolio for the family.” She seemed to be ready to sign us up as her valued clients. “We work as a team looking at our clients’ overall financial and legal requirements,” the client manager informed. “We act as a fiduciary. And our clients’ well-being is our goal. He continued. “We recognize our clients are different and their requirements are different. And so we create financial plan differently to suit their individual needs. When you do good we do good. We do not follow any cookie cutter plan for everyone.”
Pedro brought out the appetizers: large dishes of Erizos con salsa verde, fried squids and crab cakes.
“We shall start with US securities,” Marty smiled at us, “if you folks are comfortable with the volatility of the market.”
I realized that Marty, the portfolio manager, was talking about the stock and share market when he talked about the securities. But I did not know why a stock is called a security. The only security I knew was the security that none of us in the prison ever had. I came to know Saroj, who had his individual cell in the second floor. He was imprisoned in a controversial anti-insurgency law by which the police could pick up and imprison anyone without any cause and without trial for up to one year. But if the security forces wanted to, they would free you from the prison on the 365th day and as you had walked out of the prison gate, the police would arrest you again and imprison you for another twelve months. Without any cause and without any trial! No security for you. For Saroj it was his second such term. He was, however, an active Marxist. His cell had been, by then, his new home, well stocked with his books and belongings. He used to receive a daily newspaper from outside, paid for by his family. And it was the attraction of the outside news that drew me into his cell every day. And he was happy to have someone to talk to as well.
“Thank you,” Shoma graciously smiled at Cynthia as she came back with strawberry daiquiri for her. It had a thick frothy consistency with a creamy crimson color.
“Where do you think she is from?” I whispered in her ear about Cynthia.
“Not sure,” she whispered back. “I have not heard her accent yet.”
“Is your drink sweet?” I asked her softly again.
“Yes,” she said “but it does not look good for you to drink from my glass. How is the Champagne?”
“It’s making me bloat inside.”
“Why did you choose it then?”
“Well, I heard that it is very pricy so I wanted to check it out. Don’t worry I‘m going to finish it.”
Bob ordered Fillet Mignon. Marty chose the T-bone steak and I stuck with a salmon sandwich with salsa.
“But most of your portfolio should consist of high quality bonds,” Marty, the portfolio manager continued. “Triple A rated. Does not matter if we choose corporate or municipal or government bonds. Have you ever had bonds?” Marty asked.
“No.” I replied. “Never.”
I never had the bonds that the wealth manager was talking about. But I learned about the bond that the court had ordered Bablu, my pick-pocket fellow prisoner, to deposit for a bail. But his destitute family could not collect that money. It had been many years since. Everyone seemed to have forgotten Bablu.
“Sir,” Bablu once asked me meekly. “Do you know the judge? If you would kindly tell him my case.”
Simple Bablu! He was on his last straw. He thought that I was ‘politically’ important enough to influence the judge.
“But securities and bonds are not the only ones we select for our clients,” Marty said with a hint of smile on his lips. “We can invest in land and cattle,” he looked at me “if you so choose.”
I was not aware of any investment idea in land and cattle. But I sure knew of land and cattle. Because it was for the land and cattle, that Abul, my co-prisoner, killed his neighbor. He told me that story one afternoon after we returned from lunch. It was a late winter day and the rice in his small plot of land was ripe and ready to be harvested. He cautioned his neighbor about controlling the cow so it could not enter in his land. But then one day the neighbor’s cow had broken into his land and ate and trampled the entire crop. Abul called his neighbor. An intense argument ensued. He was so angry that he grabbed his axe. And he inflicted a fatal blow to his neighbor. The hospital was many miles away from that remote village. Abul was arrested and convicted for life. His parents used to visit him when they were alive. But after his parents’ death Abul’s wife and children could not afford to visit him anymore.
“Ripe paddy, ready to be harvested,” Abul lamented many years later.
“Shalar po shala (that son of a bitch),” he cursed the dead. “And that shala’s cow destroyed it all.”
The desserts were cheese cake and chocolate lava mousse. And the dessert drinks were Porto and Sherry. As we were finishing our sweet dessert Cynthia brought two cases of Cuban cigars in a humidor.
“Let me show you,” Marty carefully peeled the cellophane wrappings off a cigar and smoothly cut the end of it with a sharp blade from the humidor. He lit the end with a lighter as he rotated the cigar on the flame. Finally satisfied with the length of the ember he puffed the other end and blew a smoke ring above his head. He smiled with satisfaction. A sweet smell blew around. Not the harsh smell that I remembered from the prison smoking.
On Saturdays, a Hindu day of rest, the lifers inside the prison got together and cooked up a puja ceremony. They lit a mini candle in front of a pile of books. But the main part was smoking ganja after the puja. The chillum would move from one participant to the next – all sitting in a circle. They would start with small inhales at first. And then with following rounds the puffs would get lengthier. Their faces would turn pink. And the most addicted would puff it so long that a flame would rise up the chillum’s top. And they would then go to bed. The sentries appeared to take the smoking as a religious freedom and looked the other way.
“May I?” Cynthia, the waitress, softly invited my attention with the decanter in her hand. She poured the remaining champagne in the glass.
“Thank you,” I smiled at her. At the end of the day she looked tired.
“You welcome, Sir,” she smiled back with a bow. Her English had heavy accent.
The only woman that worked in a restaurant in my younger days was Minu’s aunt. The widowed aunt left East Bengal with her three young kids and took shelter with her mother and brother. Her brother’s family was poor and she and her children became a burden on them. So after much hesitation and finding no other alternative she took up a job as a cook in a restaurant in the city and left with her children. We used to call a restaurant a hotel then. We all forgot about them. Till one day she came back several years later. It was such a shame to the community! She actually came to abort an illegitimate baby that she had conceived. People we knew laughed behind her back. Ignorant of life, I did not know then of sexual harassment of vulnerable women. Nor did I know that there was something called rape. We only thought of how indecent it was of her to have sexual relation. We only shamed her. Never thinking what the single mother might have gone through to bring food for her children.
Who knew if this Cynthia had a similar life like Minu’s aunt. ‘Could she be a single mother trying to make a living as a waitress?’ My imagination went wild. She must have left her kids at home. This may be a second job that she caters to in the evening hours. She may be from one of the South American countries, where Che Guevara once espoused communist revolution against the imperial powers. And Cynthia is now making a living in a capitalistic economy. And Pedro as well. And me.
“Millionaire, Eh?” I mocked myself. “Bourgeois!”
“And the wealth managers the proletariats,” I tried to diffuse the conflict within. “Squabbling for money.”
Capitalism and Communism! Adam Smith and Carl Marx! Imperialism and Che Guevara! Society and Economy! French Revolution and Marie Antoinette! Naxal Revolution and Minu’s aunt!
“Do you have some cash?” I whispered to Shoma.
“Cash?” she wanted to be sure. “What for?”
“I want to leave a tip.”
“Cynthia,” I mumbled as I tried to clarify it to her as briefly as I could. “That waitress – she is like Minu’s aunt…”
“Minu’s aunt?” Shoma peered deeply at me with squinted eyes. And then she slowly took the wine glass away from me.
“Don’t be a joke,” she whispered in my ear, “You have too much of the Champagne.”