Thursday 12th April – 1973, BOMBAY
It is almost light outside. It must be about six. He’s been awake half the night trying to figure out what to do. Lying on his bed, he stares through the rotating blades of the ceiling fan which only serve to stir the close warm air of his room. He needs to think – he’s running out of time. But his eyes feel salted and his head throbs.
He gets up and his legs are shaky. He’s panicking. He can’t fix what he’s done. He’s tried to reason it all in his head, to tell himself that there was no other way, that either all was lost, or he had to try to do something. But he knows he did the wrong thing. He was so so embarrassed – his shame was so deep and his pain was so great that he couldn’t face anyone. He certainly couldn’t face the truth. And now when he faces the mirror, he doesn’t recognise the man looking back at him.
A chill black dread is compressing his heart and is making it hard for him to breathe. It’s surely only a matter of time before everyone finds out. His life will be over – worthless. And his mother, what will she think? He has to tell her, before it’s too late, but a wave of fear washes over him. He should have stopped at the first whiff of trouble. After all, he’s not a criminal. He just got in over his head and now he needs a solution. He needs to finish it.
The phone rings. And rings and rings and rings.
36 hours earlier.
Invitations were for eight but no one arrived before ten. There are handshakes and air kisses, musky perfume, laughing and singing, platters of delicious food. Glittering, rising film stars call each other darling and sway in silk and chiffon to the music; business barons cheerfully argue amongst themselves; local gangsters chat with tainted police detectives while socialites with butterfly eyes work the room.
The party is in full swing and in the middle of it all, is Nauzer. He can’t quite believe it. His café is the talk of the town, full of bonhomie and a dazzling mix of talent, ambition, money, beauty brought together by business deals, clean and shady. He looks around and feels content, complete, happily intoxicated on a faint but very pleasant feeling of belonging.
He spots Prashad, who raises a glass and nods to him across the room. Nauzer gives an acknowledging smile. He still feels nervous whenever their paths cross – which is more and more these days. Sometimes he wonders whether he should ever have gotten involved with someone like him… but he couldn’t ignore the potential profits. He lets the thought drift away on a coil of cigarette smoke.
Whisky and cigarettes, late evening turns to night. Glancing at his Rado, two in the morning, he decides to walk home smiling, drunk. In his heady state, the dance of streetlights makes the city seem to glitter. “Everything will be fine”. He bites down on his own lie.
The following morning, Nauzer is lying in bed feeling jaded, heavy and hazy. He rubs his face, eases out of bed, stretches and walks to the window to open the wooden slatted blinds. The room fills with light and he takes in the mess of clothes amidst the ornate cut-glass vases and beautiful rosewood furniture. Turning on his transistor radio, the All India news bulletin blares out.
10 minutes later he is completely ready. Washed, shaven, dressed in Charagh Din shirt, slacks and cream socks. A day like any other, he picks up The Economic Times and Financial Express from the newsstand on his way to the café and tries to read all he can before the opening bell rings. Several others are already in his café when he arrives. Businessmen, bankers and brokers – wealthy and wily – talking of business, as they always do. The goldsmith from next door eating his usual Bun Maska, with extra butter and all.
“Where have you been, beta?” His mother, Rumina, stops him. Thin and stooped, she was leaning over the counter reading the matrimonial columns in the newspaper. Nauzer assumes the stories of marital bliss remind her of his late father. A gentle man, adored by everyone and taken too soon. He died when Nauzer was barely ten and he remembers attending the funeral and thinking his mother looked sad-eyed but beautiful in her white sari. He was too young then to appreciate the burden she was about to carry. His father’s work ethic had been legendary and led to his Irani café becoming a hub for the community, catering to hundreds of residents and locals every day.
He looks at her and smiles with pride. The early days were tough, but she worked hard and kept life in the café because she loved it. Every plate she had served had been served with love. For her, joy and success were bound up in rustling up delicious Akuri, watching young love blossom over Chai, old friends gathering and gossiping over Biryani, all while fortunes were made and lost in the Bombay Stock Exchange across the road.
And her dedication to Nauzer was unfaltering. She encouraged him to read widely, be curious, move in any direction he chose. For Nauzer, that direction was the Bombay Stock Exchange.
His dream of reaching the bull ring was sparked one close and balmy Bombay afternoon. He was helping his mother in the café when he spotted a young, well-built, moustachioed gentleman in tinted glasses drive up in a Mercedes-Benz and stop outside the Bombay Stock Exchange. He eased out of the car, suited and booted, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, and glided purposefully to the café. Admiration dripped from Nauzer’s eyes. Swaggering through the scattering of marble-topped tables, the man found a vacant seat and sat down. Nauzer walked over, nervously, to take his order and he still remembers the fragrance of expensive cologne assailing his nostrils as he approached.
“Chai, extra hot,” ordered the man decisively and he waved Nauzer away. Retreating to the kitchen, Nauzer assumed this was one of the new generation of business barons – quick, decisive, professional – bent on expansion and achievement. Nauzer watched him and saw satisfaction, contentment. He made an emphatic promise to himself – I will be a success! Shortly after, he met with a distant relative who had climbed the ranks in the Bombay Stock Exchange and who, after much pleading, employed Nauzer as a clerk. From then on in the mornings he’d be in the exchange, diligently recording trades in musty old ledgers, before returning to the café to help his mother in the afternoon-evenings.
After a while, he opened an account with a jobber-turned-broker and made his first winning investment with a tip he had overheard in the café. It wasn’t a huge fortune, low-risk low-return, but to Nauzer it was everything. He had tasted success. He hatched grand plans to do-up the café – make it the swishest in town, modern and different. At once embodying his father’s spirit while becoming a hub for glamorous and moneyed people. But above all - his Ami would want for nothing.
A couple of years on and stories of Nauzer’s financial acumen had spread amongst his community and he had fashioned an image for himself as the bachelor stockbroker of the Bombay Stock Exchange. So much so that Aunties and Uncles were pressing their money on him and begging him to invest it in whichever “such-and-such shares” and “so-and-so stocks” on their behalf. Life savings were given over, safe in the knowledge that in Nauzer’s care retirement would be easier. Nauzer was his parents’ son and he was meticulous, driven and charming – someone to trust.
“Get your head out of the clouds beta” his mother stirs him. He looks above her head at the photograph of his father. He smiles, inwardly thinking about how proud his father would be of him, surely. Seemingly impossible dreams were coming true with hard work and determination – virtues he’d learnt from his father. He has refreshed the café with exquisitely made modern-style furniture and his newfound taste in art; he has enriched the community with his investing skills; and the moneyed crowd have started to welcome him into their folds. Right then, in that very moment, Nauzer felt life was good.
Meanwhile, Devia Patel of the Free Press Journal is making her way steadily towards him. A respected journalist, she has exposed scams and swindlers in the Bombay financial world and now she has a new target. One of her tipsters gave her a nudge in Nauzer’s direction a few weeks ago and she has been researching his dealings since.
She arrives at the café, walks in and spots Nauzer standing near the counter. Crossing the terrazzo tiles to join him, she wastes no time… “Mr Irani, Devia Patel from the Free Journal Press. Can you spare a moment? My readers and I would love to know more about your lucrative investing strategies.”
To be continued… Read Chapter Two here.
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