It’s a rum thing, being a writer. You never know why strangers smile at you. Especially immediately after they discover that you write fiction.
‘See!’ Your vanity digs an elbow into your ribs. ‘He’s smiling! He appreciates you.’
‘Nah!’ rumbles the realist in you, peering over its half-moon reading glasses. ‘He’s just indulging you. See how patronizing his smile is.’
‘Wrong,’ moans the cynic in you, rolling over as it slumbers in a corner. ‘That’s not a smile … it’s a sneer! Can’t you see the scorn in it, for heaven’s sake? He’s laughing at you!’
What with the world and his uncle starting to write, and with no dearth of “publishers” willing to print your stuff, all hues of writing – the good, the bad and the ugly – have flooded bookstores in copious quantities. There are no quality filters. And so, there are writers and writers and writers. No wonder some folks scoff at you.
The result? You never know how people will react when they learn that you too write fiction. Will you be appreciated, patronized or ridiculed?
It has become an occupational hazard of sorts. Unless you are a best-selling name, of course. In which case, they know that you write poorly or write well. For the rest of us, the mystery comes alive each time you meet a stranger and your brother-in-law proudly introduces you as a writer.
‘You write?’ titters a new acquaintance at a wedding for want of anything better to say. ‘Mythology or romance?’ The two genres seem to account for her entire world of books.
‘Neither,’ I say sheepishly. ‘I write crime fiction.’
‘Oh!’ She loses interest and starts looking around with an expression that suggests that she doesn’t want to hang around someone who is involved with crime.
‘Crime!’ says her husband, stepping forward. ‘My nephew writes that too. He’s good at English, you know. He got almost 75% in English in his Class X exam last year. He’s written a story about gangsters and vamps. Gory but titillating stuff!’
I make the right noises. I know where this is heading.
‘Can you edit his story and help him get it published?’ the man goes on. ‘But no stealing his story, okay?’ He punches me playfully in the shoulder. ‘Ha, ha! No offense – that’s just a joke.’
His wife has drifted away. I try to do likewise, but I am pinned between a wall and the man’s ample tummy. I try to tell him that I am a writer, not an editor. That I don’t steal stories. That I don’t write titillating stuff. But he is insistent. A shrewd look comes into his eye as he tries to strike a deal.
‘We can come to an arrangement,’ he whispers. ‘My nephew will share the spoils with you. What say you, eh?’
I somehow wriggle my way out of it. I mumble that gangsters and vamps are not my line. Nor is gore or titillation. I write cleaner stuff, I say with a touch of righteousness – white-collar crime.
‘Financial fraud and that sort of thing?’ he asks.
I nod, eyeing the gap that is opening up between the man and the wall. I might just be able to escape through it.
‘I have an idea for a white-collar crime novel,’ he enthuses. ‘A brilliant idea! You must give me credit in your novel.’
I smile noncommittedly. My attention is on the widening gap. It’s almost large enough for me to slip through.
‘You know these emails you get from Nigeria?’ he asks conspiratorially. ‘The ones that offer to pay you ten million dollars? It’s a fraud! It’s just a ploy to steal your money –’
I bolt through the gap. Escape at last!
I walk around the wedding hall to get away from him, and eventually find a lone chair for a bit of peace and quiet. But that’s not to be. A stranger pulls up a chair and plonks down beside me.
‘I wanted to talk to you about a brilliant idea for a novel,’ he says. ‘You know these emails you get from Nigeria …’
Clearly, being a writer is no unmixed blessing.
For those who take up fiction-writing after toiling for decades in the corporate sector, the peril takes yet another form. Some former colleagues – senior blokes who run companies and stuff – start looking down upon you.
‘Et tu, Brute?’ their silent glances seem to ask as they gaze down their Roman hawk-noses. The look they favour you with isn’t unlike what Caesar might have given Brutus in his final hour. I sense what’s going through their minds.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ they are thinking. ‘Why did he have to go and start writing – fiction of all things? He should have done a start-up or something.’
Having said this, I must admit that it’s not all peril. There is an occasional perk too; especially since I have begun writing about white-collar crime in corporate India.
My ‘corporate thrillers’ (as they are now known) lend me a measure of respectability in corporate circles. And they provide a neutral topic to break the ice with – ‘they are so prescient!’ some say. Even in boardrooms, folks make the time to utter a word or two of appreciation. That’s so welcome after having to flee from lectures on emails from Nigeria!
You also get an occasional call or a message from a CEO or an MD, who has become your friend. The latest one was after the recent sting on media houses by Cobrapost. My latest novel, Conspirator, is about paid media and fake news. It tells the story of how a media house monetizes its influence over readers and viewers.
‘Scary!’ says the friend’s text message. ‘This is exactly like in Conspirator – headlines are indeed for hire! What if the rest of your novel is true too?’
Well, I guess there are some perks too! But I must learn to take the perils with the perks. And to take it on the chin from time to time.
Speaking for myself, I seldom say that I write, and I discourage my relatives from introducing me as a writer. If people discover it by themselves and want to talk, I’m happy to reciprocate.
Otherwise, why open the Pandora’s Box?
Continuing with the theme of setting each book in a different sector, the Fraudster Series moves to the media industry in the fourth book. Conspirator begins with a hedonistic party thrown by a media mogul in Coorg. Mingling and conniving away from prying eyes and ears, is an intriguing cross-section of powerful men and women – politicians, businessmen, celebrities, and even a blackmailer and a purveyor of fake news.
Things go awry when murder strikes, and very soon, Inspector Dhruvi Kishore finds herself in the bewildering world of fake news, paid new and tailored new.
Be it the west or India, the last year or two have been roiled by fake and disingenuous news. Fake news and dubious social media posts are said to have played a major role in the 2016 US presidential elections. Russia is said to have been involved in it too (Russia has denied the allegation). National boundaries are, of course, meaningless in our digital world.
Closer home, I recently came across a WhatsApp message that seemed to have a particularly malicious intent. The message purported to be a “letter” from a senior director of a global manufacturer of breakfast cereals and snacks to a customer. This purported letter “acknowledged” that the company uses pork and beef gelatin in their products. The malicious message sought to tarnish a global brand in India by taking a leaf out of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
To my horror, I found educated and “enlightened” people forwarding and spreading the message. Even the learned, it appears, fall for such obvious ploys and become unwitting abettors of this insidious mendacity. This is especially so on WhatsApp, where messages can’t be traced back to the originator (unlike Facebook and Twitter).
Clearly, politics is not the only field where fake news rears its ugly head. The business world too is tailor-made for it – tons of money can be made from it. And there are haunts other than politics and business too.
Conspirator distinguishes between three shades of this malaise – fake news, paid news and tailored new. The last is perhaps the most debauched of the three. It happens when trusted journalists (in newspapers, TVs or websites) customise headlines and content to suit private interests – political, commercial or any other. The guardians of truth stoop to cheat and betray the trust they enjoy.
The ones who do this are sly, intelligent people who practice their deceit in a way that makes it difficult for the unsuspecting reader/viewer to realise that what she is reading/watching is tailored news. It sneaks in under her guard and corrupts her perception and beliefs.
Conspirator is the story of such people and their craft. The greatest intangible asset of the media is their ability to influence opinions and choices. The antagonists in the story make use of it to the hilt.
Composed by a reader and a well-wisher in verse form!
A banker, she dies, soon after she has deposed
A chairman, he dies, in him trust was reposed
A server, it’s hacked, in it untold secrets composed
Illicit finance and crime coalesce in a thriller proposed
Will all be unravelled as Inspector Ranade disposed?
A roller coaster ride, if ever there was one
A corporate thriller with twists that get undone
Criminals and crooks with scruples none
Keeps you riveted, as the culprits are on the run
Try solving this locked room mystery, it’s fun!
Insider trading, I’ve often thought, must be one of the easiest white-collar crimes to pull off. Even easier than procurement fraud, which must be one of the most pervasive.
Someone in the accounts department of a listed company tells his friend or relative: ‘We’ve done better than expected this quarter. We’ll beat market expectations.’ The friend promptly buys a hundred shares of the company. And when the results come out and the share price surges, the friend is a few thousand rupees richer.
Now, how do prosecutors even begin to establish that price-sensitive information was used to profit from the trade? Unless, of course, the insider was foolish enough to put his tip on an email or a text message. Not only is insider trading easy to pull off (at least on a small scale), it is also horrendously difficult to prove.
There are tens of thousands of people in listed companies who possess such price-sensitive information from time to time. It’s not just the blokes in the accounts department, but also others too – both employees and outsiders (auditors, consultants, I-Bankers, advisors, etc.).
During my tenure at the Big Four audit/consulting firms, this was something we had to constantly look out for. The law explicitly prevents auditors and consultants from divulging such information – inadvertently or otherwise – to any party who may benefit from it. And we were prohibited from owning stocks of companies we audited or advised. Independence/propriety is indeed a big deal at these firms.
Be that as it may, many do believe that insider trading is prevalent in India. On a small scale, at least.
A couple of years back, I was wondering how insider trading could be ‘institutionalized’ (by a hypothetical Indian Prof. Moriarty, if you will) and scaled up. I sat down and ‘designed’ a suitable mechanism. To my delight, I found the scheme eminently workable, and reasonably watertight. And more importantly, it could be implemented with simple technology that is widely available.
I then put on another hat (that of an investigator or SEBI), and began looking at how one would go about discovering and unraveling the insider trading scheme once it was implemented. Clearly, that would require sifting through tons of stock market data, and possibly the use of analytics.
Once I had both ends of the scheme figured out, I built a murder mystery around it. That became Insider, the novel that Hachette has just released. If you do get to read it, please drop me a note. I’d like to hear what you think of the workability of the little scheme.
This blog was originally published as a guest post at Printasia.
A question I frequently get asked is whether I had any specific purpose behind writing Fraudster. Was I irked by the atmosphere in corporate India, one newspaper journalist asked. Did I want to expose their wrongdoings, another interviewer wanted to know.
The answer is an unequivocal ‘No’.
I’ve had lots of fun during my three decades in the corporate world, and some of my best experiences have been there. Not to mention some of the brightest minds and the finest human beings I met, and the many friends I made there. Far from being irked, I am thankful to the corporate world for showing me an avenue in which to try my creativity.
Why then did I choose to write a novel about some murky realities of the banking world?
The fact of the matter is that the corporate world is a fertile ground for stories – inspirational or fictional. It is a melting pot of many types of people; men and women driven by different sets of values, priorities and motivations. Each one has a different worldview, and the environment has far more than fifty shades of grey.
It has a fascinating interplay of every emotion one can think of, and every kind of conflict. Fiction, after all, is about emotive conflict. Consequently, the corporate world lends itself wonderfully to crime fiction.
The stakes are high too. A person who is worth a million dollars in his private life may be running a 500 million dollar business. A banker who may be worth even less, could be handling a loan portfolio worth billions. A peculiarity of banking is that ordinary men and women handle vast amount of other people’s wealth. Billions upon billions of dollars of it.
If a banker falls to temptation and siphons off a small part of the money he oversees, he can gain a lot more than he can hope to gain by any deception in his private life. The potential payoffs for crime, especially white-collar crime, is huge.
That, in turn, provides one of the essential ingredients for crime – motive.
That’s not all. The corporate world also provides a virtually unlimited supply of the other two key ingredients as well – opportunity and means. With all three main elements covered, it becomes an ideal milieu for crime fiction.
But merely setting a murder in a corporate office, or robbing an ATM, does not make it a corporate crime. The nature of the deception and the modus operandi of the crime must have business processes at its heart. It must find or construct credible loopholes in the way businesses are run, and must take advantage of them.
To do that, a writer must have spent sufficient time in the corporate world and observed its failings. There must be millions of people who have done that, but yet, we have very little corporate crime fiction in bookstores. Apart from John Grisham, there are very few authors who write good fiction of this variety. I wonder why?
This article was published in tehelka.com’s ‘Personal Histories’ column with a different title in their 27 Sep 2014 issue .
It happened almost overnight. A company that had been built brick-by-brick over 90 long years, a firm that employed 85,000 people in over 80 countries, collapsed in a few short weeks due to the actions of one man. Just one man’s greed for higher annual bonuses destroyed a veritable institution in the world of accounting and consulting. Arthur Andersen.
It was a bolt from the blue for us in India. The unthinkable had happened. We had an acute sense of history being made, and being a part of that history. Only, it was the wrong kind of history. All of a sudden, tens of thousands of careers were at stake. Bright young people who had trusted their future to us were left in the lurch. Though the Indian arm was considerably smaller than some others, we nevertheless were a microcosm of what was happening worldwide.
In our midst were some who had married recently, and others who were expecting little ones. There were those who had taken large loans for buying flats. Among the older colleagues were some who had leveraged themselves to educate their children abroad. Across the board, people were desperately dependent on their pay cheques. If Andersen ceased to be, where would they go at this terrible time? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the job market was at a nadir.
All this had come to pass because of one selfish man sitting in some office somewhere on the other side of the planet. While India was at last beginning to enjoy the fruits of globalisation, we had the dubious privilege of experiencing the perils of it — first-hand.
The first decade of the new millennium was a terrible one for us. The 9/11 bombing was followed by Andersen’s collapse. As if that were not enough, along came the sub-prime crisis. These three calamities had two threads in common.
First, all three were results of warped minds and dark emotions — be it greed, anger or plain vindictiveness. Second, none of them had anything to do with India, but their impact was felt by us in full measure. Globalisation had truly arrived.
The aftermath was traumatic. The most difficult thing I have had to do in my three decades in the corporate world was to look a colleague in the eye and tell him that he no longer had a job. Knowing fully well that he and his wife were expecting a child in two months, and she had just quit her job in anticipation of the bundle of joy.
Difficult times also bring out the worst in some people. Accusations and barbs began flying indiscriminately. From melodramatic whispers like ‘he is snatching food from my son’s lips’ to more unmentionable ones.
But alongside them were others who showed their true worth during crisis. They worked doubly hard, and took voluntary pay cuts so that some of their colleagues could keep their jobs. Among them were senior people who took such deep cuts that they took home less than their juniors did.
When the dust finally settled and each of us found new equilibriums in life, some of us found that our perspectives had changed. We were now acutely aware of innumerable factors far outside our control that could wreak havoc on our personal and professional lives. We couldn’t avoid them, and we could do nothing to combat them.
The greed of Wall Street could lay low innocent victims in Chennai. Men like Bin Laden could destroy the lives of nameless folk in Hyderabad and Pune. Events on the other side of the planet could bring things crashing down in India. There was only one defence — to be prepared for the unexpected.
The lesson I take away is that in our new interconnected world where unseen strangers can yank the carpet from under our feet, our best allies are prudence and humility.
This article was published in Economic Times Corporate Dossier on 12 Sep 2014.
RV Raman, former head of KPMG’s Consulting Practice, tells five stories from his formative years.
1. Grab your chances.
The battery of tests and campus interviews had finally ended, and I had my first job offer from Tata Motors, a coveted prize for mechanical engineers in the early 80s. Just as I rose and shook hands with the panel, they popped me a question. Did I want to be a mainstream shop floor Graduate Engineer Trainees like many before me, or did I want to join the new Management Services Division (MSD)? The folks at MSD, they said, did computer programming; a new area where the waters were yet untested.
It was in an era when ‘computer science’ and ‘information technology’ hadn’t entered the Indian lexicon. I had a snap decision to make. I could take the tried and tested route to the shop floor, and take the well-treaded path up the organisational ladder. Or, I could risk striking into a new territory.
The thrill of telling a machine what to do was irresistible. I chose MSD. It was a decision I never regretted; a choice that took me into software, and then into management consulting.
Unexpected chances were thrown my way twice more in my career. I grabbed them. I’m happy I did.
2. Never stop adding skills. Reinvent yourself.
“Don’t rest on your laurels,” we were told at Tata Motors. “Opportunities will be endless if you continuously add skills.”
It was advice I took literally. Only, I didn’t limit it to software. Two years later, I realised that learning more software languages was incremental and insufficient. I got myself an MBA from IIM Bangalore and entered management consulting, where we advised clients on IT choices they needed to make. Software was a tool that made operations efficient, but to do that you had to understand all manner of processes – a whole new set of skills for me to acquire.
Gradually, I figured that process improvement was not an end in itself. Clients wanted to maximise shareholder wealth. For that, IT and processes had to blend with people, strategy and M&A. To my technical skills, I now had to add an array of soft skills. It was not easy, but the rewards were disproportionate to the effort.
In search of that elusive meaningfulness in life, I am now reinventing myself as a part-time writer and a teacher. Only time will tell how rewarding this iteration will be.
3. Culture is set at the top
When we merged Arthur Andersen’s consulting practice with KPMG’s, we figured that organisational culture was the key to our continued success. Meritocracy was one of the cornerstones. People had to be rewarded for their contribution, and not for their proximity to leaders, or to the optics of working late hours. But no amount of saying so had the required impact.
We therefore introduced a mechanism for promotions that is now an industry standard. Every six months, Partners and Managers (i.e. the people running the practice) locked ourselves away for two days, where the performance of every consultant was discussed threadbare before promotions and ratings were decided.
There were two instances where my view of a consultant’s performance was diametrically opposite to the view of their managers. Despite several iterations, the gaps couldn’t be narrowed. I was faced with a choice. I could overrule the group’s decision as Partners often do, or I could let the process I had created determine the outcome.
I chose the latter. The consultants in question – both brilliant guys – were not promoted, and left the firm. But the culture of meritocracy was firmly established.
4. The importance of humility
“The day you lose your humility, you lose your soul,” my father had said early in my life. It was philosophical advice that meant little to a young boy then, but it was to come back strongly in later years.
It is easy to let success go to the head when bright young consultants begin addressing CEOs and Boards before they hit thirty years of age. It becomes even easier at 35, when you call industry captains by their first name. It’s a heady cocktail that makes you think that you know all there is to know. You have arrived!
Nothing could be further from the truth. Once hubris sets in, you stop seeing and listening. Your glasses become coloured, and your ability to understand your client’s problems gets impaired. You can no longer advise dispassionately, and you fail as an advisor. Humility is your insurance.
Once every year, I stand in a corner at Mumbai airport’s arrival area and watch the young and the middle-aged hurrying about, wrapped in their self-importance. It helps me keep my feet on the ground.
5. There is a thin line between ambition and greed
Consulting attracts not only some of the brightest people, but some of the most ambitious ones too. Sometimes, ambition can turn into something ugly. Not very long back, a successful and respected consulting Partner crossed the line. It began with a small confidential document being shared with an outsider. One thing led to another, and soon, the Partner’s name was on the slippery slope.
While the breach was not illegal, it was unethical nevertheless. What was shocking is how the Partner, with so many years behind him, convinced himself that he was doing nothing wrong. He wanted to add a zero or two to his wealth.
This was shockingly similar to the Galleon Hedge Fund case, where highly respected executives couldn’t resist temptation. They deluded themselves into doing things that interns in their office would have no trouble seeing as illegal. They have paid a steep price.
White collar fraud is not new to India, but the scale is.
The spectacular growth India has enjoyed in the past decade has driven the stakes higher than ever before, and has had an unintended casualty – ethics.
The growth that brought a flood of opportunities and created entrepreneurs has also enabled scam artists. Businessmen who had nothing to do with power generation, for instance, try to set up power projects. Colleges sprout on vast acreages in the middle of nowhere, with few students and fewer teachers. Warehouses and retail space sometimes serve as facades for real estate plays.
In this occasionally unholy dash, aspiration sometimes outpaces ability, and men resort to murky means. Access to funds and approvals become the tallest hurdles to profiteering, but some enterprising ones find ingenious ways around these obstacles.
In this, they are abetted by another consequence of our dramatic growth – greed. Men who held staid jobs for years suddenly find themselves as gatekeepers, controlling the flow of money and approvals. Some fall to temptation.
Fraudster is a story of the black sheep of corporate India.