Delhi Durbar

The tale that follows is neither a personal confession nor an apology – for which it could very easily be mistaken – but something much more substantial. It is an explanation or, to be more precise, an elucidation of the excesses, committed, within my knowledge, by men of power.

As it turned out, it took only a handful of days for the great altruistic hopes of our forefathers to be trampled upon by the naked greed and self-interest of the few, among whose number, I concede, I must be counted. It all happened so stealthily that everything we once held sacred as a nation became a memory without any sort of public outrage or mourning in this so-called largest 
democracy in the world. And I witnessed the unfolding act of our disgrace from a front-row seat. This truth marks the highest point as well as the deepest regret of my life; the paradox irrevocably entwined in my memory.

I had returned to India confronting a dilemma of destiny, and voluntarily choosing to be Indian once again. The dark blue passport would be my umbilical partner till death. Unlike many of my generation and class, I had never, in my youth, been convinced that if I were to have a great future it would by definition preclude returning to my motherland.

Living abroad for most of my early adulthood only helped me further cement a bond with my country. I understood more deeply what it meant to be Indian, away from India. The irony is not lost on me – it proved to be a sort of Nehruvian passage of illumination, shining its torch on the darkest depths of myself. My return turned out to be more than just an end of a journey; it became the beginning of another more enlightening one – my re-acquaintance with Delhi.

Prior to my abrupt homecoming I had spent a fairly enjoyable and professionally satisfying few years in Dubai, working as a private banker with a multinational bank. After graduating from business school in the United States and working four years on Wall Street I had, with some encouragement from my father, strayed from the beaten path. I was hired by an exclusive and relatively anonymous Swiss private bank for their Dubai branch office. Officially, I was supposed to be targeting the affluent non-resident Indian community of the Gulf. But the specific reason I had been hired was to use my contacts to prospect for the ultra-rich of India who had ample surreptitious reserves of foreign exchange to invest; the government of India being, or pretending to be, oblivious of this fact.

Indian foreign-exchange regulations, still unnecessarily schizophrenic about a run on the controlled rupee, did not allow the rich to invest their fortunes freely abroad. Laws, obviously, had not and did not stop these worthies from getting to the promised land of Western real estate and capital markets, even if the result was ultimately to their detriment. In a hard-to-miss historical irony, the money increasingly found its way back into India disguised as welcome foreign investment, the India story coming full circle with the investment needs of our clients mirroring global capital flows. And financial consultants, or account executives or, if you prefer, private bankers like me, knew nothing better than how to cater to their every need. It was a tricky dance, especially if you met the client in India, because then you had to approach the subject obliquely and could only get to the point after the client’s suspicions were fully assuaged and trust built. The signing of the account-opening documents – always in Dubai or somewhere else outside India – was the other hurdle. Only then did the actual investing begin.

I had been given carte blanche by my superiors, with no one overseeing me, mainly because of the money that flooded in thanks to my labours. As long as the stigma of terror funds did not taint the bank’s image, my Swiss bosses had no interest in knowing the antecedents of my clients; that was a problem only the regulated American banks were forced to surmount. Even when other governments got tough with the Swiss for their banking secrecy, the Indian government, whatever it might say for public consumption, could be relied upon never to delve too seriously into the secret wealth of its elite citizenry. Too many skeletons lurked in those Alpine cupboards. If hawala dealers, bullion traders and dodgy exporters often were conduits for feeding the pipeline at the source, it was with me that the money trail ended – after a decent bit of laundering at various dhobi ghats in the most scenic parts of the world, of course. For the right fee we provided a full array of services for our precious clients.

International private banking was a perfect fit for my talents, and my lineage. I proved to be a natural when it came to the delicate art of client servicing. Yes, I admit, it was not dissimilar to being a whore in an expensive suit. You just had to remember that the client was always right. I was – undoubtedly – their seducer, but there were no innocent victims to be found here. Very little of the money I handled over the years had been earned through above-aboard means. But that was no concern of mine. They gave me the money to make them wealthier – or, at the very least, to maintain their net worth – and that is exactly what I religiously went about doing. I kept my morals and my conscience (such as they were) locked away – a small rule of business I had imbibed from my father – and concentrated on meeting my targets for assets to be gathered and commissions to be produced from the ensuing investment of these assets. Numbers ruled supreme; they were all I had to worry about.

Life was relatively simple, quite black and white, really; that is until I was abruptly summoned back to good old Delhi a week after my thirty-fourth birthday.


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