Authors: Vikas Swarup
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For Aditya and Varun
who heard my first stories
In life you never get what you deserve: you get what you negotiate.
That was the first lesson he taught me.
For the last three days I have been putting that guidance into practice, negotiating frantically with my prosecutors and persecutors in a desperate bid to stave off the death penalty, which they all believe I deserve.
Outside the lockup, the press are circling like vultures. The news channels cannot get enough of me, holding me up as a cautionary tale of what happens when greed and gullibility collide to create the blood-speckled train wreck called culpable homicide of the first degree. They keep recycling that police mugshot taken after my arrest. Sunlight TV has even dug up a grainy class photograph of me in school in Nainital, sitting stiffly in the front row next to Mrs Saunders, our Grade 8 teacher. But Nainital seems a world away now, a never-never land of lush mountains and silvery lakes, where, once upon a time, my youthful optimism had tricked me into believing that the future was limitless and the human spirit indomitable.
I want to hope, to dream, to have faith again, but the soulless weight of reality keeps crushing me down. I feel as if I am living a nightmare, trapped in a deep, dark well of endless despair, from which there is no way out.
As I sit in my sweltering, windowless jail cell, my thoughts keep straying to that fateful day when it all began. Though it was more than six months ago, I can still recall every detail with an unwavering clarity as if it were yesterday. In my mind's eye, I can see myself walking towards the Hanuman Temple in Connaught Place on that cold grey afternoonÂ â¦
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It is Friday, 10 December, and traffic on Baba Kharak Singh Marg is the usual chaotic snarl of heat and noise. The road is jammed with lumbering buses, honking cars, whining scooters and spluttering auto-rickshaws. The sky is cloudless but the sun is invisible behind that toxic cocktail of smog that smothers the city every winter.
I am wearing a grey cardigan over a demure, sky-blue salvar kameez, having prudently changed from my work uniform. It is a routine I follow every Friday, slipping out of the showroom during the lunch hour to make the short walk across the marketplace to the ancient temple dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman.
Most people go to temples to pray; I go to expiate. I have still not forgiven myself for Alka's death. Part of me will always think what happened to her was my fault. Since that horrific tragedy, God is my only refuge. And I have a special bond with Goddess Durga, who also has a shrine inside the Hanuman Mandir.
Lauren Lockwood, my American friend, is perpetually fascinated by the fact that we have 330 million gods. âJeez, you Hindus sure like to hedge your bets,' she says. That's probably an exaggeration, but every temple worth its salt does have shrines to at least half a dozen deities.
Each of these deities has some special powers. Goddess Durga is the Invincible One who can redeem situations of utmost distress. After Alka's death, when my life was a dark tunnel of sorrow, pain and regret, She gave me strength. She is always with me whenever I need her.
The temple is unusually crowded for a Friday afternoon and I am caught up in the ceaseless scrum of devotees jostling to get to the sanctum sanctorum. The marble floor feels cool under my bare feet and the air is heavy with the intoxicating blend of sweat, sandalwood, flowers and incense.
I get into the ladies' queue, which is considerably shorter and manage to make my communion with Durga Ma in less than ten minutes.
Having finished my
I am about to go down the stairs when a hand drops on my shoulder. I whirl around and discover a man gazing at me intently.
When an unknown adult male accosts a young woman in Delhi, the instinctive thing to do is to reach for that bottle of pepper spray one always keeps handy. But the stranger looking at me is no street loafer. He is an elderly man, dressed in an off-white silk kurta pyjama, with a white pashmina shawl draped casually across his shoulders. Fair and tall, he has an aquiline nose, a hard, resolute mouth and a head crowned by a shock of backswept, snowy-white hair. A vermilion tika adorns his forehead. His fingers are loaded with rings glinting with diamonds and emeralds. But it is his penetrating brown eyes that unsettle me. They seem to search me with a directness I find slightly intimidating. This is a man who likes to be in control.
âCould I have a word with you?' he asks in a clipped tone.
âWhat do you want?' I respond curtly, less acerbic than I would normally have been out of respect for his age.
âMy name is Vinay Mohan Acharya,' he says evenly. âI am the owner of Acharya Business Consortium. Have you heard of the ABC Group of Companies?'
My eyebrows arch in acknowledgement. The ABC Group is well known as one of India's largest conglomerates, making everything from toothpaste to turbines.
âI have a proposition for you,' he continues. âSomething that will change your life for ever. Will you give me ten minutes to explain?'
I have heard these words before. From pesky insurance peddlers and door-to-door detergent salesmen. And they always make me wary. âI don't have ten minutes,' I say. âI have to return to work.'
âJust hear me out,' he persists.
âWhat is it? Say it.'
âI would like to give you a chance to become the CEO of the ABC Group of Companies. I am offering you the opportunity of heading a business empire worth ten billion dollars.'
Now I know he's not to be trusted. He sounds just like a confidence trickster, no different from those ubiquitous hawkers on Janpath trying to flog shoddy Rexine belts and packs of cheap handkerchiefs. I wait for that half-smile that will tell me he is kidding, but his face remains impassive.
âI'm not interested,' I say firmly, and begin descending the stairs. He follows me.
âYou mean to say you are turning down the offer of the century, more money than you will ever see in seven lifetimes?' His tone is sharp, cutting like a whip.
âLook, Mr Acharya, or whoever you are. I don't know what your game is, but I'm not interested in playing it. So please stop pestering me,' I say, as I retrieve my Bata slippers from the old lady at the temple entrance who safeguards unattended footwear for a small tip.
âI know you probably think this is all a joke,' he declares, slipping into a pair of brown sandals.
âWell, isn't it?'
âI've never been more serious in my life.'
âThen you must be from a TV prank show. I suppose the moment I say yes you will show me the secret camera that's following you around.'
âYou expect a man of my stature to be doing silly TV shows?'
âWell, isn't it silly to be offering your business empire to random strangers? It makes me doubt if you are even who you say you are.'
âGood point.' He nods. âA little scepticism is always healthy.' He reaches into his kurta's pocket and retrieves a black leather wallet. Extracting a business card, he offers it to me. âPerhaps this might convince you.'
I examine it cursorily. It does look impressive, made of some kind of semitransparent plastic, with an embossed logo of the ABC Group and âV
' etched below it in bold, black letters.
âAnyone can get these printed for a few hundred rupees,' I say, returning his card.
He pulls out another piece of plastic from his wallet and holds it up. âHow about this one?'
It is an all-black American Express Centurion card, with âV
' engraved at the bottom. I have encountered this rare species just once before, when a flashy builder from Noida used it to pay for a 60-inch Sony LX-900 TV costing almost 400,000 rupees. âIt still doesn't change anything.' I shrug. âHow do I know this isn't a forgery?'
By now we have crossed the temple's forecourt and are in proximity of the road. âThat's my car,' he says, pointing out a shiny vehicle parked alongside the kerb. A chauffeur is in the driver's seat, wearing a peaked cap and a starched white uniform. An armed guard in military fatigues scrambles out of the front seat and stiffens to attention. Acharya flicks a finger and he opens the rear door with alacrity. His zealous servility does not seem fake; it looks like it has been honed by years of unquestioning subservience. The car, I note admiringly, is a silver Mercedes-Benz CLS-500, with a price tag of over nine million rupees.
âJust give me a second,' Acharya says, and ducks inside the car. He removes a magazine from the rear seat and hands it to me. âI had kept this as a last resort. If this won't convince you, nothing will.'
It is the December 2008 issue of
A man's portrait is on the cover, with the blazing headline, âB
USINESSMAN OF THE
'. I glance at the face on the cover and then at the man standing in front of me. They are identical. There is no mistaking the distinctive, backswept, silvery hair, the curved nose or the piercing brown eyes. I am indeed in the presence of industrialist Vinay Mohan Acharya. âOkay,' I concede. âSo you are Mr Acharya. What do you want from me?'
âI already told you. I want to make you my CEO.'
âAnd you expect me to believe you?'
âThen give me ten minutes and I will
you believe me. Can we sit down somewhere and talk?'
I look at my watch. There are still twenty minutes of my lunch break left. âWe could go to the Coffee House,' I say, indicating the rundown building on the opposite side of the road that serves as the social hub of the chattering classes.
âI would have preferred the Lobby Lounge at the Shangri La,' he says with the reluctant air of a man accepting a poor choice. âDo you mind if a colleague of mine also joins us?'
Even as he says this, a man materialises out of the crowd of pedestrians like a ghost and stands by his side. He is much younger, probably in his early thirties, and dressed casually in a dark-blue Reebok tracksuit. Just under six feet, he has the sinewy, wiry frame of an athlete. I take in his crew-cut hair, small, ferret-like eyes and thin, cruel mouth. His nose is slightly out of joint, as though it has been broken once, providing the only memorable accent in an otherwise unremarkable face. I reckon he must have been shadowing Acharya all this while. Even now his gimlet eyes dart constantly from side to side, scanning the surroundings like a professional bodyguard, before fixing on me.
âThis is Rana, my right-hand man,' Acharya says, introducing him. I nod politely, withering under his icy stare.
âShould we go?' Rana asks. He has a weathered, raspy voice, like dry leaves rustling along the ground. Without waiting for my reply, he begins leading the way to the underpass.