“I wish I knew where he was. I wish I had the time to search the four corners of the world, find him, fall at his feet and beg for forgiveness, a thousand times over”
Ratanlal Mehta said this in a tone filled with so much remorse and sorrow, with a look that portrayed so much pain and anguish that his lawyer Abhijit Sahni looked away, unable to watch.
“He warned me so many times, he showed me the files, told me to look at the numbers myself, yet I did not listen.” the Chairman of Mandvi Industries continued, the pain in his voice deepening “I shouted at him, yet he kept warning me, and still my bullheaded mind did not listen”
Abhijit’s eyes wandered to the ceiling to look at the fan then it flitted to the window to look at the surrounding office buildings then it tried to find any other vacant space in the room that it could focus on. Anything to avoid looking at the tears that were now streaming down Ratanlal’s eyes.
Tears that Abhijit could not believe or bear. He had always seen and admired Ratanlal as the larger than life and ebullient Chairman of Mandvi Industries, scion to one of the wealthiest families in South Gujarat, a man who oversaw assets stretching from Vapi to Vadodara. That was the image he had in his head. That was the man he had heard so many stories of. Not this broken and shriveled figure that now sat before him across the conference table. In a large room that looked barren in the absence of anybody else but these two.
“Do you know where he is? Could you find him?” Ratanlal asked in a shaky voice.
Abhijit finally forced himself to meet Ratanlal’s despair ridden eyes.
“No, and even if I were to find him, I doubt he would want to meet you. Especially after the way you humiliated him” the lawyer replied.
Ratanlal bowed his head in disappointment.
Abhijit cleared his throat, leaned on the table and spoke in a composed tone measuring his words carefully.
“Look sir. When you approached my law firm, you said that you were hiring our services as you wanted outside counsel. You said that none of the lawyers in your company could be trusted. You were not sure if they were loyal to you or not”
“That’s right. They replaced all my old staff, got new people, those.. those…”
Abhijit cut Ratanlal off before the profanities could begin.
“Sir, the officers from the Economic Offences Wing will be here soon. The police have an arrest warrant ready. We will of course file for bail. But I need you now to be calm. Not answer any questions, or speak to anyone without consulting me first”
“I am in a deep hole here, aren’t I Abhijit?”
“I am afraid so sir. I have seen all the files and most of them have your signature on it. They were smart enough to conceal their tracks by not having any of their actions documented”
“ Of course, they were smart. Snakes always are”
Ratanlal took a long deep breath, took out his handkerchief to wipe his eyes, got up and mournfully walked to the window. He looked at the view and chuckled absent mindedly to himself.
“What a view isn’t it! What an office! Surrounded by some of the tallest buildings in Mumbai, with a view of the Harbor, all those ships in the distance, all those expensive cars in the street below, all those moneyed men running around, cutting million dollar deals. Dad was so proud of this office, the status it represented. I often asked him why we need an office in Mumbai when all our factories were in Gujarat. He said this is where all the banks are, where all the money is and more importantly where all the status is. He needed to tell the world, look just how far I have come. A poor boy from a small town in Saurashtra. Look, I now have an office in the most expensive real estate in India. Look!” and Ratanlal symbolically spread his arms wide as he emphasized “Look”.
“Did your father know Dhirajlal Shah from the very beginning?” quizzed Abhijit.
Ratanlal turned around, a smile gradually making an entry on his tired face as his memories began drawing on the reserves of happier times.
“Are you kidding me! They were childhood friends. They both grew up together in Amreli, even went to the same school together. Dhirajbhai was always the mathematician. Very good with numbers and a very disciplined person. He was the one who gave a practical angle to all my father’s ambitious schemes. Dad used to have all the ideas while Dhirajbhai used to worry about how to finance them. Dhirajbhai was always the company accountant, right from when Dad started that small one room company in Rajkot”
“And continued after your family migrated to Surat, got into the diamond business, made it big, opened car showrooms, expanded into the textile industry….”
“That’s right. Our ventures changed, we expanded, our head offices changed, our employee strength grew, our product turnovers and profitability increased. But one thing remained constant. Dhirajlal Shah was always the CFO”
Ratanlal absentmindedly turned around, went back to the window and continued.
“Before Dad passed away and handed Mandvi Industries over to me he told me two things. Have faith in God and have faith in Dhiraj Shah. I don’t think that Dad had much faith in my abilities as a businessman. Sure he sent me to Harvard Business School, and taught me the ropes. But he always doubted if I had it in me to take all that book knowledge and use it in the rough and tumble of the real world. That is why he told Dhirajbhai to take care of me after he was gone. Dhirajbhai understood the inside workings of the business and Dad hoped that would compensate for my shortcomings”
“Dhirajbhai did not approve of your marriage or your friendships either did he?” Abhijit asked delicately.
“No he did not. The first time he met Sarla he felt she was up to no good. The first time he met her brother Sujeet, he had his suspicions. When he saw me spending so much time with Ajay, my so called best friend, he warned me. But I have never been a strong judge of character. I fell prey to Ajay’s flattery. Sarla, used her charm and beauty and guile to trap me. Sujeet wormed his way into becoming a director in this company. I can still remember the horrified look on Dhirajbhai’s face when I told him that I was making Sujeet a director in Mandvi Industries in place of the long serving and trusted Arun Nair. It would be the first of many heated arguments that I would have with Dhirajbhai.”
“They certainly did a number on you” noted Abhijit pensively “All three are now absconding. The police don’t know where they have gone. Maybe they are hiding in Africa, maybe South America, nobody knows. The Economic Offences Wing is still trying to understand the money trail that they used to launder all those millions out of Mandvi Industries. They had set up accounts in Mauritius, Seychelles, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland. They had accounts in so many private and public banks. So many that we know of and so many yet to be discovered. Not to mention those cloudy investments in the stock markets”
“ Yes, Yes, those stock markets. Dhirajbhai warned me about those. Ajay and Sujeet always portrayed themselves as bold new financial wizards with degrees from some of the finest universities. They had all these bold new ideas for saving taxes and making new investments. And the way they spoke. My God, the way they spoke. They could convince anybody. And I was this impatient young man wanting to make my own mark on this company. I could not stand Dhirajbhai’s conservative ways and I shouted at him for not understanding modern finance and for being old fashioned in his thinking. He advised me not to invest in derivatives. Don’t invest in instruments you don’t understand, he said. I shouted at him that Sujeet understands them and that is good enough for me. Now I know that there was a scam there as well. God knows what more SEBI is going to uncover on that front”
“When did you discover that Sarla and Ajay were having an affair?”
“I am a blind man, Abhijit” Ratanlal moaned “I should have seen it a long time ago. I have eyes, but I am still blind. Dhirajbhai warned me that those two seemed to act and behave closer than what an ordinary man and woman should and I once again got angry with him. Told him that such friendships were normal in the modern day. In fact, now I think that they were both carrying on with each other even before they met me. That this whole sham of Sarla’s marriage to me and Sujeet and Ajay finding a way into this company was only a ploy. A ploy to get at my millions”
“They certainly drew a wedge between you and the other senior members of this company didn’t they” Abhijit noted quietly.
“Yes, they did. One by one I was having disagreements with all the senior staff, people who had been with this company for such a long time. I threw so many of them out on Ajay and Sujeet’s counsel. The arguments I had with Dhirajbhai over senior appointments are still fresh in my mind. Sarla quietly influenced HR into appointing her own people. She had such a hold on that department. Many of my old lawyers were also replaced with new ones. I should have asked where they came from. But I trusted Sarla so blindly to my own peril. Now do you see why I need outside counsel. Why I came to your law firm for help. I don’t know who to trust anymore. If a man cannot trust his own wife, his brother-in-law and his best friend, then he loses all faith in the human race”
“Best friend” Abhijit snickered “I don’t think that you should refer to Ajay as your best friend any longer. He was anything but that. Your employees have so many horrible stories to tell of the dictatorial way he ran his department and later this company. I cannot believe Dhiraj Shah stayed as long as he did and tolerated all this. Truly loyal, wasn’t he. But what was the incident that finally forced him to leave?”
“I can’t think of a single incident that finally broke the straw on the camel’s back. But I suppose that over a period of time he could no longer bear to see what was happening to this company. A company that he and my father had built from scratch. A company that to him was dearer than his own life. He came to see me one day when Sarla was out of town. I was alone at home and he came to say his final goodbye.” Ratanlal shed a few more tears as memory of that painful day came flooding back to him “ I was so rude to him, did not even talk properly with him. I was someone who he saw as a son and I behaved nastily with him. He didn’t tell me where he was going. Just told me that he was too old to look after Mandvi Industries and that he needed his rest. Before going he had some more advice for me. Told me to be careful of people, told me of the values and ethics that my father had imbibed in the company, told me of where Mandvi had started from and where it was now. So many things. I guess he wanted to have an open discussion with me, just me without having Sarla around. But once again I did not listen to him. Just stared impatiently at the ceiling while he talked.”
Ratanlal buried his head in his hands as he continued his painful confession.
“He left a broken man, Abhijit, he left a broken man. He had dedicated his life to my family and I sent him away a broken man. He told no one of where he was going. And who in this company would even care. All the trusted lieutenants are gone, replaced by power hungry rogues that Sarla and Ajay hired and Sujeet trained. What is going to happen now Abhijit, oh God what is going to happen now?”
Abhijit sighed loudly before he began talking about the inevitable judgment.
“What is going to happen now is not pleasant, Ratanbhai. Mandvi Industries is finished. If it is not bankrupt already, it will be once the litigations and claims begin. Money laundering, stock market scam, duping investors of their money, these are all serious charges. And they come at a time when the government is so keen to clean up the way business is done in this country. Your company will probably be used as an example to deter others from following the same path. The courts will be keen to press additionally harsh charges against you and your organization. My firm will do its best to fight the charges, but we are looking at long and harsh legal battles ahead. The media are going to have a field day with this. You should avoid talking to them as much as possible.”
Abhijit’s mobile phone rang and the lawyer picked it up after a couple of rings. After the initial “hello”, he said yes a couple of times and ended with an ok. Then he spoke to Ratanlal as he got up from his seat.
“Sir, the police officers are here. It’s time to go”
Ratanlal wiped his tear stained eyes clean, adjusted his tie and combed his hair with his hands to look presentable. He was after all still the Chairman of a large company, albeit a failing one.
As Abhijit quietly led Ratanlal Mehta out of the room, the Chairman spoke to his lawyer.
“Good people are hard to come by these days, aren’t they Abhijit.”
“Yes sir. And good advice is even harder to come by”
“They are like diamonds, Abhijit, so rare. Why, they are even more precious than gold. I had a good person and a trusted advisor by my side and I lost him. Young man, if you are ever lucky to come across such a person don’t lose him, will you”