Tuesday, October 5, 2010

About the Book

The synopsis as it appears on the back cover of Consider Us Even.


What would you do if you were in desperate need of money with no way out, except an anonymous letter dealing a tip-off about likely stock market movement?
For an enterprising MBA student in Shimla, the letter implies capital for starting his own restaurant. An erstwhile business tycoon in Allahabad takes it as the means to recapture his usurped company from his traitorous son. For an indebted widow in Indore, the letter paves a way out of her financial quagmire. As for an affluent Seth of Lucknow, the piece of paper signifies yet another way of stuffing his already deep pockets. To Kabir Majumdar, the man behind the anonymous tip, the only thing of consequence is his selfish, ruthless agenda…
From a swarming hospital in Mumbai to a secluded travel agency, from a ritzy lounge in Bangalore to a ramshackle inn in the suburbs of Pune, the journey becomes charged with adventure and intrigue as a challenging pursuit culminates in a perilous rendezvous.
Will Kabir Majumdar succeed in his final manoeuvre? Or will his past catch up with him?

This is the plot of the story. If it piques your interest, scroll down to read the Prologue and the first chapter. 

Prologue

“Good morning. Airlift Cab Service. How may I help you?”

“Hi. I’d like to book a cab to the airport for tomorrow morning at 8 a.m.”

“Ok Sir. May I have your name and address?”

“Kabir Majumdar. A-154, Swan Apartments, LBS Road, Vikroli West.”

“And your phone number, Sir?”

“9987838629.”

“Ok. Any landmark close to your house?”

“There’s a huge Ganesha temple close by. Like half a kilometre away.”

“Ok, Sir. Please note down your booking ID. It’s 749546. The cab would be at your doorstep tomorrow morning, 15th March at 8 a.m. Is there anything else I can assist you with?”

“No, that’s all.”

“Thank you for using Airlift Cab Service. Have a nice day.”

Click.

Kabir Majumdar replaced the phone receiver and approached his bedroom closet to decide which suitcase would be more appropriate for his journey. The trip that he was embarking on was just a five day affair, so he chose the smaller suitcase, unzipped it and placed it on his bed. Pulling out a couple of striped pyjamas from the closet, he placed them neatly in the suitcase along with a brown business suit, brown loafers and a briefcase. It was the attire he would don enduringly through the course of his journey, for it was imperative for the success of his plan.

Opening the briefcase, Kabir counted the cash inside. Despite all the expenditure incurred till date, he still had enough left to last him the journey. After that, he only had to wait and watch.

Walking across the room to his study table, Kabir opened a drawer and extracted the e-tickets of his flights to four cities over the next five days. Underneath, there was a thin sheaf of four hotel reservation receipts. He dropped the e-tickets and the receipts along with a thin, red file in the suitcase.

Finally, Kabir settled in a swivel chair by his study table and gratefully eyed the hair wig, the trimmed beard and moustache set, and the brown coloured contact lenses lying on the dressing table. It was the disguise that had saved his skin on more than one occasion in the past few days, the disguise he would count on again. His gaze shifted to the four large Manila envelopes on the dressing table - four identical letters, which would be delivered in four different cities over the next few days.

Meanwhile, in different parts of the country, four individuals, unknown to each other, went about their daily businesses. These people, hailing from diverse backgrounds, had one thing in common – an ardent desire to make tidy sums of money for meeting their goals, pressing, yet disparate. Little did they know their lives were going to change drastically in the next twenty six days.

And so were their bank balances.

Chapter 1

As the pendulum wall clock struck nine o’clock, Nirbhay Chauhan removed his spectacles, rubbed his bleary eyes and stretched his enervated body in the armchair. He had been studying for his third term MBA exams for the past four hours now. For Nirbhay, spending long hours at the college library wasn’t a once-in-a-term-when-exams-are-around-the-corner practice. The library was, in fact, a second home to him – the place where he formulated and polished the blueprint of his business plan.

Nirbhay rose from the chair, rather gawkily, and collected the numerous reference books on Services Marketing and Operations Management from the table. These were the subjects he read extensively on for reasons stretching beyond the pursuit of academic excellence. To a stranger, Nirbhay came across as a nonchalant youngster with a dressing and personal style, which could best be described as unkempt. On the other hand, people who were less than alien to him could vouch for two things – his ambition, as towering as his six feet frame, and his mind, as incisive as, well, his mind.

As Nirbhay placed the reference books on their respective shelves, he pondered over how quickly the past one year at Shimla Institute of Management, colloquially known as SIM, had passed. He also thought about his imminent future - a two-month summer training at a top-notch FMCG Company in Delhi, after which he would return to his institute for the second year of his management course. Yet, what excited Nirbhay the most, filled him up with unparalleled passion and brought a twinkle to his eyes was what would come after that.

Shivering slightly, Nirbhay drew his jacket closer as he stepped out of the library. Even though temperatures in most parts of the country were already soaring, it was still a while before summer thawed the landscapes of the hilly town of Shimla. Nirbhay considered bolting towards the hostel, but since it was a Saturday night, he decided to collect his copy of Business Frontiers from the postal and dispatch block first, or else he would have to wait for it until Monday.

Nirbhay was particularly keen on this issue of the magazine, for it was supposed to carry an article on the best restaurants in the country. Not that he was an ardent foodie or anything, a fact that was established beyond doubt by his lean structure. He just wished to perform a competitor analysis for his own enterprise, that is, the enterprise he hoped to establish in the near future.

It was a cloudy night. There was not a single star visible in the expanse of the darkness above. Even the crescent moon seemed to have made an appearance somewhat reluctantly. As Nirbhay descended the staircase of the library building, the ennui of the dark sky was interrupted by a loud thunder. Large, ice-cold drops of rain came immediately after, with the abruptness typical of a shower in an Indian masala flick, as he hurried towards his destination.

Mighty pine trees swayed wildly in the wind and rain clattered against the window panes of the Administrative Block as Nirbhay mounted the front stairs of the decrepit building, one of the oldest structures on the campus, accommodating the postal and dispatch block. Although it was considerably warmer inside, Nirbhay shivered under his jacket, drawing it closer to his body. He walked up to the vintage desk where the clerk sat reading the day’s paper.

Gopal Chand was a frail man in his late fifties who, having spent most of his life performing clerical roles in different departments of the Himachal Pradesh University, now managed the operations of the postal and dispatch block.

“Hello Gopalji,” greeted Nirbhay, rubbing his hands. “How are you today?”

“Oh! Hello Nirbhay. How are you, son?” said Gopal, baring his yellow teeth, stained from the regular chewing of tobacco over a period of thirty five odd years.

“I’m fine. I hope you’re carrying an extra jacket or something. It’s quite cold outside today.” Nirbhay glanced at the old man’s frayed V-neck olive pullover, a fairly familiar sight.

“Well, an old man like me who’s spent all his life in Shimla gets used to the cold.”  Gopal lifted two envelopes from one of the drawers of his desk. “Here’s your mail, son. This second envelope came by courier and we accepted it on your behalf. You need to sign in the register here.”

Nirbhay glanced at the large Manila envelope bearing the return address of Hotel Residency, Hyderabad, and wondered what it contained. Signing in the register, he thanked Gopal, tucked the envelopes under his jacket and hurried towards his hostel.

Drenched as he was, Nirbhay shivered on his way up the flights of stairs to his room on the second floor of the boys’ hostel. Undressing quickly, he stepped into the bathroom for a hot water shower; nothing relaxed him more after a long and productive day. At the same time, no matter how long or productive his day was, the thought of finding a willing venture capitalist inevitably returned at the end of it, as it did today.

Nirbhay knew well that the route to one’s own business enterprise was through the office of a Venture Capitalist, unless one was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. And since he was born with no item of silverware - or brassware, for that matter - he knew his path to success would be circuitous.

Twenty minutes later, dressed in a blue bathrobe, Nirbhay scanned the article in the magazine at his study table. His growling stomach reminded him it was nearly dinner time, so he decided to return to the magazine after dinner. As Nirbhay rose from the chair to change into a pair of jeans, his gaze fell on the large Manila envelope and his curiosity was aroused, once again. The envelope was puffed - it seemed to contain a sheaf of papers. It was sent from a city he had never visited in the twenty two years of his life.

Perhaps, a hotel promotion brochure, he thought. But why him? Why would he, of all the people, be on the prospective customers list of a hotel in Hyderabad, or any other hotel for that matter? He decided to quash the piling questions and ripped one end of the large envelope. A blue folder containing sheets of paper fell into his hands. There was a small type-written note pasted on the front of the folder which read as follows:



Dear Nirbhay,

You don’t know me and I know little about you, and it would be in our best interests if it stays that way. I have a proposition for you wherein you could so much as double your money in seven days time. I would make an equal amount of profit. For this plan to succeed, it is necessary that we never meet face-to-face. This would, in fact, be our first and last communication. It is also critical that you don’t tell anyone about this letter.

 This plan requires cutting corners, but let me tell you one thing. The chance of failure is as low as that of finding a needle in a bale of hay and you’ll see why as you read on. You would waste your time by taking this letter to the Police as it cannot be traced back to me. But, if the idea of making a killing in seven days entices you as much as it does me, my friend, you could be holding the key to the opportunity of a lifetime.

***

Few people born in a humble background nurture the aspiration to achieve their utmost potential in life and conquer the world, fewer have the capability to successfully translate their vision into a concrete, step-by-step plan and a Lilliputian proportion of these possess the perseverance and courage to bring their dreams to fruition. If Nirbhay Chauhan were to be plotted on this Venn diagram, he would be a large dot at the core of the overlap – large, for he had these virtues aplenty.

As far as Nirbhay could remember, he had spent most of his life in Happy Child Home, an orphanage located on the Mall Road in Shimla, owned and managed by a charitable and kind-hearted old couple. Col. P. C. Chauhan was a retired officer of the 7 Dogra regiment of the Indian Army and Mrs. Veena Chauhan was a homemaker. For many years, the couple had yearned for a large family, a desire driven not only by their shared fondness for children, but also by the presence of several empty rooms in their multi-storey ancestral bungalow. Then again, Divine Providence had a plan of His own.

Years into their marriage and still without an offspring, the couple was informed by a gynaecologist that at best, they had a small chance of conception. Disinclined to rely on fate, the Chauhans decided to take a chance of their own – a chance far greater than small that offered them an opportunity to transform many lives. They decided to bring several children under their protective care by turning their large ancestral bungalow into an orphanage.

Subsequently, several children were rescued from appalling orphanages in and around the town and accommodated in their bungalow, befittingly called Happy Child Home - an orphanage where every child was well-fed and warm in the brutally cold winters of Shimla.

It was twelve years later that one stormy night Veena was woken by the incessant ringing of the doorbell to discover a few months old baby at the doorstep of the orphanage. The little boy was christened Nirbhay Chauhan and October 11th, 1988, the day he joined the orphanage, was inscribed as his birth date on his birth certificate.

Nirbhay remembered having a fairly good childhood - he did not always have what he wanted, but there was always enough food on the table and a warm bed to sleep in. The children were served appetizing dinners on festivals and Col. Chauhan brought home special treats when he returned after long tenures on the front. Each child received a small, but meaningful gift on his or her birthday and every time there was an adoption by a family, it was an emotional moment for all residents of Happy Child Home. The children of the orphanage shared camaraderie of the kind shared by the survivors of a sinking ship.

Nirbhay Chauhan had two passions in life. One, he was not to discover until he was twelve years old and the other he realized four years earlier – acting, a skill which would prove to be his biggest asset in an adventure, much later in life.

At about eight years of age, soon after Nirbhay learnt about his passion for dramatics, he happened to uncover an unsavoury truth. It happened at school, during an English period, one of his favourite subjects, not only for the love of the language, but also because the classy English teacher used the medium of drama to ingrain literature stories into the receptive minds of young students.

On one fateful day, Ms. Himani finished narrating the story of Shravan Kumar - the dedicated son of old and blind parents - who was killed accidentally by the king of Ayodhya. King Dasharath, having mistaken the gurgling sound of Shravan Kumar in the forest for that of an animal, had shot an arrow in the direction of the sound. The arrow had pierced through Shravan’s heart, killing him instantly.

“So, when the King apologetically informed Shravan Kumar’s parents about their son’s death and offered them shelter at his palace, they cursed him. They said that one day, he too shall die when his sons are not around,” explained the petite teacher. “As the story goes, King Dasharath eventually died of grief when his sons Ram and Lakshman were in exile. Now, can anyone tell me why King Dasharath’s mistake, though unintentional, was unforgivable?” She scanned the faces of her students, most of them blank. “Nirbhay, would you like to answer?”

“Uh… Yes ma’am.” A scrawny boy stood up from his chair. “In my opinion, King Dasharath unknowingly prevented a dutiful son from serving his parents. He took away the only support of two old and blind people and I think that’s why his mistake was unforgivable.”

“That’s a very good observation, Nirbhay.” The teacher glanced at her watch. It was surprising how quickly time flew when she was in the classroom, her favourite place on Earth. “Ok. Can we have the volunteers who would enact Shravan Kumar’s story in the next lecture?” she asked.

As usual, a number of hands shot up in the air. The teacher deliberated, “Well… Preeti, you play the mother, Raghu, you play the father, Prashant would play King Dasharath and Nirbhay would play Shravan Kumar. Now students remember - the enactment has to be limited to five to seven minutes only.”

“Ma’am,” interrupted a boy raising his hand higher than usual, “Why does Nirbhay get to play the role of Shravan Kumar?”

“Jojo, you can participate in the next enactment. Everybody will get a chance to participate,” replied the teacher, gathering her books.

“But ma’am,” persisted the boy, rising from his chair. “How can Nirbhay play the role of a boy committed to his parents, when he has no parents of his own?”

The teacher was momentarily speechless. The students hung on every word of Jojo. It was one of the few occasions in the third grade when pin-drop silence prevailed over the hullabaloo of the eight-year olds, ironically driven by the same curiosity which made them talkative in the first place.

“My mom says that his mother left him at the orphanage when he was born, because he doesn’t have a father,” spat Jojo.

Enough Jojo,” admonished the stunned teacher. “Sit down now.”

Forty nine of the fifty pairs of eyes in the classroom were transfixed on Nirbhay, his passive visage camouflaging anger, pain and humiliation. That day, the time, the classroom, the people around him watching him, the entire scene burned into his memory, continuing to ache every once in a while.

Nirbhay had somewhat known that the Chauhans were not his real parents, but never inquired about the truth, trying to evade it as long as possible. At the same time, he hadn’t expected the sword of Damocles to fall on him so swiftly. And so publicly.

Time elapsed and soon, the third grade students of St. Mary’s Convent, fascinated by Venus flytraps and the Pythagoras’ theorem, forgot about that class incident. Everybody in the class, including Jojo, mistook Nirbhay’s silence as a sign of weakness. They were not to know that reacting in the heat of the moment was not the temperament of Nirbhay Chauhan.

Calculated retaliation was.

***

A few weeks later, Nirbhay approached the class teacher, Mr. Singh, with an unusual entreaty. It was a bright summer day, one of those few days of warmth that Shimla had every season. The Science lecture had just concluded and most of the students had filed out of the classroom.

“Excuse me, Sir. May I have a word with you?”

“Of course, Nirbhay,” said the pot-bellied teacher gathering his notes from the table. “Tell me, what’s on your mind?”

“Sir, I’m here to make a request of you. My friend Jojo needs some help with his studies as he’s not doing very well.”

“As your class teacher, I’m aware of the situation, Nirbhay. But what is it that you want?” Mr. Singh peered at the boy through his rimless spectacles.

“Sir, I want to help Jojo. He’s my friend. But he’s too proud to accept that he needs help.”

“I see. So what do you suggest?”

Nirbhay paused thoughtfully and said, “Sir, there is one way in which I can help Jojo with his studies. If our seats in the class are to be adjacent and we’re paired up in all practical assignments, I’ll be in a better position to guide him.”

“Well, that’s a wonderful idea, Nirbhay,” Mr. Singh smiled broadly. “I can seat the two of you together.”

“But Sir, he must not know that I am trying to help him,” Nirbhay said in earnest. “I really want to help him.”

The teacher beamed at the suggestion, proud of not only the maturity displayed by the young student, but also his moral fibre.

At first, Jojo was understandably upset at being seated next to Nirbhay, for that meant not being able to sit with his friends during the lectures. He was surprised when Nirbhay helped him with problems in the Math class, glad when Nirbhay offered him the delicious Suji ka Halwa during luncheon – a sweet dish he rarely found in his own lunch box – and overjoyed when presented with an offer to copy from Nirbhay’s meticulously completed homework.

That day onwards, Nirbhay and Jojo were always seen together - during lunch breaks and lectures, in the playground and the school bus. Jojo seemed to perform better in class, paying more attention and providing meaningful inputs during lectures. His grades in the weekly class tests went up and Mr. Singh wished there were more of bright and helpful students like Nirbhay in his class.

As the annual examination drew nearer, Nirbhay offered his notebooks to Jojo and said, “Jojo, listen carefully, you’ll not be able to cheat from my answer sheet during the final exams as the supervision would be very strict. I want you to photocopy my class notes and learn these by heart. If you do that, your parents would be very proud of you.”

It would have taken a mastermind clairvoyant to observe the subtle irony in Nirbhay’s last statement.

The students of St. Mary’s Convent appeared for the final examinations in the month of December, which was to be followed by a two month winter vacation. On the day of the last exam, Nirbhay and his classmates gathered for a small celebration at a local cafĂ© and made elaborate plans for the impending winter vacation.

A couple of weeks, much anticipation and restless nail-biting later, the result of the final examination of the students of St. Mary’s Convent was declared. All students of the third grade had been promoted, except two.

One of them was Jojo. ‘It can’t be,’ he thought, ‘I’d learnt Nirbhay’s notes by heart. I couldn’t have failed. Surely, there’s some mistake.’

On comparing his answers with the answer key, Jojo realized that he had got all the facts wrong. All errors in his answer sheets were factual mistakes - the dates were wrong and the names of places, people and monuments were all wrong.

‘But how could it be…,’ Jojo wondered. He tried calling Nirbhay many times and even visited the orphanage once or twice, but was unsuccessful in contacting his friend.

From that day onward, Nirbhay and Jojo were never seen together.

Jojo spent his winter vacation wondering why.

Nirbhay spent two days of his winter vacation erasing and correcting certain words and numbers in his third grade notebooks.

***

The following year, Nirbhay joined dramatics classes held at his school auditorium every evening. His passion for dramatics led him to participate in a number of plays, both Hindi and English, at cultural events and inter-school competitions, where he won several awards for his performances, described by his eccentric dramatics teacher as ‘highly versatile and as inevitably natural as the rotation of the Earth and the periodicity of the seasons.’

Every evening on his way back home after the dramatics class, Nirbhay stopped for a glass of orange juice and a chicken Salami sandwich at The Supreme, a popular restaurant on the Mall Road, started more than fifty years ago by Robert D’Souza, who had passed on the legacy to his son Philip D’Souza. Nirbhay loved spending time at the restaurant. He was not only captivated by the scrumptious food, the congenial ambience and the prompt service, but also intrigued by the daily operations, so much as deciding to take up a part-time job at the restaurant.

Nirbhay began his career at The Supreme as the garbage boy for Rs. 100 per week, a decent amount of money at that point of time. Every afternoon after school, he would run back home, change into his casual clothes and scram for the restaurant kitchen, where he would usually stay until late evening. Quite often, he would strike a conversation with the chef, the waiters and sometimes, even the manager, asking myriad questions that his inquisitive, twelve year old mind could think of. On weekends, he would typically reach the restaurant early in the morning to observe the delivery of fresh vegetables and other supplies, and the credit and payment mechanism.

As time passed, Nirbhay became fully acquainted with The Supreme – the major dishes on the menu and their prices, the revenues and profits for the previous six months, the names and occupations of the regular customers, not to mention the recipe of the chef’s special.

However, this wasn’t all that he learnt during his stint at the restaurant. Nirbhay also realized that more than anything else, he wished to be a restaurateur, the desire turning into the second passion of his life. The seeds of his dream were sown, like the sprinkling of cooking oil in the saucepan by a chef before the preparation of a meal, elaborate and delicious. At that time, he was not to know that his dream would cost him a fortune, and quite literally so.

A few months later, D’Souza realized that it was futile to waste Nirbhay’s inter-personal skills in the kitchen and the boy was promptly promoted to the post of a waiter. Nirbhay spoke to the customers in dulcet tones, often offering advice on the dishes they should try. During the small-talk, he managed to elicit customer preferences, complaints and suggestions, which were passed on to the senior management. On the basis of the feedback, several new promotion schemes were launched, most of which turned out to be highly profitable and in no time, he was promoted to the post of the Assistant Manager.

Another significant lesson that Nirbhay learnt during his spell at The Supreme was the importance of publicity to a business enterprise. Over a period of time, he developed a cordial relationship with Monish Mehta, the Chief Editor of The Times of India for the North India region, who often printed rave reviews about The Supreme in the local supplement of the newspaper. In exchange, Nirbhay provided exclusive scoops to Mehta at the archaic Times office on the Mall Road. His arrangement with the Chief Editor boosted the popularity of The Supreme by leaps and bounds, the restaurant which came to be associated with the epithet – ‘The best restaurant in town’.

That is, until Jai Bhalla arrived in town.

***

Every afternoon on his way to The Supreme, Nirbhay would pass by a creepy street vendor on an inclined, narrow road, which incidentally happened to be a shorter route to his destination. Despite quickening his pace and drifting across the breadth of the road away from the vendor, he couldn’t help but shudder at the sight of the rusty iron cages that held small, ugly rats, among other nasty creatures like lizards and kittens.

‘Who would wanna buy lizards and rats? And why?’ Nirbhay wondered one day while passing by the vendor. He knew well that the latter creature, in light of stringent food department regulations, could devastate an establishment in the business of his interest.

Ten minutes later, still trying to shake the sickening feeling, Nirbhay arrived at The Supreme to find commotion outside the front entrance. The din was customary during the evening, for the restaurant was located at the hub of the Mall Road, but uncommon during the late afternoon - the period of lull post lunchtime and before the evening snack-time.

Across the road from The Supreme, a vacant double-storey building seemed to be in the process of being given a face-lift. Nirbhay approached a mason working on ground floor of the building and made enquiries. He was told that a wealthy businessman planned to open a new restaurant at the site. The news was promptly passed on to D’Souza, who remained unfazed by the appearance of a new competitor.

A few weeks later, Jai Bhalla’s Foodies’ Corner was inaugurated across the road from The Supreme with great pomp and show. The new restaurant launched a slew of promotion schemes to woo the regular customers of The Supreme, like an enchantress using powerful charms from her witchcraft arsenal to court a man committed to another woman. Most of the loyal customers of The Supreme, amused by the frantic attempts at seduction, flirted with the new restaurant for a little while, and then returned to their favourite eatery. Just as the situation seemed to be easing up, there arose a new problem which nobody could have anticipated.

One Monday evening, the suppliers of the restaurant met briefly with D’Souza and adamantly demanded higher prices for their supplies. D’Souza tried to reason with the vendors but his pleas fell on deaf ears. One of the vendors explicitly declared that if D’Souza couldn’t afford to pay the demanded price, they would redirect the supplies to the restaurant across the road, as Jai Bhalla was compliant with the higher price. They also announced that these new prices would be applicable from the following week.

Hours of discussion later, it was concluded that somebody would have to speak to Jai Bhalla and drill some sense into him. Surely the man would appreciate wisdom and realize that it would be unprofitable for both the competitors to subscribe to the vendors’ demands.

Nirbhay walked through the front door of Foodies’ Corner, introducing himself to the manager, who directed him to Bhalla’s office on the first floor. Passing through the corridor which led to the staircase, he peered through the partially open kitchen door and noticed glumly that the kitchen staff of Foodies’ Corner seemed not only as proficient, but also as busy as the staff in his kitchen across the road.

Come in,” boomed a heavy voice as he knocked on the office door.

Nirbhay pushed open the heavy wooden door and walked through the large, oak panelled room to the ornamental wooden desk of Jai Bhalla.

“Good Morning, Mr. Bhalla. I’m Nirbhay Chauhan, Assistant Manager at The Supreme.”

Bhalla merely puffed at his cigar in response. Although the height of the ornamental wooden desk was standard, Bhalla’s portly frame was barely concealed by it. A cigar was held precariously between his blackish lips. One could argue what was more conspicuous about the man – the corpulence of his frame or the ruthlessness in his demeanour. Then again, one was in no mood to cross swords. One was here to accord.

Nirbhay settled into the chair that was offered to him and began, “First of all Sir, I must compliment you for causing considerable disquiet in our camp. Frankly speaking, being the best restaurant in town with no real competition was getting a little dull,” he said amicably. “I’m glad that…”

“I assure you kid, you wouldn’t face that problem anymore,” retorted Bhalla. “And I’m not sure, and correct me if I’m wrong, if you can still call yourself the best restaurant in town,” he smirked, “especially with the vendor problems that you’re facing.”

“Yes, that’s why I am here to talk to you, Mr. Bhalla,” acknowledged Nirbhay. “You’re a smart businessman. I hope you’ll see logic in what I am going to say…”

“Well, that depends on whether or not there is any logic in what you are going to say,” Bhalla said with a sneer.

Something about Bhalla’s behaviour reminded Nirbhay of Jojo, the bully he had set straight in school. He smiled, his face passive, and began, “Well, here’s the deal, Mr. Bhalla. It’s not the peak tourist season right now and will not be for another three-four months. The profit margins are thin because, let’s accept, our fixed costs are not getting any lower. So, what sense does it make to give more latitude to our vendors when they can function on our terms, as long as we cooperate with each other?”

“So, you believe that approving the vendors’ demands would be unprofitable for us?” Bhalla stubbed his cigar and stretched back in his upholstered leather chair.

“I believe it would be safe to say that paying higher price for the inputs will directly hit our bottom line,” Nirbhay argued.

Bhalla’s lips curved into a condescending smile. “When I said us, I meant Foodies’ Corner. Now, put yourself in my shoes, kid, although they’re too big for your baby feet,” he snorted, “and imagine - when you step out of your restaurant, what you see straight ahead is not your major competitor who’s snatching your customers with new-fangled promotion strategies, but an apparel shop, or perhaps a furniture store. Maybe, just maybe, you see another outlet of your own restaurant.” Bhalla paused to allow his words to sink in. “Surely, it would be an astute business strategy to suffer loss for a while if it solves your biggest problem in the long run, if you know what I mean.” A grin, evil and avid, creased his arrogant countenance.

Nirbhay was stunned into silence. The man intended not to trump competition, but destroy it. Since he hadn’t been successful in fairly competing with The Supreme, he was resorting to unfair means. But how would his business survive if he paid higher price for the inputs? And then it struck Nirbhay – the man owned other businesses as well, which accounted for the depth of his pockets, if not the chasm of his greed and the abyss of his moral decadence.

“At the same time, I would hate seeing the long-standing establishment of Mr. D’Souza liquidate, not to mention the disgrace and anguish he would have to suffer,” Bhalla said affectedly. “Really, it would pain my heart to see a great restaurant like The Supreme that has been in existence for decades disintegrate.”

Nirbhay instinctively knew what was coming next. His mind raced like an ostrich on a boundless stretch of possible rejoinders.

“In view of the brand value and the loyal customer base of The Supreme, I’ve decided to make a generous offer to D’Souza. Why don’t you inform your boss on my behalf that I’d be willing to pay a fair price for his restaurant? Should he ever look for a buyer that is,” he smirked.

Nirbhay stared blankly at Bhalla for a few moments before speaking in a grave tone. “I’ll inform Mr. D’Souza about your offer, Mr. Bhalla. But allow me to make a proposition before I leave.”

“I’m listening”, said Bhalla.

“Well, I have been working with Mr. D’Souza for a long time and I would hate to see his business fall apart. I believe that it would be in his best interest to sell the restaurant, rather than the business going bust, which is likely to happen whether or not we succumb to the vendor’s demands.”

“I’m glad you’re actually smarter than you appear to be,” Bhalla said with a grin.

Nirbhay smiled pleasantly, “But I do foresee a slight problem with what you’re suggesting. I know Mr. D’Souza very well. He will rather keep fighting you till the end, than sell his business to the man responsible for its downfall.”

“In that case I’ll fight him until he goes bankrupt,” Bhalla’s face contorted into a grimace. “I’ll buy The Supreme anyway.”

“I’m not finished yet,” Nirbhay said cautiously. “There’s something I might manage to convince Mr. D’Souza for.”

“Yeah? What?” Bhalla demanded.

“Well, Mr. D’Souza has always prided himself on the chocolate cakes baked at The Supreme, as it was his great grandmother’s original recipe. He believes that nobody can bake a better chocolate cake than our chef.”

“What’s your point?” asked Bhalla furrowing his forehead.

“Here’s what we’ll do. In three days time, I’ll return with a chocolate cake baked by our chef and you’ll have one baked by your chef,” proposed Nirbhay. “If our chocolate cake is better than yours, you’ll cooperate with us on the vendor issue. But, if your chocolate cake is better than ours, I give you my word, Mr. D’Souza will agree to sell The Supreme, but of course, at an acceptable price.”

Bhalla batted his eyelids in blank befuddlement. Then, he burst out laughing. “That is the most preposterous thing I have ever heard! Are you crazy?” he cackled. “And who is to decide which chocolate cake is, in your words, better?”

“You would,” Nirbhay declared at once. “You’ll taste the two chocolate cakes and identify the tastier one. But, of course, you’ll be blindfolded.”

Bhalla gazed at Nirbhay appraisingly. “How do I know D’Souza would sell me his restaurant if our chocolate cake is better?”

“The same way I know you would cooperate with us on the vendor issue if our chocolate cake is better,” quipped Nirbhay.

A short pause later, Bhalla agreed, “Ok then. You have yourself a deal, boy. I’ll expect you here on Thursday at 11 a.m.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bhalla.” Nirbhay rose from his seat to leave.

“Wait a minute!” exclaimed Bhalla. “There’s something that bothers me. You seem to care deeply about D’Souza. You’ve worked with the man for a long time. Then why would you bet his business on a chocolate cake?”

“Because Mr. Bhalla, I’m certain that our chocolate cake is indeed, the very best.”

***

As soon as Nirbhay left his cabin, Bhalla lifted the phone receiver and asked for his chef. “Listen carefully,” he began, “I want you to bake a chocolate cake on Thursday and I want it ready by 10:30 a.m. But make sure, you mix a handful of salt in the batter. Yeah, you heard me right”, he said with an evil chuckle, “A handful of salt.

***

“What happened?” asked D’Souza as Nirbhay pushed open the door to his office. For the past half an hour, since Nirbhay had left to talk to Bhalla, D’Souza had been pacing up and down his office nervously.

“Our problem would be solved by the end of this week,” announced Nirbhay. “I’ll need some money. We’re going to meet Bhalla on Thursday with a chocolate cake…”

Over the next few minutes, while Nirbhay narrated his plan, the old man’s pupils dilated and a wave of amazement swept away the creases of stress on his face.

***

That evening Nirbhay returned home earlier than usual, purposely at a time when Mrs. Chauhan usually visited the grocery shop. He summoned three eight-year old residents of the orphanage and extracted chocolates from his pocket.

“Listen, you little daredevils! I have a small task for you all.” Then Nirbhay explained what he wanted each of them to do.

“Ok. Rinkoo, you go now before it gets too dark. Be careful while you carry them and don’t let them escape. Bring them directly to my room,” he instructed. “Gudiya, you will go tomorrow same time, when Veena aunty goes to the grocery store, and Nannu will go day after. Do you remember where to drop them in my room?”

Yes, Bhaiya – in the brown cardboard box under your bed,” they intoned.

“Right. And, don’t tell anybody about this. Not even Veena aunty. Okay?” He pulled out three more chocolates from the pocket of his trousers and handed them to the avid children.

Then, he asked them to repeat what they were supposed to do.

***

Thursday morning at 10:55 a.m. Nirbhay strode across the road towards Foodies’ Corner with a large brown paper bag held securely in his hands. He entered the restaurant through the front door and turned towards the corridor leading to the staircase. Pausing for a few moments outside the partially open kitchen door, he placed the brown paper bag on the floor. Then, he bent down and peered inside it. This was it, he thought.

“You’re late, you know,” growled Bhalla as Nirbhay pushed open the heavy door to his office precisely three minutes later.

Bhalla sat on his swivel chair behind the ornamental desk, a beacon of confidence. D’Souza, on the other hand, sat uncomfortably on one of the chairs facing the desk. He looked at Nirbhay anxiously. In one corner of the large office, stood a man wearing an apron and a chef’s cap, trying to maintain as large an expanse as possible between Bhalla and himself, in case the outcome turned out to be unfavourable and his existence, in peril.

“I apologize for being late,” said Nirbhay as he withdrew a cardboard box from the brown paper bag and placed it on the desk. He opened the box and removed a chocolate cake with ‘The Supreme’ inscribed in white creamy icing on it. Another cake bearing the words ‘Foodies’ Corner’ lay on a china plate next to it.

As Nirbhay blindfolded Bhalla, the chef of Foodies’ Corner took a few steps closer to the desk, keen to observe every little movement, presumably instructed to do so by his master. Slices of the two cakes were presented to Bhalla, who ostensibly savoured one piece as much as the other. Finally, the blindfold was removed.

“I must compliment you D’Souza, for both the cakes were absolutely fantastic,” remarked Bhalla wiping his mouth. “Now let me see, the first cake was very creamy and the second one was much sweeter,” he deliberated. “I have a sweet tooth, but the first cake just melted in my mouth as it touched my palate… Umm. I think I liked the first one better. I choose the first cake.”

Oh God!” exclaimed D’Souza, his face turning pallid. He groaned noisily and covered his face with his hands while Nirbhay stood beside him helplessly.

“Mr. D’Souza, I’m so sorry,” whispered Nirbhay, his face reflecting agony. “It’s all my fault. I should’ve never…”

“Do I assume from the public display of sloppiness that I will indeed be the proud owner of The Supreme?” snickered Bhalla.

A few seconds elapsed without any response or movement from D’Souza. Then, he abruptly rose from the chair and swiftly walked out of the room.

Where does he think he’s going?” Bhalla sprang from his chair angrily.

“Mr. D’Souza is in a state of shock. Let him be alone right now, please,” Nirbhay said with difficulty.

“What about our agreement?” bellowed Bhalla. “I won fair and square. And he lost…”

“Please calm down, Mr. Bhalla. There’s no need to worry. I’ve known Mr. D’Souza a long time. He is a man of integrity who always keeps his word. The Supreme… the restaurant will be yours,” said Nirbhay, choking up on the last few words.

Bhalla calmed down a little and asked his chef to leave, who scurried across the room towards the wooden door like a rat accidentally finding the door of the cage unlatched.

“Before you leave, I want to have a word with you, boy,” began Bhalla, “I know how well you’ve managed the operations of The Supreme in these past few years. You’ve been an asset to the restaurant.”

“It’s no big deal. I’ve just done my job,” shrugged Nirbhay.

“Efficient and humble, I’m impressed. Let me be frank with you”, said Bhalla, leaning forward in his chair. “I think you’d be a valuable employee to me. I know you hold the post of the Assistant Manager at The Supreme right now, but once I take over the restaurant, I’d like to offer you the post of the Manager. What do you think?”

“Oh! I…I don’t know what to say, Mr. Bhalla,” murmured Nirbhay, surprised. “Um… I’m certainly flattered by the offer. Believe me, I am, Sir. But I’ll need some time to think about it.”

“Hmm… Alright. Take your time, boy.” Bhalla shook hands with Nirbhay, as he rose to leave.

“Mr. Bhalla, one more thing. Allow me to congratulate you with a slice of the winning cake,” said Nirbhay cutting a slice of the salty cake.

“Oh! That’s not necessary,” Bhalla said with a simper, repulsed by the thought of having to taste the salty cake one more time. He had nearly thrown up the first time.

“Please, Sir. Don’t deny me the honour to congratulate you,” said Nirbhay, extending the cake slice towards Bhalla’s face.

“I shouldn’t be eating too much cake,” cried Bhalla. “It’s not good for my health, you see,” he said, running a hand on his belly.

“It’s just one little slice, Sir,” insisted Nirbhay. “Even though I’m saddened by Mr. D’Souza’s loss, I’m really happy for you.”

Jai Bhalla chomped on the slice laboriously while trying to smile, grateful that the cake contained only one handful of salt.

Nirbhay waited till late evening and then, made two calls, separated by two hours of time. The second one was to Monish Mehta, the Chief Editor of The Times of India.

***

The next day, a column in the regional news section of The Times of India read as follows:

In a shocking incident of breach of regulations of the Department of Food & Public Distribution, Foodies’ Corner, a popular restaurant on the Mall Road was found to be infested with a litter of rats. A spokesman of the Department of Food & Public Distribution reported that on receiving an anonymous call yesterday, they raided the restaurant late last evening and found as many as fifteen healthy rats in the kitchen itself. The Department of Food & Public Distribution has revoked the license of Foodies’ Corner and enforced a yearlong ban on its activities.

 It is also rumoured that yesterday a major deal was struck for the acquisition of the popular restaurant The Supreme by Foodies’ Corner. After reading this piece of news, most of our readers would be grateful that the deal fell through. The owner of Foodies’ Corner, Mr. Jai Bhalla, was not available for comment.

***

A few years later, Nirbhay passed his twelfth board exams with distinction and received a hundred percent scholarship for pursuing a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Himachal Pradesh University. He continued working at The Supreme through college and was promoted to the post of the Manager of the restaurant. After graduation, he applied for a degree in Master of Business Administration at Shimla Institute of Management, having prudently saved his earnings from the restaurant. Shortly after, owing to the gruelling business school schedule, he quit his job at The Supreme, with a focus on starting his own restaurant.

Now, almost a year into his MBA, Nirbhay was ready with the blueprint of his business plan; he had identified his target market, selected a food concept, chosen a location on the Mall road and even spoken to a popular chef. All that he needed now to see his aspirations soar like a mighty bird in the boundless expanse of success was capital for his initial investment.

Over the past few months, Nirbhay had met with several Venture Capitalists with his proposal. While some of them had listened to his proposition with interest, others had failed to make the appointment. None of them had, however, agreed to fund his restaurant.

As Nirbhay sat at his desk in his hostel room reading the note on the blue folder, he wondered if this was the solution to his problem. He rechecked the return address on the envelope – ‘22 Banjara Hills, Hotel Residency, Hyderabad’ and made a mental note to call up the hotel the next morning to inquire about the letter.

Extracting the sheets of paper from the folder, Nirbhay glanced at the table clock – it was 9:51 p.m. The hostel mess would be open for another thirty-forty minutes. His curiosity provoked by the note on the folder, Nirbhay decided to read the letter before going for dinner.

At that moment, he hadn’t the slightest idea that it would be a good two hours before the anonymous letter would be released from his grip.