Banking on Bangkok
Soundtrack: Girls by the Beastie Boys
The flight was smooth. With three miniature bottles of Jack Daniel’s and Coke sloshing in Inderjeet’s belly, even the turbulence that the plane encountered somewhere above the Burma-Bangladesh border was taken care of. The furthest he had travelled to the east was Calcutta. This was for a job interview.
“And why do you wish to join a shipping company? Your CV doesn’t have anything to show any prior experience in this sector,” the man wearing a tie inside the protected air-conditioned room in a crumbly sort of building near Chowringhee had asked Inder that July morning.
With a Rajdhani Express journey still bobbing inside him, he had no intention of telling the man why he had really circled the ad in the paper and proceeded to send a totally fabricated curriculum vitae to the personnel department of Bird and Co. The job was that of a junior freight broker and involved getting the best rates for shipping goods to South-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Burma, Laos and Malaysia.
“Sir, I have had experience in handling freight for three years in the F&B industry, road freight, of course. I wanted to move to something bigger.”
Having no shipping experience on his jaali CV served two purposes. Shipping people usually knew only shipping people and it would have taken one junior clerk’s background check to catch Inder’s fabrications. Also, he liked projecting himself as the guy without any baggage. He would bring a radical edge to Bird and Co. The real reason for him applying for the job here was that he did believe in the cyclical nature of history. As an undiluted Amitabh Bachchan fan — he had even loved Mohabattein, where Amitabh played a proud Rajput patriarch in the way ham artists play proud Rajput patriarchs: with long stares and stern looks — he was not going to give up the opportunity to get the same job that his hero had started with before he became the big star.
“Hmm. Your contacts are good?”
“Better than good, sir. I have family connections that give me the best bulk rates.”
Eyebrows raised, the man behind the table let out another ‘Hmm’, pressed an intercom button and asked for a Mr Shukla.
Mr Shukla walked in and sat down. Thirty-five seconds of pleasantries were exchanged after which Mr Shukla, in the presence of the man with a tie on asked Inder, “What would be the best rates for pig iron rods to the Phillippines? Inclusive of duties, of course.”
“22 a tonne,” Inder shot back as if he had been dealing only in pig iron rods since he learnt how to walk.
“22 a tonne?”
“Yes, 22 a tonne.”
“Can you break that up into…”
“Actually 122 a tonne,” Inder said with a straight face.
As Mr Shukla leaned forward menacingly to continue the course of enquiry, Inder stood up, confident as a raised battle-axe moments before coming down on butter, to say, “I’m sorry. But I can’t continue with this line of enquiry…”
And that was that. Inder left the building and had lunch at Krishna Mistanna Bhandar, a place that serves the world’s finest kachauris (the trick is the in the mirchi-chutney combo) for the sum of Rs 20 a plate.
Half a decade later, Inder’s head waas nicely swimming as he sat quietly in seat 23C, with Jamshi Narimanpointwalla taking up the window seat 23A and a large territory of 23B in the middle. She had seen My Name is Khan (“Lovely movie! Although I still think that Shah Rukh was being silly about the whole IPL thing,” she had said as if she was a film critic-cum-social commentator for the Hindustan Times). Now she was catching episode 14 of 24, in which Keifer Sutherland (“He kind of looks like my uncle,” she had said too loudly with the earphones straddling her head) was multi-tasking to save America from mono-tasking bad guys in real time.
Bangkok airport in the morning was a shiny, leafy hall. Inder thought that this was how Pragati Maidan should be like. He had gone last week on the third last to for the World Book Fair, picked up a dirt cheap beautifully illustrated hardback copy of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (it had been £25 once, now being sold for Rs 250, ‘Did the author know?’) and found the tents, the stands uninspiring, especially as it played host to piles of shiny, delightful-to-look at books.
The five-and-a-half hours journey had stretched to nearly seven by the time Inder and Jamshi hopped into a cab. Inder was still high as a rogue air balloon floating above the Lodhi Gardens, while Jamshi was as fresh as a daffodil that was mentioned in some dead white English poet’s poem.
“To where?” asked the driver who seemed to barely reach the wheel of the taxi.
“Holiday Inn Silom.”
The man in front kept quiet throughout the journey and that was a relief for both his passengers who had already grown tired of soft ‘t’s where they were supposed to hard and hard ‘t’s where they were supposed to be soft ‘ts’.
(“Tat is te bub-wub three, sir. Very healty iths leaves for headache and pregnancy”).
They were in their Holiday Inn room — two separate beds with one standard television — in half an hour. The evening would come to pick them up in some four hours’ time.
After lunch at a Thai restaurant serving salads, Inder showed Jamshi the flyer that he had picked up from the concierge’s desk at the hotel lobby.
“Pussy ping-pong? What the hell is that?”
The flyer didn’t say much. But when the breeze is breezy and you’re in a foreign land with a friend who could become more than a companion, you’re ready to explore. Inder feigned to read the contents of the flyer as if to find the essence of Bangkok in the picture of a woman in a traditional Thai costume and long fingernails namaskaring.
“It’s some sort of local performance, I would think. C’mon, it’s not too far from here. It’ll be fun. If it gets dreary, we’ll leave and go to a nice bar. It’s nearby. It says here it’s next to Nana Plaza. I saw it on the way here.”
So the two left, not quite arm in arm as both of them were nervously hoping, but like two Indian tourists in Bangkok for the first time, talking about how cheap everything was here and how the ‘rupee rocks’ in places like these. After asking three ‘t/th’-pronounciation-challenged locals for directions, they were in front of Nana Plaza, or as the diet-Vegas neon light strung across an alley stated: “Nana Entertainment Plaza.”
The place was streaming with people, skinny men and women, not so skinny men and women, and hanging out in clusters skinny women who looked like men with powder-dabs under their chin desperately trying to conceal the faintest bumps that were Adam’s apple. As according to the printed information Inder kept taking out from his (leather) jacket pocket, the place they had to go to was the ‘Tuk Tak Lounge’.
“Come in, sir. Come in, madam,” said the headmistress-daubed-in-kabuki-like-face paint said at the door of the ‘Tuk Tak ounge’ (the ‘L’ in the neon sign having stopped blinking like a busy, easily excitable heart).
So there they were inside. It was a loud place illuminated by a greenish, sludge-coloured darkness with people scattered around a large room where an old Scorpions’ song was playing. (“Winds of change,” said Jamshi to herself. “Rock you like a hurricane,” Inder said to himself.)
And there bang in the middle of the large room, like the main table in an ex-casino turned into a pulpit of a church (the table, not the casino) was a table-tennis table standing firmly under the only bright light in the house. Milling around it and cheering on were all kinds of people holding drinks and wads of cash. In the centre of the pile were two specially-trained cats, holding table tennis paddles deftly but precariously in their paws, engaged in a longish rally of a wicked game of ping-pong. The score-line that Inder saw scrawled on a blackboard nearby was 16-12, the black cat with a white spot above his left eye ahead.
Next week: Packing suitcases to their brims