I heard a senior manager, I think it was Tushar, refer to Sandeep as a “poor henpecked chappie” a day after I joined Meevar Financial Consultants. I dismissed Tushar’s comment as a joke and thought no more about it till that evening when Sandeep took us out to Geoffrey’s at the Marine Plaza for a drink. There were twelve of us management trainees and Sandeep, the big boss, the CEO. I think Sandeep was around fifty-five at that time, more than twice as old as most of us. He was a small-built man with a large paunch and a jovial air, which made him eerily similar to one of my uncles.
But unlike my uncle, Sandeep Nayyar was a legend in Mumbai. Everyone who had anything to do with stock and shares or the stock exchange had heard of him. Meevar’s shareholders worshipped him for the obscenely high dividends it routinely declared and journalists praised him almost everyday in the financial press. Sandeep was reputed to be the man with the Midas touch. Every business venture he launched so far had been successful. Naturally, all of us were in awe of him.
Barely had we started sipping our drinks when Sandeep’s mobile rang.
‘I’m at Geoffrey’s,’ Sandeep told the person at the other end. ‘With the current batch of trainees. You know, the ones who started this week.’
‘No, I won’t be staying for long.’
‘Okay, I’ll call you when I am ready to leave.’
‘I mean, I won’t take too long.’
Sandeep put his mobile phone, a Motorola L2000 Tri-band, one of the hippest phones in those days, back in his pocket and continued chatting with us. He had a large fund of stories which were very entertaining, stories of the great deals he had cut and the stuff he had done to drum up business in his initial days. Everyone listened to him with rapt attention. We laughed uproariously at each of his jokes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we were out to insincerely flatter Sandeep. Our laughter was entirely genuine, since all of us hoped to emulate Sandeep at some point in our careers and in such a case, it was very easy to enjoy his stories and laugh at his jokes. I do remember that one of my fellow trainees, a girl with a monkey cut, kept gushing every time she spoke to Sandeep.
‘Ooooohhh, no sir, no sir, I don’t drink sir,’ she would say.
‘But you’re already drinking,’ Sandeep pointed to the orange juice in her glass.
The girl giggled in reply. ‘Yessir, I am.’
‘Are you sure you won’t try a little bit of vodka and lime cordial?’
‘Yes sir, I mean, no sir, I’m sure sir. Can I have a lemonade sir?’
‘Young lady, you shouldn’t mix your drinks,’ Sandeep told her to the accompaniment of guffaws and loud laughter from all around.
Just like Sandeep, all the men had vodka with lime cordial. There was only one other woman in the group and I think she too ordered a vodka, took a sip or two and drank nothing else for the rest of the evening. Sandeep was very chivalrous to the two women. He made sure the circulating canapés and peanut bowls reached them occasionally and would smile and nod at them a lot more than he did at anyone else. I think I was a little jealous of the two women.
And then Sandeep’s mobile rang again.
‘Yes, I’m still here.’
‘When are you coming home?’ Sandeep’s wife’s stern voice was so loud all of us could hear her very well.
‘Another twenty minutes?’
Sandeep gave all of us a weak smile. ‘My wife gets very nervous when she is alone in the house after it’s dark,’ he told us. None of us questioned that statement. No one asked him, ‘don’t you have servants in your house?’ Has anyone heard of a Sensex* company’s CEO whose household doesn’t have at least two full-time servants? But no, we did not challenge Sandeep.
Exactly twenty minutes later Sandeep’s phone rang once more. ‘Haven’t you left yet?’ his wife demanded even before he could say hello!’
‘I’m leaving. We’re all leaving,’ Sandeep told her and looked at the only guy who was yet to finish his drink, forcing him to down it in a gulp.
I was very soon immersed in the world of stock-broking and making investments on behalf of clients. I practically forgot all about the hard time Sandeep’s wife gave him that evening, till around a month later I was reminded of it. I was having lunch with a colleague, our lunches having been delivered by one of Mumbai’s ubiquitous dabbawallahs.
‘Do you get along with Lalita?’ he asked me.
‘Yeah, sort of,’ I laughed. Lalita was Sandeep’s secretary and all minions at Meevar did their best to make friends with her. No, I wouldn’t say it was de rigueur for survival, but it was one of those things which made our lives a little bit easier.
‘Funny, isn’t it? Sandeep has got Lalita and everyone else has got …. well you know.’
I did know. Lalita was old. She was almost as old as Sandeep, the oldest secretary in the office, whilst every other senior manager had a reasonably young and attractive secretary.
‘It’s a disgrace,’ my friend. ‘And on top of all that, she is so slow.’
‘Is she that bad?’ I asked.
‘The other day I wanted her to tell me if Sandeep will be free to meet a client for lunch next Tuesday, and she took ages to open up outlook and give me the info.’
I was silent at this bit of information. So far, other than trying to chat up Lalita, I had never tested her professionally.
Then my friend dropped his bombshell. ‘Apparently, Sandeep’s wife will not let him hire a younger secretary.’
‘You don’t say! I can’t believe it. What’s her problem in life?’
‘I don’t know. But this is what I’ve heard.’
I laughed. It was such a joke. Sandeep Nayyar, one of the most prominent men in the Mumbai financial market, was in mortal fear of his wife.
‘He is henpecked, isn’t he?’ I asked my colleague.
‘There’s no other word for it.’
I could imagine Sandeep’s wife sitting at home, full of pimples and grey hair, throwing tantrums, occasionally sobbing her heart out, insisting that he should not have a pretty secretary. Poor Sandeep, full of pity for his life-long companion, unable to be firm with her, giving in to all her stupid demands, just to keep her quiet and to get some peace of mind.
Soon over a period of time, further stories of how Sandeep suffered at the hands of his wife reached my ears. Apparently she never allowed him to travel outside Mumbai on work. And if he did, she would go with him. There was another story of how Sandeep’s wife went to a restaurant where Sandeep was having dinner with a senior lady journalist and insisted that he go home with her without even finishing his dinner.
All this didn’t make sense to me. Why on earth did Sandeep put up with it? Why didn’t he tell his wife to take a hike? I knew by now that Sandeep had a ruthless streak in him. Non-performers at Meevar were summarily sacked without mercy. The jovial and friendly exterior was reserved for clients and new beginners at Meevar.
Soon, I reached the end of my management training. Two weeks before it officially ended, I received an envelope from the HR department informing me that I would be starting as an assistant manager in the non-discretionary portfolio management services division. Of the twelve management trainees taken on that year, two guys failed to make the cut. The rest of us went out to the Opium Den at the Oberoi to celebrate.
‘We ought to have invited Sandeep to join us,’ someone said.
‘And we should have paid for his drink,’ another suggested. ‘He took us out when he started our training.’
‘If we invited him here and offered to pay for his drink, he might have ended up paying for ours.’
‘A bit too late for all that now,’ I said.
‘I’m glad Sandeep isn’t here,’ one of my fellow trainees whispered to me. This was the girl who had refused to drink vodka at Geoffrey’s, despite Sandeep doing his best to persuade her. I noticed that she now had a single malt whiskey in her hand.
‘Why do you say that,’ I asked shocked beyond words.
‘Well, he is quite nice, but you know, he does ..’
‘He does what?’ I asked. I was mildly annoyed.
‘He has his weaknesses.’
‘He is up to his tricks all the time.’
‘Well, you know, he does not miss an opportunity to place his arm on my shoulder or to pat me on the back or to .. well, nothing really bad, but you know, these are things one can do without.’
It was funny how I had missed this stuff. Or maybe I had and I had glossed over it. ‘Oh! I hadn’t noticed,’ I said with a shrug of my shoulders. ‘Maybe he is driven to do all this because of his wife,’ I added.
‘But, it’s the other way around,’ my colleague interjected. ‘Sandeep used to have affairs all the time till one day his wife found out. At that time, he was going on with his secretary, a pretty young thing. She forced him to fire her and hire Lalita, and from then on she keeps tabs on him. She makes a fuss if he is late, never lets him travel or even go out with female colleagues, unless he can convince her that it is absolutely necessary.’
‘This just shows that he is a nice guy. Any other person in his place would have divorced his wife and gone his own sweet way.’
‘Ah! But Sandeep Nayyar can’t do that. You see, in order to avoid paying tax, he kept most of his shares and other properties in his wife’s name. Now if he were to ditch her, he’ll lose half his wealth. Do you get the picture?’
‘I see. So he is stuck, isn’t he?’
‘Yes. He will be henpecked all his life.’