By: Ram Govardhan
Like most of us, Vedantam Rajagopalan is a friendly intender chap and, unlike most of us, too proud of his cerebral endowments. His Churchillian obsession with English and punctuation, particularly the Oxford comma, always baffled his New York friends.
“Even if half American, Churchill hated the American nonchalance…and swore by Anglican skepticism,” Veda often reminded them.
Veda’s new look – studious visage sporting a walrus moustache – didn’t surprise his friends, not exactly. What did was the suddenty of the divorce; the news was kind of kinky, beggaring belief.
Veda considered himself so intellectually haughty that he stopped talking to regular people, his wife, Lata, included. Silence, the deadliest weapon of spouces, ensured that they grow apart, fall out and, within no time, part ways.
Lata had the warmth, the charm, and the class and, just like him, loved hot broccoli and adored exhilarating, finger-licking-good food that brought out the mustard well. Apart from indulging in endless yattering, she too loved laughing at nothing. And she, just like him, always shopped at Gucci and collected African carving, the latest craze of the avant-garde. What clinched the deal while dating was that both liked the Chinese flute for it’s mellifluous charecteristics at higher registers. They loved talking about socio-cultural impact of New York hotdogs and nobility of Korean culinary tradition. Both found their Zen by meditating together and shared a deep sense of divine providence.
Veda blames David, the African American with whom Lata walked down the aisle a few weeks ago. Neither the divorce nor the marriage was out of the blue; for over two years, there were fires, fights and outbursts but Veda considered every arson part of a learning curve.
All that Lata loved in David was his olive oil voice and his extraordinary knife skills. With the looks and gazes of Morgan Freeman, David is a celebrity rapper from Harlem, but looked like a riff-raff warm-up guy with a sore foot at Carnegie Hall looking for a few dollors. Given David’s penchant for Catholic crosses, burgundy shoes and blue socks, Veda considered him a little farcical than a clown, destitute of intelligence and, in one more befitting word, mulish.
The very day Lata espoused David was also the day Veda embraced celibacy, asserting, “Even a busload of bikini models can’t shake my vow.”
Caught by the first snows of the autumn, ducking under a red-blue awning of a pedestrian plaza in Broadway, the soaring billboards and illuminated mannequins dazzling his eyes, suddenly the Big Apple felt bitter. Shrugging off the thoughts of meeting Puddicombe of Headspace to unclutter his muddied mind, while babbling and mumbling to himself, the thought of giving back to the land of his Alma Mater, IIT Madras, struck him. And an overpowering itch goaded him to return to his humble Mannargudi, Tanjore, and immerse himself in farming.
After all the booze and brawls of earning in the west, for his sort of Big in Japan guys, India is where they come to wash away sins. On the flight, since the most abundant resource in India is garbage, the idea of a waste management start-up demanded a larger town with a lot more rubbish. Before expanding footprint to other metros, can’t he clean up the city by the time Chennaites could grasp the meaning of two of the three words, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan? Of course, yes. As a disciplinarian to a nano-second, he could hardly hold his horses and, being very global in his outlook, the imperial succession in Japan seemed a good omen for embarking on a new venture in Chennai.
“Meet the municipal guys with a Manila cheroot and a coat over your shoulder… in your six-metre plus Maybach,” said his cousin.
“A length of ottiko, kattiko veshti and a Civic befits a baron here,” Veda said, “Even pyjamas would do.”
Having been a high-achiever under the kiss-up, kick-down bully bosses in New York, as a polymath of highest pedigree, waste management wasn’t rocket science for Veda.
“One has to be prudent and timely with rubbish…,” Veda asserted, “… And not becoming a tabloid fodder is the key…”
“The pitfalls of running a startup in India might overwhelm you,” said his cousin, despite knowing that Veda excelled at the high art of cutting people to size..
“Gita, not our girl-next-door Gita, Bhagavad-Gita asks us to pursue irrespective of constraints and consequences. Universally, compared to genius, courage is always in short supply… Mylapore rabbits like you could never muster. If I could work valley… why not our humble Chennai?…” Veda asked, with the effortless superiority that comes with being an IITian.
The befuddled cousin had no answer.
“Fail fast and fail cheap, and move forward….is there any other way of keeping one’s dead father’s name alive?” Veda asked.
The waste management guys in Chennai were employing rustics wielding shovel-like garden implements. Isn’t managing waste much more than spadework? What you needed was ecologically sensitive, young, driven workforce and the management that believed in using the power of Blockchain, AI, ML and Big Data.
Getting all the ducks in row, sambar-obsessed Veda chose the upscale Cenotaph Road for his technology-driven company ZeGar, for Zero Garbage, with an aesthetically configured dustbin as a logo. Like Nilakeni, Veda too had no sense of heirarchy, was often funny with his nonplussed staff, always mindful of not slipping into pantomime.
His plant of incinerators was established close to the garbage mounds of Pallikaranai marshland. With a fleet of thirty-six trucks, uniformed workforce of about two hundred, ZeGar was off to a flying start. Quickly grasping that B2B in ecom is the new black, he processed aluminiun, copper, steel, brass things and began selling the ingots.
Despite his cool silicon valley punditry, Veda couldn’t persuade the early stage guys. But, within a few months, with the help of few of his mates in Manhattan, he could get the A series, then B series and there was no looking back until his venture was declared a Soonicorn.
Being in the red perennially is nothing to be ashamed of and, if you could manage a gritty enough look, despite vacuous calims, one is not only met with rounds of AA and BB sort of series, but also, if things go awry, entrepreneurial failure invariably fetches a seat on a rival board.
Within months, the currupt municipal guys and lightwieght political chaps were getting on his nerves. He is no stranger to the world of hostilities and abuse, yet the hurly burly political harassment was too much to bear. With less than twenty-five percent in ZeGar, with no differential voting rights, he started feeling the pinch and rivals began poaching his staff.
When in the doldrums, the swashbuckling Ayn Rand’s philosophy was always the steadying force in Veda’s life, although he hated her Russian accent, hairstyle, and teeth. Yet, in no time, tackling attrition proved herculean and everything was falling spart. Just before he could think of shifting base to Singapore, a Canadian firm offered an all-cash deal, almost 56x of what he invested.
With so much in the bank, why can’t he be an ecosystem player like NASSCOM, attracting all the waste management companies in India?
“Girls are going nuts over you,” said his cousin, during the cocktail bash for the budding entrepreneneurs.
“I am not that young…but being single and rich helps…” Veda said.
The very next day, while on a sunrise stroll along the Marina, as he mulled jumping onto the crypto bandwagon, the ubiquitous beggars hopefully grinned at him, giving him an instant, new mission statement: offering a better vocation to almsmen. Of course, pushing pan for alms was one relic of Chennai he always hated. On the cusp of serial entrepreneurship, before he injects bespoke practices, he realised that the prevailing sartorial preferences of beggars made for terrible optics and lack of nutritional literacy was destroying their vascular system. Most beggars were hesitant and afraid, but he could easily sway the ones who had killed their own entrepreneurial ambitions and turned to beggary due to demonitisation and GST.
Conversant of all the gigs that work in startup space by now, even as the beggar mafia and politicians warned of dire consequences, Veda registered and launched his startup, Diggnity. Every beggar was given a three-by-three kiok to sell discounted cellphone covers, sim cards, scissors, toys, balloons and stationery. Diggnity supplied the goods out of their state-of-the-art fulfillment centres on the outskirts. They were given orange T-shirts, a free simcard, a basic cellphone. And ninety coupons for ninety meals a month at Saravana Bhavan. Three sides of every Diggnity kiosk were reserved as billboards for revenue.
Within a year, with increasing ad revenue and newer rounds of funding, Diggnity was valued at 300 billion dollars.
“Couple of more years of perseverance would make us a unicorn,” Veda prided.
One rainy night the very next week, as Veda was about to sleep, his phone rang. He secretary told him that about three hundred Diggnity kiosks were gutted by fire. The very next morning, even as he was to gather and placate the former beggars, almost all of them had returned to their earleier spots and began, well, begging.
Three days later, as Veda slumped into a sofa after yelling at his strategy guys, Lata cried over the video call, “I don’t want to live with the nigger anymore…he tormented me for days on end…tried killing me…”
She pointed to grievous gashes all over her, saying, “He is puttin his knife skills to practice on my body…have managed to kick him out, but he is trying to barge in…have just dialled the NYPD….hadn’t had a bite all day, darling…”
“Where’s he now?” Veda asked.
“In the porch…in the pick-up truck with cans of beer…since last night,” Lata said.
Veda flew back to New York to be by her side in her hour of crisis.
Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Literary Yard, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Indian Ruminations, The Spark, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org