Jinder slumps into his chair and lightly burps, the faint taste of last night’s cognac making him cringe at the wave of nausea that turned over in his stomach. Pushing aside the copy of the International Herald Tribune that his secretary, Shanaya, laid out for him, Jinder wonders why she did not leave three Aspirin and a glass of water as well. She knew, after all, that he was entertaining an important client at the Sugar Wine Bar the previous evening.
Irritated by the oversight, Jinder buzzes Shanaya’s desk, which was empty when he arrived five minutes earlier. The buzzes go unanswered and Jinder smirks. His father, the great Baghawad Das Daswani, India’s most famous movie producer, was right. “Never hire the attractive girl for a job you need done,” his father counseled. “Their beauty gives them too much independence and compromises their reliability.”
Jinder belches again, this time an awful combination of Remy Martin and cigar smoke that had been sitting inside him for hours. He reaches for the top drawer of his desk and pulls out a flask of Macallan and his cigarette case. After years of practice, Jinder knows that the only way to get through this type of morning is first with chemicals and then with a woman.
He buzzes Shanaya again.
“Yes, Mr. Daswani,” she answers curtly.
“Get in here.”
Jinder moves his finger from the intercom to his cigarette, lighting it and inhaling deeply. As smoke fills the room, Shanaya enters, her high cheek bones cutting through the smoke.
“What do you need, Mr. Daswani?”
Jinder eyes her curvaceous hips, perfectly formed against the knit of her skirt and feels his mouth water as he glances at her gravity-defying chest.
“I want you to make the reservations for the film festival in France. We will then go to the Dolomites and finish in the Riviera. Two plane tickets. One hotel room.”
“I am sure,” Shanaya smiles, “that Mrs. Daswani will be thrilled.”
Jinder shakes his head. “Mrs. Daswani is not going. You are.”
“My passport is expired,” she says flatly before looking at her wristwatch. “You have a meeting with Sunil in his office in ten minutes.”
Shanaya spins and leaves, the billowing of smoke trailing her. Jinder mutters to himself, takes another swig from his flask and rummages in a drawer looking for the passport application he had put it in there after she had excused herself from the previous year’s festival.
Jinder’s golf cart rolls silently through the back lot of the studio. His driver, Vijay, had been taking him on the same route from one end of the studio to the other for more than forty years. As a child, Jinder looked forward to his time with Vijay because Vijay always snuck chocolates and hard candy treats. Now, it was Jinder who repaid Vjay with the dignity of a job and cash tips.
Vijay’s best trait wasn’t the nostalgic route past the large fake elephants that had mesmerized Jinder as a youth, but the absolute silence of his companionship. Vijay understood that Jinder did not need conversational distraction, but simple peace and quiet, never bothering him with extraneous dialogue or useless pleasantries. Vijay did not even trouble him with a glance. He simply would glide into the empty space next to the door, wait for him to arrive and gently drive him to wherever Shanaya instructed.
As usual, Jinder climbed out of the cart without a word, opened the door to the building and walked down the dim hallway that led to Sunil’s office, not acknowledging Puja, Sunil’s aged secretary.
Sunil Daswani, Jinder’s cousin, had been defined by the absence of personal ambition since birth. Laden with restrictive expectations from his father, he suppressed his interest in artistic expression and, instead, focused on artistic management and joined the family business as an accountant.
To observers, Jinder and Sunil made an effective team, perhaps due to their divergent pathways to adulthood. Jinder, eight years older than Sunil, had been taught the British way with financiers and socialites in order to assume his eventual role as head of Bhagawad Studios. Sunil, on the other hand, had a traditional upbringing where his role had always been to support his older cousin. In short, Sunil spent every day of his life either responding to expectations and doing it dutifully, including his marriage to Farha, a nice girl from the right family who bore him his three children.
Jinder’s own wife, of course, had been chosen by his parents and he, naturally provided the four grandchildren that they wanted, but they were a necessary distraction in relation to his professional duties. It all made sense to Jinder, except for the fact that Sunil actually seemed to enjoy going home to his family and spending time with them.
To be clear, Jinder appreciated Sunil. He simply did not understand his motivations, but waiting for him in his office on this particular day, Jinder wished that he had. The next phase of Bhagawad Studios, and its long term fortunes, depended on it.
Sunil entered the room, not surprised to see Jinder seated in his chair and obediently sat across from him in the smaller seat normally reserved for Puja. Jinder took a long pull from his cigarette, measuring this person whom he had known his entire life, yet did not really know. As he blew out a slow stream of smoke, he studied Sunil closely, not knowing what he would think about the proposition he was about to put forth, but knowing he would need his participation. Sunil, after all, was an equal partner in the studio even though he did not enjoy an equal title, or responsibility, to Jinder.
It was impossible to know why their fathers crafted such an arrangement, but they never discussed the peculiar equality that existed on paper, but not in practice or perception. The reason was not avoidance, but comfort. Bhagawad Studios had long been a stalwart of Bollywood, cranking out profitable, if not artistic, films for decades and there was no need to rock a boat that floated in calm waters.
Jinder, however, was about to steer the family into a giant wave, one that he wanted to ride.
“Sunil,” he began. “you are my beloved cousin and trusted partner.”
Sunil did not move. He had never heard Jinder use the word “love” in any context, not in regards to his kids, money, work – anything – and wanted to do what every smart person does when they are shocked and confused, which is to say nothing.
“Tell me,” Jinder continued, “what you want from Bhagawad Studios.”
Sunil cleared his throat. Jinder had never asked his opinion on anything, not even on a café to frequent. To inquire about something on a professional basis made Sunil think his cousin was ill, because he had seen Jinder drunk and that was a different experience.
“I am not sure what you mean, cousin,” Sunil responded. “Bhagawad Studios has provided everything to me. I am in its service because I am in its debt.”
Jinder smiled at the righteous answer. “Of course, Sunil, but my question is not about obligation, but imagination. What do you envision for its future?”
Now Sunil was really confused. Jinder had been raised to give orders, not solicit feedback. Moreover, Jinder had embraced this arrangement like a flower blooms in sunlight, stretching towards it instinctively, the duality of their existence intertwined in the certainty of their roles. Sunil, however, could not let this epic moment of candor go to waste.
“I would like to see the world,” he blurted.
Jinder smiled. It had taken him 37 years of living to admit, but Sunil was a dreamer just like everyone else. “And tell me, cousin,” Jinder continued, “what it is you want to see in the world.”
Jinder was his first cousin, but had been raised in a white man’s world of fox hunts and terraced gardens. In other words, he and Sunil had no bond from their youth, simply a shared name and piece of paper which made them equal partners in Bhagawad Studios. Sunil truly had nothing to lose by being honest.
“I want to see different things so I can better understand the world in which my children grow up,” Sunil countered.
“Forget about your children’s world for a moment. What kind of world do you want to live in?”
“Ours is a great one here in Mumbai,” Sunil offered. “What else could I want?”
“We all want something, Sunil. It is the human condition to want. Right now, I want my secretary to give me the comfort that she has withheld from me since the day I hired her. What is the forbidden thing that you want?”
Sunil had always ignored Jinder’s excesses, attributing them to the years of foreign schooling. Of course, he also ignored the wanderings of his own father and every other relative, but Sunil had successfully compartmentalized the aspects of his life. It only made sense that he did it with this one, too.
“I do not know what you mean by forbidden.”
Jinder lit a cigarette. “Yes, you do. I mentioned my secretary. Surely you know I did not hire her for her typing skills.”
Sunil said nothing.
“So,” Jinder continued, “when you talk of seeing the world. I know you do not reference an ambition to get out into it, but away from what it is that you already know. That includes your wife.”
Sunil felt the sting of Jinder’s words in a way that he had never experienced. His face filled with blood, anger building inside of him.
Jinder extended a cigarette towards Sunil. “I know you don’t smoke, cousin, but I think you need one now.”
“If you must know,” Sunil says while reaching for the Marlboro, “I would like to go to Sweden. It is quite different from here and I like Bjorn Borg. I would like to see him in a tennis match in his home country.” Sunil’s mind raced to the thoughts of Abba songs and blonde-haired women sitting in cafes splashed in sunshine. “And maybe Copenhagen, thereafter,” he added.
Jinder smiles as he lights Sunil’s cigarette. “I know you are faithful, Sunil. I know you are smart. I simply need to know that you dream.”
Sunil suddenly felt a vulnerability that he did not know he possessed. “Of course I dream, cousin. My oldest dream is of working here at the studio with you. Every day I live it.”
Jinder was not expecting a display of warmth from the normally guarded Sunil, but now that he was smoking, perhaps it felt natural to him. “Well then,” Jinder said as he pulled the flask of Macallan from his pocket, “take a swig of my favorite whiskey and let me tell you a dream I believe our late fathers would like us to realize.”
Sunil took the flask, put it to his mouth and turned it over like he saw Jinder do many times. He believed that the next thing out of Jinder’s mouth would be that they were to travel, smoke, drink and, yes, lust after women, a dream he had never allowed himself to entertain.
Jinder did no such thing.
“Sunil,” Jinder began slowly. “Last night, we received the most fascinating proposal from Mr. Emil Sosa, the founder of Fair & Beautiful Cosmetics.”
Sunil recognized the name. Everyone did. Emil Sosa was a renowned businessman whose rags to riches story was a testament to creativity, force of will and cutthroat cruelty where necessary. Sunil was, however, disappointed that the conversation drifted towards business. He thought Jinder was about to propose a fraternal junket that would be foolhardy and fun. Invoking Emil Sosa’s name might be foolhardy, but it was not fun.
“What kind of proposal?”
“He wants to cut us in on 30% of the profits for his skin whitening brand, Fair & Clean, here in India. He says that his analysts estimate first year sales figures of $60 million in US dollars, up from $22 million with the right marketing campaign.”
Sunil squinted as he tried to reconcile the idea that a cosmetics manufacturer wanted to pursue a deal with a movie studio on such generous terms and took another swig of Macallan. “What kind of marketing campaign?”
Jinder smiled broadly. “That’s what’s so brilliant. All we need to do is cast light-skinned actors in our productions that he will then use in print advertisements and we make $18 million dollars a year!”
The booze and cigarette smoke roiled in Sunil’s stomach. His late father and uncle would disown he and Jinder if they heard of this kind of talk. In fact, a slight chunk of vomit appeared in the back of Sunil’s throat that he quickly choked back down, but it was to no avail as a larger stream came right back up and forced Sunil to the nearby garbage pail where he wretched.
Jinder lit another cigarette. “Single malt whisky and cigarettes are tough to digest before lunch,” he observed.
Sunil projected the last of his vomit into the garbage pail, small bits dripping from his lower lip, and gave Jinder a wounded look. “Our fathers, were they alive, would beat us for considering such a proposal.”
“Our fathers were capitalists,” Jinder countered. “Bhagawad Studios exists to make money. It is like the textile company that makes a different style of shirt to keep up with the times. This is 1977 and our times demand flexibility, not rigidity.”
“But,” Sunil protested, “we have a responsibility to our audience to present them with a standard of-”
“A standard of what?” Jinder interrupted. “My father was a survivor. He would have respected Emil Sosa and would have especially respected $18 million dollars!”
Jinder extends the flask to his cousin one more time. “Don’t let your stomach win a war with your mind, Sunil.”
Eyes burning, Sunil took the flask and finished its contents. “There is an agenda, Jinder. There has to be. No company just gives another company $18 million dollars.”
Jinder knew weakness and could sense it in Sunil, meaning that it was the perfect time to pounce. “He’s not giving anything to us. We are making a decision that can benefit his business and we will share in the profits. Profits that will ensure the strength of Bhagawad Studios for our own children.”
Sunil said nothing as he pondered the logic.
“Come, cousin, “Jinder says soothingly. “Let’s ride with Vijay and call Mr. Sosa from my office. Afterwards we will have Shanaya get you a passport so we can go to Sweden together. She is heading to the passport agency this afternoon, in fact.”
Sunil looked into Jinder’s face, exploring it for deeper meaning. “May I have a cigarette for the ride?”
“Certainly,” Jinder said with a smile. “You may have whatever you wish.”