Shankar Sharma looked at me quizzically for an extended moment. I could sense that he was sizing me up. “Does this loser have any money or is he just a loser” Shankar seemed to be asking himself. I was beginning to feel self-conscious. I should have worn my new Louis Phillipe shirt and got my shoes polished, I chided myself, as I began to feel uncomfortable under Shankar Sharma’s unflinching gaze. My two-day stubble made me look like a slob, I knew. Then, Shankar’s gaze shifted to my colleague, Meenakshi Razdan. She stood there, all of 5′ 2″, looking calm, confident and competent. She looked Shankar straight in the eye. After what seemed an eternity, Shankar’s face broke into a gentle smile. “Please come in” he said in his deep baritone, as he ushered us into his sea-facing Duplex apartment in Mumbai’s most expensive piece of realty, Samudra Mahal, at Worli.
The apartment – if one could call the palatial premises that – was very well done up. Very understated and elegant. Sober. The large French windows were open and there was a gentle breeze blowing in. One could see the Arabian sea in the background, its grey waters reflecting the golden rays of the setting sun.
Shankar Sharma walked slowly and with measured steps into the living room and gestured us to take a seat. I hurried to grab the plush leather sofa which was closest. It looked very comfortable and inviting. It was so soft and deep. My aching body sank into it and I could feel a sense of relaxation taking over.
Shankar settled himself in the sofa opposite me. There was a half-empty glass of scotch and a plate of cashews nearby. He had been reading the Economist whilst waiting for us. The cashews were salted and looking very appetizing.
“So, what can I offer you to drink” Shankar asked, again looking straight at me. “Coffee, Sir” I blurted out without thinking.
I could sense Shankar Sharma grimace. “This guy is not just a loser, he is also a fool“, he seemed to be thinking.
“And you, Miss?”, Shankar asked, turning to Meenakshi. He was at his charming best. “Chilled Beer, Sir” Meenakshi replied in her cool and composed voice. That seemed to meet Shankar’s approval because he had a gentle smile on his lips.
“So which publication did you say you are from?” Shankar Sharma asked me, fixing me again in his unflinching gaze. “Rakesh Jhunjhunwala Fan Club, Sir” I said, vainly trying to bring enthusiasm into my voice and hoping that he would show some recognition. There was none. “There is such a thing?” he murmured and looked away disinterestedly.
The moments went by awkwardly as we gazed in silence at each other. I was tongue-tied. My mind was blank. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I looked at Meenakshi and gestured that she should say something and start the conversation.
Shankar Sharma suddenly looked up and again fixed me in his unflinching gaze. “Would you like to die an anaconda death or would like to die a viper death” he asked me softly.
That caught me completely off-guard. At the best of times, my thinking is all muddled up. Here, I was, totally paralyzed, gaping at Shankar, with my mouth wide open, like a gold fish, not comprehending what Shankar Sharma was saying.
Shankar Sharma took no notice of me and continued “The Anaconda will give you a benign death. It crushes you slowly till you cannot breath. There is no pain. The viper bites you and you feel immense pain. But you also die immediately“.
I was beginning to feel very hot and uncomfortable. My palms were damp with sweat. I had suddenly lost interest in the coffee and the cashew nuts that were placed in front of me.
Shankar Sharma still took no notice of me and continued absent-mindedly “I have a very bad feeling about this. I think the markets are going to die a Viper’s death. Very painful and very sudden“.
Shankar paused to reach for his glass of scotch, contemplated it for a second, and took a slow sip. As the alcohol reached his gullet, he grimaced again. “I had warned the World in 2008. Nobody listened. People laughed at me. Now, I am warning in 2013. Still nobody listens“, Shankar said in a low voice.
“But, Sir, what about your famous “lake of returns” theory?” I blurted out in a desperate bid to take control over the discussion. Shankar glared at me as if to admonish me for interrupting him and continued as if I didn’t exist “It always starts out small with an innocuous market. Sub prime started where people said it is just 0.5 percent of the national mortgage market, it is nothing. Now, it is Cyprus happening“. “The implications of a country going bust is horrifying. It will be a global bear market“.
Shankar Sharma then slumped into the sofa seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly, he looked at me with slanted eyes “Do you know 400 MBAs from IIM are unemployed?” he asked. His tone was accusatory as I was somehow responsible for the job prospects of IIM grads. “What does that tell you about the state of our economy?” he continued. “The entire economy is a mess!”
I kept quiet, nodding sagely. It was clear Shankar wasn’t looking for a dialogue.
Shankar reached out for a salted cashew and held it between his thumb and forefinger, contemplating whether to eat it or nor. He finally decided against it and put it back on the plate. Instead, he reached out for the glass of scotch and took a small sip of it. I decided this was a good time to tuck into my share of cashew nuts. I picked up four of them and tossed them into my mouth, enjoying the crunching sound they made as my teeth crushed them.
“This is all Chidu’s fault” Shankar suddenly shouted in a loud voice. That caught me unawares and I almost choked on the cashews as the juice dribbled all over my chin. I made a desperate grab for the paper napkin. Meenakshi looked at me disapprovingly. Luckily, Shankar Sharma did not notice.
“In the Budget, Chidu said he was favouring foreign investors with a stable tax regime” Shankar continued in an aggressive tone “And in the fine print, he says the TRC is not sufficient“. “What sort of an imbecile is he?”
The scotch seemed to be kicking in. Shankar’s voice was a bit slurred but he was only just warming up “Even Pranab made the same mistake, in the witch hunt against Vodafone“.
“Look, Boss” Shankar continued, his voice suddenly very soft and conciliatory “If you have any money left, stuff it under your mattress. It will be safer“. His eyes were heavy and his head rolled to the side. He seemed to have slipped into sub-consciousness. Now, the scotch was really doing its work.
At that moment, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the Dow and S&P had touched an all-time record high of 15,000 and 1,621 respectively and that the Sensex had crossed 20,000.
As Meenakshi and I made our way out of Shankar Sharma’s palatial premises, the thought struck us: Did Shankar Sharma get it all wrong? Again? But then again, the markets don’t like being taken for granted. They have the (nasty) habit of surprising you when you least expect it. We saw that in late 2007 when it looked like nothing could go wrong and again in early 2009 when it looked like nothing could go right. So, it may be too early to write off Shankar Sharma’s doomsday prophecy!