This time in Kolkatahttps://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/this-time-in-kolkata/

This time in Kolkata

Even before Satyam,family businesses have been mined for stories of intrigue

The Inheritors
Neel Chowdhury
Random House,Rs 399

Even before Satyam,family businesses have been mined for stories of intrigue
Now is the perfect time for a business drama/thriller,living as we are in times when economic news — whether of the financial crisis,economic slowdown,or indeed corporate fraud — is at the top of most minds. No longer are the terms shares,debentures,hedge funds,takeovers and the like only the domain of pink papers and those select few who read them. And let’s face it: at least in family-run business in India,there is plenty of drama,intrigue,deception and thrill — all crucial ingredients of a good novel. Neel Chowdhury’s debut novel,The Inheritors,written without excessive literary flourish,but with competent flair,draws on his long experience as a business journalist.

The basic plot is this: Hari Lohia,a Marwari businessman,now in his 70s,runs a large,diversified group of businesses — tea estates,jute,coal,ore,shipping,steel and even a stricken motorcycle manufacturing unit — which he has built over the decades with his own hard work. Lohia Motors,an ill-advised venture into making motorbikes which are way inferior to their locally available Japanese competition,is in trouble courtesy a strike and lockout of the workers led by an ageing Marxist trade unionist Hirenmoy Chakraborty. Lohia and Co,an old economy firm,wasn’t doing well in any case but the failure of Lohia Motors is battering the bottom line and stock prices.

Enter Hari Lohia’s scheming sister,Aruna,who wants to buy out a majority of shares in the firm with the help of her two middle-aged sons,Piyush and Paul. Piyush,a philandering,incompetent and thuggish character is his mother’s favourite and chosen successor,while the sober,bright,Harvard-educated Paul,who left a lucrative and successful career in investment banking abroad to return to the family business,is a reluctant participant in his mother’s scheming plot. Paul,because of unflinching loyalty to his mother and brother,and his superior ability and contacts,reaches out to a friend — hedge fund manager Rajiv Khanna — in Hong Kong to help finance the bid. And tries to win over an impoverished ex-maharajah who by an accident of history holds a crucial amount of shares in Lohia and Co. Piyush uses cruder methods to achieve the same end.

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At the other end,Hari Lohia gets whiff of the plans and moves to stall any takeover — like an old-fashioned Marwari businessman,he uses his contacts in government and considerable arm-twisting and negotiating skills to launch his counter-attack. He is joined by his other sister Anjali and his daughter Shivani,who pledge loyalty to Hari in this battle. Their role in the drama is enacted through the tool of seduction,which helps them get crucial information,leads and perhaps even love in the process.    

All the time,there is a suspicion of a hand beyond the warring Lohia family in engineering the final takeover of Lohia and Co. The obvious suspects are the Mohtas,business rivals of the Lohias for many generations and now running a very successful new economy business straddling media,finance and telecom out of Mumbai,unlike the decidedly old economy Lohia and Co. run out of a decaying Kolkata. There is little doubt that the Mohta business is running more profitably than the struggling Lohia and Co. Unlike Lohia and Co,which is still run by the old patriarch Hari,the Max group (of the Mohtas) is run by the younger,more dynamic nephew of the patriarch.

Hari Lohia,on the other hand,has resisted change and rationalisation of his company and hesitated to elevate his nephew,Paul,who has all the right ideas about how to turn around the Lohia business,to the top job.  

Chowdhury is a competent story-teller and the novel moves at a fast pace through its 360-odd pages. The story moves seamlessly from a declining old business in Calcutta to the cutting edge of modern finance in Hong Kong to the brash new economy of India in Mumbai and to the forgotten maharajahs of Rajasthan,who now live in desperate conditions even as their former Marwari-bania subjects make good elsewhere.

There is plenty of intrigue,considerable,even if sometimes awkwardly written,sex and a telling portrayal of a city (Kolkata) in economic decline. All the main characters are well thought out and fascinating,and the reader will find an affinity,endearing or repulsive,to each one. Particularly interesting is the strength Chowdhury endows the main female protagonists with — whether it is the rebellious and scheming Aruna Lohia,or the widowed Anjali Lohia,still enjoying sexual liaisons at 60,and fighting for her besieged brother or the younger,divorced and promiscuous Shivani Lohia who discovers responsibility as the plot thickens.

The faultlines and battle-lines are drawn early on in the story,and the reader moves quickly towards the final conclusion,when the protagonists have to take their final call. Will money turn out to be thicker than blood,or will blood turn out thicker than money? Or will the differences die out?