“We are large importers in Sultanate of Oman and have an procurement office in Mumbai. We know you export spices to the Middle East. We have substantial orders on hand. If you pay a 10% commission to our Mumbai indenting office, we can place these orders with you.” A welcome call from a unknown prospective customer Harish Gupta on a Thursday morning!
Me: “It is too high a commission”
He: “You can cover the cost in your product rates and we will still get you the order.”
Me: “Who will guarantee payments?”
He: “This is for supplies to the Oman palace. You will be covered with a confirmed L/C (an export document that carries guarantee). If you are interested, please send us a Proforma Invoice for all the products you have, for the trial order.”
I was certainly interested. I sent the Proforma on Thursday evening and got a call from one Mr. Harish Gupta on Friday morning stating that it is their normal practice to visit the supplier’s office before placing the order. Mr. Gupta, visited us the same day. Since, he came in hurry, he said he forgot to get his visiting card.
Friday evening kept me happy as I received an order for US$ 85,000 from a new customer. Gupta called me on Friday evening to say: “Even though your prices are high, we will confirm the order to test your services. Before we establish L/C on Monday, Sethji, our boss, would like you to meet him.”
Saturday morning, I was at their office in a building opposite Jaslok Hospital, Peddar Road, Bombay. The front room was a large, dim and dark hall of almost 20 feet by 30 feet. It had a well-used sofa in one corner and a table and chair for the receptionist, at the other end. Nothing else. Dirty walls and confusing, uncleaned balconies. The moment I entered, the main entrance door was closed and quietly locked. I handed over my business card to the receptionist and asked for a card of the boss. I was told that the cards are with the boss himself. I was told that the name of their boss is Mr. Rajesh Agarwal. Until then, it was a secret.
After about 10 minutes, Mr. Gupta took me to Mr. Agarwal’s room which was a decent executive office. The room also had a relaxing chair for boss to stretch and relax. Mr. Gupta mentioned that Mr. Agarwal is delayed at the Mahalaxmi Race course and would be at the office in a few minutes. He also mentioned that the boss was crazy about horse-race betting. Anyway, delays have to be tolerated when one approaches customers!
While I was waiting, a dhoti cladded decent middle-aged gentleman came in to offer daily prayers with agarbattis (essence sticks) to the deity photo in the office. After his prayers, he introduced himself as Abhishek Pandit, sat next to me, and started gossiping. Within minutes he got pretty friendly and gave me a lot of information about the boss. Boss had a lot of investments in real estate and luxury farm houses and he shuttled between the properties in his own chopper. He was cash rich by hundreds of crores. Most of this he had accumulated from betting in horse races and Mr. Abhishek was the retainer for the boss and helped him win.
He said he was not referring to the horse races which are played in the racecourses but which could be played in any room. He took out 6 symbolic horses in the form of conches and 52 sea-shells. He kept the horses in one line and told me to select any one. He played a few games and challenged me that the way he played the game, the horse that he desired, won, not even 1% chance of failure. He went on to explain how he played this game. Mathematically, I was convinced, that there were no chance of going wrong.
Then came the secret of secrets from Abhishek Pandit, “In fact, boss doesn’t even know how this game is played. He makes a lot of money because of me and I just get a token monthly retainership fee. I don’t know why, I feel you can be trusted. I suggest you play against boss, the Sethji. Of course, I will play on Boss’ behalf, I’ll allow you to win and we can share the amount you win. Even if he loses a Crore, It wouldn’t bother the boss, it is insignificant for him. You contribute Rs.10 lakhs which I guarantee, you will not lose and we can earn about a Crore and share the loot.”
I teased myself. “Look at my good luck, I came to get an export contract and I am being lead to gain Crores effortlessly!”
The moment I entered the office, it all sounded fishy. I could have tried to return, but I smelt it might not be a safe move. The door was closed and any attempt to get out may invite huge risk. They might hold me back as hostage for ransom. If they were convinced that I knew it was a trap, they might want to get rid of me forever instead of allowing me to leave and complain to the intelligence authorities. Yet, I felt this could be my negative way of thinking and they could as well be genuine businessmen. But one thing was sure, I had to be careful.
I realised the safest thing for me was to stay calm and try to be deceptively genuine in my moves. I told Abhishek, “Look, we are strangers to each other. I cannot take full risk. Though I have no problem in putting in full stake, it is fair that if you share profits, you should also share investment. You bring in 5 and I’ll put in 5. I assure you I will never disclose this deal to the boss.” He hesitatingly agreed.
Abhishek explained, “I have never done this type of cheating with my boss earlier. To get his confidence, we should initially lose a couple of games with small stakes. Once he wins a couple of times, he will go for bigger stakes and then we can have our kill.”
Just then, the boss arrived, holding a mini suitcase like briefcase. My friend Abhishek whispered to me, “we will speak about this later” and walked out. In fact he said he was waiting for Sethji and when the Sethji arrived, he walked out!
Mr. Gupta, the guy who visited our place came in and introduced me to the Boss. While making himself comfortable to sit, boss told me “I am not feeling well. I have that damn BP problem. I have already called the doctor and he should be reaching any moment. Give me 5 minutes till the doctor is done.”
The boss pressed the call bell and asked the guy “call Vermaji” (guess, their accountant). Just then, the doctor entered, Boss lied down on the relaxing chair and started checking his blood pressure. Just then the accountant came in. Boss says, “the bag has 12 ‘peti’ (12 lacs). Keep it in the safe.” Verma asks what he should do with the 30 ‘peti’ he has received from the other guy. Sethji told him to keep that amount also in the safe and that a payment of 1 ‘khoka’ (1 crore) had to be made on Monday towards some real estate he had purchased.
At this stage, Verma picked up the briefcase and put it on the table very close to me. He opened it in such a way that I could see the currency and then took it away.
I wondered, “Would I expose cash in the presence of strangers?” No. I got the answer for my doubts. A reel of observations flowed. No visiting card so far, deserted office, intentional showing of cash, sequence of entry and exits of people and above all, this bait of 100% win to a stranger by cheating one’s own Boss. I was now convinced, that it was a trap. Export business was just an excuse to get me in to that place.
If I try to walk out or protest, they would not allow me to go out and would most likely harm me. I had to be extremely careful in my moves. Now, surely, my primary aim had to be to get out of that place convincingly.
Since the Boss was not well, he had to leave. He ordered tea for me and requested that I have the tea. By then, Abhishek, the retainer for playing games, entered. He said, “We are lucky, inspite of his not keeping well, Boss has agreed to play the horse race game. Before boss changes his mind, we should play with him, preferably today itself.”
My strategy was to get out of the place convincingly. I replied, “why not, let us play today itself. Such opportunities are rare. I wish I had known this earlier, I could have brought cash with me.” He proposed that let us make a start with whatever money I had with me at that time. I said it is my nature that I don’t I carry money with me except where necessary.
He said, “I can send someone to your place to get the money for you while you can relax here.”
I told him that I don’t keep 5 lakhs at home. I would have to withdraw from the bank. In the meanwhile, I proposed to him to contribute on my behalf and deduct it from my share of the win.
He said in a filmy style “I am a man of principles. In betting partnerships, it does not work that way. Everyone has to put in his stake. It’s okay, if you don’t have 5 lakhs, we can start with 2 lakhs each.”
I said, “I don’t have even 2 lakhs at home. I have no problems getting even 5 lakhs, but I have to withdraw from the bank. Unfortunately, today is Saturday, the Banks are already closed. Why don’t you fix Monday morning for a game.”
He: “okay, 11 in the morning?”
Me: “No. No. Why not earlier, at 10? Banks in suburbs open at 8.30 and I can reach here by 10. I am quite excited. I don’t want to delay any more than necessary.”
He: “Fine. We will play a major game on Monday. But why not start today evening with one lakh?”
Me: “That is possible. I may not have one lakh ready, but I can accumulate from my wife and friends. It is a good idea to play today; else I may not be able to control my excitement during the weekend. I will revert by 5 in the evening and you get this confirmed with your boss.”
He spoke to the boss in my presence over phone and meeting at 5pm was fixed.
As I was leaving, I asked him to check with Guptaji, when I was to expect the L/C, so that I could start working on the order. He said, “Don’t worry, Guptaji already told me. We will get that formality done next week. For you, earning from that order is negligible compared to what we are planning together.”
On my way out of the premises, I was nervous about what might happen till I reach home. For the time being, it looked like I had a temporary lease of life. They looked really dangerous. Every well-built person passing by was looking like a spy following me!
I was pale when I reached home. I narrated the entire episode to my wife. She was worried too. Right at 5 pm, I got a call from Abhishek that they were waiting for me. I said, unfortunately, I could not accumulate 1 lakh. He asked if I had at least accumulated 50,000. I hadn’t. But I promised we could certainly meet on Monday with full 5 lakhs as my stake.
My biggest worry was that they had already marked my home. On Monday, I got the dreaded call. I said, “Look, I was feeling humiliated and that’s why I told you that I have adequate funds. In fact, I am starving for funds. I do not have any balance in the bank to withdraw cash. I was expecting the bank to sanction me a temporary loan on Monday. But they did not oblige.”
I answered their calls for next 5-6 days, each time giving them similar story – that the bank would probably approve the loan the next day. I even told them that, it would be easier for me to get a loan if I had the L/C for their order!
After a week, I told them that my loan application was rejected and hence have no funds. I did not go there. Right or wrong, I did not lodge an official complaint about them.
I have been waiting for almost 3 decades and the L/C for that order is yet to come!
I did mention this incident to people I knew, so that they wouldn’t fall prey to such calls. When I narrated this incident to one of my close friends at Napean Sea Road. He said “You are saved. Once they mark you and your place, be careful. One of my other friends had the same experience with similar guys, but at a different location, a month ago. They snatched his money. My friend complained to the relevant authorities. He was asked to lodge an official complaint the next day and was kidnapped the same night. I have not heard from him since.”
I decided, I would be more careful before I do business with strangers and extra careful, if I had to visit them.