The former Indian business tycoon, Vijay Mallya, after protracted legal proceedings in the United Kingdom, has now been officially declared bankrupt, paving the way for a consortium of Indian banks to pursue a worldwide freezing order to seek repayment of debt owed by the now defunct Kingfisher Airlines. News reports.
A good friend of mine who lives in London and is well-versed with the Indian business and corporate scene had this piquant tale to relate. Now that the Covid restrictions have been all but lifted in the UK, this friend, let’s just call him Dilip, was wandering around Piccadilly Circus and the adjoining Soho area. Taking the air, as it were, and enjoying the new-found, post-pandemic freedom. There were the usual crowds milling around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, more popularly known as the Eros statue, furiously clicking photographs and taking selfies. The British football fans had planned to celebrate raucously at this very spot in their thousands (as they did in 1966), anticipating an England victory at the recently concluded Euro Cup against Italy, but their hopes were cruelly dashed as the Azzurri lifted the Cup on penalties, and the predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth all over England followed. To revert to my story, Dilip, accompanied by his English wife Sarah and their ten-year old son Danny, were looking for a nice place to enjoy a quiet meal, something they had not done for the best part of two years.
All of a sudden Dilip spotted this pony-tailed, bearded, burly figure standing in front of the famous Lillywhites sports goods store, a cigar butt dangling from his lips, his hat lying upturned next to his feet on the pavement. A few coins could be seen inside and outside the hat, but barely enough to rub together, and certainly not enough to buy a cheeseburger without extra toppings from the Burger King across the street. His tie, sporting the logo of a bird, possibly a kingfisher, was hanging loose from his unbuttoned shirt collar. His torn blazer was badly patched up at both the elbows. The man appeared to be pre-occupied with something weighty on his mind. Other than mechanically repeating the words, ‘Top of the morning to you Sir, can you spare a quid to see me through lunchtime?’ his mind was clearly on other things. His heart did not seem to be quite in it. Every now and then he would break into a vaguely familiar tune with some unintelligible syllables that sounded like Oolalallalla layo.
I will let Dilip take up the story.
That’s when, like a bolt from the blue, it struck me. Right between the eyes. I could have sworn this was none other than Vijay Malady, one of India’s most flamboyant businessmen, who has been taking shelter in the UK for the last few years, staying far away from the banks and his employees to whom he allegedly owes untold sums of money. I was pretty certain that’s who this scruffy, straggly-bearded street corner busker was, but I needed to be sure. I decided to approach him gingerly. My wife Sarah upbraided me and told me to mind my own business and that she and Danny were famished. I told both of them to proceed to the nearby Angus Steakhouse, the famous steak joint, a repast I was dearly looking forward to. ‘Both of you make tracks to Angus. I’ll join you in a jiffy. You can order a Waldorf salad and a filet mignon, medium rare, for me.’ Having sent them on their way, I proceeded to buttonhole the man they called ‘The King of Good Times’ in India. I was still not absolutely certain this was the man I thought it was.
‘Er, excuse me,’ I started hesitantly. ‘Are you not Vijay Malady, the Indian tycoon who has been in the business pages of our dailies here in London in the recent past? Is it true what they say, that you are skint?’
‘Perhaps in London, I just made the business pages and not more than half a column at that. Back home in India, I am front page news and headlining the TV news channels as well. They simply can’t get enough of me. Only the Prime Minister garners more eyeballs.’ He then took a listless drag on his half-smoked cigar. ‘Have you got a light?’ he asked. He had run out of matches, and his Ronson lighter had run out of fuel. He was skint.
‘I am sorry, but I don’t smoke,’ I added ruefully.
He did not seem to absorb what I said and instead, carried on feverishly, puffing away at his extinguished cigar butt. ‘I meant what I said about the Indian media being obsessed with me. Don’t get taken in by all this porn stuff this Johnny-come-lately Raj Kundra is peddling. He is just a glory hunter and will do anything to get the media’s attention. I heard he is planning a short film titled ‘Porn Free,’ involving lions and lionesses frolicking in their natural habitat, but it could just be a wild rumour. The Joy Adamson estate might have had something to say about it.’
‘Gosh, so you are Vijay Malady. The playboy of the Indian corporate world. Richard Branson’s mirror image. You were a great admirer of Branson, were you not? You pretty much built yourself in his image. Have you met him recently in London?’ I was getting quite involved by now.
Malady seemed put out by my line of questioning. ‘Look, I did look up to Branson many years ago. You might say I even followed in his footsteps. You know, the airlines, the fashion models, the catwalks, the race horses, the glamour. Yes, I kind of hero worshipped him. Who knows where he is now! Probably hurtling in space with Bezos.’ He sounded wistful, like he should have been among those hurtling. He was, of course, but his journey seemed to be hurtling down to the centre of the earth.
I was fascinated and felt rather sorry. ‘But Mr. Malady, how has it all come down to this? You busking outside Lillywhites, singing Oolalallalla layo just to be able to buy yourself a hamburger. Such a precipitous fall. Explain that to me.’
He chuckled cynically. ‘I don’t know any tune other than the Kingfisher jingle, so I keep on yodelling that. I am a bit tone deaf. There was a time, you know, if I asked someone to jump, which was often, he would ask “how high?”, and here you are, a jumped-up migrant Indian in London asking me to explain myself. Some cheek. My friend, it is the British courts. They have declared me bankrupt and overnight things have come to a pretty pass. Only last week I was dining at The Ritz, just round the corner from here, with Lewis Hamilton. Now he doesn’t even want to know me.’
I was blown. ‘Wow, that’s impressive. Not your going broke, but you fine dining with Lewis Hamilton. At The Ritz, no less. Hai, hai as we say back home. So what happens now? Where do you go from here?’
‘Chokey? But not in India, if I can help it. Tell you what, if you can spare me a couple of quid, a temporary bridging loan, I’ll grab myself a bite at Burger King and then go down to the Piccadilly Underground to get a quick forty winks. Haven’t slept properly for days. Much obliged.’ He seemed to be in dire straits.
My heart bled. ‘Tell you what, Mr. Malady. Here’s ten pounds. I can’t bear to see you like this. You get yourself a hearty pub lunch. You know, shepherd’s pie and mashed potatoes with a tankard of beer to wash it down. You do that. Meanwhile, let me see if I can arrange some cheap digs for you somewhere in the suburbs. A bedsitter. I’ll take care of the expenses till you sort things out.’
Malady’s eyes misted over. ‘You are truly generous my friend, whatever your name is. Not a skinflint, like all these other passers-by. Thanks for everything. I am touched, and so are you to the tune of ten pounds. If you can come round at 5 pm and wake me up, on the passage way to platform 3 on the Underground, just below the Phantom of the Opera poster, that will suit me down to the ground. I must have my afternoon nap, what with the beer and everything. I hope they serve Kingfisher.’
I felt so happy for the rich little poor man. As I was taking leave of him, he grabbed me by my coat tails and hissed, ‘Pssst, don’t look now, but there’s a small, baldish guy waving at me, big scrounger. No doubt he is trying to get into my ribs for a quid. He seems to be pushing somebody in a wheelchair. Good God! Surely not. Let’s make a run for it.’
‘But who are these chaps you are running away from?’ I was non-plussed.
Vijay Malady dragged me away from the spot and stage-whispered, ‘Don’t you know anything? That small chap is the diamantaire now pauper, Nirav Modi, and the guy he is pushing in the wheelchair is his uncle, Mehul Choksi. Once fat cats, now fugitives down on their luck.’ Like someone else who was doing all the talking! I was sure the former was in jail in Britain and the latter was hiding somewhere in the Caribbean, but I let it go. Obviously, Malady’s fevered brain was seeing things. At which point, the once, big-time liquor baron detached himself from my arm and ran hell for leather. I never saw him again.
Alas, poor Malady!