Kanish was engaged in a rather agitated conversation. I have no idea what was being said, partly because it was six in the fucking morning, but mostly because he was speaking in Hindi gibberish. And although I couldn’t make out a word, the inflection reminded me of the tone my son sometimes takes with me. Either Kanish was ignoring good fatherly advice, or Paneer was just being his usual domineering self. Perhaps a little of both.
I rubbed the crud from my eyes as I poured myself some coffee and then sparked up the remaining nub of last night’s Fatty. To wake and bake is not usual for me, but I had no responsibilities today, and calls from Billionaires tend to unnerve me. Kanish declined my attempts to pass the Fatty, and then screamed into his phone one last time before ending the call abruptly.
“And how’s Paneer today?” I asked.
“As per usual,” Kanish replied.
Annapurna handed us each a piece of bacon and then turned her attention to the omelettes. Sevaka was loading up the Bentley with bags, and the Dishwashing Sikh was meditating on the side deck.
“I take it you’re done with the mountains?”
“I’m finding myself restless,” Kanish said curtly.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
“Everything is fine.”
Everything was not fine. Kanish, who was normally as bright as the sun, was dour and intent. As he packed his duffle in the middle of the floor he voiced a request.
“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to head back to Redondo.”
“Sure, Kanish. Whatever you like,” I replied.
As we made our way down the mountain, I tried every fatherly trick I knew to open Kanish up, but to no avail. He was deep in thought, and my prodding was ineffective. Not that I kept at it long. The frigid mountain air and the morning Fatty conspired to knock me out, if only briefly. When I returned to consciousness, Kanish was once again on the phone.
“Yes, yes, yes. I will be there in three hours,” Kanish concluded.
“There’s no fucking way you’ll be in Redondo in three hours,” I said.
“Ah, you’re awake!” Kanish replied
He seemed in much better spirits now.
“Kanish, what the fuck is going on, dude? You’re all over the map here with your mood.”
“My apologies. All is better now. There has been a slight change in plans, however.”
“I must run an errand.”
We were in the middle of the Sierras and on our way back to Redondo. What kind of “errand” could he run? And why were we heading back the same way we’d come, through Yosemite National Park? This was about as roundabout a way back to Redondo as I could imagine. Kanish must have sensed my confusion, because he addressed it straightaway.
“We are headed to your Silicon Valley. I have a business there and I must pick something up.”
Just as he said it, we passed a family of bears foraging for berries on the side of the road. Kanish got so excited he pulled over. Or at least he started to until I reminded him that we were in a convertible with the top down, and much like 500-pound Bengal Tigers, bears are dangerous. With that crisis averted, I addressed the business at hand.
“You have a business in California?”
“I own a Corporation, yes.”
“So, that’s why you can stay in this country so easily!”
You see, when you own a business in the US, you can live in the US. There are no lotteries. There’s no asylum. There are no visas. There are no workers’ programs. You are the workers’ program, because you’re ostensibly bringing jobs here. And when you bring jobs to America, you get to live in America.
How does that motto go again? Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free—but only in limited supply. In the meantime, send us all of your wealthy, thank you very much. Of course, that’s part of the reason why people are getting priced out of Los Angeles. Every wealthy person on earth wants to own a place there, and so it distorts the property values, which affects the price of everything.
“This is your business in name only?” I asked.
“I do not understand name only.”
“Meaning you don’t run it.”
“Goodness, no. My father vehdy much wants me to, but as you know, I’m going into music now.”
“What kind of a business is it?”
“Let us call it a jobs program.”
Well, that sounded nice.
We made our way through San Jose and into the Silicon Valley. Siri directed Kanish through a veritable sea of industrial parks with sprawling bright-green, perfectly manicured lawns in front of enormous Industrial buildings. It was precisely what I’d expected the Silicon Valley to look like.
Then, as if someone had flicked a switch, the scenery changed from sprawling to barren. From alive to dead. From beautiful to eerie. We now found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of an industrial ghost town, the likes of which I’d never seen. The grass was brown, the buildings shuttered and abandoned. And aside from the occasional burnt-out car, the expansive parking lots were empty. What the fuck?
We drove several miles through the unsettling dead zone before Siri announced, seemingly out of nowhere, that we had arrived. Arrived where exactly?
On the left, in the distance, was a massive warehouse. It was lined with loading docks designed for the back ends of tractor trailers to cozy up to. But there were no trucks to be found, and all of the metal roll-up doors were shut. Kanish made the trek across an expansive silver, faded parking lot, littered with divots and painted with the undersized parking spaces from another era. Only a lot designed in the ’80s would be drawn like this.
Of course, small parking spaces were a direct result of the late-’70s oil crisis. I’ll never forget those interminable lines for gas. I was just a young lad at the time, but old enough to remember sitting in the oppressively hot backseat of my mother’s car as I sucked on fumes for hours. At the time, we were all told to get used to it. Oil was a finite commodity, and we were on our final drips of the stuff. This would be the new normal, we were told. As a result, the Japanese started pumping out smaller cars, which we bought up to replace our large American gas guzzlers. With smaller cars so popular, developers could install more spaces. I guess we found more oil, because fifteen years later SUVs became the new breed of gas guzzlers, and developers were forced to redraw the lines of their parking lots to accommodate the beasts.
Undersized spaces or not, parking wasn’t going to be an issue in this lot. There wasn’t a car in sight.
Kanish was attempting to read from scribbles on the back of the rental paperwork. They were written in Hindi, and I wasn’t going to be of much help with that. He drove directly to the left corner of the warehouse, made the right turn along the significantly narrower side wall of the building, and then turned right once again to the back of the structure, where we saw our first signs of life. Cars. Five of them, all American.
The rear of the building was butted up against a greenbelt of high-powered electrical lines. The five cars were parked neatly against the warehouse adjacent to a set of opaquely tinted Industrial doors. On each side of the doors were two potted trees, and just past that was a makeshift patio with an assortment of planters, none of which matched, not in size nor color, most of them overflowing with cigarette butts. The whole place was absolutely littered with butts.
To the right of the double doors was a handicapped parking space with a sign.
Kanish took his reserved spot, jumped out of the car, and looked at me expectantly. I accepted his invitation and followed him to the door, which buzzed as he pushed on it.
We were greeted immediately by a follically challenged Indian man in his late fifties, impeccably dressed in a double-breasted pin-striped suit. His name tag displayed his title: foreman. Frankly, he looked more like hotel security. Whatever. As if in a trance, I walked right by him.
I can assure you, were I to have taken a month to write down a list of everything that might be held in a warehouse large enough to house two jumbo jets, the scene I’d witnessed wouldn’t have made the list. It wouldn’t have made anyone’s list, for that matter. The gargantuan room was filled for as far as the eye could see with row after row of tightly connected desks. Upon each desk was a laptop computer. In front of each laptop an Indian—every one of them young and male.
There had to be a thousand young Indian men in that room. How the fuck did they get there in five cars?
I found myself wandering past corn rows of Indian workers, all of whom were typing furiously. The ticker-tack of plastic computer keys was nothing short of deafening. The uniformity of the room disconcerting. Occasionally an Indian worker would look up briefly, deadpan, without ever missing a keystroke. One Indian man smiled at me, and I took that as an invitation to look at his screen.
It was code. Computer code.
I was now half a football field from Kanish, who was shaking hands with the Foreman. Without warning, an industrial whistle blew, and the roller doors surrounding the structure began to raise. Between the whistle and the doors, it sounded as though a train were coming through. The Coders unceremoniously stopped their typing, got up from their chairs, and made their way to the exits, as did we.
There were throngs of Indians spilling off the back patio. They were speaking in Hindi as they smoked their cigarettes, many of them watching us in fascination as they chattered, others stealing momentary glances. Still others paid us no attention whatsoever.
“How the hell did all those Indian Coders get here?” I asked as I got into the passenger side of the Stingray.
“They came from India, of course.”
“No shit, Kanish! There’s five fucking cars for what has to be a thousand people.”
“We bus them, of course.”
“All will be understood soon. We have one more stop to make, and then we will be on our way.”
The Foreman started up a blue Ford Fiesta and called out to Kanish in Hindi. We followed him in the Stingray, first across the vast parking lot, and then even deeper into this bizarre industrial wasteland somewhere in the middle of the Silicon Valley.
“You want to explain to me what the fuck that was? That room?” I snapped.
“Yes, my apologies. My father is vehdy distressed with the expenditures thus far, and he wanted to know what I was spending money on, and of course, I had to tell him that we were traveling. He is vehdy angry at you right now, let me tell you.”
“That’s wonderful news,” I replied sarcastically.
“He is certain that we are lollygagging.”
“It means to fuck around.”
“I know what it means! I’m surprised you do.”
“You discount my British education.”
After what turned out to be a rather short jaunt around a sizable block, we drove up a private road leading to an abandoned school. The entrance of the school was tagged in big spray-paint letters: hooverville. Kanish pointed to the tag and spoke sternly in Hindi to the Foreman, who instantly became apologetic. He even started bowing and shit.
The moment we entered the building, I was hit by the unmistakable stink of curry. Don’t get me wrong. I love curry. But it still stinks. The Foreman pulled out a rather robust set of janitor’s keys and opened the administrative offices. Kanish followed him. I made my way down the main hall.
I took a peek through the narrow panel of chicken-wire safety glass of the first classroom. It was filled with fifteen army-style cots, each with a duffle bag placed on top. The next classroom looked the same. And the next. My walk turned to a trot as I glanced into the rooms one after another, every former classroom a makeshift dorm.
The stench of curry was surely coming from the cafeteria, but I needed only to follow the cacophony of pans and the nonsensical chatter of female Hindi voices in order to find it. The large dining room was bustling with middle-aged Indian women in saris preparing food. A corpulent woman wearing oven mitts struggled mightily with an overfilled serving tray.
In retrospect, I probably should have been a bit more stealth, because the moment the woman saw me she dropped her tray with a spectacular splatter and began squealing a distress signal in full Hindi wail. This set off even more chatter and excitement. One of the women picked up a pan, another a serving spoon, and yet another a ladle. The three of them began to approach in a rather threatening manner. Fearing for my life, I hightailed it down the hall the same way I’d come, and nearly bit it on the final turn as I tripped awkwardly over a hard-shelled briefcase on the floor. Thankfully, Kanish caught me.
“It is time for us to go,” Kanish said as he picked up the briefcase.
It was indeed. The sound of Sari-clad women armed with kitchen utensils was rising in intensity. Both Kanish and the Foreman looked at me in marked confusion.
“I think I startled the girls,” I confessed.
The Foreman left us to take care of the angry mob of Hindu hens. We made our way out of the school.
The Bentley had finally caught up with us and was parked next to the Stingray. Sevaka, Annapurna, and the Dishwashing Sikh were there waiting patiently, as was their way. Kanish laid the briefcase in the boot of the Bentley and opened it to reveal many neat stacks of $100 bills, each wrapped with a purple $5,000 band.
“Nice, huh?” Kanish said. “A hundred k.”
“I don’t think you want to keep that money anywhere near the Medicine, mate.”
Kanish stared at me momentarily, closed up the case, and, without saying a word, moved it over to the Stingray trunk.
“What the fuck kind of business are you running, exactly?” I asked
“It’s cheaper to bring Indians over here to code than to pay your American workers. It’s a jobs program. The men work for a few months and then return home, and the cycle repeats.”
“An Indian jobs program, you mean.”
“But they’re obviously coding remotely. Why not just let them work from India?”
“Because the companies with whom we contract require some face time with their team.”
“This is how Paneer made his billions?”
“Goodness, no. This is just one business out of many, many businesses. And yes, it was started by my father, but I am currently the majority shareholder, and listed as CEO. Admittedly, I’m nothing but a figurehead. But that does not mean I can’t raid the petty cash!”
“That can’t possibly be legal,” I admonished.
“What can’t possibly be legal?”
“None of it. Taking petty cash for personal use certainly isn’t legal, and a warehouse storing that many people can’t be legal.”
“I am fully aware that I must return the petty cash—this will not be a problem. As to the warehouse, clearly, you have never been in a factory, and surely you’ve never been to one in India. And we aren’t ‘storing people,’ as you say. It’s a safe place to work and we have the full blessing and investigation of the local officials. There is proper ventilation and many exits, which are always unlocked. There are regular, mandatory breaks throughout the day. I can tell you, those Indian men would be fortunate to make two hundred rupees a day were it not for this kind of opportunity. That is the equivalent of three to four US dollars. This is what you wish for them? Poverty?”
It was true. I have never been in a factory, let alone to one in India. I suppose I couldn’t get over the shock of it.
“And the school?”
“We bought the school when the city agreed to rezone it as a hotel. It’s perfectly legitimate. It has electricity and plumbing. We installed the required number of bathrooms with many showers. We get inspections. The whole nine meters.”
A seemingly endless procession of yellow school buses passed us on our way out, each bus filled to the brim with hungry Indian workers, all of whom waved excitedly at us as they chanted. Kanish. Kanish. Kanish. Kanish.
“So, then what’s the $100K for?” I asked.
“Well, let me just say that sometimes Paneer gets quite angry, and he just cuts me off.”
“He just cuts you off? Like one day you have billions, and the next you’ve got nothing?”
Kanish laughed as he fishtailed around another turn.
“I never have access to billions. Is that what you think?”
“What the hell do I know!”
“The hundred thousand allows us some freedom to operate without my father following the money trail. He will continue to pay for the Crown Royale Hotel and the staff. As for me, I must survive on my own for the moment.”
The sun was fully set by the time we reached Monterey. We rented another palatial Airbnb near Cannery Row—a place made famous by John Steinbeck in his book titled same. Kanish paid for the place in cash, of course.
“I vehdy much feel that it is my turn today to provide the lesson,” Kanish said as he sparked up the Fatty.
“That would be good, because I have no idea what today’s lesson should be.”
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“It is not wise to live in water and be an enemy of the crocodile.”
“That’s your lesson for me?”
“That is your lesson for me,” replied Kanish.
As weird as that might seem, it was actually quite clever. Kanish could surely tell that I had been affected by the scene—by the Code Shack, as he called it. To him, it might have been perfectly acceptable. To me, it looked more like a sweatshop so that greedy Corporations didn’t have to pay $70 an hour to American Coders.
“Now,” Kanish continued. “Would you like to know my lesson for you?”
“So we’re exchanging lessons now, and you’re delivering them both? Sure, what’s your lesson for me?”
“Learn the skills of accepting and forgiving and move on.”
“You don’t think that I accept you?”
“I believe you found the Code Shack unsettling because it’s not what you’re used to here. But my culture is different from yours.”
I took a toke of the Fatty and pondered this for a moment.
“Okay, Kanish. Here’s my lesson for you then. A leopard never changes his spots.”
“What’s this? What are you saying?”
I stood up and put my hand on Kanish’s shoulder.
“I’m saying I absolve you of your sins, my friend.”
I couldn’t be disappointed in Kanish for being the product of his environment. As distressing as I found the mega–boiler room and the makeshift dormitory—as disillusioned as I was—from the relative standpoint of being Indian, there was nothing wrong with it. As Westernized as young Kanish is, the cultural divide between us is vast.
That said, at the end of the day, it isn’t my job to fix the broader global economic issues of our time. The young Billionaire’s Heir is in a far better position for that than I. My job is to teach young Kanish to Produce.
Work on that front begins tomorrow.