The Hindu Business Line
A colourful history of the market
This semi-fictional spin spills a can of beans about Dalal Street, from the days of ring trading to the present
If you love the stock market and its intrigues, you’ve probably been surviving on a staple diet of US-centric stock market writings. True, the fare is quite varied — from real-life accounts of Wall Street happenings from Michael Lewis (Flash Boys), Anita Raghavan (The Billionaire’s Apprentice) and Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) to fictional characters cooked up by mainstream authors such as Jeffrey Archer.
But then, Dalal Street is a very different animal from Wall Street. Over a hundred years old, it is home to many eccentric characters, multi-crore scams and celebrity investors with a uniquely desi character.
Yet there has been little attempt so far to recapture its colourful history.
Santosh Nair, who, as a career journalist, has had a ring-side view of the Indian market over three happening decades, does a creditable job of filling this void through his book Bulls, Bears and Other Beasts – A Story of the Indian Stock Market.
Stock market newbies who are today accustomed to the luxuries of online trading, electronic order matching and live ticker tapes, may find the first few chapters of the book fascinating. They show how much of a Wild West the market was, before the National Stock Exchange swept onto the scene. An initial chapter details how, in the days of ring trading, big brokers would send their assistants to the ring where large lots of shares would change hands based on prices negotiated hand signals.
These trades would be pencilled down in sauda pads, colour-coded pink or blue to show the ‘status’ of the broker. The closing stock quotes for the day would be compiled by the exchange through the unscientific method of skimming through the sauda pads, with the final bhav copy produced from these jottings.
With the exchange controlled by a clique of influential brokers, disputes and payment defaults were as commonplace as trading on insider tips. A phone call to a governing board member could easily annul a misjudged trade!
through Instead of recounting market history in staid textbook fashion, Nair takes the reader through three decades of market lore through his fictional hero Lalchand Gupta, the son of a humble plant technician. Not keen on any school subject except mathematics, Lalchand (Lala to friends) gets into the company of local ‘mawaalis’ in Mumbai, only to turn over a new leaf to please his bhauji (dad).
A chance entry into the back office of a broking firm on Dalal Street draws Lala into the fascinating world of stocks. He learns the ropes of the trade as a jobber (a trader who makes quick profits from the bid-ask spreads for stocks) and rapidly hones his money-making skills, amid various scams that rock the market at an alarming frequency.
Though the book masquerades as fiction, the author takes hardly any literary liberties with facts or events as they happened. If you are keen to learn about the history of the Indian stock market, this book is an honest and extremely detailed recounting of the evolution of the market over the last three decades.
Devil in the details
If you’re an active investor, you will find many useful takeaways from this book’s meticulous detailing of the modus operandi of the scams that have roiled Indian markets. The book delves deep into every big event of note — from the Harshad Mehta scam of the early nineties, to Ketan Parikh’s rigging operations in 1999-2000, to the IPO rigging scandal of 2010, and NSEL’s commodities trading fraud in 2012.
So you learn how, in the eighties, Harshad Mehta exploited the loopholes in interbank transactions by using bank receipts (BRs) to fund his ultrarisky market operations. You also read about how Ketan Parekh used cleverly spun stories about the Y2K bug, to bid up tech stock prices to stratospheric levels in cahoots with promoters.
The blind investor faith that led to the undoing of the Reliance Power IPO merits a chapter too. All these episodes act as a cautionary tale for equity investors. To drive the point home, the author has GB, Lala’s mentor, spouting pithy one-liners.
Even if you don’t personally dabble in stocks, you will find the first-person sketches of these mega scamsters an interesting read. For instance, Harshad Mehta’s house of cards came tumbling down when his flashy lifestyle — a fleet of imported cars and a 15,000-sq ft flat at Worli — attracted undue attention.
There are interesting insights along the way on murky market shenanigans that don’t get much discussed in public too — be it the use of FII sub accounts to roundtrip black money, or the cosy deals between promoters and fund managers to ‘pump and dump’ dud stocks.
Though the tale is told in a racy fashion with both anecdotes and dashes of humour, the one complaint I had with it was that the book takes its main job of chronicling stock market history rather too seriously.
So much so that, after introducing the ultra market-savvy but idealistic Lala to the reader in the initial chapters, the book pays only cursory attention to him thereafter.
So we know that Lala, somewhere along the way, has made enough winning trades to be ‘almost as rich as SRK’. We learn that his market acumen has earned him the respect of old war-horses such as GB. We are also told, rather fleetingly, of a wife and an ailing father, whose care Lala funds with his stock market riches.
But apart from this, there’s not much of an attempt to build a strong storyline or plot around Lalchand Gupta’s exploits or emotions. He remains an enigma to the reader until the end.
As I turned the last page of the book, I was certainly satisfied that I had learnt a great deal that I didn’t know about the Indian stock market and its chequered history. But I was also eaten up by curiosity about how much wealth Lala actually amassed, whom he married, how he spent his riches and whether he lived happily ever after, after hanging up his boots. So if the stock market bores you to tears and you are looking for a racy piece of fiction, this book isn’t for you.