Life After Debt


Life After Debt

Illustration: Namaah / Arré

On a door in a nondescript building in Mumbai’s Wadala east, the number 102 stands out in crimson. There’s little indication that a couple of lakhs of hard cash, jewellery, and valuables are stored on the other side of this door. There are no images of gods plastered on it, no swastikas, or Oms in red paint guarding it. The money needs no protection. The people from whom it is taken just might.

In the confines of this 600-square-foot room, Nadeem bhai runs a collection agency. He makes a living from the debt dodgers of a greedy city. I knock on the door and a few seconds later, a dark, puny man opens it and asks, “Kya kaam hai?” His breath is reeking of paan. The sour smell hits me even though I’m a good two feet away and about a foot taller. I tell him I’m here to see Nadeem; he nods and beckons me.

The door slams shut. The living room resembles the set of Satya. Four men play carrom in one corner, while an intense game of rummy plays out in another with three men staring intently at their cards. The latest Bollywood brain-melter is belted out of a cheap pair of speakers hooked up to a cellphone.

All seven begin sizing me up instantly, their gaze decidedly stone-cold. I can handle myself in a fight, but frankly, I wouldn’t want to throw down with any of these behemoths. Not wanting to seem like a wuss, I engage in a stare-down with one of them. They are all built like gorillas, each of their fingers stubby and thick. They fit the description of henchmen, hired muscle waiting to take on a far superior mind but a weaker body. The short man returns, the stare-down ends, and he tells me Nadeem will see me in the other room.

As I linger outside, a voice from inside screams, “Aa na bhai, tak tak mat kar.” I open the door. Now I’ve walked into the set of Shaan. An air-conditioner, a plasma TV, a mini fridge and swank leather sofas surround a bald Nadeem, who sits on a swivel chair behind a wooden desk. I half-expect to see hungry sharks swimming behind him, but Nadeem has toned down the villainy. He was the stuff of legend when we were kids. His nephew was a friend and he would have us hooked with tall tales of how Nadeem was involved in several fights during the Bombay riots, and how cops were scared of him. No wonder then that Nadeem chose to start his own collection agency.

He offers me a Coke and asks for a cup of chai as I sit in front of him. He asks why I’m growing my beard, “Apne jaat ka ban ne ka hai kya?” He immediately fishes out a folding knife from a drawer and says he can circumcise me right now, knowing that he probably can if he wants to; I laugh it off. Wasting no time, I ask if I can go along on a collection run. “Just for the kicks,” I say.

He laughs and says, “You most definitely cannot.” It can get pretty hairy and Nadeem doesn’t want to risk me getting hurt.

“I can handle myself,” I add, as I try to put on my tough face. He takes another look at me and figures out that I’m no longer the kid who played with his nephew. He agrees and calls Shorty back in. He instructs him to tell the men outside that I will be heading out this afternoon with one of them. They all agree. I’m all geared up for my virgin run.

Statistics about debt collection in Mumbai, let alone India, are sketchy at best. Ask Nadeem, and he pegs this unorganised sector as generating revenues of ₹10 crore per year. The industry has taken a hit post 2008 after the Reserve Bank of India issued guidelines dictating methods to be used for debt collection. Since most financial organisations have tightened lending regulations, employed high-tech skip-tracing methods, and trained their in-house debt collection teams, people like Nadeem are pushed to the sidelines.

However, banks sometimes turn to Nadeem when the shit hits the fan and a debt is just too big to be written off. How big is too big? Nadeem tells me the largest take on record was in excess of ₹5 crore, which he recovered from an affluent businessman. Nadeem personally “negotiated” this deal, which involved recovering a Rolls-Royce as collateral. He walked away with a neat dus takka (10%).

I head out with Jamal and Yadav, the two who were earlier lost in the rummy game. Jamal is five-foot-something and appears unruly. He moonlights as a bouncer and hangs out with a local MNS corporator during downtime. He has a wife and a kid and these jobs are the only means to make a living, he tells me.

Yadav, is a former BSF hawaldar, who now works with Nadeem. We’re headed to nearby Sion to recover a debt owed to a government-approved (private) moneylender. The debtor owes ₹6 lakh, and Jamal and Yadav have received instructions to collect the money or any collateral they can. The man we’re visiting has repeatedly dodged other recovery agents and has turned down polite requests to pay up.

Jamal and Yadav tell me to be prepared for the worst. On Yadav’s second collection run, the debtor pulled a kitchen knife. When he saw Yadav unruffled, the debtor threatened to slit his wrists. I fully expect Yadav to be an accessory to the suicide, but it turns out that he disarmed the man, and walked out with a laptop, mobile phone, and two gold rings. Jamal laughs and tells me, “Yadav has the habit of giving people ‘churan.’”

We arrive at our destination, a colony of rundown chawls in Sion east. Wading through a sea of rubble, garbage, human and dog shit, we find the house we’re looking for. Jamal and Yadav tell me to watch from a distance and keep an eye out for trouble. I don’t quite understand, so Jamal explains that I should look out for a large group of people, which may gather outside the house, on the off chance that our quarry has the opportunity to call in reinforcements. I agree and hang back. It would’ve been way cooler if we all had walkie-talkies to communicate, and a van with high-tech surveillance gear. All I am stuck with, is a stupid mobile phone.

Most financial organisations have tightened lending regulations, employed high-tech skip-tracing methods, and trained their in-house debt collection teams. Recovery agents like Nadeem are pushed to the sidelines.

Jamal knocks on the door; actually it’s more of a thump that leaves the door shaking. A woman answers, and Yadav shouts out the man’s name. The debtor, Shekhar, is nowhere in sight and the woman at the door denies knowing him. Since it is a woman at the door, Jamal and Yadav step back. They’d rather return empty-handed than be accused of molestation or attempted rape. But they also know that this is a common tactic to dodge debt collectors.

We decide to stakeout the house for a bit, just to see if Shekhar decides to make a run for it. And there, as if on clockwork, the door opens and a middle-aged man peeps out. Time for the kill. Jamal and Yadav rush toward the house. The woman appears at the door yet again, but this time, Yadav yells and asks Shekhar to step outside and not hide behind a woman. A seasoned debt dodger, Shekhar is immune to public embarrassment. The duo keeps at it, while a crowd gathers outside the house. Curious onlookers, neighbours, the vegetable vendor who stops his cart to take in the spectacle, and I. The door opens and Shekhar steps out – what happens next is unclear, as Yadav instructs the crowd to disperse. It helps that Yadav looks and dresses like a plainclothes cop.

Jamal and Shekhar go into the house. Yadav tells me to wait outside and follows. Twenty minutes later, both Jamal and Yadav step out, carrying a bundle wrapped in a cloth and a laptop. We head back; on the ride back Jamal tells me, the packet contains jewellery and watches. I ask if I can sneak a peek, but the men turn down the request.

Back at the office, they settle down into a game of carrom. Shorty takes the laptop and jewellery to Nadeem. Jamal and Yadav ask me when I’m ready to start work, I tell them I’m good and head in to talk to the boss. I walk in just as Nadeem is unwrapping the bundle; he asks for a minute. I take a step back. When I enter the room, the bundle and the laptop are nowhere in sight. Nadeem tells me it’s in his safe. The goods will be liquidated later and the money will be handed over to the client after deducting his fee. Just what is his fee? Sometimes it’s a hefty percentage and sometimes he purchases the debt outright and then doubles up the effort on recovering it. I secretly shudder at the extent Nadeem will go to when his own money is on the line and beat a hasty retreat.

When I get home, I set my watch and phone down, and immediately rifle through my drawers for my credit card bill. I find it dumped along with bills for Chinese food, cigarettes, and skins. I flush it out of the pile, log into my account, and pay it way before the due date. I can’t have Jamal and Yadav knocking on my door. I don’t even have a woman to hide behind.