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No Beasts In The Stockmarket

What the book lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for in street smarts. There is no shortage of hearsay in the book. No sources have been cited to verify conversations, with real personalities quoted and hence difficult to vouch for the element of realism

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Santosh Nair’s highly entertaining roman-à-clef, Bulls, Bears and Other Beasts: A Story of the Indian Stock Market, offers a ring-side view of Dalal Street over the last four decades. One can’t help but notice the similarities between this book and Edwin Lefevre’s Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, even if Nair’s has an infinitely heavier dose of chaat masala.

Nair’s protagonist, Lalchand Gupta, takes us on a wild ride from his childhood in the back alleys of lawless Bhandup to the equally lawless – it would appear – back alleys of Dalal Street. The humourous, no-holds-barred, earthy narrative had me laughing out loud at times. I almost felt like each episode could have been turned into a TV mini-series in itself.

From legendary battles between famous bulls and bears to the banking scam of 1991-92, otherwise known as the Harshad Mehta scam, to company promoters sponsoring their own public issues by using the grey market, Nair has presented the scam-prone Indian stock market in the raw.

What the book lacks in sophistication, it more than makes up for in street smarts. There is no shortage of hearsay in the book. No sources have been cited to verify conversations, with real personalities quoted and hence difficult to vouch for the element of realism.

The narrative may hit very close to home for many Street participants with some of the names cited in the book possibly being personal acquaintances.

The tale in its entirety, however, does assume a certain morality, whether intentional or not, and perhaps that is also one of its major triumphs; there are neither bulls, nor bears, nor other beasts in this great stock market game, only vulnerable humans. There are a few hints thrown around with regard to the importance of money in hard times, and how the ruthlessness of an indifferent world can turn even the most docile person into someone they fail to recognise.

The more of the book I read, the more I wished I could have added some left-out stories from the past few decades that would have fit in well with the narrative. Some of the notable omissions from the book include the CRB scam and the questionable behaviour by some of India’s top business houses in their dealings with minority shareholders. Nair may also have spent more time on the outsized apathy that accompanies the end of great bear markets (for example, in 2002-03).

The author may also have perhaps done more to tie in some major global fundamental events that triggered market reactions, including China’s remnimbi devaluation of 1994 or Japan’s monetary tightening in June 2006. Indeed, many fundamental global events have been glossed over, especially developed-market central bank actions and large currency movements. Nair also probably missed detailing how the rise of Infosys and HDFC actually made the Indian stock market respectable again by creating millionaires out of ordinary people – this would have come as welcome relief to the reader in what is an overwhelmingly despondent tale.

The key sources of what is written in this book are probably some people who were highly privy to the goings-on in the share bazaar. Many of these insights could only have been gleaned by someone with a ring-side view of the shenanigans. There have always been rumours and hearsay surrounding the dealings of the big guns – mostly of the notorious kind – in the stock market, but the kind of detail that the author gets into, to flesh out the actual modus operandi, lends a certain authenticity to the narrative. The result is as shocking as it is compelling.

Many market participants may see their past flashing before their eyes reading this book. Many would even be reminded of where they sat, and what they said, and who they were with, when certain famous incidents took place.

The author is clearly at his best when describing market shenanigans. At his worst, he presents an amateurish, ungainly prose, including at least one God-awful dream sequence that should have been edited.

Many important conclusions can be drawn from this book including that perhaps India reformed its equity markets in too haphazard a manner. Loopholes were left open for long periods of time which were duly exploited – indeed, gaming the system became a full-time livelihood for many. The result is that the retail investor today is highly jaded by the stock market and has all but ceased to participate directly.It seems the author perhaps did not pay enough attention to real stories of pain experienced by early investors – and their families – even if some small investors have been as guilty of greed as they have of gullibility.

Yet, Nair has done a fantastic job in summarising how the Indian financial markets have been pulled – kicking and screaming – into the globalised age. All said and done, it is simply a story that had to be told. I would encourage the publishers to also print this book in Hindi and Gujarati.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Anil Khandelwal

The author is CFO, Cox & Kings

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