Flawed: The Rise and Fall of India’s Diamond Mogul Nirav Modi
by Pavan C Lall
The story of high-profile businessman Nirav Modi and his downfall is playing out in courtrooms and boardrooms of multiple nations today. The jewellery entrepreneur stands accused of leading “the biggest bank fraud in the history of the country (India)”, as per the book under review. The bank under question is the Punjab National Bank, which said in January 2018 that Modi was the beneficiary of loans worth thousands of crores, loans that were made illegally by “rogue employees” of the bank. Before the PNB filed a complaint with Indian authorities, Modi had fled the country. He is currently in the United Kingdom, where he has been arrested. So the Nirav Modi story is not only of great public interest but also still very ‘hot’; that is to say, it is still unfolding.
In this scenario, it is remarkable that a book on the Nirav Modi affair is already out. The writer is Pavan C. Lall, who is at present associate editor with Business Standard. As a senior journalist, Lall is doubtlessly good at writing in a hurry while also keeping up standards of excellence in writing, and it shows. Moreover, the writer seems to be that rare journalist who has a fine working knowledge of multiple subjects -- the diamond business (international and Indian), the science of brands, psychology and investigative journalism. He has brought all his knowledge to the keyboard.
A breezy read
Flawed is also well-crafted. For one, it is written simply, making it a breezy read. The writer excels at the balancing act of maintaining tension between provision of information and construction of suspense. The style is that of any cliffhanger, making Flawed that rare book which is both informative and ‘infotaining’.
The writer has executed the hard task of extracting information from the diamond-trading folks. The community of diamond businessmen is known for being tight-knit to the point of secretiveness. Most diamond businessmen come from a single caste. They are also strict about marrying within their community. Thus their community is more of an extended family.
Even within this tight-knit group, Nirav Modi is an unknown quantity – maybe because Modi kept mostly to himself. So, getting the inside story on Modi must have been hard for the writer. Moreover, the writer tells us that few people from the community were willing to talk to him, though he eventually got a number of mouths to whisper to him. The writer, being a business journalist, did have access to Modi at his peak, though the access was brief, and he of course did not get to interview Modi after his downfall. As a result, the book rather skimps on details which are known only to Modi and his immediate family: what Modi was like when he was a child and a teenager. So the writer deals with Modi’s childhood in just a few pages.
The information provided about Modi as a child sheds light on the preoccupations and obsessions of Modi as an adult. The impact on Modi of his uncle Mehul Choksi is brought out compellingly through a detailed profile of Choksi. The uncle comes across as a grey character because of his questionable business dealings that led him into trouble with Indian law. Choksi’s lavish lifestyle, flamboyance and desire for approval gives us several insights into him, as do his ambitious but ultimately disastrous business decisions. Choksi’s profile is useful information-- it serves to illuminate his influence on the ambitions of his protege, Nirav Modi.
We are, however, given lots of detail about Modi’s adult life lived so publicly. For instance, his lavish lifestyle – his hundreds of crores worth of paintings by contemporary Indian artists, his interest in contemporary photography, his costly clothes, his flashy cars (among others, a Rolls Royce Ghost and a Bentley). The book opens a few doors of Modi’s socialite life too, mapping out his high-society meetings with people such as Bill Gates and bigwig Indian industrialists. Reading finely detailed accounts of all these, I must confess to a certain voyeuristic fascination with the jetsetting life. I was sobered by the reflection that all of this, of course, is crashing down around Modi’s ears. Yet, to my credit, I was not affected with schadenfreude: delight at someone else’s misfortune. That is doubtlessly a result of the matter-of-fact tone of the book.
Modi’s style of working
The writer provides all this information not just to point out the dirty underbelly of the high life, but also to show that for Modi this kind of life made business sense, because it created a buzz around him and his brands. It is unclear how much of the high life was Modi’s genuine aspiration and how much was an act of public relations.
Flawed includes anonymous interviews with Modi’s former employees, thus unveiling Modi’s style of working. Modi comes across as a driven but impatient man, harsh and short-tempered with his employees as he built a company that revolved around him. He is also revealed to be a risk-taker, with lines such as these: “There was… a stockpile of yellow and colourless diamonds for which Modi would say he had paid US$40 million. The value of those stones went up to at least two times the original, with the pink stones appreciating by as much as 300 percent in less than five years.”
The writer knows well the old adage that action reveals character. Because Modi and his close circle were not around for interviews, the writer has ably revealed Nirav Modi’s personality through his actions. In the writer’s depiction, Modi comes across as a taker of impossible risks.
Risk-taking is one thing, however, and overoptimism is another. Modi, we are told, took on a pile of debt to build a luxury jewellery brand “overnight”. To quote, “History has shown that luxury diamond brands take many decades to burnish – they can’t be built overnight – but Modi was possessed with an almost superhuman instinct to prove that he could do the undoable. It’s an instinct that many entrepreneurs have and it can result in them putting on blinkers in the face of reality.” The writer goes on to show how Modi’s dreams were based on unrealistic expectations. Modi then acted on these dreams in a questionable manner. He allegedly made “sham import transactions” for which he borrowed from PNB. He evidently thought “he would be able to pay it all back once his company went public”. Which, of course, it didn’t.
The writer also tells lucidly how Modi got money out of PNB – rather a feat, considering the arcane terminology and methodology of international transactions. Around the end of the book we get a psychologist’s assessment of the lures which led Modi to his doom, which is welcome. I would, however, have liked more detail, at least a little more, into the psychology of these larger-than-life entrepreneurs who bejewel the way to their self-destruction.
Writing a book this soon on Nirav Modi would have been a challenge for anyone; the writer has succeeded in his chosen task. All in all, Flawed has multiple merits that recommend it to the general reader.
Suhit Kelkar is a freelance Journalist. He is the author of the poetry chapbook named The Centaur Chronicles.