‘T22his is your desk,’ said Bianca, a secretary in the Distressed Debt Group. ‘Look outside, youeven have a Hong Kong harbour view.’It took me a while to adjust to my new surroundings. Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong is locatedat the Cheung Kong Centre skyscraper in Central, occupying the sixtieth to the sixty-eighth floors. Thedistressed debt team is located on the sixty-seventh floor. From the floor to the ceiling windows ofthe glass-and-steel building, one can see the Hong Kong skyline and harbour towards the north. In thesouthern direction, one has views of the Peak, the top of the green hill on Hong Kong Island.Hong Kong is an ex-British colony, now under Chinese control. The British exited in 1997, butleft behind one of the most modern, developed and efficient cities in the world. Consisting of theHong Kong Island, the Kowloon peninsula and New Territories, this city of seven million inhabitantsis one of the busiest global financial centres. Compact, brightly lit and buzzing, Hong Kongoverwhelms you upon arrival with its insomnia and beehive activity.‘A company broker will call you. To help with the house-hunting,’ Bianca continued. ‘Andhere are some other helpful contacts.’She gave me a file of all the people who would help me in my relocation.‘Neel will meet you in his office at 9,’ Bianca said and left.I logged into my computer, arranged the stationery on my desk. I put up a few family pictureson my cubicle walls. At 9, I walked up to Neel’s corner office.‘Ah, Radhika. Come right on in,’ Neel said.He wore a white shirt, silver cufflinks and a blue Hermes skinny tie. I had not seen him sinceassociate training two years ago. His office had panoramic vistas of Hong Kong. The sunshinepouring into the room made his skin glow.He gave me a firm handshake.‘Thank you for having me in your group,’ I said.‘It’s our pleasure. We don’t normally get high performers from New York here. How are yousettling in?’‘I am good. Just arrived over the weekend.’‘Where are you staying?’‘Shangri-La.’‘Nice. Hey, did you have any breakfast? Want to step over to the breakout area for a coffee?’‘Sure,’ I said.We took the elevator down to the sixty-first floor. The Goldman breakout area is a café ofsorts, where the staff often take a break for meals.
Neel and I went up to the counter person. Neel turned to me. ‘What would you like?’‘Whole-wheat toast. With peanut butter and honey,’ I said.‘Toast? And what?’ the counter person said.‘Peanut butter and honey,’ I said.‘Huh?’ she said.‘Faa sang zoeng mat mgoi,’ Neel said. The woman smiled and nodded.‘Thanks,’ I said.‘No issues. I don’t really speak Cantonese. But learning a few words is never a bad idea,’Neel said. He ordered a black coffee and bagel for himself.We took our food and sat at a window-facing table. He briefed me about the group.‘We are ten professionals here. It isn’t as large as New York. However, we are growing fasterthan any other Goldman office.’I nodded and listened with full attention.‘You will work with Josh Ang and Peter Wu. They look after China and Korea respectively.There may be special deals from time to time you might get pulled into.’‘Looking forward to it,’ I said.‘Good. We have a morning team meeting every day at 8. That is when everyone talks abouttheir deals.’‘Okay.’‘I want you to speak up. I encourage people to raise questions so we challenge each other,’Neel said.‘Of course.’‘Feel free to come into my office. Josh is your immediate boss, but we don’t really believe informal roles here. There’s some peanut butter on your lip.’‘Oh, really?’ I said and wiped my lip with a tissue. ‘I am sorry.’‘The other side.’I shifted the tissue and felt my face turn red. Neel smiled. He looked even more gorgeous whenhe smiled.‘Welcome to Hong Kong,’ he said.‘We have a Bank of East Asia distressed debt auction coming up. There are fifty loans, sold as aportfolio. Bids due in two weeks,’ Josh said at the morning meeting.‘Two weeks? That’s tight,’ Peter said.All banks accumulate bad loans over time. Sometimes the bank feels it is easier to sell offthose loans at a discount rather than chase the borrowers. To speed up things, they sell those loans asa portfolio, or in a bunch. In a sense, it clears their entire dirty plate in one shot. However, forbidders like us it means a crazy amount of work, evaluating what is on the plate.‘We can pass. People are busy with other deals, right?’ Neel said.‘Actually, I could look at it,’ I said. All eyes turned to me.‘I can. I don’t have too much going on,’ I said.‘It is fifty companies. You’ll have to go through them all. You sure?’ Josh said, in his mixed
American and Chinese accent.‘We have two weeks. I can work weekends too,’ I said.‘I could spare two days too,’ Peter said.‘So can I,’ said Simon, another Taiwanese analyst in the group.Neel tapped his fingers on the conference room table.‘Let’s do it,’ he said finally, and stood up to signal the end of the meeting.For the next two weeks, I camped in my cubicle. Boxes of documents to be reviewed for thebid surrounded me. I only went back to the hotel to sleep, shower and change. One Friday night Ididn’t even do that. I worked straight through the night and watched the Saturday morning sunrise fromthe office window.‘Radhika, what are you doing here?’ Neel’s voice startled me.I turned around. In workout clothes, he looked different from his usual formal self. He waswearing a black Under Armor T-shirt, a brand that reminded me of Debu. The portfolio work had kepthim off my thoughts over the last few days. But now I felt pain flood my heart. When will I get overthat man? I wondered.‘Good morning, Neel,’ I said. ‘Just wrapping up the bid. Will have it ready Monday morning.’‘You have dark circles under your eyes. Did you even go back last night?’I smiled and shook my head.‘This is too much, Radhika. You have to maintain a balance.’He placed his hand on the edge of my cubicle door. I could see his bicep flex through hissleeve.‘Going to the gym?’ I said.‘I’m going on a mountain hike. I prefer working out outdoors.’‘That sounds like fun.’‘Yes. More than half of Hong Kong is country parks. Beautiful hikes.’‘I have heard.’‘Hope you see a bit of this city and not just this office.’‘I will. Just want this portfolio out of the way,’ I said and then covered my mouth as I yawned.‘Radhika, you need to go home.’‘I will. Soon. What brings you to the office?’‘Left my mobile phone behind yesterday. Just picking it up for the hike.’He went into his office and came out after a few minutes. He saw me staring at myspreadsheet.‘Still here? Go rest.’I smiled.‘Twenty more minutes. Tops,’ I said.‘I’m leaving. Good work, Radhika.’‘Thanks. Bye, Neel, have a nice hike,’ I said, eyes on my monitor.He walked away from me and paused. He turned around and came back.‘Radhika, there’s something I want to tell you.’‘Okay,’ I said and shifted my gaze to him.‘There’s a confidential deal. Some distressed companies don’t like the world to know they arein distress. It can affect their business.’‘Sure, I understand,’ I said.‘This one is in the Philippines. Only the Goldman Sachs Asia head and I know about it. I can’t
even discuss it in the morning meeting.’‘Oh, okay,’ I said.‘I need an associate on the deal. Would you like to be on it?’The prospect of more work in my current exhausted state made me feel even more tired.However, to be in a confidential deal and work with a partner meant a lot.‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What’s the timing?’‘You finish the bid. Then I will brief you. We’ll also need to meet the company people.’‘Sure. What sector is it?’‘I’ll tell you. Real soon. Bye now. And get out of here fast,’ he said.What the hell, I said to myself. Debu had unfriended me on Facebook. For the first time in Hong KongI had finished work early and come back to my hotel at 5 p.m. The team had liked my finalpresentation on the portfolio. We had submitted a bid for fourteen cents on the dollar for the loans.Exhausted, I had been looking forward to a calm evening in the hotel and a good long sleep.However, I made the mistake of opening my laptop and logging on to Facebook. Like an idiot, Isearched for Debashish Sen’s profile. I couldn’t find him on my friends’ list.Damn. I typed his name for the third time. Yes, he had unfriended me. I could understand why.Actually, I could not understand why. I wasn’t some stalking witch who would cast an evil eye on hisposts and pictures. Sure, we had broken up. People break up. They don’t have to vanish like this.I didn’t have his phone number anymore. I had deleted all his previous emails. I felt likecalling Avinash to ask for Debu’s contacts again. I stopped myself and turned on the TV instead. Mostof the channels were in Chinese. One channel showed a soap opera. I couldn’t understand one word.However, I saw a girl on the screen cry, probably for her lost love. I don’t know what it triggered inme, but I joined her. I clutched my pillow tight and cried. I had resisted this so perfectly for weeks.Ever since I came to Hong Kong I had buried myself in work. I thought I had made great progress withmy break-up. Now I was back to square one.Why did he unfriend me? I cried even more. I switched off the hotel room lights, opened theminibar and found little whisky and vodka bottles. I drank four of them, bottoms up, and lay down inbed. My head hurt as it sifted through images of Debu. Will I ever get over him?I closed my eyes. I slept, or passed out, as weeks of sleep deprivation caught up with me.I woke up as my phone rang. I had a bad headache. I opened one eye and saw the caller. It wasNeel.Damn. Damn. Damn. I switched on the light, ran into the bathroom and splashed water on myface. Only then did I pick up the call.‘Hello?’ I said, my voice unclear.‘Sorry, were you sleeping? Is it too late?’ Neel said.I checked the time. It was only 8.30 p.m.‘No, no. Just took a nap. I am sorry. I left office early today.’‘You deserve the rest. Sorry to wake you up.’‘It’s fine. I needed to anyway.’Focus, Radhika. It’s a partner on the line.
‘I just called to ask if you could come to the office tomorrow at 7.30 a.m.?’ Neel said.‘Huh? Yes, sure.’‘I can brief you on the Philippines deal. Better we talk about it before everyone arrives.’‘Of course,’ I said.‘El Casa Seaplane and Resorts,’ I read the tasteful aquamarine-coloured cover of a brochure Neelhanded to me.He took a sip of his black coffee and put the cup aside. He played with one of his bluesapphire cufflinks as he spoke to me. ‘You know much about the Philippines?’‘One of the Southeast Asian countries, right?’‘Yeah. Seven thousand-plus islands. Couple of main ones though. Manila is the capital.’‘Okay,’ I said. I took notes in my notebook.‘The company is El Casa Seaplane and Resorts. They borrowed too much. Businessnosedived due to a cyclone. Trouble. Hence at our desk.’I scribbled down whatever I could. Neel continued to speak.‘Palawan is in the south of the Philippines. Often voted as one of the most beautiful islands inthe world.’‘Sure,’ I said, jotting down at a frantic pace.‘Around Palawan there are tiny, super-exclusive, privately owned islands. El Casa operatesten resorts, each on one of these private mini-islands.’I flipped through the brochure. It had stunning aerial pictures of the boutique tropical islandresorts. The brochure said that none of El Casa’s resorts had more than ten rooms.‘It says rooms are 1,000 dollars a night,’ I said, surprised.Neel smiled.‘Yes, so it is mostly super-rich foreign tourists. Locals can’t afford it.’‘How does one even get there?’ I said.‘You fly from Manila to Palawan, and then take one of the company seaplanes to the resorts.’‘Expensive operation,’ I said.‘Yes. So when business takes a nosedive it gets really tough,’ Neel said.Neel told me that Typhoon Haiyan, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones, had hit thePhilippines last year. It had left thousands dead. The country had still not recovered from it. High-endtourists still avoided the Philippines, making El Casa suffer. I took notes as Neel continued to talk.‘Owner is Marcos Sereno. Fifty years old, first generation, liquor baron. Tough businessman,respected in the community. El Casa is a passion project for him. So he is touchy about the worldfinding out it failed.’‘You have the financials?’ I said.Neel slid a five-inch-thick set of documents towards me.‘This contains everything. The existing lending banks want to get out. Marcos wants tocooperate, as long as his reputation stays intact.’‘Understood,’ I said. ‘I will go through all this.’‘Good. And let’s go to Palawan next week and meet Marcos.’
‘O23range juice or champagne?’ a Cathay Pacific flight attendant said. She offered Neel drinks on atray.‘Orange juice, please. Too early for champagne,’ Neel said.I took the same. We sat next to each other in the business-class cabin of the morning flight toManila. I was on my first real business trip, travelling to a different country. I looked out of thewindow as the plane took off, making Hong Kong’s skyscrapers look like Lego toys down below.‘So what did you think of El Casa?’ Neel said.‘Oh, wait,’ I said and opened my laptop bag. I took out the printout of my financial model.‘Keep this aside for now. Tell me your gut feeling on the business,’ Neel said.‘My gut feeling?’ I said, surprised. I was just an associate. Why would a partner care about mygut feeling? Wasn’t it my job to just make the financial model and rattle out the numbers?‘Yeah, I’d like to know. Do you even like the business?’I took a few seconds to collect my thoughts before I spoke again. ‘In some ways El Casa is arare asset, so quite valuable. In other ways it is a pain, as there are limited buyers for this thing. Also,I can’t imagine Philippines law being the most investor-friendly,’ I said.‘Good. I like how you think, in several directions at the same time,’ Neel said.‘Thanks,’ I said, embarrassed by his praise. I fumbled through my sheets.‘So what do we do here?’ Neel said.‘We get a buyer,’ I said.‘Meaning?’‘We talk to big hotel chains. This business needs a high-end global brand. Otherwise peopleare not going to come,’ I said.‘Hmmm. . .’ Neel said.‘I am thinking Aman Resorts, Four Seasons. Something in that category,’ I said.Neel looked at me. I saw pride in his eyes.‘You are smart,’ he said.‘Not really,’ I said, like a stupid fool.‘What do you mean?’‘Nothing. Thank you, I meant. Would you like me to show you the financial model?’‘Sure,’ he said.Over the next hour I went over the numbers. The company had fifty million dollars worth ofloans. It could probably repay only half. Neel listened with full attention, cross-questioning meseveral times.
‘That’s good. I think we have a sense of what is going on here,’ he said when I finished.The flight attendant served us breakfast: fruit, cereal, milk and omelettes.‘I could also build another scenario. . .’ I said as Neel interrupted me.‘Enough. Do you only think about work?’‘No, I just. . .’‘Let us enjoy our meal. No more talking shop.’‘Sure.’ I ate a strawberry with my fork.‘How do you find Hong Kong?’ Neel said.‘Efficient. Everything is close by.’‘You found an apartment?’‘Yes. On Old Peak Road. I am moving in next week.’‘It is a good area,’ Neel said.Old Peak Road passed through the Midlevels, an area midway to the Peak. A one-and-a-halfbedroom apartment in this expat area cost me 6,000 US dollars a month in rent.‘Where do you stay?’ I said.‘Repulse Bay. On the South side. You should visit. I do team dinners at my place sometimes.’‘Sure,’ I said.He applied jam on his toast. I noticed his slender fingers. I continued to gaze at them until hespoke again, startling me.‘Kusum would love to meet you,’ he said.‘Kusum?’ I said.‘My wife. We have two kids. Siya and Aryan. Seven and three.’Of course, a man so amazing had to be married.‘Oh, how nice,’ I said.‘Yeah. How about you?’‘Well, I am not married,’ I said and smiled.‘Of course. But where’s your family?’‘Delhi. Mom and dad. I have an elder sister.’‘Great. You close to your parents?’I paused for a few seconds to think before I answered.‘In some ways I am close. Dad is really quiet. I am close to my mom. But we fight a lot,’ Isaid.Neel laughed.‘Really? Over what?’ he said.‘The stupidest things. Mostly it is about her obsession to get me married.’‘Oh, you are young. Why marry so soon?’‘Exactly. If only she would get that.’‘Typical Indian parents, right?’ Neel said.I nodded.‘When did you leave India?’ I said.‘When I was twelve. I grew up in London after that. Undergrad at Oxford. Harvard for myMBA later. Met Kusum there, actually.’‘Oh, college sweethearts,’ I said. I realized I should have shown more restraint. I wasspeaking to a partner, my boss’s boss.‘You could say that,’ he said and laughed.
The captain’s announcement about the flight landing interrupted our conversation. When theplane hovered above Manila, Neel spoke again.‘Why did you leave New York?’ Neel said.‘Personal reasons,’ I repeated my rehearsed answer.‘Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to. . .’ Neel said as I interrupted him.‘I had a break-up. A bad break-up.’Neel looked at me. He raised his long eyebrows.‘Really?’ he said.‘Yeah, why?’ I said.‘You moved all this way for a guy?’‘Worse. Not for a guy. But for a guy who didn’t want me.’Again I felt I had crossed the line of acceptable conversation with a partner. Neel fumbledwith his seatbelt as he searched for a suitable response.‘Well, anyway. Welcome to the Philippines,’ he said.The flight landed with a gentle thud.‘I spent years to build El Casa. No logic why I did it. Just wanted to show the world how beautifulmy country is,’ Marcos said.We sat in the El Casa office in Palawan across from the owner and CEO, Marcos Sereno, whohad a portly frame and wore a Hawaiian shirt.We had taken another short flight from Manila to Palawan and come for the meeting straightfrom Palawan airport. On the way, I saw a sleepy city full of palm trees and long, powdery beaches.‘Your country is stunning. It was evident even in the short journey from the airport to here,’Neel said to Marcos.‘You have to see the resorts. This is nothing,’ Marcos said dismissively.‘Yeah?’ Neel said.‘You are staying at one tonight, right?’ Marcos said.‘We had actually booked a hotel in Manila on our way back. Our Hong Kong flight istomorrow,’ Neel said.Marcos waved a no with his hands.‘Forget Manila. Crowded and polluted. You stay at my resort.’‘But. . .’ Neel said before Marcos interrupted him.‘I insist. My seaplane will take you there.’‘Sure,’ Neel said. Apart from being gracious to our client, we wanted to see the quality of theresorts anyway. Marcos told his secretary to arrange two rooms at the El Casa Pengalusian Island.‘Now let us talk business,’ Marcos said after he delegated our travel arrangements.‘My colleague Radhika here has prepared some numbers,’ Neel said.I passed out copies of the financial model.‘I have tried to value each resort,’ I said. Over the next ten minutes I walked him through myassumptions and projections. After I finished, Marcos took a deep breath.‘What now?’ Marcos said.
I looked at Neel. It was time for him to speak.‘We need a new buyer. However, nobody will buy a company with a fifty-million-dollar loanon it. We have to settle the banks at a discount first.’‘They will settle,’ Marcos said.‘But we want them to settle at a low price. We have to paint a terrible scenario for the banks.Say the business is worth almost nothing. You will have to play along,’ I said.‘Really?’ Marcos said.‘Yes. So they will sell the loans to us cheap. We will then find a new buyer. From our profit,we can give you 20 per cent,’ I said.Marcos’s eyes widened. He looked at Neel.‘She’s good,’ Marcos said.‘Only my best people for you. Any other issues, Marcos?’ Neel said. Marcos turned to meagain.‘Will the new buyer fire people?’ Marcos said.‘Depends on the new owner,’ I said.‘I don’t want that. No firing people. They are my people,’ Marcos said.I looked at Neel. We had a deadlock. The value of the company would drop if the new buyerhad a no-layoffs clause.‘No firing anyone for five years. Okay?’ Neel said.Marcos looked at me. I pursed my lips.‘Fine. We can build that in. But if we do, do we have a deal?’ I said.‘This girl is a quick one,’ Marcos said to Neel and grinned.‘In my group, we like to close deals,’ Neel said.Marcos extended his hand.‘Let’s do it,’ Marcos said.We shook hands. We had an in-principle agreement.‘I’ll send in the term sheet tomorrow,’ I said.‘Is she always so obsessed with work?’ Marcos said. ‘No urgency. Send it in a few days. Thisis the Philippines. There’s more to life than work here.’There’s nothing else but work in my life, I thought. I smiled at Marcos.‘Try my beer. Number one in the Philippines,’ Marcos said as he opened the fridge behind hisdesk.‘Okay, this is a little scary,’ I said as I tied the flimsy seatbelt around me. Neel and I sat next to eachother in the compact four-seater El Casa seaplane. The seats were tiny, our heads inches from theroof. The pilot gave us a thumbs-up sign, indicating take-off.‘What plane is this?’ Neel asked the pilot.‘Amphibious Cessna 208 Caravan, sir,’ the pilot said. The plane could take off and land onwater as well as land. We took off from the local airport at Palawan. The turboprop noise made itdifficult to talk. Neel saw my petrified face.‘You okay?’ he screamed so I could hear him.
I nodded and blinked my eyelids. He grinned.‘Breathe,’ he said.I exhaled and inhaled a few times. The plane took off. I looked outside the window. Thecrystal-blue sea, white beaches and the green cover of trees below me made me forget our precariousposition.‘Wow,’ I blurted out as I saw some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever seen in my life.‘It really is spectacular,’ Neel said.Fifteen minutes later, the plane hovered over the Pengalusian Island. Less than half a kilometrelong and only two hundred metres wide, the rice-grain-shaped island seemed tiny from above. Thebeach ran all around the perimeter of the island. On the southern tip, a few huts became visible.‘That’s the resort,’ the pilot said. ‘The rest of the island is just left untouched. All natural.’I closed my eyes as the plane landed on its water skis. When I opened them, Neel and the pilotwere looking at me. Both of them had a grin on their faces.‘I am sorry. It’s beautiful, but scary,’ I said.We stepped out of the plane into the sand. Two porters took our bags. The resort managergreeted us.‘You must be Mr Marcos Sereno’s special guests,’ he said. ‘Welcome to El Casa Pengalusian.I am Carlos, the resort manager.’He showed us our respective rooms. Each room was a little cottage on stilts, built above aclear blue water lagoon.‘If you sit on the balcony,’ Carlos said, ‘you can see fish in the water below you.’I put my belongings in the luxurious room, which had wooden floors and a thatched roof. I felttired. I went up to the reception area where I found Neel in conversation with Carlos.‘Pretty stunning place you have here,’ Neel said.‘Thank you, sir,’ Carlos said.I joined the two of them.‘Carlos, can I talk to you later?’ I said. ‘A few business-related questions about the resort?’‘Sure. Mr Sereno informed me,’ Carlos said.Neel smiled at my attempt to do due diligence at every opportunity. Carlos excused himselfand left us in the lobby area. The sun shone bright, though there was only one hour to sunset.‘Beats working on a bank portfolio, doesn’t it?’ Neel said.‘Totally,’ I said and laughed. ‘This is the best deal ever. How beautiful is this place?’‘Yeah, glad we came. I had no idea this is so amazing.’‘We will find a buyer, right?’ I said.‘Gosh. You are unbelievable. Just look at the view. Worry about the buyer later,’ Neel said.‘Sorry,’ I said.We walked out of the lobby to face the sea in front of us. Rock formations in the middle of theocean made the view even more dramatic.‘What’s your plan for the rest of the evening?’ Neel said.‘I have to make the term sheet,’ I said.‘Come on. Do it back in the office. Want to take a walk around the island before dinner?’‘Sure,’ I said.‘Let’s change into workout clothes. See you here in thirty minutes,’ he said.
Neel and I walked on the two-kilometre trail that circled the island. Every nook and corner hadspectacular scenery. Warm seawater touched our shoes as we walked on the sand near the water. IfGod hired an architect to design heaven, this was how it would be done.‘Let’s keep it brisk,’ Neel said and increased his stride. He now walked in front of me,looking even better in his workout clothes: knee-length black shorts and a neon-green Nike T-shirt.I wore a white T-shirt and grey trackpants.‘You are really into fitness,’ I said.‘I try,’ Neel said.‘The hike that day. Walk today.’‘Well, when you get to my age, your metabolism drops. Not easy to remain fit.’‘You look so fit,’ I said. I wondered if I should have said it. I had just noticed a partner’sphysical appearance. Well, who in the office hadn’t?‘Thank you. I am old now. Forty-five.’‘That’s not so old,’ I said. Okay, why did I have to say that?He laughed. ‘Really? How old are you? Sorry. I shouldn’t be asking a lady that.’‘I am twenty-five. Well, twenty-six soon.’‘That’s incredibly young. Look at you, already on big deals.’‘I am lucky.’‘Don’t say that. You are good. You work hard. That’s when luck creeps up on you.’I turned to him and smiled.‘Thanks,’ I said.‘But you are twenty years younger. I feel even older now,’ Neel said.‘You are a partner at Goldman Sachs at forty-five. It’s pretty young. Plus, you look good.’Now why the fuck did I have to say that? ‘You look good’? You are with the head ofdistressed debt for Asia. Radhika, control your tongue.‘Thank you. Don’t get to hear that so much these days,’ he said.We circled the entire island and returned to the resort.‘Dinner in an hour? I will take a shower and see you at the restaurant,’ he said.‘Sure,’ I said.‘I might run a few more rounds of the island before that,’ he said.‘I feel like a slob,’ I said.‘Relax. You must be tired. See you soon.’
‘C24hampagne, sir, courtesy of Mr Marcos Sereno,’ Carlos said as he put a bottle of Dom Perignonin a chiller next to us. We sat in the open-air restaurant in the resort, located in an alcove. The sun hadset. The clear sea reflected the palette of the sky. The restaurant had only six tables, each with severallit candles on it.Ours was the only occupied table.‘Would you like some?’ Neel said as he lifted the bottle.‘Yes, please,’ I said.Like a gentleman, Neel stood up and poured the champagne for me.‘Thank you,’ I said.‘You are welcome,’ Neel said. We raised our glasses in a toast.‘To many more deals,’ he said.‘Especially ones involving private island assets,’ I said. Both of us laughed.Waiters brought us various kinds of seafood, all caught fresh from the sea. Everything tasteddelicious.One of the waiters brought us a heart-shaped red velvet cake.‘For the lovely couple,’ he said in a Filipino accent.The waiter’s words left me stumped. I struggled to speak.‘Oh, actually, we. . .’ I said. Neel intervened.‘Thank you for the cake. Didn’t have to be heart-shaped, as we are not a couple.’The waiter looked at both of us, surprised.‘We are here on a business trip,’ I said. The waiter became even more confused. Who comesto Pengalusian Island on work?Neel smiled.‘Thanks for the cake,’ he repeated. The waiter left us. We burst out laughing. Neel poured usboth another glass of champagne.‘Okay, that was a little weird,’ I said.‘Totally. Did not expect that.’I could feel my head swim after two drinks.‘Though I must say I was flattered,’ Neel said.‘Really? Why?’ I said, pretending to be ignorant even as I fished for more compliments.‘Well, even at my age he thought I could be with you. That’s a compliment.’‘Well. True that,’ I said. ‘All that running is surely helping.’We clinked our glasses. I don’t know if it was the champagne, the beautiful setting or that Neel
made me feel comfortable, but I found it easy to talk to him.‘You should come here with your wife,’ I said.‘Huh?’ he said, slightly surprised. ‘Yeah, Kusum would love this place. Who wouldn’t?’‘So you guys met in college? Love at first sight?’ I said. I don’t know if I had overstepped theline. After three glasses of champagne, all so-called lines seem pretty blurred anyway.‘Yeah, you could say that, yeah,’ Neel said, after deliberating for a second.‘Sorry, didn’t mean to pry.’‘No, it’s fine. Kusum and I were in the same class. She was born and brought up in the USA. Imostly lived in the UK. Both of us were desis, yet Westernized. I guess we connected.’‘How wonderful,’ I said.‘Yeah. Absolutely,’ he said. He became quiet. He took a big sip from his glass and spokeagain. ‘How about you? In love pretty hard? Moving countries.’‘Never again. This love business is not for me,’ I said. I took a knife and cut across the heart-shaped cake.‘That’s symbolic,’ he said. ‘A knife through your bleeding red velvet heart.’I laughed.‘Pretty much what happened. Discarded like used tissue. Switched like a TV channel,’ I said.‘Ouch, I am sorry,’ Neel said. ‘Though, excuse me, I am a bit surprised.’‘Surprised?’‘Like who were you dating? Brad Pitt?’I laughed. ‘Not really. Just a regular guy. Job on Madison Avenue. Why?’‘How on earth could any guy leave you?’ Neel said.His words felt like cold menthol balm on my bruised, wounded heart. I could have cried, butgirls who cry in front of their bosses are losers, and those who do in front of the boss’s boss are thebiggest losers.‘I am not. . .that. . .great,’ I fumbled for words. What I wanted to say was ‘Tell me more aboutwhy I am great.’‘Are you kidding me?’ Neel said and counted on his fingers. ‘You are smart, successful, fun totalk to, young, hard-working, funny and, well, I shouldn’t be saying this as your senior, but youknow. . .’ He paused mid-sentence.‘You know—what?’ I said.‘I don’t want to talk out of turn.’‘It’s okay.’‘Well, you know, you look pretty good. Very good, in fact.’Wow, did Neel Gupta just try a line on me? But wait, did Neel Gupta actually find me good-looking? And did he mean all those other wonderful things he just said?I felt loads of self-esteem shots being injected into my bloodstream.‘You are just saying all this to make me feel good,’ I said. It meant, say more.‘No. Why would I? I mean it. You are, professionally and personally, one of the most amazingpeople I have ever met,’ Neel said.I swear I felt the sand shift beneath me. Neel stared me right in the eyes. We had a moment ofsilence as I heard the splashing waves. I absorbed his compliment. Someone as cool as Neel foundme attractive. It was all too much. Something had to short-circuit in me as I gave the most idioticresponse.‘It’s okay if I send Marcos the term sheet by tomorrow evening, right?’ I said.
One month later‘Whole-wheat toast. Faa sang zoeng mat,’ I said. I had finally learnt to order breakfast at theGoldman café. Neel and I were the early arrivals, at 7.30 a.m.Neel took his black coffee and a bowl of oats. A month since our Philippines’ visit, we had theterm sheet signed. We had also reached settlement with the banks.‘I can’t tell you the details. But I have good news,’ Neel said.‘We have a buyer?’ I said, excited.‘Shh!’ Neel said and placed a finger on his lips. ‘Yes. We could be going to meet Marcos soonand finish the deal.’‘Cool,’ I said. ‘Take over the loans on one side and sell the company on the other.’‘What we call back-to-back deals. No risk on books. Best deal ever,’ Neel said. We gave eachother a thumbs-up. He reviewed the deal-closing documents.‘Looks good. Fingers crossed. Buyer on board soon,’ Neel said.I put the documents back in my laptop bag. These last few minutes of our daily café meetinghad become my favourite part of the day. It was when Neel and I discussed things apart from work.‘How is your new apartment?’ Neel said.‘I love it. Thirtieth floor, great view. Still doing it up,’ I said.‘Check out IKEA, they have good home stuff. Neat designs, good price,’ Neel said.‘Sure. Will go there. Need to join a gym too.’‘Have you tried yoga?’I shook my head. ‘Maybe at school in India,’ I said, ‘when it was compulsory.’Neel laughed.‘Check out Pure Yoga. They have a great studio. I go sometimes,’ Neel said.‘Okay. My birthday is coming up next week. Maybe I will treat myself to a membership.’‘Oh, great. Happy birthday in advance.’‘Thanks. So you do yoga too. How do you do it all?’ I said.‘If you love yourself, you will take care of yourself, right?’I counted the twenty-six pink roses. The bouquet on my desk had a maroon ribbon wrapped around it.It came from Armani Fiori, located in Central. Part of the Armani brand of Italian designer GiorgioArmani, the bouquets in the shop would be no less than 200 dollars at least. I removed a small whiteenvelope tied to one of the roses. A card inside said, ‘Happy Birthday—From the team.’I sat back in my seat, surprised. The hard-nosed and tough Distressed Debt Group isn’t knownfor affection and flowers. Bianca passed my cubicle.‘Happy birthday, Radhika,’ she said.‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘and thanks for the flowers. The most beautiful bouquet I have ever seen.’
‘You are welcome. We don’t normally do it. But you are new. Maybe that’s why Neel wantedit.’‘Neel?’‘Yes, he told me to order it. He even selected the arrangement.’I thanked everyone for the birthday wishes in the team meeting.‘The flowers are an exception. Don’t get high hopes,’ Josh said.‘Mostly we gift each other bad loan documents,’ Simon said. The team burst into laughter. Ilooked at Neel. He smiled at me.‘A team from the Metropolitan Bank of Tokyo is in town. They want to meet for potential co-investments,’ he said, making it clear that the bouquet and my birthday didn’t warrant any morediscussion.‘That’s Tanaka-san, Shin-san and I am Sugimula,’ said Arai Sugimura, head of the Distressed DebtGroup at Metropolitan Bank of Tokyo, as he introduced his team. In Japan, the tag ‘san’ is applied outof respect, sort of like ‘shri’ in Hindi. We exchanged business cards, held in both hands, as is thenorm in Asia.‘La-dhi-ka-san,’ Arai said. ‘Do I say youl name light?’‘It’s fine,’ I said and smiled. The Japanese bankers bowed to us as they sat down. Biancaasked us if we needed anything. Everyone agreed to have Chinese tea.‘It’s an honour you came to visit us,’ Neel said, turning on his client-charm button. ‘How canwe do business together?’‘Gupta-san, it is plivilege for us too,’ Arai said. ‘Goldman Sachs is ples-ti-gious bank. Youlgloup has good leputation in malket.’Bianca came back with teacups and a kettle of tea. She placed them on the table and left.‘Thank you. It’s all due to my great team,’ Neel said, waving his hand at us.Neel poured tea for himself. As did Josh and Peter.‘La-dhika-san,’ Arai said.‘Yes?’ I said.‘Would you mind?’ he said and pointed to the kettle. I realized he wanted me to pour tea for histeam. I looked at Neel and Josh. They seemed confused, but gestured that I do it anyway. I poured teafor the Japanese team and a cup for myself.Arai explained his desire to co-invest with our group. Nobody else from Arai’s team spoke aword. In Japan, when the boss talks, you remain silent.‘So what kind of deals al you looking at?’ Arai said. ‘Any polt-folios?’Arai had the typical Japanese problem of being unable to speak the R sound, which hesubstituted with L.‘Radhika bid for one recently, maybe she can talk about it,’ Josh said.‘La-dhika-san?’ Arai said.‘Yeah, I can tell you about this local Bank of East Asia auction. . .’ I began to speak but Araiinterrupted me with his laughter.‘Excuse me?’ I said, wondering if I had said anything wrong.
‘Solly. I thought La-dhika-san youl secle-taly. How can lady do dist-lessed debt?’ Araicontinued to laugh. His minions also grinned, taking their boss’s cue.Neel pursed his lips. He looked at me once and turned to Arai.‘The young lady here is one of our best distressed debt analysts,’ Neel said.‘Yes, yes, of coulse. By the way, I lemember a joke when you said lady,’ Arai said.None of us responded. He continued, ‘You know what they say about lady?’ He turned to Josh.Josh didn’t answer.Arai continued anyway, ‘When a lady say no, she means maybe. When she says maybe, shemeans yes. When she says yes, well, she is not a lady.’His colleagues found the joke extra funny and laughed out loud. Peter, Josh, Neel and I lookedat each other.‘Arai-san, I understand this is amusing to you. But frankly, this makes us quite uncomfortable,’Neel said.‘Solly. You may continue,’ Arai said.I took a deep breath to regain my composure. I spoke again.‘Yes, so I was saying,’ I said.Neel stood up.‘Actually, no,’ Neel said and paused before he spoke again. ‘No. This won’t work out.’‘What?’ Arai said, his face serious.‘We look for fit in a partner. Sorry, Arai-san, we won’t be able to do business with you,’ Neelsaid.‘We have billion dollals to invest. Lot of fee for Goldman Sachs on that.’ Arai lookedstupefied.‘I understand,’ Neel said, ‘but. . .’‘Actually, it’s okay, Neel,’ I said. ‘Arai-san, if I can tell you about the portfolio. . .’Neel shook his head.‘Arai-san, Tanaka-san, Shin-san, thank you for coming. I am sure you will find a great partner.We will pass. We anyway have a lot on our plate,’ Neel said. Josh and Peter stood up, somewhatsurprised. The Japanese bankers looked at each other.‘Josh will see you out,’ Neel said and left the room.‘Hey, Radhika, come on in,’ Neel said.I went into his office and sat down in front of him. He wore a pink shirt and a red Hermes tie.His face reflected a bit of pink from his shirt.‘By the way, happy birthday,’ he said.‘Thank you for the flowers.’‘They are from the team,’ Neel said.‘Bianca told me you chose them.’‘Oh, she did? She doesn’t understand confidentiality.’ Neel grinned.He played with his cuffs. He would do that when he was nervous. Or excited.‘Neel, about the meeting with the Japanese bankers. . .’
‘Yeah. What douchebags.’‘You cancelled the deal?’‘Well, we can’t work with sexist people like that. They made you so uncomfortable.’‘I was taken aback a bit, yes. But an odd comment here or there doesn’t bother me.’‘It’s not okay, Radhika,’ Neel said, raising his voice loud enough for even Bianca to notice.‘There was business there,’ I said.‘So?’ Neel said.I looked at him. We exchanged a glance. I don’t know if I imagined it, but it lasted a heartbeatlonger than it should have between a partner and an associate.‘Listen, Radhika. I am not going to allow anyone to treat you like this,’ he said andimmediately corrected himself. ‘I mean, not going to allow anyone in my team to be treated like that.’‘All right. But I was fine,’ I said.‘No. Don’t be fine. No business is worth that. We can let it go, okay?’I looked at Neel.‘Thanks,’ I said in a subdued voice.‘You are welcome,’ he said. ‘Now, what are your birthday plans?’‘I have a few calls with prospective El Casa buyers tonight.’‘Gosh, you are incorrigible,’ Neel said.‘It’s not so bad. Simon has organized drinks. A couple of Goldman associates are coming.’‘Nice. Have fun,’ he said.I wondered if I should invite him. He read my mind.‘I would have come, but it will be awkward for the rest if a partner shows up.’‘I understand. No issues,’ I said.‘Happy birthday again, Radhika,’ he said.I came back to my desk. I touched the petals of one of the twenty-six roses. My phone rang. Ihad a call from India. I picked up the phone.‘Hey, sister,’ Aditi didi said. ‘Happy birthday. I came home today. We miss you.’
‘H25One month laterere you go, whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and honey,’ Neel said and passed me mybreakfast. I gestured him a thanks with a thumbs-up. I was on a conference call. I was now vicepresident; my expected promotion had become official two weeks ago. We sat in the Goldman café at7 a.m. We had a potential buyer for El Casa called Greenwood Hospitality, a US-based company thatowned fifty boutique hotels worldwide. On the call were Maddox Dean, MD in the mergers’department in New York; Philippe Greenwood, owner of Greenwood; Neel and I.‘Philippe, the docs are watertight here. I think we should close this soon,’ Neel said.‘I don’t mind,’ Philippe said, ‘just that your price of fifty million is too high. How aboutforty?’Neel looked at me. I shook my head.‘Too low,’ Neel said.‘Let’s lock at forty-five,’ Greenwood said.Neel looked at me.I nodded.‘Done,’ Neel said. ‘Can we close the docs soon, please?’‘This is fantastic,’ Maddox said. ‘We have a deal.’‘Super. We’ll go down to the Philippines and close it with El Casa next week,’ Neel said.The call ended.‘Congratulations,’ I said.‘How much is the final profit?’ Neel said.‘Twenty million, net, to us,’ I said.Neel and I high-fived each other.‘How did you guys do it?’ Marcos said, as he flipped through the documents. Even though he tried tohide it, the smile wouldn’t leave his face. He had a bankrupt business that faced foreclosure and masslay-offs. Now he would get five million dollars next week in his account as a settlement fee for his
cooperation. Not to mention a global buyer who would keep his resorts alive.‘That’s what we do. We close deals, Marcos,’ Neel said.‘Wonderful. You are staying for several days this time, I hope,’ Marcos said as he signed thedocuments. ‘Stay on a different island each night.’‘I wish,’ Neel said. ‘But there’s a lot of work back in Hong Kong. We will leave tomorrow.’‘Same place then? Pengalusian?’‘Yes,’ Neel said.‘You saved my people their jobs. Thank you so much,’ he said.I collected all the documents Marcos had signed. Neel shook hands with Marcos.‘Pleasure doing business with you,’ Neel said.I stood in front of the mirror at the Pengalusian Island Resort and turned from side to side. I wonderedif my black shorts and the white gunjee over my pink sports bra revealed too much. Neel hadsuggested a run before our deal-closing celebration dinner. ‘Let’s burn calories before we consumethem,’ he had said.‘It’s fine. Be cool about it,’ I said to myself and checked myself out one last time. Okay, so theshorts were a little too short. The gunjee was, well, a little too short too.I met Neel at the reception area. He wore a blue workout T-shirt and black cycling shorts. Healso had blue mirror-tinted Raybans on.‘Wow, you’ve transformed,’ he said. The sunglasses covered his eyes. I couldn’t tell if he wasstaring at me. I thought he did. Maybe I wished he did.‘I haven’t run in the longest time,’ I said.‘We’ll just jog. Three rounds of the island?’‘Two, please.’He laughed.‘Okay, let’s go,’ he said.We jogged around the periphery of the tiny island. We had walked this route on our previoustrip. However, today the island felt even more dreamlike. Despite the bright sun, a cool breeze keptthe temperature just right. We jogged on the beach away from the water, which slapped lazily againstthe shore. Neel ran slower to match my pace. This way he remained only a few steps ahead of me. Inoticed his muscular legs. He had perfect, sculpted calves. He ran in flawless, graceful form. I,meanwhile, gasped, kicked and panted through the two-kilometre route. I wanted to quit after the firstround. However, Neel wouldn’t let me.‘Enough,’ I said, holding my stomach.‘Come on, you are doing great,’ he said.For the second round he remained behind me. I looked back from the corner of my eye. I don’tknow if he noticed my legs. It would have been hard to miss them, considering my shorts bunched upeven more when I ran.‘I am done,’ I said, gasping for breath as I finished the second round.‘Mind if I run a bit more?’ he said.‘Sure,’ I said and exhaled noisily.
‘See you in an hour for dinner,’ he said and ran ahead. Soon, he disappeared into the sand andgreen foliage of the island.I went back to my room and showered. I opened my suitcase and took out a white flowingdress with a floral print. It seemed perfect for an island resort dinner. The dress had a deep neckline;I wore a bead necklace to cover it. I applied make-up, and created a smoky effect around my eyes. Irealized I had not dressed up to look good since my New York days with Debu. Also, I noticed thename ‘Debu’ didn’t sting as much anymore. I applied perfume and translucent strawberry lip gloss. Ilooked at myself in the mirror one final time. If I made an effort I could look nice.Will he like how I look? The question floated in my head. Mini-me scolded me, He may befriendly, but he’s still a partner, and married. Get it?
I26arrived at the restaurant before Neel. I sipped a glass of champagne as I watched the sunset. Hearrived twenty minutes later.‘Sorry I am late. I ran extra rounds,’ Neel said.He wore a linen T-shirt and beige shorts.‘It’s okay,’ I said. He pulled out a chair and sat in front of me.‘Wow,’ he said, his gaze on me.‘What?’ I said.‘You look. . .well, different,’ he said.‘Good different or bad different?’ I said.‘You look stunning, actually. This dress really suits you.’He had given me his first direct compliment about my looks. While working on El Casa wehad become freer in terms of talking to each other. However, we still maintained propriety. We didn’tdiscuss feelings, for instance. We didn’t make personal comments. In fact, we never even called eachother a friend.And yet, today his compliment didn’t feel out of place.‘Thank you, Neel. That’s sweet of you,’ I said. There, I had become so much better at taking acompliment.He removed his Birkenstock sandals so his feet could touch the sand. I kicked off my heelstoo.‘Where’s my drink?’ Neel said and signalled the waiter. The waiter poured champagne forhim.‘So how do you feel after the run?’ Neel said.‘Good,’ I said, ‘but I need to build my stamina. People older than me are whipping me anddoing extra rounds.’Neel grinned. The waiter brought us the set menu choices. I chose the vegetarian option. Itconsisted of an avocado and rocket leaf salad, followed by mushroom truffle pasta. Neel chose aseafood chowder soup and pan-seared salmon cooked in a mango salsa.‘To El Casa, your first big deal in Asia,’ Neel said and raised his glass.‘To Greenwood, their new buyer.’ I touched his glass with mine.‘What a resort, isn’t it?’ Neel said. He pointed to the scenery ahead of us. Only half of the sunremained on the horizon. The deep orange-coloured sky had turned a silky texture.‘The most beautiful place I have ever been to,’ I said.‘Same for me. With one of the most beautiful minds I know,’ Neel said.
‘Yeah, sure. It’s only my mind that’s beautiful,’ I said. I am a fisherwoman. I fish, fish, fish.‘Of course not. But it isn’t appropriate for me to comment on the rest of you. Protocol,’ hesaid.‘We need to get something straight,’ I said and sat upright.‘What?’ Neel said.‘Are we friends or are we colleagues or are you my super-senior boss?’ I said.‘That’s a tough one,’ Neel said.‘Is it?’‘Well, yes. Fact remains I am the head of the group. You are the VP. Cheers.’We touched glasses again. I look a big gulp.‘So that’s who we are. Colleagues?’ I said.‘Well, no. I feel like after all those breakfast meetings I know you somewhat. You know metoo. In fact. . .’ he said and paused.‘In fact what?’‘In fact, I am going to miss our breakfast chats the most after this deal,’ he said and stared intothe horizon. ‘Our oatmeal and peanut-butter-toast conversations.’‘Don’t forget the honey,’ I said.He laughed.‘I will miss our breakfasts too,’ I said.‘Well, life goes on. Another day, another deal,’ Neel said.‘Wait. So we are not friends?’‘Can we be?’‘Why not?’ I said.‘Many reasons to not be. I am your senior. Twenty years older. Married. Two kids. You, on theother hand, young and single. Smart and attractive.’‘Attractive?’ I said and smiled.‘Yeah, of course. You are really attractive, Radhika. I am just being factual.’Ah, the sweet, soothing feeling of receiving a compliment from a worthy man.My life, at this moment, felt perfect.‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘You are pretty cool too.’‘What is this? An overworked bankers’ self-praise society?’ Neel said.We laughed. The waiter refilled our champagne glasses.‘We are friends,’ Neel said. ‘I don’t see you as a junior now.’‘Do note I get too casual with friends. Tell me if I overstep the line. After all, you are mysenior,’ I said.‘I am not the typical senior. You can be honest with me. Speak your mind.’‘Really?’‘Yeah. Try me,’ Neel said.‘Okay. What do you truly think of me?’ I said. ‘As a person.’He wiped the water droplets on his glass with his thumb.‘Go on, hit me. Be frank,’ I said.He smiled.‘You are smart, of course. But you are also simple and a little lost. You are one of the mostattractive women I have met. Yet you need external validation, a lot of it. This could be because youhave self-esteem issues. You are sensitive, but have closed yourself. After what has happened in New
York perhaps.’‘Wow,’ was all I could say, impressed and speechless at his observations.‘A bit too frank?’ he said.‘Yeah, ouch,’