Jack Patel's Dubai Dreams: rise and fall in the financial world

The banker PG Bhaskar's novel takes stock of a career through the turbulence of the financial crisis.

Jack Patel's Dubai Dreams / PG Bhaskar / Penguin India / Dh35
Powered by automated translation

Consider the case of Chad Harbach, whose novel The Art of Fielding was reviewed in these pages last week. Hailed as a stunning literary debut, his book was a decade in the making.

In the years before its publication, Harbach chiselled out a career as a literary editor by day, and honed his debut novel by night. He would hawk his manuscript around countless agents and publishers, every one of whom would knock him back. Bloodied by rejection but defiant, Harbach continued his search for the recognition he believed his novel deserved.

His persistence, not to mention his remarkable talent, would eventually be rewarded with an enormous advance (all US$665,000 [Dh2.4m] of it) after several publishers became engaged in a protracted bidding war to secure his flawless manuscript. Critical acclaim has followed since.

Now consider the case of PG Bhaskar, the Dubai-based author of Jack Patel's Dubai Dreams.

Bhaskar is a banker by day (he prefers not to name which institution he works for), and a budding novelist by night. He was moved to write his debut fiction by the 2008 financial crisis, which arrived like "a swift kick in the pants", according to the acknowledgements page of his book.

"I'd always wanted to write a novel," he tells me over a morning coffee in one of Dubai's many shopping malls, "but there was no sense of urgency to do it. And then a whole lot of things happened in 2008 and 2009. That was a very difficult time for me personally, for the banking sector and especially for clients. When I started writing I found it was the only thing that could take my mind off what was happening. So I kept going."

Soon he finished the book and began, like Harbach and thousands of other authors before them, to search for a suitable publisher.

"Like every first-time writer I was groping in the dark," he admits. "I tried reading up about the best way to approach a publisher or an agent. I decided to look in India because many of the characters in the book are Indian. I thought there would be more of an appeal in that market.

"I wrote to four publishers and I got two rejections and two approvals on the same day. I chose the bigger name."

That bigger name was Penguin India. Having finished the book in November 2009, Bhaskar signed on the dotted line with a major publisher little more than three months later. Published in India last year, the book is now on sale in the UAE. Sometimes the journey to your destination is much quicker than you expect.

Dubai Dreams follows the fortunes of young Jai "Jack" Patel, comfortably under 30 and fresh out of business school. Patel is recruited as a financial adviser by the fictional "Wall Street colossus" Myers York and is sent from India to the firm's Dubai offices in late 2005.

The office he finds there is as imposing as the characters who fill its corridors. We meet Philippe, "a millionaire financial adviser who was looked up to by youngsters, envied by his peers, and feared by his managers". We meet Cyrus too, who is "forty, tall, a serious-looking bachelor who wore well-cut suits and - for reasons best known to him - a bow tie". Patel finds himself, initially at least, a little overwhelmed.

In these pages, the city emerges slowly, as if disturbed from a slumber. Bhaskar offers small snatches of scenery and scant commentary. Dubai's skyline is, he writes, "Las Vegas on steroids", Bur Dubai souq is a "throwback to the times when the city was still a small trading town, still on the brink of glory". The place is, according to our protagonist, a "city of dreams" on the day he picks up a ticket for one of the regular millionaire's draws at Dubai airport.

Slowly too, Patel begins to carve out a reputation on the trading desk. He lands client after client. His stock rises accordingly: "the financial world was putty in my hands," he tells us. The markets, meanwhile, continue their journey on what appears to be an upwards-only curve. Success seems assured.

It is late 2007 by this time, and nothing can puncture our protagonist's optimism. When Patel's father warns him that the US economy is showing such signs of strain that it may trigger problems elsewhere in the world, he will have nothing of it: "Not this time, Dad. The US problems may lead to some slowdown in the west, but will leave [us] untouched."

For a time, Patel is right. His six-figure bonus rolls in, his asset book continues to expand before the big casualties of the great recession begin to assemble in Bhaskar's pages - Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Northern Rock - and life in Dubai goes from high to sigh to goodbye.

Twists unwind in the book's later stages, turns that allow for the possibility of a sequel - a second instalment which Bhaskar expects to be published later this year.

Even as sales of Dubai Dreams stack up in both India and the UAE, Bhaskar does not plan to give up the day job: "Writing is a hobby."

So too is cricket. Bhaskar's biography acknowledges his love of the sport, which reveals he can often be found "on his sofa, staring intently at the television set mouthing profanities when things don't go according to plan".

We meet on a day when things really haven't gone according to plan.

Our scheduled appointment occurs on time but, on a far away cricketing field, Sachin Tendulkar, India's greatest batsman, had fluffed his lines once more.

Tendulkar has been one big score away from landing a century of centuries - the mark that separates mere sporting greats from legends - for the best part of a year.

Hours before my morning coffee with Bhaskar, Tendulkar had looked well placed to finally cross that line, only for the hopes of a nation, the hopes of almost the entire cricketing world, to be dashed once again by the cruel intentions of the Australian bowling attack.

It is, Bhaskar says, "a depressing day" and it is hard to disagree, before the conversation moves on to the equally downbeat topic of banking, the industry that has copped most flak during the economic slowdown.

"Everyone likes to have a whipping boy when there is a problem," he says.

Bhaskar moved to Dubai in the early Nineties and has forged a deep bond with the city in the intervening years. That much is obvious in his book and his conversation. He doesn't doubt its ability to bounce back stronger after the dark days of the recent past.

"Dubai went through the same problems that many individuals experienced, in the sense that it grew very fast, very quickly. I think that history shows there is always a price to pay for super-fast growth.

"There was one big hiccup, but it has brought a sense of reality in the minds of residents and investors," he says. "[Dubai] is no more a Disneyland where there is infinite scope for making money and everything you touch turns into gold. Wherever that situation occurs, people lose their balance and sooner or later there is a sharp correction.

"There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from this. Now it is up to the investors and the bankers to draw the right conclusions."

He wants readers to draw the right conclusions from Dubai Dreams, too. "I wrote the book primarily to give people an idea of what happened [in the financial crisis], but I wanted to do so in a nice entertaining kind of way. "

And it is, it should be noted, a witty book, full of inventive one-liners, humorous asides and smart observations.

"There are really no shortcuts to success. There are cases where people made substantial amounts of money in a short period of time, but that is probably because they have also taken substantial risks."

And sometimes, as Jack Patel finds, the risks can overpower the rewards.