Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (9 page)

Watching the two of them, I was reminded of that charm my friend had, charm that one could not easily describe as boyish because of the sense one had that there was some deft control behind it. Women liked him. I remember now a walk in Central Park years ago, when I was in New York for work—the same walk, in fact, during which he suggested the poem that I would later recite to Meena. I remember that we were stopped by two people, a handsome young man and a beautiful young woman, coasting along on bicycles. They looked only a few years younger than us, perhaps college students, but at that time of life a few years’ seniority is taken for a world of experience. The two had lost their way and wanted directions, yet before I could respond to the woman, Zafar interrupted.

Forgive me, but I have one question, he said, looking at the woman.

He and I stood in our sharp suits, collars open, while the young woman, dressed in Lycra, stood astride the crossbar of her bicycle. She had a face and figure that Zafar would later describe as unbearable.

The clip you’re wearing, said Zafar, in your long brown hair—do you always wear it so, or are you wearing it like that now in order to keep the hair from falling across your face while you ride your bike?

You’re right, she said, nodding and smiling. It’s to keep the hair out of my eyes.

The young man was also smiling. I’m sure Zafar noticed that. How, I thought, could he bring himself to say
long brown hair
? I gave her the directions she’d asked for, but even as she listened to me she glanced at Zafar and continued smiling at him.

As they were about to turn to go, Zafar spoke up again.

I have one more thing I’d like to say.

Oh, yes? said the young woman.

If this man is your boyfriend, then he’s very lucky indeed.

I don’t think I’ve ever understood how Zafar managed either to bring himself to say such things or to get away with them. Perhaps it’s the former that compels the latter.

The young woman smiled and let her weight fall on the pedal of her bicycle. As she moved off, her back to us, she said: He’s not my boyfriend.

My name is Zafar. What’s yours?

She stopped, as then did her friend, and the two of them pushed back toward us.

My name is Eva, said the young woman.

I’m pleased to meet you, Eva.

Zafar introduced me and continued: You could follow the directions my friend gave you, or you could walk with us a little before carrying on with your journey.

The young man was chuckling. I don’t know if you’re interested, he said, but my name is Bruce.

Hello, Bruce, said Zafar, beaming at the young man. Of course I’m interested. Without you, Eva might not have stopped two young men for directions.

At those words, laughter tipped out over the group of us.

*   *   *

Meena wanted details about Afghanistan.

How are you, my dear? asked Zafar.

You dreadful tease. You can’t throw such words around willy-nilly, she said.

What words? I asked her.

Afghanistan, she said, shooting me a dismissive look.

Tell all and tell it now, she said, as she made her way toward the drinks cupboard.

Still impatient, I see, said my friend.

Life is short, Zafar—

And patience comes to those who wait, said Zafar.

Meena, I interjected, why don’t you pour one for Zafar?

Whisky? she asked Zafar, who nodded.

Meena caught my eye then, and though Zafar was not looking at either of us at that moment, I had the thought that I have often had in Zafar’s company, that he was nevertheless aware of being watched. Meena’s brow was furrowed with unmistakably genuine concern, as if to say, My God, he looks dreadful. I thought to myself, If only she had seen him before he’d slept, before he’d washed and shaved.

As I think now of that moment, all those months ago, of Meena’s searching look to me to corroborate her concern for Zafar, I am struck not just by its tenderness but by the instant bond between her and me, if only briefly, forged by the sincerity of her plea. I think now that perhaps this is what we had lacked by never having had children, a common enterprise of concern and love beyond ourselves or each other, whose effect might have been to bring us closer together. Of course I know that the facts speak against such a romanticized view of family, I know that many marriages fail in the year following the birth of the first child, but because Meena and I had never had children, a vacuum was left for such speculation.

Has he told you yet? They’re going to fire him, she said to Zafar.

She set down a tumbler of whisky in front of him.

We don’t know that, I said.

Wake up and smell the whisky, said Meena. You saw the email today?

I saw several emails.

The badly drafted email about badly drafted emails?

The message about using profanities in emails—I did, I replied.

Meena gave no response. The firm had issued a warning against the use of obscene language in emails, and the warning had made it onto the financial news wires, which, I imagine, is how Meena had heard about it.

Are you still doing MBSs? asked my friend.

To the extent that anyone is, which is pretty much not at all. The business is dead in the water. Now it’s all about unwinding trades that everyone thinks should never have taken place. But where were they in the heydays, banging on the phone for more, screaming across the trading floors for more and more? They couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Where were the fuckers then?

When you say they, asked Zafar, which they are you talking about?

All of them—bankers, investors, consumers, even the brainless bloody regulators—the whole world was gorging itself.

But you’re not thinking of all of them, are you? Who is
they
?

He was right, of course. There was one group I hated above all others, one group that drew most of my fury. I was a new partner in the firm. Last in, first out. My career had been built on mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit derivatives, and everything else that was now being laid for a bonfire, while my own firm was readying to tie me to the stake to satisfy a public’s lust for blood. This was a temporary discipline, the villagers running amok at night to purge their own souls, only to return at daybreak to the old ways in the perverse belief that they had been cleansed by sacrifice.

At work, I would come upon groups of partners huddled in conversation that would break up on my appearance. My team’s trading books had been taken over and parceled out to traders on the fixed-income derivatives desk. Half my team had been fired, and I’d been told to lie low, take a vacation even. I knew where it was heading: an email from the senior partner suggesting that we talk, and of course he would do all the talking.

In a way, it was my fury that had complicated my decision. And what a decision it was that lay before me: to leak to the regulator information about wrongdoing at the firm or not. What happens in the firm stays in the firm. Or so the convention went. But it was not my convention, not when it immunized the firm from warranted scrutiny, when it provided the veil of secrecy behind which rogue bankers went about their sordid business, shielded by a wider circle of bankers who, if not active in the furtherance of shady dealings, were complicit through their knowing failure to call a halt. I do not exempt myself. I knew, for instance, of a program of deals that were plain wrong, and I had been part of that wide circle that averted its collective eye at the appropriate moment.

The United Kingdom’s Financial Services Authority was privately the laughingstock of bankers. They advocated a principles-based regulation, they said, with a light touch they proudly touted at every conference, in every press release, but they were useless and we knew it. We hired the regulator’s own former supervisors to head up our in-house compliance departments. We lured them away from government service with lucrative private-sector salaries. And because they knew that that was the sort of future awaiting the favored, they were
compliant
with us long before they ever set foot in our offices. In 2000, there were fifty-nine criminal convictions for insider dealing in the United States. Meanwhile, in the U.K. there were none. It’s all there on the Internet, if you look for it. But that was the point. No one did. Everyone in finance relied on the yawning indifference of the public and the press to what was really going on. The regular Joe doesn’t care so long as he gets his mortgage or loan. Don’t they say that all that evil needs is for good people to do nothing?

And now I was in a position to leak something to the regulators, who never had the means or the skill to detect these things in the first place. I did not need to wait for the letter from the congressional committee. I did not need a venue, because I could inform the regulators directly. I could tell them a thing or two that would earn more than a few column inches in the papers, now that people are cottoning on to how much their personal lives hang by the threads of finance and how vulnerable they are to its fortunes.

Some leaks take courage. There are the leaks by junior civil servants in the planning departments of African governments, men struggling to make ends meet and feed their families, who face penury, or worse, if they’re identified. But as I hide behind anonymity, when there is no prospect of my livelihood being destroyed, no prospect of being reduced to destitution, a leak is cowardly. I never needed the money of finance.

By which I do not mean that for some noble reason money held no power over me. Nothing fine owned my allegiance. I was never the artist or mendicant of a Somerset Maugham novel, never the pilgrim of Art or God obsessed with a journey foreswearing material concern.

The partners made a killing from me, I explained to Zafar. We made them hundreds of millions, me and my team. That’s much, much more than they’re losing now. I built up this business when it was nothing more than an idea, when Wall Street was still struggling to figure out how to price these things. You were there at the beginning, for God’s sake. Do you remember me dragging you out to a pitch at Lehman, when I was getting the Street on board? You showed them the mathematics and they lapped it up. And now my firm, your old firm, is treating me like dirt even though not one of them had a bad thing to say when they were rolling it in, hand over fist. Do you think they’re going to return the money they made? Who would they return it to? Everyone made money through those trades. Everyone.

Did you think they were your friends? asked Zafar.

I didn’t think they were hypocrites.

And some of them were your friends?

Some of them were my friends.

With friends like that, said Meena. You think there are friends in finance?

Why not? I asked.

And what about lady friends? asked Meena, turning back to Zafar.

My friend smiled, and despite the talk of workplace treachery and double-dealing, I recognized how much I had missed that smile. What was contained in that countenance of his? How many times had he deflected and disarmed another with that smile? It was an answer to questions whose answers would otherwise be insufficient, and in that smile, in the large eyes and the tilt of the head, there was the reflection of an inner quality of which today it seems so anachronistic to speak, but there it was, a goodness of spirit. If I risk taking it too far, I might say that it was compassion.

Are you seeing anyone? she asked.

She’d have to squeeze into my backpack.

Meena let out a laugh.

Zafar had always had an easy way with her, and she with him. There had always been a sibling quality in their affectionate familiarity. And I suppose the two of them had more in common, in their social backgrounds, that is, than she and I did.

You’ll be staying, won’t you, Zafar? she said.

My friend nodded and thanked my wife.

Stay for a while, she said. Stay as long as you want, of course, but stay for a bit.

Zafar did not look to me for agreement or encouragement to stay, and I supposed he knew that my welcome was always there. What he might not have known was that a tide of emotion had swept over me—the memory of the intensity of affection I had felt for this man came ringing back across the years, no less soundly for all the discomfort in discussing my circumstances at work. I had missed him, particularly so in the past year. I had heard rumors about him from here and there, some even from Meena’s acquaintances, but I had no solid idea what had become of him lately, as if in traveling the map of the world he had found its edge and crossed it. I did want to know what had happened, but I understand only now where much of the intensity of my curiosity came from. I cared for him, of course, and I do not think I ever properly grasped that nettle.

But if you had asked me then, as I sat in the kitchen that day with these two people to whom life had brought me closest—if you had asked what it was that aroused my desperate
interest
, I would have told you this: Having seen that my own choices had taken me into a loveless, childless marriage, not to mention the materialism that never seemed enough, having made choices that mysteriously failed to express my innermost longings, I believed that in Zafar’s life I might learn something of how things could have been, for worse, if not better. On some crude social-psychological level, is that not one of the ancient functions of friends and peers: to show us the way, or warn us of roads that lead nowhere, and always to reassure us through their errors, which we never made? There but for the grace of God go we. I would have said something like that, and it would have been a lie, a well-spoken lie of the most stubborn kind, the lie that we tell ourselves.

I’ve never claimed to be a master of self-knowledge, and perhaps such a thing is illusory if, as Zafar said, there is no path from the self to the self, but what I would say now is that my friend had acquired a totemic place in my imagination, an emblem of an idea I have wanted to believe to be true, whether or not he himself did so. Zafar was to me proof that we are not prisoners in the lives we lead, that though with each choice we might break away from lives unlived, we are not condemned by circumstance or chance to the here and now and this. The irony is that he himself denigrated the will and its role in charting our way in the world. But irony, such as it is, only sharpens our interest.

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