Is Rajat Gupta Indian, American, Indian-American, South Asian or what, and does it matter? The question is interesting because the story of the fall of the biggest desi name in global business is being told in terms of geography and identity.
The day Gupta surrendered to the FBI to face charges of insider trading, the front pages in Kolkata mourned the fall of the blue-eyed boy from the neighbourhood of Maniktala, while the Delhi press lamented over one of the most extraordinary alumni of Modern School and IIT Delhi.
Meanwhile, the US and British media were going ape over South Asian conspiracy theories because all the big shots in the dragnet of the biggest-ever insider trading investigation were South Asians. Was the model achiever community losing its goody two-shoes rating? Had South Asians imported the lawlessness of their homelands?
South Asians immediately countered: American traders had been swapping tips at the 19th hole for generations, but it was a problem if immigrant South Asians did it? There's an element of truth there, but it doesn't follow that South Asians were picked on. The trail just happened to begin with a South Asian, Roomy Khan, and led to a network of South Asians, including the Sri Lankan Raj Rajaratnam, promoter of the Galleon Group. Since Galleon was the hottest hedge fund, it was the biggest target. And that fork of the trail led to Rajat Gupta, the tallest South Asian in the business and guaranteed to fall hardest.
In an interview with Suketu Mehta, Rajaratnam, who has been put away for 11 years, spoke of "a Jewish mafia, a WASP mafia, an Irish mafia" on Wall Street, which made it hard for South Asians to break in. But they don't operate under the colours of their countries of origin. Their flag, and that of all other financial cliques, is the colour of money.
We read this as the story of a model achiever community gone wrong only if we gloss over the name of the man leading the investigation: Preetinder S Bharara, Punjab-born US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Apart from ravaging corrupt US officials, Bharara's term has seen the conviction of al-Qaeda operatives, and the Pakistani Aafia Siddiqui for an alleged lethal attack on US interrogators in Afghanistan. Siddiqui's controversial trial can't have made Bharara a popular figure in Punjab, that side of the border.
Ethnicity may have played only an incidental role in the insider trading case. The South Asians involved are US citizens. They happened to hang together because, for purely cultural reasons, ethnic communities hang out together. Tagging the Rajaratnam-Gupta episode as a South Asian debacle on that ground alone is stretching it a bit. And telling their success story as a parable of South Asian achievement was just as fallacious.
The stories of Rajaratnam, Gupta or the Pakistani cricketers sentenced this week in London are personal tragedies, not those of their communities. Perhaps we should not take them too personally. Many achievers of South Asian origin don't even hold passports from our region. They are world citizens who happen to have been born with our skin colour. And sometimes, it shades over the colour that really matters - the colour of money.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal.