Book Box | The first Bangladeshi woman on Wall Street and the Pakistani conman
Juxtaposing the high-stakes world of a Wall Street conman with the story of a women who transitioned from a career in finance to social impact
It is Friday morning and I am on a flight to Bengaluru. In my tote bag, I carry a laptop, a Kindle and two paperbacks. Settling down in my seat, I think about pulling out my Kindle. But then something makes me hesitate.
The book I am reading on my Kindle is bothering me. The premise is fascinating - it’s a scam story - full of investors, intrigue and billion-dollar funds. It’s an expose on Pakistani businessman Arif Naqvi of Abraaj Capital, who charms Western investors and philanthropists, bamboozling them into coughing up large amounts of capital, even as he over-leverages his own investments and eventually collapses into liquidation.
It’s a genre I am riveted to - from Bad Blood, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her phony pathology claims to The Cult of We, where you see WeWork founder Adam Neumann enticing investors by putting on a show, baking cookies so the smell of fresh baking fills the air and filling his WeWork shared office space with fake users.
But here in The Key Man, the book I am reading on my Kindle, something isn’t quite right and it’s more than the scam.
The authors, who are two Wall Street Journal reporters, seem to base their story on a lot of hearsay, collating the whinges and whines of disgruntled employees. So yes- there is this Pakistani founder and he pretty much acts like the standard 'Wolf of Wall Street man, throwing quantities of cash around, with yacht parties and buying tables at charity dinners hosted by people like Bill Clinton. By playing this persona, he manages to dupe what the authors call the ‘global elite’ - a whole phalanx of Western investors, who mouth pieties of impact capital, but don’t know a thing about the areas they want to invest in.
What bothers me through this somewhat racy story, is the subtext of moral outrage against the individual, with no critique of the system itself.
I rummage in my tote bag and pull out my paperbacks - The Paris Bookseller, a book I carry for my bedtime reading, a wonderful feel-good historical fiction book about the founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris.
And then there is a new book - The Defiant Optimist. It starts with a scene in a village in Bangladesh, as women sit around stitching beautiful kantha work blankets. But The Key Man has made me sceptical of people painting pretty pictures and I withhold my judgement.
Yet slowly Durreen Shahnaz draws me in. The youngest daughter in a traditional Bangladeshi family, Durreen writes about fighting to have a birthday party, a ritual reserved for the only boy in the family. When she finally gets her way on her twelfth birthday, it seems as if a disapproving fate steps in to colour her birthday party in a way she can never forget.
Durreen fights to go study abroad and after studying economics, becomes the first Bangladeshi woman to work on Wall Street, a fact she discovers when her work visa application is processed.
"I don’t know what savage country you are from, but in this country, we shower and wear shoes" she is told by a vice president at Morgan Stanley when she appears looking rumpled after a night in the office spent working on a leveraged buyout model.
Durreen has gone back to Bangladesh when a jolt hits me. We have landed in Bengaluru. Durreen is now working at Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel Prize-winning Muhammad Yunus, teaching women how to sign their name before they receive their microfinance. Something doesn’t go quite right here, Durreen doesn’t say much on this, but she returns to Wall Street, she does an MBA at the Wharton School of Business, gets married and founds an online global marketplace for hand-made goods called OneNest.
Then 9/11 happens and everything changes for Durreen. She must change gears yet again and she does.
I continue reading her story on the long drive to Bengaluru city, flouting my earlier resolutions to stop reading in a moving car. This memoir links me to another book I have been obsessed with, one that I wrote about a few weeks ago - The Brass Notebook by Devaki Jain.
Both books are memoirs by women economists who adapt, survive and fight the systems around them, making whatever incremental changes they can, pivoting when they need to. Interestingly both these women, one born in India, and the other in Bangladesh, fight their families to marry the man they love. They both teach - one at Miranda House at Delhi University and the other at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. And both devise new ways of measuring value - Devaki Jain in her recommendations to India’s Planning Commission and Dureen in her creation of an Impact Exchange.
The Defiant Optimist makes me hopeful, and even happy - and it turns out, serendipitously, to be the perfect antidote to The Key Man.
With this, it’s a wrap for now. Next week I bring you something unusual - a human library.
Until then, happy reading.
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are personal