A Wall Street Journal under Klingmann’s armpit bears the headline “5.3% EXPANSION OF U.S. ECONOMY IN Q2 2015!” Jogging in off ISB Road, Klingmann scans his retina in the lobby of Babu’s Information Textology’s new $48 million facility and rides the glass elevator up to the CEO’s penthouse.
CEO Le Dan calls Harshita, his assistant, on line 3 and orders lattes on his Copenhagen china. Klingmann plugs a flash drive into an LG OLED. He pulls up pie-charts showing deep penetration in emerging and mature markets, saying, “I was thinking we could include these in the next letter to shareholders.”
Le Dan takes his orange Wii gun and shoots a pixelated duck on a far-off screen. Harshita knocks at the door.
“Come in,” says Le Dan.
She brings the lattes and gingerbread cookies, saying, “Sir, you’d best tune to Zee Telugu for the evening news. A large crowd is amassing outside the U.S. embassy.”
When Le Dan, a b-school-grad-cum-pro-CEO, and Klingmann, an angel investor, acquired Babu’s Information Textology, the first thing they did was try to change the name. But Aayush Babu, who’d launched the firm, programmed the Textology’s algorithm and remained as board chairman, was ready to die on that hill. Keeping the name was for the better. It dampened resentment over the takeover of an Indian blue chip by Silicon Valley. Plus, Babu deserved recognition for one of the greatest communication leaps forward since Facebook — and greatest cash cows for American investors. So they learned to deal with him.
Le Dan lowers his Wii gun and sips the latte. He wonders whether Harshita let it steep in the French press too long. He zones out on the blue china flowers, smelling the solvents from last week’s paint job as he runs his fingers through his blond crew-cut as if to massage a course of action into his brain.
“Can you remind me of our three CSR options?” he asks Klingmann. “We don’t want people to hate us in India. We fucking love India. We need to act quickly to get the public back on our side.”
“The first is opening a network of shelters and soup kitchens across Andhra Pradesh Province. The second…”
Harshita knocks on the door and enters.
“Excuse me, the President of the United States is on line 1,” says Harshita.
“One second,” Le Dan says, picking up the phone.
“Good morning, president Le Dan,” says President Obama.
“Good evening, Mr. President,” says president Le Dan.
“Are you watching the news?” asks President Obama.
“No,” says Le Dan, pointing to the TV and doing a button-clicking motion to Klingmann.
Onscreen, Zee 24 Gantalu pans over protesters jumping barricades outside the U.S. embassy in Delhi, hands flailing as they mount cars in the roundabout. Scores of street kids kneel on the ground, hands tied, photos of Obama pasted to their faces. A chopper casts a long shadow as it flies over the white, spike-topped embassy walls. Riot police in hardhats press their shields into a turbaned man shaking his fist. Someone holds up a sign saying, “BABU = TRAITOR” in red letters. Another sign reads, “WHAT WOULD MAHATMA DO?” The camera zooms into a girl on her father’s shoulders near shrubs, her sign saying, “HINDU FAMILY UNIT.”
“What are you going to do, Eric?” says Obama.
“We have three options for CSR. First, we can open a network of shelters and soup kitchens across India. Did you just yawn? Trust me, the second option is better. We’ve been thinking of sponsoring a reality TV show in the slums of Indiranagar. In the vein of ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ To raise awareness. OK, OK. The last option is a benefit concert for victims of drought. We’ll get Miley Cyrus or some superstar like that. Somebody everybody loves. Quick, Klingmann, give me the attendance estimates for the Miley Cyrus concert.”
“Three million heads.”
“Well,” says Obama, after a pause. “We need to show respect to folks in India. But do the expedient thing, Eric. Get her, uh, twerking ass over there. Give the people what they want. You need to own this problem, Eric. How can I pivot to Asia with, uh, citizens rioting against us in the second-biggest country in the world?”
“I couldn’t agree more, Mr. President,” says Le Dan, invoking his Missouri charm. “Klingmann and I think you should make an appearance out here. Make it an addendum to your trip to Malaysia, Singapore, and PNG.”
“Maybe. But get a lid on this, Eric. You have no idea how much is on my plate. There’s a national election next year.”
Before the takeover of Babu’s IT by the Endgame Consortium, when the Textology was still taboo, President Obama heard about it from John Boehner following a lunch of duck leg confit, rosti potato, and monkey bread. A Republican delegation had joined Obama at Camp David for some bipartisan skeet shooting the weekend before Thanksgiving.
As they pointed their double-barreleds at clay disks soaring cloud-ward and Obama muttered, man to man, how Michelle kept texting him guilt-tripping messages about missing Meliah’s recital — leaving him no brain space to hash out an Iran strategy with the GOP — Boehner said, in a low, locker-room voice, “Well, I’ve been using Babu’s IT for months.”
Obama dispatched an aide to contact the firm in Hyderabad. The aide reported back that Babu’s voice on the phone was high-pitched and nasally, like he’d swallowed helium. “Of course I would be joyed to provide this service for this matter of the recital,” Babu said to the aide. “I merely ask that the President make me privy to sundry weeks of SMS exchanges between His Presidency and the First Lady.”
When the aide drew a breath, Babu said, “Tell Mr. President that the only individual who shall bear witness to these messages is a benign computer.”
Retreating to the guest library, Obama hunched over a desk to copy his SMS history with Michelle to a Word file, a few “I love you’s” expunged. He returned to the hill, clutching 0.5% Jarad’s Hard Lemonade. A staffer loaded skeets in the launcher and Obama took shots — bad shots. He thought how obsolete he was to trust Boehner on a social-media matter. Shoving his gun into the arms of the staffer, he retreated to the gym for a dozen low-weight reps on the chest press. When he went to the guest library, a grin formed on his face. Obama’d sent — or rather, the Textology, represented by the “S” icon in the upper-right corner of his Blackberry, had sent — nine messages to Michelle. One read:
Barack: Give Meliah my love. Tell her everyone at Camp David — from Democrats to supporters of the Tea Party — stand united in sending best wishes to our nation’s First Daughter. Mitch McConnell says “break a leg.”
Obama knew McConnell would never say that, but the sentiment worked. He could free up mental resources by outsourcing daily communication — such was the beauty of Textology.
For the rest of the weekend, Obama threw himself headlong into roundtable discussions on enrichment plants, subterfuge and centrifuges. To Obama, these doughy Congressional faces had been a dead end, but now they were the road forward. Immersed in the minutiae of uranium and mullahs and the Middle East arms race, he started to feel understood, at one with his peers. He went beyond his professorial tack and was able to “connect on a deeper level,” he thought, with Boehner, McConnell and leaders from Exxon-Mobil, AIPAC and Boeing. Bombing and sanctioning Iran, he convinced them, was weak. Striking a deal for low-level enrichment for civilian purposes, on the other hand, was actually a “darn hawkish policy” because it brought Iran under Uncle Sam’s boot.
That evening, as Obama and the congressmen and women uncorked chardonnay on a picnic table to celebrate their “team of rivals,” Obama wondered why no one in Silicon Valley had bought Babu’s Information Textology.
Babu enters Le Dan’s office without knocking, interrupting whispers. He wears a tight-fitting velvet maroon suit with transistor cufflinks. His hair is almost buzzed at the sides, yet spiked on top. A silver “S” pendant hugs his veiny neck and Le Dan thinks he’s wearing eyeliner. Le Dan and Klingmann restrain their grins, never accustomed to Babu’s ways. But this is the man who’s made them very, very wealthy. Klingmann quickly gestures for Babu to sit down.
“How are things?” asks Le Dan.
“Fairly good,” says Babu.
“Care to elaborate?”
“They’re fine, I suppose.”
Le Dan tries to keep a straight face. Things are fine? With the riots in Delhi, the Textology’s Elite Corp workers threatening to strike if they don’t get a raise, and President Obama considering coming here on Air Force One — things are fine?
“Let me phrase it like this,” says Klingmann, stepping in. “How is mediation between the Elite Corps and management going? Fine?”
“Look, what the heck do you want from me?” asks Babu.
Babu furiously mounts his Burgman scooter in the garage. He knows a raise is owed to the Elite Corps — 1000 mostly gay men, who, for the Textology’s premium service, supplement its algorithm and introduce a “human flair” to the text messages. Their existence is controversial, not merely within the firm — where Le Dan and Klingmann resent any agitation for higher salaries and the erosion of shareholder value — but also within India, a country that’s no nirvana for LGBTs.
Babu winds around a set of pylons to his Hummer H3 Alpha, parked a few spots from Klingmann’s red Spider. As he backs out, he imagines ramming the Ferrari into mincemeat. He laughs. He knows that K&L have no cards to play. Though they made him rich, he made them super-rich. Who else will negotiate with the Elite Corps? Who else will be the face of the Textology to Indians? Who’s going to fight employee attrition and splinter start-ups? An American financial holding company?
Le Dan bangs the table with his fist, making his cup of BIC pens leap up. “I know we need Babu,” he concedes. “But I feel like there’s too much daylight between us, you know?”
Le Dan’s grandfather lost his hardware store in Milwaukee during the Depression. This inculcated an austere sensibility in Eric Jr., who’d pass on the same thing to Eric Le Dan III. Eric Jr. sold Persian carpets till the Revolution put him out of business. Convinced that geopolitics and financial bubbles were a conspiracy against the Le Dan dynasty, he encouraged his son to be a history teacher or even pursue his interest in competitive lacrosse.
Le Dan graduated from Rutgers with a B.A. in business economics. Forging out in the world, he networked with alumni and was vetted to be the deputy vice chairman of a Bahamian pen-making manufacturer. For years he flew from Nassau to Milwaukee on weekends to raise his young family with his wife, a recent Belorussian immigrant who’d become a good Republican. They shared a mortgage, a Jeep, and a weeklong summer vacation in a cabin on Lake Superior. He made 58,000 in after-tax dollars. But the American dream wasn’t coming easy. Le Dan wanted an Eric the Fourth to go with his two daughters, but his wife wasn’t getting pregnant and he believed she was on the pill — so much so that he started YouTubing reproductive health and asking his wife questions that only set her off more. They did not have great conversations. Over the line from his Nassau office, he could hear her tears, the rustle of unraked leaves blowing on the lawn, his daughters throwing tantrums in highchairs.
Stateside one weekend, Le Dan took his wife to a country music show headlined by Chase Rice — someone they used to enjoy together — but she got angry over something he said (he wasn’t sure) and took a cab home. That was when he looked across the bar and saw Klingmann, whose bespectacled squint and medium-high-IQ fidgetiness made it look like he’d done the same kind of damage to his life. They formed real sentences to each other after a while, two Milwaukee boys with daughters. Klingmann was an auditor at KPMG in a bad marriage. As they clinked double whiskeys, they got nostalgic as if they’d rediscovered their friendship after a decades-long hiatus. They talked like undergrads till the early hours, till the bartender told them he had to turn off the lights. In the parking lot, they agreed they’d take cabs home and leave their jobs. “You only live once,” said Le Dan.
The Endgame Consortium leveraged Klingmann’s seed capital and Le Dan’s “executive skills” and Rutgers network to offer a new kind of investment outfit in the Midwest: mom-and-pop-cum-Wall Street (it fit Porter’s 5 Forces analysis, which Le Dan learned in biz school). Their temporary office was at the back of a laundromat that had a big neon sign and employed aliens who skated in when ICE agents were unlikely.
Most of Endgame’s clients, early on, were family who bought a small amount of mutual funds but mostly asked questions about the aliens.
The first bet, on a Netscape Navigator imitation, flopped. So did Dictate Fun, a Word Perfect dictation plugin. Things were going pop in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble and Le Dan and Klingmann were disillusioned with the “smart money.” At a campfire one night in Klingmann’s backyard, they talked about their daughters’ future and resolved to unlearn everything they knew. The Campfire Declaration: They’d hedge their positions more and shadow large, conservative firms. Value investing: no more speculation or obsession with quarterly earnings. Nothing disruptive. No more searches for the mythical app-maker in his parents’ basement. All they needed was the stones to take a big enough stake and wait.
Time passed and they turned but a modest profit. They were poorer than before, which was perhaps not unrelated to Le Dan’s wife entering talks with a divorce lawyer. A Brazilian running-shoe JV, a network of Chinese condom factories just drove the point home: life sucked. If there was any kind of right-brained, out-of-the-box innovation drive that could save them, their brains did not seem fast enough to find or comprehend it.
At Klingmann’s 41st birthday, he let the genie out of the bottle. At the dinner table, Le Dan tried to cut him off from Jack Daniels, tried to halt his drunken progress in front of Klingmann’s family and Le Dan’s scowling wife, but this only ping-ponged him more into his recklessness.
“I’ve wasted my entire life!”
Hushed tones. Someone turned up the Tom Petty. When Le Dan left for the bathroom, Klingmann reached for the JD. When Le Dan returned, they are all trying to talk over Klingmann’s rage, to paper over his seething. The only one listening to him was Klingmann’s brother’s girlfriend’s brother, a dapper Indian with a squeaky voice. He’d brought party hats, but he was the only one wearing one.
“What seems to be the issue?” he asked Klingmann.
“My investments, my daughter, goddamn it… just life.”
“Beating the markets? Simply mythical. Not for you.”
“What?” Klingmann’s voice wavered.
“You must regain composure,” said Babu. “Get yourself together, my man. No more of this poppycock about bad providence.”
Klingmann listened to Babu. He came down, two steps forward, one step back, from his fit of depression. When Klingmann’s eyes regained whiteness, Babu cut the sponge cake and took pictures.
Hung over the next morning, Klingmann called his brother’s girlfriend to thank her brother. She gave him an e-mail address, Babu@Babusit.in. Klingmann was piqued: “Babu’s it? What’s ‘it’?”
He autoreply he got to his e-mail had a mystifying e-signature: “Aayush Babu, CEO, Babu’s Information Textology.”
A Google search returned an address for a Hyderabad industrial park. Klingmann knew that he was dealing with a man who’d reached an Eastern level of self-mastery, a man who meditated, a man of honor who did not make a mess of things. What was he capable of? Klingmann could hire him for life coaching over Skype, at least.
Klingmann pleaded with Babu to meet him before his flight back to Hyderabad, but Babu declined, liberally infused his speech with proverbs like “What is the use of crying when the birds ate the whole farm?” When he relented they met at Dunkin’ Donuts. Babu ordered some tap water and ate half a muffin. He coughed up a drip feed of information about his company, about which Klingmann was much more interested than the prospect of learning how to live a better life.
Afterwards, Klingmann rang Le Dan as if Babu had charged him with pitching the business: “I’ve finally gone outside the box!” Le Dan did not have an opinion, but Klingmann managed to talk Babu into letting him take out a corporate loan for 14.5% of Babu’s Information Textology.
After the NSE IPO and years of expansion — after a 350-point climb on the NIFTY — President Obama, battered from Term Two, tried the product. Hectored for abandoning his pre-inaugural positions on war and warrantless spying, for solving the torture question through drone strikes, for his botched Affordable Care rollout — Obama had no peace. Fearing ISIS’s shadow would stretch long past his presidency, he needed a plan to safeguard his legacy that wasn’t the Trans-Pacific Partnership. As a concession to labor and an underhanded, 4D move in his “re-pivot” to Asia — a continent claiming scant real estate in his heart — he green-lit a quiet Silicon Valley takeover of a Taiwanese semiconductor consortium with 3D printing stakes, a SoftBank-funded AI lab, a few fintech firms, and Babu’s Information Textology. Making provision for the U.S. government to extend loans — under the auspices of the California and Nevada governments — to a dozen Silicon Valley “chosen winners,” with the profits syphoned into new start-ups and the stakes eventually —theoretically — divested, the passage of the Buy At Home Act was tacked on to a climate change bill and strong-armed through the House on a Friday.
When Americans integrated B.I.T. into their techno-cultural stack and the market cap neared Netflix and Uber’s, the Textology began opening call centres as far afield as Vietnam and Bhutan and, Le Dan, his firm now part-funded by U.S. taxpayers, was lauded for his “taking the baton from Steve Jobs.” With Buy At Home money, Silicon Valley was in a frenzy over optical glasses, robotics, biofuels, electric cars, moon trips.
American flags were flying a bit higher.
The Textology was the jewel in Obama’s so-called pivot, his demonstration that he could help the American worker and consumer while putting the gas on globalization in a way that went beyond Chimerica. He’d given up on returning America’s manufacturing base, on pestering China to unpeg the renminbi, on playing referee with special interests in the Middle East. He was almost beloved again. With a 28% increase in high-tech IPOs, Obama presided over a Reagan-like dawn of affluence, where consumer spending was rising because gadgets were the opiates of the masses.
There was dissent — this was the United States. Republicans, frothing over Hussein Obama on Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh shows, ridiculed the President for buying a company that did not pay tax in the U.S.A. But what these conservatives were blind to — besides the fact that not everything of value in the world was indigenously American — was that by keeping B.I.T. in India, Obama was foreclosing a new front in the culture war that wasn’t in the interests of conservative men, a major share of Textology adopters. (American women, when polled, mostly disliked engaging in text conversations with a computer. There was a Textology for LadiesTM, but it had failed to reach critical mass.)
Obama, long derided as an incrementalist who inspired rather than executed, as a left-wing president who undercut his agenda with concessions to Republicans, was passing legislation like LBJ, and in this autumn of the Age of Obama, talk of repealing Obamacare was talk of a bygone era, like talk of invading Canada or Mexico. Even bombing Iran had lost respectability beyond the military complex and usual neocons.
Obama was drafting a historic deal between the Israelis and Palestinians based on the 1967 borders, with long-term interest-free loans for the Palestinians in compensation for a mostly Israeli Jerusalem, and the status quo for holy-site access. His approval ratings made him the president he’d promised to be. No longer were there Republican senators drafting seditious letters to foreign governments. He could not be touched.
Air Force One rumbles over the Arabian Sea near Mumbai on the Subcontinent’s west coast. Obama and Dr. Abrams, his point-man in the U.S.–India Chamber of Commerce, are not stopping in India’s commercial Mecca, though — their business is strictly Hyderabad. Though he’s making miraculous progress in the Middle East, Obama desperately wants to move past any quicksand of intransigence that could bury his legacy. He stares out the window at the bed of cirrus cloud, at the plane wing jutting towards the rising sun. Even the name “Arabian Sea” triggers him. Think Asia. Pivot. “Pivot to Asia,” he whispers under his breath as he coughs recycled plane air. Last week, when Sasha was doing algebra at the White House with her tutor, she called one of her classmates a “sissy” and Obama thought of General El-Sisi and felt like retching. Focus, Barry!
Air Force One enters Rajiv Gandhi International airspace and lands. Obama deplanes with a strut in his step. Drenched by tropical heat and stunned by the palm trees and contrails in the vibrant sky, he salutes his mustachioed interlopers in black slacks, swamp-coloured shirts, sashes and red-plumed turbans. He gets in an armored Cadillac and his convoy leaves the airport to motor down the highway past an encroaching slum, the clapboard huts almost rubbing against barbed wire. His Blackberry rings. It’s Modi. Obama yearns for quiet, but he can almost hear the chant of the Delhi crowds, the angry dreams of Wall Street traders, all these voices that expect him to balance the world on his back: at least until the end of his term, he tells himself.
“Mr. President, my friend,” says Modi.
“Mr. Prime Minister,” says Obama.
“I welcome you to the Subcontinent. I hope that since you touched down you have been treated with due respect, Pres.”
“Thank you, Nahrendra. I appreciate your concern and I let me just tell you how happy I am to look out the window and be back on the Subcontinent.”
“You are always welcome, dear Pres.”
“So pardon my frankness, Nahrenda, but is it safe to say you’re making progress on getting these crowds under control?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“President,” says Babu, into his office phone. “Being homosexual is illegal under section 377 of the penal code. This country shows antipathy to gays. The Textology’s employment of gays is alienates the BJP’s usual suspects.”
“I’m aware of this,” says Obama, staring at a Department of Electronics & Information Technology wall plaque. “Can’t we let them go and use, you know, uh, other folks?”
Babu’s nose flares. He kicks the floor, his feet digging into the Persian carpet under his pedicured, slippered feet.
“Mr. President, we’ve conducted focus groups. Time and time, we find that our premium users gain more satisfaction from the service they receive from our existing professionals.”
“Darn it, Babu.”
On today, the first anniversary of his remarriage, Klingmann stands tall as he sheathes his Galaxy S6 Edge in his pocket. Le Dan, sprawled on the leather couch, sets down the orange Wii gun. “Mr. President!”
Obama struts into the Endgame penthouse and does a double-take at the Super Smash Bros. on the TV. Rubbing his hands together and loosening his tie, he has a stonerish “Let’s call Domino’s!” look on his face, but Le Dan leaps up from the couch. He blushes, conveying Obama to an oak chair in front of his desk.
Le Dan sits down, clasps his hands, stares at the little American flag in his pen holder. He looks out the window at workers on scaffolding, says, “Mr. President, you caught us in a celebratory mode. But in light of the political craziness in this country, Klingmann and I have some proposals we want to air. We know that it’d be bad optics if you attend the press conference tomorrow, so we’d like to get our plan straight right now.”
Klingmann clicks the remote to CNN–IBN. An anchor is giving the news as a smaller frame shows the riots in Delhi.
Obama watches the screen, hears Klingmann say something about “…collaboration between the Indian space agency and NASA for the Mars mission…”
Obama watches the fits of anger in the Delhi crowds, surprised at the protestors waving signs and smashing car windows.
Obama puts his hand up to silence Klingmann.
“Gentlemen, we all know what needs to be done.”
At midnight, Obama peers into the mirror in the Trident’s presidential suite, facing his critics on a simulated AC360 panel, a chorus of discordant voices whispering in his head. Guantanamo Bay. Libya. Kathleen Sebelius. Countries that start with “I.” Social Security. Eric Garner. Once you ride the zeitgeist, you can’t go back. How can you go from the bullet train to the city bus? Do you know how it’s been? he lectures. Do you know what it feels like — bloggers, lobbyists, professors? Yes, I became president of the Harvard Law Review without an article to my name and then became President. But let me ask you: Do you think it’s been easy? Do you know how it is to be obstructed by your own government like you’re George the III? To have your birth questioned? To be called a fake messiah? You doubted me, you wanted me to be an abstraction, a failed experiment. But I changed the world. And once you taste it, you can’t go back.
In the penthouse under a full moon, Klingmann and Le Dan clasp hands, knowing the time is nigh. In the morning is the press conference. But now, they drink Weißbier and get nostalgic over campfires, fishing on Lake Superior, their arms round each other’s shoulders, eyes melting to the floor and dancing to the ceiling, grins ablaze. Once, they were poor — or ordinary in America, which is poor in some corners. But no more.
“We knew the outside-the-box growth would come from outside!” says Klingmann, almost smashing Le Dan’s stein with his own. “We knew it!”
They laugh. Did they know it?
“And then there’s Babu…”
“Babu came to me when I was a broken man,” says Klingmann, mockingly, as if this were an indictment of Babu.
They go silent, leaving a few things unsaid. Already drunk, Le Dan opens a bottle of Moët and tops up Klingmann’s glass, right over the Erdinger. Le Dan holds the Wii gun that Obama was using just an hour ago. They’ll have to face crazy Babu in the morning. In the morning…
At 8 a.m. on American Independence Day (9:30 p.m. on July 3 in D.C.), Babu, Klingmann, Le Dan and Dr. Abrams, in a row of lecterns at the Chariot Hotel Conference Room, face a supernova of camera flashes.
Babu, in a continental suit, a silver bowtie, and purple pop-bottle glasses, sees Le Dan and Klingmann, in grey mandarin outfits. Though his refractive error is LASIK-corrected, he knows there’s a time to look dapper and a time to look dapper-nerdy. Why else would economists wear bowties on TV? He turns from the reporters’ faces over to Abrams’s lectern by a potted teak tree. Maybe someday, he decides, the Americans can get to know the real Babu — but not now. He feels he’s been forceful with Obama, but the Americans must only see the fitful, algorithm-writing Babu, the protector of the Elite Corps, the man who can save the Textology’s reputation by announcing a cache of internships for poor Indian youth and donations for temple repairs at Birla Mandir (cracks in the marble), Dharmaraya Swamy (paint job) and Mallikarjuna Swamy (lump sum). They must not see him as accessible.
The producer adjusts his aperture and sticks out three fingers — and two, and one.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” says Le Dan. “A very warm Independence Day. We would like to extend our deepest appreciation for your attendance, particularly that of Dr. Abrams from the Harvard Medical School representing the U.S.A.–India Chamber of Commerce.”
“Thank you, president Le Dan. I’m always thrilled to be back in the great nation of India. Almost feels like home now! I’d also like to thank Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Mukherjee for their hospitality and their relentless efforts in forging closer bonds between our two nations.”
As Le Dan speaks, Babu ignores a man mouthing something to him and then zones out on the carpet’s lily knots. He waits to be called. As Le Dan references “our long history,” “the early days” and “overcoming adversity,” Babu wishes he’d gotten more sleep. But he hardly needs his mental faculties to make the CSR announcement. Klingmann takes over with his usual platitudes and Babu braces for his turn to speak. Klingmann says, “Without further ado, as I know you’re all eager to enjoy the weekend and our American delegation needs to get repatriated for Independence Day, we have a brief announcement to make regarding operations. Effective Monday, we will no longer be using the Elite Corps for our premium service. Though we at the Textology support and indeed demand the economic and political rights of the LGBT community in each and every nation, advances in our award-winning technology have brought us to a point where we no longer need human actors to supplement the Textology’s algorithm. All Elite Corps employees will continue to receive pay with benefits for the remainder of the fiscal quarter.”
Gasps. A lull in camera flashes and then an eruption.
Dr. Abrams concludes, “Thank you all!”
Babu’s heart flows like lava until he feels it running to his head. He wants to scream, but he cannot even keep his hands still. He flees out the fire exit of the conference room.
At a bilateral India–U.S.A. conference an hour before his flight to D.C., after discussing the benefit to India of a boost in crude imports following the lifting of Iran sanctions, Obama points to the crowd and, with a fishing motion, asks for one question.
A reporter in a sari stands and says, in a colonial British accent, “President Obama, it was announced today that the firm Babu’s Information Textology, backed by the Silicon Valley-owned Endgame Consortium, has just terminated 1,000 homosexual employees. In view of last week’s Washington Post op-ed slamming the Buy At Home Act and pillorying your administration’s economic policies vis-à-vis Silicon Valley, do you have any comment on this?”
Obama looks around. He takes a breath and slinks his shoulders into his charm offensive.
“Look, uh, this comes as a surprise to us too and I can assure you folks that we’ve expressed our concerns about this to the, uh, folks here in Hyderabad. As I’ve said time and again and I’ll say it again here, my administration unequivocally opposes any discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, both in the United States and abroad. But, with that said, we’re reserving judgment on this issue till we find out more about this matter, such as whether this could be an internal management issue. You can bet we’ll be following this closely and tracking how it infolds. And, to just uncouple from that issue and address more broadly the idea of criticism of my recent policies, I’d also like to add that given the numbers we’re seeing right now coming out of Silicon Valley, I don’t mind a few critical op-eds, because the numbers don’t lie.”
Obama grins; the reporter frowns. He thanks his hosts and struts off in a discotheque of camera flashes. Meh, he thinks.
Washington-bound Air Force One cuts over the Canary Island skies as Obama scrolls through the NYT on his Blackberry. He smiles at Paul Krugman’s latest broadside against the 1%. Go get ‘em, Paul! Obama loosens his tie as the overhead aircon tickles his neck, inducing a shiver. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” plays in his earpiece. The Textology problem is solved (another one down!) and the great Indian people are conciliated. Obama breathes deeply and then holds his breath when he remembers how Babu looked at the B.I.T. press conference on TV, dressed like a nerdy autist who might play competitive bridge and study the cleavage of rocks. But when Klingmann gave the announcement, Babu’s eyes bulged like a PTSD vet’s.
It was true: they hadn’t consulted Babu beforehand — had, perhaps, underestimated his response. But he was rational: he’d get over it. What’s more, Obama, by this late stage, knows that there must be losers. One day, he’ll invite Babu to a White House gala and introduce him to pianists, Emmy Award winners, cancer researchers. Babu might give him a hostile look at first, but the look will fade throughout the night until Babu’s won over and perfectly in alignment with him.
Obama logs onto his secure Facebook account that Mark Z. designed for him. Skirting his News Feed, he heads to Sasha and Meliah’s walls. On “People You Might Know,” he sees a former Hillary Clinton campaign manager with a profile pic of a flower with a pink bowtie wrapped around the petals. He visits the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page to check the monies raised for Ebola in West Africa. On its wall, in response to a blog about infected Liberian bats, a commenter — who does not seem militantly red, white, and blue judging by his profile — has posted “Impeach Obama!!” Obama sees another person with the flower-bowtie profile picture. Under “Trending,” he sees, “Obama masterminds the layoffs of…” As he clicks it, a junior staffer taps him on the shoulders: “Mr. President, the protests are starting again.”
“What? In Delhi?”
“No. In Washington.”
Obama’s head swoons. On his Blackberry, he reads a New York Times update: “Obama sounds the death knell for LGBT rights in India.”
Outside the White House gates on the evening of the Fourth, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer interviews a housewife and an impeccably dressed Williamsburg lawyer.
“The Obama Administration is selling out the gay community for the almighty dollar,” says the lawyer to the camera. He opens his mouth to elaborate, but the housewife grabs the mic and yells, “Obama’s war against women must stop right now! We’re not stupid. We know that we, the U.S. taxpayers, are underwriting these policies in India and this is unacceptable.”
“So you call your social media movement the ‘Traditional Allies,’” says Blitzer, pointing to her sign with the flower and bowtie.
“Yes. And we don’t appreciate derogatory labels like ‘social media movement.’ What we stand for is this, we stand for calling on the support of the LGBTQ community and women’s groups in boycotting the Endgame Consortium and opposing President Obama’s unilateral and unconstitutional actions against women and homosexuals. We are appealing to the American people to support the Independent Ralph Schnitz in November 2016. Hillary can’t be trusted unless she denounces the president right now!”
A chant starts up. A bespectacled guy in a rainbow flag grabs them and they withdraw into the pulsing crowd.
That night, Obama hears them from his bed.
At his condo, Babu shatters a hand mirror over his mahogany coffee table. He put his goddamn soul into the Textology. No one even here to stop me! Usurpers! Knaves! From the wall he yanks a Silicon Valley Community Service plaque and it hangs by a nail. He rips it out, takes the end of a breadknife, and hits down, puncturing the glass. His phone vibrates.
“We hope you understand and can see this from our point of view,” Le Dan’s SMS reads. “It was not our call. We intended to tell you before the press conference, but in the commotion we didn’t get an opportunity. We hope you’re not sore with us and that we can quickly resume our partnership. The sky is the limit.”
Sore! Elephant balls!
Babu starts hyperventilating. Opening the bathroom mirror, he fumbles with a Klonopin bottle, spills it, teal pills cascading down the drain. Should’ve listened to his grandmother.
Growing up, he was never first in his class, was never popular. He remembers the boys on his cricket team, like Pardeef, how they’d steal his bat, grab him by the underwear, leave him quivering in the grass till Coach Jaydeep pulled him out from behind the stands. They hated him because he wasn’t part of the treachery of boys.
On a starry night in Jaipur, when he was nine, his grandmother carried him to her mosquito-netted bed, smacked him across the ear and lashed him with a rope. In Hindi, she said: “Aayush, you’re the best boy in the world, but you are not smart. You will never be smart, and you will never be able to let your guard down, because if you do, the other boys will hurt you. You must promise me to never let your guard down.”
Like a turtle in its shell, he waited between pillows for her to leave so he could cry. She clutched him till he promised, her words tattooed in his mind, his resolution to evade the Pardeefs of the world. Down the years he’d think of her words, of the welts on his neck, during low points. He tried to tell himself they were the words of an ignorant backward-class woman who couldn’t even write her name.
But now, as his nostrils flare at the sight of his bidet — as he picks up a broom, runs into the foyer and considers attacking the TV — he knows her fatalism was more than the superstition of a grandmother. At some point in his teens, after she died, Babu forgot her words, started believing he could have it all, got addicted to American self-help books, thought he could be smart and rich and beautiful, that he could submit to his whims and borrow time from the future — that he could adopt infinite selves, his mind a star nursery of new Aayushes. But they started to confuse him. There’s only one reality, one set of natural laws. And in that reality, he must never, ever let the other kids hurt him. He must never let them do it again. He swallows a Klonopin.
His feet on the Oval Office desk, Obama sees his toupeed climate czar. The czar’s hands make circles and bigger circles, revealing their palms. A hand with a pointer taps lightly on a bristle board with a pink and yellow pie-chart. Words funnel from the czar’s mouth. Carbon dioxide, photovoltaic cells, island micro-nations, subsidized thorium… Nothing stays inside Obama, swimming with the 2016 elections. A Pew poll shows an ebb for the Democrats and a massive surge for Independent candidate Ralph Schnitz. Hillary, he knows, could derail her campaign if she doesn’t show solidarity with the crowds descending on the National Mall; cellphone footage of Jill Biden’s off-the-cuff support to a group of Traditional Allies marchers is going viral.
Obama listens as the czar speaks of Taiwan’s solar panel dumping in America. Does the WTO need to step in? Asia. Pivot to Asia. Obama thinks hard, his neurons lapping up against a wall. Wait. Could it be that he merely has to reason with the American people? Somehow? Yes! Maybe. Maybe he has no reason to regret his policies. Maybe all he needs to do is communicate the disruptive technology and outline his administration’s distance from Silicon Valley, outline the importance of not stoking tensions in what one day will be the biggest market in the world — a democracy! — to the eminently reasonable American public.
“Tell me everything,” says Obama to the czar.
“I’m listening to you now. You have my 100% focus!” He picks up his phone as a quick aside, tells his secretary: “Tell Le Dan he needs to get on a plane to D.C.!”
Unable to sleep among the wandering phantoms of the American republic, Obama considers a benzo. Is this the unwinding? The minute-hand ticks. The news cycle pumps new blood into the scandal on a time delay from Hyderabad, the media spoiled with scandal, no time to separate rumor from fact. David Brooks is the singular voice calling on the enlightened to reserve judgment till Obama speaks. But Obama knows that whether or not the truth emerges, the scandal will hatch for months, the golden egg of CNN.
His doctor says he needs more sleep. But can he sleep without a benzo?
Obama sits up in bed. He stands and parts the curtain to look onto the lawn. Untarnished chalk moonlight. He thinks of Lincoln, loved and hated, mostly loved. Obama has few political friends; he’s above that. My tenure will finish soon. He checks his Blackberry, his recent chat history with Michelle. He smiles, feeling a beat of optimism over technology. People need to change with the times. Americans know that more than anyone.
“Do we have an anecdote about Colorado? We’re falling behind out west.”
“Yeah, it’s in there,” says the speechwriter.
Obama feels the weight of history on his tender shoulders as he drinks Kona coffee at 8 a.m. He hopes to finally sleep after tonight, his hair ever more short-circuited. Although the Republican candidate is far from settled, a Pew poll shows the Independent candidate Ralph Schnitz — the most presentable radical in modern U.S. history — toe to toe with Hilary Clinton. All he asks is that he can hand the baton to Hillary Clinton — but before that, fleeing to Camp David or Hawaii wouldn’t hurt either. He hopes the speechwriter, the kid with the Columbia MFA, wrote something good.
Obama’s security detail listens to the wire in his ear. “Le Dan and Klingmann’s convoy is nearing the National Mall,” he tells Obama, but Obama gets no relief from his somersaulting nausea. This job is making him sick. On the lounge couch, he fantasizes about next year — about being a wise old statesman making appearances on The View and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, providing uplifting prescriptions, with the embrace of the center-left, without battling Congress. Today, a Jezebel op-ed called him “the biggest betrayal to womyn since the invention of the Y chromosome.” His hair will be snow-white any day. But don’t his opponents know — can’t he explain to them — that they, too, can use Textology, that it’s not anti-woman, let alone anti-LGBT? Did they forget that he issued transgender bathroom guidelines? Do they need this explained better? Obama grabs a desk corner and waits for the feeling to pass — he’s going to retch. The hum of the crowd through the walls reaches a singularity of anger. They chant his name between words he wishes he didn’t know.
He has to face them.
Babu tucks his silk elephant-patterned napkin into his shirt, his spoon over a bowl of lobster bisque. A lone guitarist plays something Latin in a berth and Babu spoons lobster to his mouth. Though his heart’s vanquished, he feels that he’s reasserting self-mastery, since resuming meditation. He feels awakened; he’d almost say better than he has in years. Looking across the table to the man eating dinner with him, he feels hope and trepidation.
Below a “No Veg” sign, the clock says 11:35 p.m. A sea turtle paddles over coral in a wall aquarium. They’re the last patrons in Bakshin, and though Babu indulges the guitarist, he’s keener on the closed-captioned news playing. As he starts his mousse, BREAKING NEWS flashes across the screen, which cuts to the National Mall: a sprawling, angry crowd waiting to hear the President on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Obama treads out on the stage, among a sea of detractors.
After a pause, he begins: “Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow Americans…”
Babu looks nervously across the table at the man he’s eating dinner with. They smile for about a second.
An aide hands Obama a bottle of water and Obama swigs. He walks onto the stage. The crowd teems below, rises in a crescendo of jeers. People in ball caps, people waving Traditional Allies banners, people with shiny, bald heads, Ray Bans, iPhones recording, a screaming woman flashing her breasts: #freethenipple.
He clears his throat and looks at the teleprompter.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow Americans, we’re gathered here to face a moral and economic dilemma with ramifications for our economy and way of life. When I became President and inherited the economic mess of my predecessor, the cards were stacked against our nation. Ask any respected economist: we were constrained in our ability to bring relief to American families. But through years of hard work and the ingenuity of the Buy At Home Act, my economic team, comprised of the best and brightest across 50 states, was able to identify winning entrepreneurs and businesses that could give us” (his voice now slow and high-pitched) “a little boost in getting America back on track, where it needs to be. The data’s in” (more assured) “and we’ve seen those job figures climbing for months. Quicker than anyone expected, America’s been getting back to normal. And yet our freedom, our democracy, has never come easy. As always, pundits and folks are chatting and full o’ talking points, and, you know what, this is just the national conversation is supposed to work. It’s how it’s supposed to be. Because we’re Americans. But still” (high-pitched) “I just want to take a few moments to clear up a few common misconceptions. Look, folks are sharing their slants and talking points on my economic team’s policies. And that’s how the American system works. But look,” he says candidly, “I’ve listened loud and clear to folks’ concerns about an Indian tech firm under partial American ownership. Babu’s Information Textology — I bet many of you are familiar with its offerings and have come to appreciate the way it makes our lives easier. Babu has become a household name almost like Google, like Microsoft, like Uber. Look” (Obama wonders why the MFA wrote “Look” twice in a row), “many months ago, I got a letter from a father in Golden, Colorado. He wrote, ‘President Obama, all I want is someone to hear my story. For so many months last year, I was yearning to go on my annual fishing trip with close friends but I felt burdened by the stresses of modern life. Nothing I did made a difference. I contemplated suicide, and then I discovered textology.’ This father found that he was able to go on that fishing trip and keep his family happy: that modern life doesn’t have to pen us in, doesn’t have to drive us to the brink. Walter’s story suggests that if we work together and listen to one another, this nation’s shores will always be a beacon of hope. Listen, fellow Americans, B.I.T. grants us freedom. I was talking to a woman from Kansas City last month. Her husband’s a network technician and they have two daughters, a one-year-old and a three-year-old, Candace and Roche. Her husband got a job with a Textology subsidiary in St. Louis and now they can afford daycare and she’s returned to work as a substitute teacher, helping to safeguard the very bedrock of this nation. I want to live in an America where a young mom can share this story with her President. For more than 200 years, we’ve put our differences aside and discovered that if we summon what’s best for our country, America stays on top. This is why, at this moment, I’m here before you, a President among his citizens, to tell you that what happens in the boardroom of an Indian company has nothing to do with our values as Americans or what happens in our bedrooms. In my lifetime, I’ve watched this country take great strides towards tolerance, towards dialogue. I can’t begin to acknowledge the outpouring of support I’ve received from the LGBT community since my early days as an Illinois senator. And now I’m here before you, calling in a lil’ bit of a favor, asking the American people for their support in my efforts to save the American dream and keep us back at normal. I know everything’s not perfect, every choice has trade-offs” (a professorial hand to the sky) “and some folks have a few legitimate concerns, which we’ve devoted plenty space to on the whitehouse.gov website, but look around you. The American people are getting back on their feet. Productivity is up. Our housing market is booming. Infrastructure is getting rebuilt. As citizens of this great republic, a people born of revolutionary progress and ideals, it’s our duty to follow the future and not to fight it. Everywhere I travel in this country, people are saying, ‘It’s the economy, Mr. President.’ Make no mistake, until the sun sets on my presidency and beyond, I will continue fighting for the rights of gay Americans, working Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Christian Americans, all Americans. What I’m asking is for you, the American people, to continue to help me rebuild this great nation of ours, the boldest, greatest experiment in the history of civilization. Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America!”
A solitary clap. Then the floodgates of applause. Drowned in empathy for his citizens, Obama bows and waves, channelling the spirit of Emerson and Adams. More than he ever dreamed of, he’s recharged the battery of liberty, has shown these people — who are damn smarter than they get credit for — the way forward. Thankful to his nation, to his God, Obama bows and exits the stage.
The next day, on a 737 heading from D.C. to Hyderabad, a champagne-deadened Klingmann shakes Le Dan. “Look at this,” he says, “Look!”
Klingmann: Hi honey.
Lorraine Klingmann: Justin, I dropped off Melissa at daycare. Then I went to Whole Foods to get watercress for smoothies. The red delicious are half-price. I wish you were here, sweetie.
Klingmann: Honey, that’s wonderful! I agree it’s good to buy red delicious. Hope the smoothie was amazing!! xoxo.
Lorraine Klingmann: We should take Melissa apple-picking when she gets older! Am I right?
Klingmann: Yes, let’s teach her to ride poles.
(18:02: Missed call from Lorraine Klingmann.)
Lorraine Klingmann: Justin Andrew! What in the heck? What kind of sick joke was that about our daughter?
Klingmann: Our daughter is a deadbeat.
“Why’d you type that?” asks Le Dan.
“That wasn’t me! That was the algorithm. That was Babu.”
The sunrays unfold through the Gachibowli smog and Hyderabad’s Financial District, but Babu’s gone. The BPO office exists as a wind tunnel of shrieks from hair-ripping managers harassing the C-suite for answers. Complaints about B.I.T. set new records each minute. The portal’s been hit with DoS attacks by Anonymous-linked botnet armies. Endgame cannot source enough HR workers at the Textology’s call centres to field more than a fraction of complaints, and the Elite Corps union is demanding a 200% raise and five-year contracts.
Even at mid-day, when Klingmann comes in from his jog off ISB Road, a recess he feels was undeserved but needed to air his throbbing head — where’s Babu?
“How can we solve this? Get me the man who can solve this!” screams Le Dan down the hallway.
The clock ticks.
Le Dan leaves his fifth message on Babu’s answering machine. His main thought — “I’m going to kill Babu!” — is slipping into denial.
“Klingmann! Pick up the phone! If we can fix this in 12 hours, it’ll be a black spot on our Wikipedia and our lawyers can sort it out!”
Klingmann creates a “Wanted” poster in MS Paint: “₹640,644 REWARD FOR BEST ALGORITHM FIX.” He summons his top engineers for a conference call with Bay Area software doctors. He yells at Harshita to display the file on the projector screen, all eyes on him as he points his fingers at the wretched image with the pot of gold and Comic Sans MS font, which would ordinarily elicit laughs from everybody, but only one software doctor laughs before zipping his lips. All eyes on Klingmann, he shouts, “Who can fix this? There must be a backup.”
The conference call ends and he watches the subdued programmers sit in the dark drinking Redbull, punching away on their keyboards. Time stands still through the afternoon, into the evening, the terminal a blue-lit swamp of LED and keyboard clatter. Le Dan cancels corporate yoga and threatens anyone who enters the prayer room. He calls extra guards to secure the lobby and parking garage. He raises the reward to ₹2,500,000 and, finally, a full crore.
It isn’t until 11 p.m. that Ganesh, the star coder, finds something.
“The whole thing’s a dummy,” he says.
“Fix it!” shouts Klingmann.
“No, sir. I can clean it up a wee bit. But I don’t understand these self-synchronizing stream ciphers.”
“Um, Babu, sir.”
Le Dan rips a Dell tower off a table, yanks it free of cords and hurls it at the brick wall. It smashes and the PSU falls out, exposing wire guts, fans, LED lights. Ganesh walks up behind him, taps him on the shoulder.
“Sir, I’m afraid there’s another problem.”
“What! What the fuck are you gonna say?”
“None of our user data is encrypted. The systems are open to theft of account information and credit card details. And worse, sir. Someone claiming to have downloaded the user database is demanding $5,000,000.”
Textology campuses in India, the United States and the Philippines work 20 hours a day, programmers’ faces embalmed in over-stimulation. By the time Ganesh and the Palo Alto loans secure the user accounts and build a rudimentary algorithm, the Textology has been offline for six days, with clients compensated through meager coupons on Amazon Prime and Airbnb. The Textology’s share price has slid 68% on the NYSE to $24.86, with its main competitor, Text-Boy-and-Girl, led by a rogue Foxconn exec, making inroads with its pledge to “support net neutrality, remain independent of government spying, support labor, and respect the sexual rights of all employees.”
Klingmann has been lobbying an aide to the U.S. Treasury Secretary for an emergency loan, as Washington debates whether pressing charges against Babu would help or hinder things. Satellite images show him boarding a private flight from Washington Dulles to Ottawa, from where he boarded a Havana-bound jet.
Cuban authorities have been uncooperative.
In a resort bathrobe, Babu walks down the palm-shaded footpath to the ocean, a Romeo and Juliet #3 clenched between his teeth. An anole springs from a dusty rock, gyrating around its mate and disappearing under the brush. The path opens into Varadero Beach: orbiting volleyballs and Spanish-speaking people in thongs, retirees doing yoga in the ocean. Babu orders a mojito at the bar with a toothpick palm tree and considers the coconut cake. His friend, who he calls his “muse,” has been calling him the mojito man, a name Babu doesn’t object to. Scanning the beach, he sees no empty beach chairs and spreads his hotel towel — stitched “SOL PALMERAS” — in the shade of a stray umbrella. He lies in the sun.
An oven-baked, dagger-chinned blonde sits up in her beach chair: “No! Mine shade! Anywheres and not here!”
“But you’re in the sun.”
“No! This mine shadow!”
Babu forges out with towel and mojito under the Gulf heat, wishing he’d bought a tub of fairness cream before leaving the Subcontinent. Incognito, under aviators and a fledgling goatee, he relights his cigar by some young Russians — three dark, fiery-looking sisters surrounding one buff, pale man wearing a Mafioso-style necklace with a ring. Babu stares in the direction of Key West. He sips his mojito, licking the sugar on the rim. He sees his friend — his muse — come out of the water like some kind of sea creature, water jetting from his nostrils and hair as he shakes his head and peels seaweed off his arms and bearish chest. Babu wins.