“This is a fall from grace of Greek tragedy proportions.”
Thus spoke Gary Naftalis, Defense Counsel for Rajat Gupta, in reaction to the sentence pronounced on his client by Judge Rakoff. The learned judge himself reinforced this theme of a tragic hero facing nemesis: “The Court can say without exaggeration that it has never encountered a defendant whose prior history suggests such an extraordinary devotion, not only to humanity writ large, but also to individual human beings in their times of need.” On a somewhat philosophical note, albeit one that raises more questions than answers, Rakoff added: “The history of the world, I’m afraid, is full of examples of good men who do bad things”.
Anita Raghavan’s book “The Billionaire’s Apprentice”, which I just finished reading, does a fine job of chronicling the meteoric rise and equally monumental fall of Rajat Gupta. An underlying subtext of Anita’s work is to examine “the rise of the Indian American elite”. This “twice blessed” breed of Indian immigrants benefited from what historian Vijay Prasad describes as “two of the greatest social movements of the twentieth century: India’s successful independence struggle and the American civil rights movement.” Over a period of 40 years, these aspiring immigrants have made dazzling inroads into the pinnacles of power in America. The ultimate poster child for this group, and the role model for many, was the very urbane and erudite Rajat Gupta, a man whose exalted position as CEO of McKinsey made him the unofficial High Priest of American business. Which of course begs the deeply profound question – why did he do it? In fact, wtf? And in this regard Ms Raghavan’s otherwise thoroughly well researched journalistic work falls woefully short. In fact, it completely evades the question. Her concluding throwaway quip from David Ben-Gurion – “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we’ll be a state just like any other” – may well explain away the existence of a roguish Raj Rajaratnam or a sleazy Anil Kumar, but offers nothing by way of answers to the philosophical, even existential, questions raised by the fascinating saga of Rajat Gupta.
The construct of a tragedy, both Greek and Shakespearian, provides a useful framework with which to come to grips with the conundrum presented by Gupta’s actions. At the heart of every tragedy is a hero, a man of nobility and good intent. In fact Judge Rakoff’s description of Gupta would doubtless have Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus – or Shakespeare for that matter – nodding in approval. To be clear, Raj Rajaratnam, Anil Kumar, or the ingenious Bernie Madoff for that matter, do not make the cut. After all, if you’re not a hero to begin with, where’s the tragedy in your downfall? Central to all Shakespearian tragedies, burdened with Anglo-Saxon notions of morality, is that the hero must have an obvious and glaring “fatal flaw”. With Macbeth, Othello or King Lear, for example, any high school student would immediately point to unbridled ambition, irrational jealousy, and childish vanity being instrumental in the downfall of the respective protagonists. Bill Clinton might fit the bill for an obviously flawed modern version of an Elizabethan era tragic hero. In a Shakespearian tragedy, just as Judge Rakoff says, good men do indeed do very bad things. They murder kings, suffocate wives, disown daughters, and even have sex in their office with plump interns – occasionally using cigars as a prop.
As for Gupta, if you consider him to be a Shakespearean tragic hero, the most obvious candidate for a “fatal flaw” would be greed. But to attribute his actions to avarice defies logic, and the one thing even Gupta’s detractors will concede is that the man was anything but stupid. Even someone endowed with a fraction of his considerable intellect could have figured out a way to make exponentially more money in an infinite number of clandestine ways were he or she so inclined. Besides, there was no direct benefit to Gupta on the trades that resulted from the information exchanged, and even the notion of ingratiating himself to the unctuous Rajaratnam, perhaps in the hope of a bigger piece of the action in future ventures, doesn’t quite cut it on the basis that it would have barely moved the dial for a man worth in excess of $100mm. Hubris, or the sin of pride and arrogance, always seems to rank high on the everyone’s list of favorite fatal flaws, but in this case it only serves to potentially explain why Gupta might have rationalized getting away with it, not why he did it.
Greek tragedy, on the other hand, is less about relatively modern notions of morality than it is – much like Gupta’s native Hinduism – about man’s insignificance in the face of a divine power. Human flaws, what Aristotle called hamartia, certainly play a role, but in Hellenic tragedies these tend to be catalysts for destiny to take its course. For example, take Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, arguably the most famous of all Greek tragedies, if only because of its association with the ultimate taboo. The question of what, if anything, was Oedipus’s hamartia, has been the subject of much scholarship over the years. Hubris seems to be the consensus among the cognoscenti, on the basis that Oedipus chose to interfere with his destiny. Fair enough, but think about this for a moment – if someone, even if it was a Delphic oracle, predicted you would kill your father and sleep with your mother, would you simply lie back and let it happen? Call me fatally flawed, but I’m with Oedipus on this one. Rajat Gupta, in this regard, has much in common with Oedipus, inasmuch as an evaluation of his life suggests no evidence of a glaring flaw. Like Oedipus, was he the victim of forces beyond his control, whether cosmic or as prosaic as the desire for scapegoats in the wake of the financial crisis? In which case, this is less a case of “good people doing bad things”, rather a matter of “bad things happening to good people”. In other words, the quintessential Aristotelean Greek tragedy.
Speaking for myself, I’m at least willing to allow the possibility. From first hand experience, people like Rajaratnam and other Masters of the Universe in New York’s testosterone laden investment community have an uncanny knack of throwing you off-balance. Coming into New York from the genteel world of consulting in Copenhagen and Chicago, Rajat was, to use a delightful Michael Lewis metaphor, like a “small furry creature raised on an island without predators removed to a pit full of pythons“. He was played like a finely tuned piano, and his error was to unwittingly drop his guard, in conversations he deemed to be casual and confidential, in a subconscious effort to establish his status as the consummate corporate insider. As far as flaws go, lets just say I’ve seen a lot worse.
There is one final twist in this tale that might lead one to conclude that there are forces at work here that are beyond the comprehension of mortals, a case of Wodehousian wheels within wheels. In the type of ironic twist the gods delight in – Greek or perhaps Hindu in this case – Gupta’s arrest in 2011 was on Diwali, the most auspicious day of the Hindu calendar. Apparently a keen student of Hindu scriptures, Gupta must surely be convinced this was payback for sins committed in a past life. A Greek tragedy then, but with a distinctively Indian twist.
In the parlance of our time, I believe what Aristotle was really trying to say in Poetics is this: shit happens. And shit surely happened here. If you buy into reincarnation and divine retribution, you know this shit happened before. And if you care to extrapolate, this shit will happen again.