(This article, about two non-resident Indian twin brothers, who are ace investigators of financial crimes in Hong Kong, was published in DNA edition dated May 2, 2006 edition.)
Think of identical twin brothers in the business of investigating crimes, and the only names that spring to mind are of Thomson and Thompson, the bumbling detectives in the Tintin comic series. But there’s at least one pair of real-life twins who are into crime-busting, in Hong Kong; but, unlike the Thom(p)sons, they are ace detectives. To be precise, they are twin aces!
Meet the extraordinary Gidwani brothers – Sudhir and Anoop – who work in the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), the nodal agency set up by the Hong Kong government, which has done much to rid the city of corruption, fraud and financial crimes. The twins, who were once denied admission by most Mumbai schools because they didn’t speak fluent English or Hindi, have today made a mark in the niche area of “forensic accounting” and have helped solve some big-money white-collar crimes in Hong Kong.
The Gidwanis’ curious life experiences began in Kobe in Japan, where they were born in 1961; their father, who worked for Bank of India, had been posted there, and for the first six years of their lives, the brothers had Japanese nannies, went to a kindergarten in Kobe, and spoke Japanese. “We spoke a bit of English at home with our parents,” recalls Sudhir, but obviously it wasn’t enough. For, in 1966, when their father was posted back to Mumbai, the Gidwani brothers couldn’t secure admission in any Mumbai school on the grounds that they could not speak adequate English or Hindi.
“We did the rounds of the schools, but were rejected all over,” says Anoop. Eventually, Campion, the Jesuit school that had a Spanish Principal, Father Ribot, agreed to enrol the Gidwanis “on condition that if we did not catch up within a year, we would have to repeat.” At the end of the first term, things didn’t look very propitious – “in a class of 50, we were ranked 49 and 50” – but by the end of the year, they were in stride.
The next decade and more were largely focussed on education – and excelling in it: the twins completed the ICSE, the Government Commercial Diploma, graduated in B.Com and became qualified Chartered Accountants, all in Mumbai.
By then, their banker-father had taken up a second career in Hong Kong, and so, in 1984 – the year Britain and China signed the agreement for the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 – the Gidwanis went there in search of gainful employment. “But we couldn’t get a breakthrough for months, and we were about to give up and go back to India,” says Sudhir. But just then, the audit firm Ernst & Whinney (which later became Ernst & Young) called them in. But never having recruited India-qualified accountants, it didn’t want to take a chance with hiring both of them. “They were willing to give one of us the job,” says Sudhir, “and Anoop agreed to take it up.”
Then came the question of negotiating Anoop’s salary: after asking around – and being told that as an India-qualified accountant, he couldn’t hope to get “market rates” – Anoop asked for HK$5,000 a month. That was about half the prevailing salary, so the surprised audit firm offered Sudhir too the job at the same salary. “In effect, they got two for the price of one,” recalls Sudhir, laughing.
The Gidwanis worked on a succession of audit and liquidation assignments, but their big break came in 1985 when the Hong Kong police and the ICAC sought the audit firm’s help in investigating whether there was any fraud involved in the collapse of a local bank. Sudhir and Anoop were on the team assigned to the case, and so well did they do their investigative job that at the end of it, a senior officer of the Hong Kong police suggested that they could join the police force – on a vastly superior “expat package”. “We were tempted, particularly since our parents were then about to return to Mumbai,” says Anoop, “but the problem was that under the prevailing rules, we would have had to join as ‘beat cops’ pacing the streets; so that fell through. But then, ICAC, which had seen our work up-close and was well pleased with it, offered us a job. This time, we were wiser from our earlier experience and negotiated jobs for both of us. So, here we are…”
Since then, they’ve worked on a succession of cases – including some high-profile financial crimes – and their good work (as part of the ICAC team) in cleaning up Hong Kong has been acknowledged: they’ve even received commendations from the Courts, the ICAC Commissioner and the Directorate. Today, they are part of a team of forensic accountants at the ICAC, and travel abroad to follow up investigative leads, testify in court when they’re called in as experts, and in many other ways do their damnedest to uphold Hong Kong’s reputation as a clean and efficient place. Their job is not just about poring over financial documents and looking for clues to crimes; sometimes it entails high-adrenaline adventure. Both of them, for instance, have gone undercover in the mean back-alleys to “buy” counterfeit US dollars and computer software – and have busted major criminal syndicates.
At work, and in their private interests, the Gidwanis’ lives run on parallel tracks: virtually everything that one has done is a mirror of the other, and the degree of congruence borders on the extraordinary. Both of them, for instance, have qualified to become cricket umpires, officiating in league matches on weekends. Almost the only major difference between them relates to their political affiliation: one identifies with the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, and the other is a centrist.
In 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to China, the Gidwanis had the option of trading in their Indian passports for British ones. Apart from the perceived exalted status of British citizenship, it would have come with a whole lot of conveniences: for instance, when they travel on work on Indian passports, they face a number of visa limitations. “But we didn’t do it; we couldn’t get ourselves to give up our Indian identity,” they recall. “At the core of our being, in indefinable ways, we are Indians, and nothing can change that,” say these sons of India who are doing their country proud in faraway shores.