Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Banking on a pause

Banking on a pause

My introduction to investment banking happened in rather unusual circumstances. It was the second day after our marriage and Nisha had agreed we would attend her office Christmas party. Being somewhat adventurous, I accepted. Little did I realise what I would encounter or how it would change my life. Of course, it started rather deceptively.

“What are you wearing this evening?” It was 7 am and I was still struggling to wake up. Nisha was standing in front of my cupboard examining my clothes. I can’t remember my reply but it did not impress her.

“I suggest your dark navy suit. I’ll give it to the drycleaners on my way to the office and you can pick it up when you return.”

She then started rummaging through my shirts and ties. “Is that all you’ve got?” This time she didn’t wait for an answer. “Never mind, I’ll pick up something suitable at lunch.” And then, with a “Don’t be late, we’ve got to be there by 6.30”, she was off.

That evening I discovered why Nisha was so concerned about my appearance. Her colleagues were in expensive, well-cut, dark suits. They wore Hermes or Ferragamo ties. They smelt of expensive lavender and vetiver perfumes. They had an air of cultivation unknown to the journalist circles I inhabited. 

Nisha was a merchant banker, as investment bankers in London are called. Her day began at 7.30, a good two hours before mine. She usually got home after I did. But if Nisha’s tribe worked hard they also knew how to have fun. They took their clients to the choicest restaurants, maintained boxes at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, kept up with the latest plays, joined the best gyms, drove expensive cars and week-ended in Paris.

As her husband, I often accompanied Nisha. At first, it was unsettling. She and the male guest, usually a corporate chairman or a senior government official, would talk shop. His wife and I would be left to get on as best we could. But such was the charm of this good life, I learnt not to care. And, anyway, it doesn’t take a journalist long to steer the conversation towards subjects where bankers are naturally curious and hacks good at holding forth!

Our life flourished on the strength of Nisha’s perks and her spiraling career. We bought our first home with her 2 per cent mortgage. Our first car was a BMW from her office. Because driving to the City was maddening and parking impossible, it was all mine. I must have been the only researcher at LWT who showed up in a 325i. And we had a maid. Of course, she didn’t came daily, but even twice a week Signora Costa was spoiling.

In five years flat Nisha was head-hunted three times. She first moved to Manufacturers Hanover, then Merrill Lynch and finally, as a managing director, to County NatWest. By 1988, when she was still 33, if you included her bonus, she was earning in the hundreds of thousands. It was 8 times my salary! 

Merchant bankers can rise like rockets. Of course, they can also fall like shooting stars. I knew several who lost their jobs without notice or forewarning. It’s a fear Nisha lived with all the time. 

In the 90s and the 2000s, a merchant banker’s life became yet more exotic. They moved into a different orbit altogether. Their salaries leapfrogged, scaling the millions and even touching the tens of. But the nervous juxtaposition of high reward and extreme risk remained its hallmark. Both in terms of what they did and what could happen to them, they oscillated between euphoria and dread.

Today that world is in eclipse. As governments bail out banks, capping executive salaries, and criticism of Wall Street and City lifestyles reaches a crescendo, banks will retreat into the shadows. The joy of flaunting will give way to discretion, if not anonymity. 

But, take my word for it, the sun will shine again. Of that I’m certain. It may not happen for years but these clouds will clear. As Nisha would have said: “You can’t keep good money down!”

Sunday, 12 October 2008

A time for Father Terry

A time for Father Terry

It’s as clear in my memory as if it happened yesterday. But, in fact, I first met Father Terry Gilfedder twenty five years ago. It was the late summer of 1982 and Nisha and I were preparing for our marriage. As a Catholic, she wanted a proper church wedding and while I agreed, I was irritated by the need to meet the local parish priest for a set of three ‘tuitions’. But there was no way out. The nearest church, St Mary Magdalene’s in Northumberland Avenue, would only marry Nisha to a non-Christian if this requirement was complied with.

So, one Saturday in September, around 6 in the evening, Nisha and I knocked on Father Terry’s door. He was sitting at his desk, his spectacles perched at the end of his nose. We settled into an old, well-worn leather sofa on the opposite side of the small room. Outside it was unusually warm, inside the atmosphere felt frosty. I was itching for a fight.

“Sherry?” The offer took me by surprise. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m rather partial to the stuff.”

It was Tio Pepe, my favourite, but in those days a rarity in London. Father Terry was a man of discerning taste. I found myself discussing the US Open Tennis, the Notting Hill Carnival, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children — in fact, anything but our forthcoming marriage or what religion our unborn children would follow.

Father Terry would top up our glasses and steer the conversation. He enjoyed an argument and held his own comfortably. The hour passed swiftly and enjoyably. Having agreed to meet the next week, we got up to leave. We were at the door when Father Terry stopped us.

“There’s a question I’d like you to think about.” A hint of a smile played on his large round face. His eyes were looking straight at us. “Why aren’t the two of you living together?”

I’m not sure if the blood drained from our faces but we were speechless and stunned. The truth is Nisha and I were living together but had deliberately given Father Terry different addresses to hide the fact. He had guessed and this was his way of saying it didn’t matter.

Father Terry became a close friend. At a rehearsal, two nights before our wedding, he suggested one of the readings should be from the Gita and asked me to choose. On the day when I revealed I had failed to pick a passage he slapped me on the back and laughed: “I knew that would happen so I’ve chosen something myself.” It was from Khalil Gibran’s Prophet.

Nisha had hoped for a full communion mass and Father Terry agreed overlooking the fact the groom was not a Christian. But it was his sermon that captured attention. He didn’t pontificate about hell and damnation or God and his goodness. He spoke, as he put it, of “three little words”: I love you.

“Karan and Nisha”, he said, “remember love joins ‘I’ and ‘you’ but it can also separate. The day you forget you’re two different individuals that bond can become a divide.”

It was a warm, simple, heart-felt message. More a fireside-chat than a formal sermon. But it’s stayed seared in my memory for a quarter century.

Six years later, as Nisha lay dying with moments to go before the life support was switched off, Father Terry was at her bedside. He gave her the last sacrament but also encouraged Mummy to whisper Hindu prayers in her ear. Then he stood beside me as the machines slowly, painfully, flickered to a close and Nisha’s life ebbed away.

Terry Gilfedder is the only Christian priest I’ve known. He was an unusual man but a great person. I think of him each time I read of attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. I’m confident he would have found the words to heal bruised hearts. And, no doubt, his sherry would have helped!

I’m sure there are Father Terrys in all faiths. Men of God but also caring, understanding human beings. Today, when we most need them, why are they silent?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The perverse logic

The perverse logic

What’s wrong with the government?” It was Pertie on the phone from Paris. He sounded both exasperated and bewildered. “How can they claim legalising homosexual relations between consenting adults will lead to a breach of the peace? What on earth are they anticipating?”

“Oh come,” I said not quite tut-tutting but still not taking him seriously. “Why are you surprised? What else did you expect?”

“Just listen to the arguments the government has come up with: they claim homosexuality is a reflection of a perverse mind, they call it a social vice, they even call it a health hazard! What century are they living in? Would any sensible, self-respecting, modern democracy think in these terms?”

“But that’s what they think!” I was a bit perplexed. Surely, he knew this?

“Why are you so angry?”

“Because when the government files an affidavit in court it needs to think about what it’s saying. This is not an individual opinion and it needs to be more than the flippant or glib arguments you present in a drawing room conversation. You have to be more considered and careful. I would have understood if they based their opposition on the fact Indian society won’t accept homosexuality. That could even be true. But why drag in a false and antediluvian moral argument? It betrays an intolerance and an illiberal mindset that diminishes the government.”

“But the guys who run the government probably are intolerant and ill-liberal when it comes to homosexuality!” Again, I would have thought that was obvious.

“Perhaps”, but Pertie clearly wasn’t prepared to leave it at that. “The problem is intolerance is unacceptable from a democratically elected government. And even more so from one that claims to espouse liberal values.”

This time there wasn’t much to say so I kept quiet. But Pertie was now in full flow. There was no holding him back.

“Look at how other democracies behave. In England public opinion would be entirely in favour of the death penalty. I dare say that’s true of India as well. But enlightened governments have put it in abeyance. And, in fact, that’s happening in India, too. Why then on the question of homosexuality is our government following, if not hiding behind, public opinion? How do they explain this contradiction?”

“Can you really compare the two?” I asked.

“And why not?” he countered, his voice rising to a falsetto. “If we don’t have the right to take someone’s life what makes you think we have the right to make someone’s life a living hell?”

Once again, I had nothing to say. Anyway, I wasn’t defending the government but only questioning Pertie’s vehement response. But, frankly, he was winning the argument hands down.

“People don’t choose to be homosexuals. It’s not a fashion or a fad. You either are one or you are not. And either way that’s how you’re born. God made homosexuals just as he made you and me or Shivraj Patil, Manmohan Singh and L. K. Advani. The funny thing is Delhi High Court judges seem to accept and understand that. Why can’t the seventy-and-eighty-year-olds who run the government?”

“You’re dead right about that”, I hastily added. I thought I had spotted an opportunity to diffuse his rage. “Do you know what the court said when the government claimed legalising adult homosexuality would spread Aids?”

“Do I?” Pertie laughed. In fact, he guffawed. “They said in that case why don’t you ban intercourse altogether! It’s headline news all over Europe. And now do you know what the French are predicting?”

“What?” I wondered what he would say next.

“It won’t be long before the government bans sex altogether! India, thanks to our foolish politicians, has become the butt of jokes.” Pertie paused whilst I muttered something inconsequential. “Except I don’t like being made a fool of by my government.”

“Ah well,” I said, sensing a chance to grab the initiative. “It’s not the first time and it definitely won’t be the last. Here’s what you should say to the French: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.”

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Who’s the real Hindu?

Who’s the real Hindu?

Does the VHP have the right to speak for you or I? Do they reflect our views? Do we endorse their behaviour? They call themselves the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, but who says they represent all of us? This Sunday morning, I want to draw a clear line of distinction between them and everyone else. My hunch is many of you will agree.

Let me start with the question of conversion — an issue that greatly exercises the VHP. I imagine there are hundreds of millions of Hindus who are peaceful, tolerant, devoted to their faith, but above all, happy to live alongside Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Jews. If any one of us were to change our faith how does it affect the next man or woman? And even if that happens with inducements, it can only prove that the forsaken faith had a tenuous and shallow hold. So why do the VHP and its unruly storm troopers, the Bajrang Dal, froth at the mouth if you, I or our neighbours convert? What is it to do with them?

Let me put it bluntly, even crudely. If I want to sell my soul — and trade in my present gods for a new lot — why shouldn’t I? Even if the act diminishes me in your eyes, it’s my right to do so. So if thousands or even millions of Dalits, who have been despised and ostracised for generations, choose to become Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, either to escape the discrimination of their Hindu faith or because some other has lured them with food and cash, it’s their right. 

Arguably you may believe you should ask them to reconsider, although I would call that interference, but you certainly have no duty or right to stop them. In fact, I doubt if you are morally correct in even seeking to place obstacles in their way. The so-called Freedom of Religion Acts, which aim to do just that, are, in fact, tantamount to obstruction of conversion laws and therefore, at the very least, questionable.

However, what’s even worse is how the VHP responds to this matter. Periodically they resort to violence including outright murder. What happened to Graham Staines in Orissa was not unique. Last week it happened again. Apart from the utter and contemptible criminality of such behaviour, is this how we Hindus wish to behave? Is this how we want our faith defended? Is this how we want to be seen? I have no doubt the answer is no. An unequivocal, unchanging and ever-lasting NO!

The only problem is it can’t be heard. And it needs to be. I therefore believe the time has come for the silent majority of Hindus — both those who ardently practice their faith as well as those who were born into it but may not be overtly religious or devout — to speak out. We cannot accept the desecration of churches, the burning to death of innocent caretakers of orphanages, the storming of Christian and Muslim hamlets even if these acts are allegedly done in defence of our faith. Indeed, they do not defend but shame Hinduism. That’s my central point.

I’m sorry but when I read that the VHP has ransacked and killed I’m not just embarrassed, I feel ashamed. Never of being hindu but of what some Hindus do in our shared faith’s name. 

This is why its incumbent on Naveen Patnaik, Orissa’s Chief Minister, to take tough, unremitting action against the VHP and its junior wing, the Bajrang Dal. This is a test not just of his governance, but of his character. And I know and accept this could affect his political survival. But when it’s a struggle between your commitment to your principles and your political convenience is there room for choice? For ordinary politicians, possibly, but for the Naveen I know, very definitely not.

 So let me end by saying: I’m waiting, Naveen. In fact, I want to say I’m not alone. There are hundreds of millions of Hindus, like you and me, waiting silently — but increasingly impatiently. Please act for all of us.