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Lightness of being
It was an accident that changed Rohan Narse's life. Narse was a high-profile investment banker who ran his own company in London, helping British and American clients invest in India. With an engineering degree from IIT-Banaras Hindu University and an MBA from IIMBangalore, he had worked with reputed companies such as Goldman Sachs, KPMG and Tata and came with a formidable CV. He was married with a son and daughter, loved splurging on suits and watches, drove a BMW and led what seemed like the perfect life.
But the high-stress job was silently taking a toll on his health and relationships. "In investment banking, your clients are CEOs, CFOs and big investment managers. You have to be logical, methodical and precise. The transactions are of significant value, so you can't leave anything to chance. It's all a mental game, " says the 47-year-old.
In June 2009, he was driving back home late one night when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car. "There was a big sound and I realised I had crashed into the concrete barrier of the M-25, London's high-speed Ring Road, " Narse says. "The air was cool and there was a smell of gunpowder from the nitrogen charge. Just after the accident, I felt a sense of extreme stillness. "
That was the turning point. The accident sent Narse on an existential quest. "I realised that there was no time to postpone things. What if I had died that day? What if I had been paralysed ?" He had dabbled in meditation and spirituality earlier, but now took it up in earnest. He began travelling to various countries to interact with different spiritual gurus, meeting, among other people, a tantra teacher from Greece and a zen teacher from Okinawa in Japan. It was finally a spiritually inclined mathematics professor in Varanasi who pointed him in the right direction. "I was trying out different stuff in those days, like tantra and sungazing. He told me that if I carried on like this, I would either go blind or mad. " The professor explained that it was through mindfulness, or awareness of the present moment, that one could lead a meaningful life.
Today, Narse has wound up his investment management venture and holds workshops on mindfulness for corporate organisations. In many ways, his story is typical of a self-made man who rose from the dumps, achieved great worldly success and then realised the futility of it all. Born in Belgaum, he grew up in a chawl in Mumbai's Chembur. He did not live in poverty - his father was an accountant with Burmah Shell and his mother a BEST employee - but it was far from a comfortable existence. "We lived in a 180 square-foot house with a room, a kitchen and a bathroom. There was a common balcony. It was exactly like what you see in the movies, " he says. He had a tough childhood. "My parents were very nice people but there was no chemistry between them. " He was sexually abused as a child by a maid, something he seems to have come to terms with. He has written about this in his book, In Search Of Silence, in which he talks about his life-changing experience.
Under these circumstances, education seemed to be the only route to a better life. He studied hard, got admission into what is now IIT-BHU and graduated as a mechanical engineer. He worked for a few years with Hindustan Motors and a multinational engineering firm, Sandvik Asia, before enrolling for an MBA at IIM-Bangalore. He then worked for a Tata firm and KPMG. In 1999, he was sent to London by KPMG.
In 2000, Narse joined Goldman Sachs as an investment banker. He worked hard, was paid extremely well, and went on three holidays a year with his family - in summer, winter and spring. He fancied suits and says he had 35-40 of them. He loved to buy costly watches and sent his children to expensive private schools. A director at the firm, he was deputed to New York for a year and the company flew him down to London every weekend so that he could be with his family.
It looked good from the outside, but the work left him exhausted. "The company took care of its employees - there was a gym, a 24-hour canteen and a taxi service if one worked late into the night - but that also meant that the lives of workers were centred around the company. The job looked good to those who were not from the industry, but the truth was that a director at an investment banking firm was not an exceptional designation. There were about 2, 000 directors in the company. I was not a partner and had no chance of being one. But to an outsider, it looked very glamorous because investment bankers got fourfive times the salary that people at a similar level got in other sectors. "
He drank a lot, slept all through the weekends and fell ill quite often. A frustrated Narse left Goldman Sachs in 2005 to start his own investment management firm, Indian Ocean Ventures. "There was a lot of pressure here too, but of a different kind. There was no pressure of competition but immense pressure to perform and produce results.
These were the normal pressures of an entrepreneur. But I liked the fact that I was independent and could take decisions on my own, " he says.
Narse shut down his company in 2010, a year after the accident. He has since scaled down his lifestyle considerably. He earns anything between one-fourth to one-eighth of the amount of money he earned earlier, but says he leads a more fulfilling life. He now owns just two suits and two jackets, down from the earlier 35-40. He has a second-hand Mercedes car but says he prefers using public transport, his children go to public schools instead of posh private schools, and his diet has changed considerably. "I used to eat a lot of fast food earlier, but now I include a lot of fresh food in my diet, " he says.
A part of this downsizing was also his decision to give up cricket. Narse was a talented batsman who was part of the Mumbai Under-19 probables during his early years. When he began living in England, he became a part of the third division Surrey league, playing against well-known cricketers like Sairaj Bahutule, Nilesh Kulkarni and Tatenda Taibu. He was a left-handed, middle order batsmen who was promoted to the opening slot. "Being an opener was like being an investment banker, " Narse jokes. "You had to dominate or be dominated. You had to deal with the swinging ball. " Then, one day, he just gave up the game. "Cricket wasn't me, it was a story given to me by my father, " he says.
How has the family taken to the new lifestyle? Narse says that his wife has always supported him. He says he hasn't compromised on the standard of living for the family: he lives in a gated community which ensures that his family is secure. Of course, his children don't go to expensive schools anymore but perhaps that is made for by the fact that he now spends quality time with them.
As for him, the downshift hasn't been difficult. "I was clear about why I was doing this, " he says. "I was earlier leading an empty, meaningless, unidirectional life but I now lead a more authentic life. The conversations I have with people are honest, a handshake is a genuine handshake. I think I have made more friends in the past three years than in the previous 30. "
What was the easiest thing to scale back on when you downsized?
The frequency of holidays. It really did not matter because life felt good regardless
What was the toughest/what did you miss the most?
Nothing really. Sometimes I miss the wider interaction that I used to have with professionals across the globe and the cultural experiences that followed. That was a beautiful immersion
What kept you from slipping back into the old lifestyle?
I was happy and healthy 24/7. That was enough of a feeling to remain true to what I loved
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