Wealth Management

I was introduced to this term for the 1st time in my life when I started my Banking career with ICICI Bank in the Gulf. Prior to that I had worked in the telecom sector in India and all that I was familiar with until then was GSM/ CDMA technology, activation of SIM cards and what charges one would incur while making and receiving outgoing/ incoming calls.

(Remember that was the era in early 2000’s when you had to pay even to listen!)

So yes, I had arrived at Muscat International Airport in Oman on a bright sunny afternoon in Aug 2005 in what was a journey with many firsts attached to it.

It was my 1st step on foreign soil, my 1st overseas job stint and of course my maiden foray into Wealth Management*.

(*In layman terms you are a Relationship Manager for High Net Worth Individuals who want to park their money with you, in anticipation of returns higher than what a normal savings account or FD would yield)

As I made my way to the airport’s Immigration counter with the luggage in my hand and mixed feelings of hope and nervousness in my head, the glass doors with bold Arabic letters said, ‘Marhaba!’ (meaning Welcome)

Those doors suddenly opened up a whole new world for me. It had fascinating terms and complex instruments like Shares, Bonds, Derivatives and Private Equity. Yet I found that I managed to slip into the shoes of a Relationship Manager with consummate ease. It helped that my immediate boss Anupam and other colleagues were very supportive in this regard.

Very soon I was meeting NRI’s who had been settled in Oman for varying number of years. Some had come in a decade ago, others 30 years back and few astonishingly had even been born there! It was this diverse spectrum of their stay abroad, that astounded me.

Of course, there were some newbies too, like me who had flown in only recently (within 1-2 years). We did not spend too much time meeting them because we understood they would not have sufficient savings yet to invest with us 🙂

For me, however the real wealth lay in the narrow lanes and by-lanes of an area called Muttrah. This was the corniche area for Muscat city. Wikipedia defines the Arabic meaning of Muttrah as darkness because in the crowded stalls and lanes where the sunrays do not infiltrate during the day, the shoppers needed lamps to know their destinations.

It was more than 200 years old and it was here that I found light.

Muttrah area with its famous Souq (market) was a hub of activity. From local shoppers to expatriates, from travellers to taxi drivers, from wholesalers to retailers – everyone was here.

Cruise ships travelling halfway across the world, laden with tourists would dock at Port Sultan Qaboos nearby (named after one of Oman’s most loved and revered Kings). Then bus loads of them would visit Muttrah- for shopping and sightseeing.

The shops themselves were as varied and innumerable as the crowd visiting them. With common walls they were interlocked with each other like a chain, on both sides of a narrow lane. The sequence of shops was broken only when the lane would end abruptly at a passageway leading out to the main street.

The shop owners sold everything – from exotic frankincense (perfume extracted from a tree) and silver khanjars (the dagger is a National symbol of Oman) to ordinary dishdashas (ankle length garment) and the locally sourced nutritious dates.

It was here in the shady confines of the souq, sitting on soft mattresses on the ground with their hands on a wooden desk in front of them, were my most beloved clients’ – the NRI trading community from Gujarat.

For some of them, their families had been based in The Sultanate of Oman for almost one hundred years! It was their grandfathers/ great grandfathers who started their journey in a boat from the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat. They crossed Karachi and before landing in Muscat, had a stopover in Gwadar. In fact, Gwadar was part of the Sultanate of Oman until 1958 when the Pakistan Govt. purchased it for a sum of USD 3 million.

Throughout this adventure the boats would keep getting heavier as they added spices, silk and their dreams onto them.

These gentlemen formed a significant chunk of my client base. From them I learnt how wealth is made – baiza by baiza, rial by rial and the effort that goes into creating it. (1 Omani Rial =100 baizas) For, before one can do Wealth Management one must create wealth first.

Day in and day out they would sit in their shops, their eyes radiating humility and greeting every customer with a smile. I was amazed at the way they had ingrained adaptability to foreign conditions as a personality trait.

For the country they operated in, is starkly different from India in so many ways – in culture, climate and the community. Yet they had learnt with ease a foreign language as difficult and alien as Arabic, and switched it effortlessly with Gujarati when needed!

One of the top grossing items was confectionery. Never before in my life I had seen such a fantastic array of candies and toffees as I saw in these shops. They were placed in glass jars and in boxes by the thousands. They were imported from countries as far and varied as Turkey and Malaysia.   

I would patiently sit on one of the chairs provided for customers. Retailers from the interior regions of Oman would flock to these shops and purchase stock in bulk. Accounts were still being maintained in hard bound paper registers though the computerised era had already set in. Yet our Gujarati brothers kept the digital age at abeyance – they believed in their ability and trusted their brains more than MS Excel!

One of my most beloved clients would always greet me with a cheery, “Jai Shree Krishna, Wasim bhai!” and wave me into his shop. He could rapidly calculate a page long of prices in a jiffy even at the ripe age of 65 and took immense pride in it. I once challenged him with my mobile calculator but he came out trumps, smiling like a school boy who had topped his Math class!

Keeping things simple and clinging onto age old traditions was the unwritten mantra here.

On the other end in the spectrum of my NRI client base was of course, the more in-the-eye and visible executive segment. They were the senior management of the various firms that made up corporate Oman. These gentlemen had started from the middle ranks to rise over the years to occupy the posts of GM’s and CXO’s. They held significant clout over the running of their respective businesses and their Omani partners/owners accorded them immense respect.

I worked and stayed for about a dozen years in the Gulf. During this time, my personal wealth started accumulating too. Money gave me a lot of freedom and the choices to fulfil most of my aspirations. Gulf countries do not tax individual income; so, whatever amount was on your offer letter, the same was credited into your bank account each month.

Hence, I could travel, buy my dream SUV and go on exotic holidays once a year. I could shop for expensive suits, wear a TAG on my wrist and even could afford to plant the odd Mont Blanc pen in my shirt pocket. Such were the riches offered by God!

I started thinking of investments in property, gold and stocks. In the strictest sense possible I was doing my own personal wealth management, in addition to my professional side too.

But all along I always remembered what the guys in Muttrah Souq had taught me – to stay humble, to stay grounded even if wealth had propelled you from economy to business class.

However, like all good stories mine too had to unravel at some point. I do not know what triggered it, but in time I started feeling stagnated. Both in life and at work. Suddenly my posh office with its’ high ceilings and low-slung executive chairs began to bore me. They lost their sheen. Work became a chore and the monthly targets a drag. I found myself unable to cope with both.

After giving it much thought I decided to resign and come back to India. I was no longer doing justice to my employer. Not just to India but I came back to my hometown Bhubaneswar- to my parents’ house. A place where my innocent childhood days had metamorphosed into the exuberance of youth.

A place I had always called home.

Then life dealt me a shock which was totally unexpected and an eye-opener. I entered into a prolonged period of illness which literally was a gut wrenching experience. (Refer my post –Tropic of Cancer)

Somehow the illness altered my view on wealth and its importance. Yes, I could pay my hospital bills because I had money. But it’s use was up to a certain extent only. I realized the hard way that not only with a snap of its fingers, life could make you disappear but also the money you made could ground to dust.

The adage “Health is Wealth” that I had learnt and forgotten all those years ago in school, now came back as a large sized poster in my hospital room (and life) from which I could no longer keep my eyes away from.

Along with this realization I started seeing other things too in the sea of life. When I was sinking in my boat, objects which had submerged with the passage of time were gradually coming to my notice.

As I started collecting them one by one, they started surfacing in the sea pulling me up along with them.

  1. Catching up with those long forgotten friends from my Botany Honours days in college and refreshing those wonderful memories; Meeting some of my school friends I didn’t even know existed!
  2. The joy of having breakfast with my ageing parents who were relieved I was back after almost 20 years;
  3. Spending evenings with that uncle and aunt of mine who took me for holidays to places like Srinagar and Sikkim while I was a teenager; and who now suffered from the ‘empty nest syndrome’. (both their kids reside outside Odisha)
  4. Going for cycling early in the morning and again visiting all those back alleys, I frequented in my youth.
  5. Reading story books and newspapers with my feet propped up on my balcony and simply soaking in the roadside views.

Suddenly all these small things started giving me immense joy. They started propping me up and boosting my immune system which had started flagging in my later years abroad.

Then out of nowhere came COVID. Ironically in all the chaos caused by the pandemic, I further settled into this cocoon of comfort. Happiness started sprouting for me in small measures.

  1. A teaching assignment that I had lost out at a prestigious Institute (If you follow my blog closely you will guess its name) came back to me. This was because the staff from New Delhi could not travel in the lockdown.
    • I dived into my online assignment with full gusto. At the end of the semester, when I received messages from some of the students that how much they had enjoyed my classes, it gave me a new high!
  2. At the same time I started focussing on this blog which hitherto was lying unattended, like a neglected child. Soon, compliments started pouring in from people that how much they were enjoying reading my posts.

So, yes life seems to have come a full circle for me. I now realise it comes with its finite moments carrying infinite possibilities with them. It is up to us how best we utilise and ‘live’ them.

The 2 sides of Wealth Management

It makes me look forward to each day with a bit of greed as to how much returns I can extract from time- the most valued asset class in Wealth Management.

I have also realised the more I express my gratitude to God for giving this ‘other wealth’ in my life, the more I receive it. Unlike my financial assets this intangible wealth does not have any NAV*. It cannot be measured for there are no units to measure it. Yet I realize it enriches me, enlivens me!

(*NAV = Net Asset Value. An unit to measure various financial instruments like Mutual Funds)

This realisation also brings forth the responsibility of managing it well, just as one would manage financial assets. It adds a different dimension to my concept of Wealth Management.

I have stumbled a few times in the effort, but I now understand that I have to handle them with care right up to the finishing line.

For when I will finally switch off the light at the end of the day and go to sleep, it will be this wealth in my inner savings account that I will carry along with me and not the Cash and FD’s in my bank account.

(Concluded)

Both Illustrations by phantasmicart (her Insta Id) -your creativity always impresses! Thank you so much Ritwicka 🙂

Reader's Corner

Dear Reader, would you agree that the intangible wealth is equally important as the tangible wealth in our lives? At this particular moment in your life, where would you place both of them on a scale of 1 to 10. 
(1 being least important and 10 most important)

Do share your thoughts below on the subject. I would love to hear from you!

Tropic of Cancer

Prologue

The stretcher is being pushed in a brisk manner. The corridor through which I am being rolled through seems unusually long. I can hear a few familiar voices around me. They are close yet they seem to be coming from a distance. There is a hollow effect about them.

Though the anaesthesia effects linger, I seem to be regaining some of my lost sensations. I am aware that I am being wheeled away from the I.C.U. to the Oncology Post Surgery Ward. 4 pairs of hands lift the sheet I am lying in on the stretcher and place me gently on the bed.

The operation for which I had been admitted is finally over.

“Welcome to the world of needles and pain,

Of white coats and red stain.

Where the air perennially reeks of an antiseptic smell,

Where not just the body but even the mind feels un-well”

02nd Dec 2017

The white lights on the overhead ceiling are a silent witness to the dark sufferings in the bodies of the people lying below.

A portable sphygmomanometer on the wall acts like an active twitter handle. It tweets out my b.p. readings every second. I drift in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware of its intermittent beeps as it adds to the un-natural discomfort around me.

I have been lying on my back in the same position for hours now and it seems to me that my back hurts more than my abdomen where the actual action has taken place. Just so that I don’t forget this fact, a burning sensation clutches the lowest part of my gut making me wince. It is stifled by an unknown force and it is then that I realise there is an abdominal belt wrapped tightly around my waist.

It seems to me I can feel pipes everywhere in my body. One has been inserted through my nostrils, down my throat and I am not sure how far inside they extend to. One set originates just above my right shoulder and I know they have been injected into my spine piercing through at some point on my back.

The doctor calls it epidural analgesic and it is just another way how modern medicine has added so many gadgets to its weaponry. And all of them are aimed at fastening you down to life at a time when you feel you are floating away in despair.

A valve has been fixed on my right hand. They have pipes inserted into them and are simultaneously supplying me with saline and a pain killing fluid. As the bottles hang upside down, I think my life too has gone into a similar position in these past few days.

2 more pipes which I cannot see but only feel hang loosely from my left side and end below the bed. Later I come to know they are carrying out wastes directly from my body.

So yes, I now look like a contraption of plastic tubes lying on an iron bed trying to breathe, trying to stay as calm as possible. To complete the look there is a bandage wrapped around my head. I am not sure why. I know I haven’t come to AIIMS to have my head examined!

I am here because the ‘Tropic of Cancer’ has decided to run through my lower abdomen. A tumour had developed with suspected malignant cells in my colon. The cancer has passed through 5 other patients in this ward too. As it continues to run ahead, I know millions of other lives globally have also been affected by it.

In the past 12 hours I have moved from my bed in the private ward to the O.T. then to I.C.U & now I am here. At different points during the night I have seen vague glimpses of my father, my mamu Hanif, my brother-in-law Safar and my family’s Man Friday Aftab.

The saline drips ever so slowly. Though it seems an hour has passed, but in reality, only 10-15 minutes have elapsed. The thought that I would be in the same position for at least 48 hours more makes my mind go numb.

I need to deal with this! I split the clock into blocks of 8 hours each and tell myself I must survive through each block before proceeding to the next.

In my mind I immediately start reciting a short prayer as suggested by my favourite Shamima aunt. Soon enough I visualise myself lying slumped on the ground. A pair of hands appear behind me, grabbing my shoulders under each armpit and dragging me outside a door.

As the door opens there is dazzling light outside.

01st Dec 2017, Friday

“Hey Wasim, are you ready?” asks Shahed Uncle (papa’s elder brother) with a smile as he enters the room. It is 9.30 am. I am relieved to see him as only 10 minutes ago the nurse has informed; I need to proceed to the O.T. asap. The time has been preponed by 2 hours & everything now is set for surgery.

When I was to be admitted on 27th Nov 2017, a full 4 days prior to surgery Hanif Mamu had turned around and asked me,” Hey why is the Dr. asking for admission so many days in advance?” I had jokingly replied,” perhaps he wants to marinate me properly before cooking!” Little did I know then how close my marinate joke came to reality.

The prior evening a hospital staff had come with 2 razors in hand and shaved off all the hair from my torso and upper legs. He then proceeded to apply Bitadene on these parts. For the uninitiated this is an antiseptic applied to prevent any bacterial infection. It made my skin turn yellow and I now perfectly resembled tender dressed meat all set to be put in the tandoor!

Back to present day. Soon enough Shahed Uncle and I are walking to the O.T. We are accompanied by an acquaintance who has been kind enough to volunteer to donate blood. His will be in lieu of 1 bottle which we have taken from the AIIMS blood bank, Bhubaneswar. He also carries a big box of pharmaceutical items which contains everything related to the operation and anaesthesia.

Papa had worked tirelessly the previous day to purchase all of them from 3 different shops. The list is long, and he has crossed checked it multiple times to ensure none is missing.

I park my slippers outside the annexe room and say “Bismillah” and enter. From here on a ward boy escorts me in a wheelchair. I am made to sign a register and curiously enough the time is the iconic and symmetrical 10.10 am.

When I enter the O.T. I am greeted by a team of almost 8-10 doctors and nurses. I am made to take off my shirt and sit on the operating table. They ask my name and few other pleasantries are exchanged.

3 strong needles are injected into my back in quick succession in what is a very painful 5 minutes. I am then asked to lie down. I am somehow relieved the process has finally started. Somewhere outside the door I imagine in true Bollywood style, a red light would have flashed on!

Then everything inside the O.T. went black.

03rd Dec 2017 Sun

I get to hear 2 bits of good news today. One – the urine catheter attached to my body will be removed. I am now allowed to walk to the toilet. Second – Tomorrow I will move back to my bed in the private ward. Both these pieces of good news are delivered in person by Prof. Madhab Nanda Kar himself who has come on his morning round.

I notice that a few minutes before his arrival the staff get into a flurry of activity; as if an invisible whip has been cracked. Patient records are being updated, junior doctors and the nurses huddle around taking notes to prepare for any question that the professor may ask.

Such is the aura of the man; he is after all the H.O.D., Oncology at AIIMS, Bhubaneswar. Even as a patient I somehow feel indebted to him; for the surgery he has done so cleanly, so effectively.

If I had not been tied down to my bed I would have sprung up and given him a salute!

I silently thank Hanif Mamu who has been pivotal in meeting the renowned Professor and taking multiple initiatives and follow ups to bring him to my operating table.

4th Dec 2017 Mon

I am back in my room in the private ward. Somehow, I have made through the most difficult part. Here after begins the recovery phase.

At this moment I want to pause and thank the 4 pillars of support which propped up the non-stop efforts of my parents. They are – Hanif Mamu, Shahed Uncle, Aftab’s family (they gave hospital duty on all 10 nights+ closed their shop for 4days) and of course all the people in my family including my sister Hena.

Amongst friends I would like to thank Dipta, Vicky, Sattar, Smriti and Dilip Bhai for their unstinting support.

There have been many others whose un-ending prayers and continuous supply of good wishes for me has helped me through this very difficult phase in life, health wise.

During my stay in the hospital I saw people in a far more vulnerable state than mine. Most of them came from the lower strata of society. I enjoy more privileges than them and I still have age on my side. Most of them were senior citizens and at that age handling the vagaries of an operation was far more difficult and hence even more commendable.

My situation made me realize is how we take for granted the simple things in life. When I was in the general ward and unable to use my bandaged hands, I saw an attendant (accompanying a patient) eat rice and dal with his own hands. I thought to myself,” seriously he can do that?!”

Back in my room I missed the informal bonding that develops amongst the patients and their accompanying family members in the general ward. They would ask about each other’s wellbeing and share details of their sickness.

A few times they helped me get up from my bed and one night a couple of boys even held my arms and took me for a short walking exercise. When I was leaving the ward, an extremely old man clutching his urine bag in his hand even had the courtesy to walk ahead of us and open the doors so that my wheelchair could easily pass through. Unbelievable.

The other thing that struck me was the number of needles they inject in you during a major surgery as this. Though you know each time there will be some pain yet every time you see the nurse walk in you feel apprehensive. There came a time when both my hands were so swollen that they actually found out a vein below my right knee to inject into. Now that was a 1st time for me!

Epilogue

The tumour which was sent for biopsy tested positive for malignancy. We did have a suspicion of presence of colon cancer and hence we had gone for an Oncology specialist surgeon and not a general one.

I underwent 6 months of chemotherapy (Jan -Jun 2018) successfully at a local hospital in Bhubaneswar and by God’s grace I am doing fine now.

During this entire ordeal of 6-8 months I thought it was pointless to turn to God and ask, “why me?” What is destined to happen will happen. It is better to take the knock in your stride and continue moving ahead.

I still go for regular check ups and maintain diet and lifestyle controls so that a relapse does not occur. As my Dr. famously quipped, “Cancer is like an untrustworthy friend. Just when you think it won’t let you down it will. By re-appearing again”.

Haji’s Cafe

It is about 9 am on a working day, as I enter the lane next to the Masjid and a familiar territory of Manama begins. It is an area that i have been frequenting a lot during my total stay of about 4 years in Bahrain.  

Rows of tables with wooden benches are neatly arranged to my right in the open lane. Hot meals with cold salads/yoghurt are being served by the waiters, most of whom are from Bangladesh.

On my left I walk past the kitchen tandoor, from where the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked qubuz (the staple Bahraini flatbread) emanates. It makes me smack my lips in anticipation of the meal ahead 🙂

There are majorly 2 communities here – the Arab speaking customers and the Bengali speaking staff. The rest of us are as rare as the Arabian Oryx. I belong to that un-common breed of customer as I step into the air conditioned dining room. On my innumerable visits here I could have counted on my fingers the number of times I would have met a fellow Indian.

Almost this entire lane is ruled by the cafe owner. There are 3 enclosed dining halls – of which 2 are exclusively reserved for families only. The walls speak of the times gone by in Bahrain through the various sepia tinged pictures which adorn them – like a still movie being projected onto the walls.

You can take a walk down memory lane as you view them whilst savouring your meal.

Welcome to Haji’s Cafe, here since 1950!

The food is quintessentially Arabic of course. I did try a couple of those traditional dishes in my initial visits, when curiosity would take over my hunger. But then my palate seemed to settle for something closer home – 2 sunny side up eggs + qubuz so typical to gulf cuisine, in the end a mix of both worlds. The meal washed down with piping hot tea served not in plastic/foam cups but in cutting glass – just like in the days of yore back home in India.

My favourite waiter Mahfooz breezes in the door with a big plate delicately balanced in his hand….to the left of his head. The door is not wide enough to fit both him & his accessory, so he balances the entire paraphernalia carefully and pushes open the door with his foot. On the big plate are numerous quarter plates with various edibles each adding their own delectable aroma to the cafe ‘s homely ambience.

This guy has been working here for about 5 years now. Duty hours are long – 7 am to 7 pm. He visits his country only once in 2 years & shares his room with 4 other people. Yet his smile hides all his hardships. He greets me with a cheery ‘ Assalam o laikum ‘ & asks ‘same same’ ? 

Well that is his code word for my usual breakfast. I have been having that consistently for 4 years now (though not daily!) I have simply clung onto the wonderful taste of the both qubuz & the eggs sprinkled with pepper. By now he knows he must serve me crispy qubuz only 1 at a time – so that i enjoy it while it is still hot & breaks easily in my hand. It is served in an unique way – On a wicker plate made of cane.

My 2nd favourite guy is Hussein. He too has been here for donkey’s years. He supports his family back home with whatever he can save from his meagre salary. His income is augumented by tips from some of the kind hearted patrons who visit the cafe. 

Together they are in charge of this room. They are assissted by a cleaner who quickly wipes off the table & the floor as people leave after enjoying their meals. 

My breakfast lasts just about 15 minutes but it is something I look forward to whenever I am in the mood to visit the Cafe. At the end of it I pay in the telephone booth like counter – and over the years I have realized not only is the meal very afffordable but it’s price has not changed at all ! It seems inflation has forgotten to touch Haji’s cafe and simply by-passed this lane.

I walk back contented to my office desk to take on my share of the day’s work ahead.