From Dior to Dharma, Chapter 1 (Part 3/3)
As the television screen in the office flashed images of Lehman bankers walking out of the bank with their possessions in boxes, I was moving my own from one part of the office to another, feeling intrinsically linked to the broader unfolding of events. William, a kindly colleague of African descent, made snide references to the Second World War culling of Jews from Germany as he helped me move my things.
The following months were filled with confusion and fear as once-friendly colleagues threw off their masks and animal instincts took over. A long European vacation I took at the time, in which several of the postcards from my childhood came alive, was utterly wasted as I struggled with a back pain born of stress and a physical, mental and emotional inability to pry myself away from work emails even long enough to look at the beauty of Lake Geneva. From the point of view of ego, I was determined to stand up to the office enemies that wanted to take credit for my work, point out my inadequacies in carrying on a conversation about rugby and even throw the foreigner card at me. From the point of view of life, however, I didn’t care if I lost the fight. I remember standing in line for groceries at Waitrose one evening, and thinking how unheroic, unpoetic and frankly pointless it would be to live in such times and not taste the deepness of life going around, but merely skim by on the surface. Perversely, to avoid what I thought would be a kind of anti-climax, I wanted to be made redundant in one of those rounds of firing that had become a matter of course at the bank.
And it happened. In a slow motion of painful events that violently shook my faith in humanity. I was taken off deals that I had worked hard on and randomly excluded from meetings and calls. In hindsight, I should probably not have fought so hard against the rising tide of human perverseness, but rather ducked out of the way. I could have joined in on the politics, siding with the bullying old guard, or taken the more radical step of changing jobs. But getting out of the way would have meant missing priceless lessons in human psychology that quite frankly had me fascinated. After all, who better to learn from about psychological warfare than the ‘master of mind games’, John McBride. From one day to the next, it became hard to keep track of who was being played against whom and who was in the safe zone and who wasn’t.
But that wasn’t all that kept me from throwing in the towel. There was also a deeper motivation. The same motivation that inspires a man to jump off an aircraft with a parachute, dive to the bottom of the ocean and to scale treacherous icy peaks – impulses that look like a death wish to those watching. I wanted to know and feel life. Something in me wanted to find out how far the nastiness and selfishness would go and I can’t deny that I pushed life, wanting to see what it was really made of. I didn’t know if this qualified as Thoreau’s tasting of ‘the marrow of life’, but I was compelled to try and find out. What I saw, though, wrung my insides on a daily basis.
By January 2009, the trading floors at the bank’s Canary Wharf offices were empty. They looked like vast battlefields at the end of a traumatic war. The number of casualties were untold – hundreds fired or moved to other offices. One rainy morning, John ushered us into the large glass-walled boardroom and told us in a very grave tone, “The police is coming. We should all start thinking of other options”. The James Bonds of the world were, for the first time, running scared. Hot shot traders and slick CEOs were making their way to witness stands.
I walked out of the bank for the last time in March 2009, to later look back at that period in my life as one of ‘innocence in recession’. Somewhere deep down, right up to the last day, I was still holding out hope that John and some of the others I looked up to would come through on my expectations.
It was like I was put on a fast track, advanced course of life. Those last weeks, I walked around as if in a bubble, lost in my head, past woeful newsstands outside St. Paul’s churchyard, announcing the end of the world as we knew it. I recall standing at St Katherine’s docks at midnight, stopping on my way home from work to look at the moon over London Bridge through tears of stress and confusion. Or riding the tube on icy mornings and trying to avoid eye-contact not merely out of that peculiar London etiquette but because I was never sure when my eyes might start to well up again. In those three years in the banking world, I had been forced, in the words of Albert Camus, to “open up to the tender indifference of the world”.
After leaving the big bad world of banking, I had done what any self-respecting banker would do – enrol in an elite business school to get a management degree, an MBA. I didn’t want to work in banking anymore, but I still wanted action. I wanted a better work-life balance, but I didn’t want a boring job. After all, they tire of the calm, those who have known the storm. And so, after another degree, a couple of other jobs and stints in Singapore and Mumbai, I had ended up in a prestigious consulting firm in Paris.
In those early days in Paris, I genuinely had felt like I had found my place in the world, where I could live forever in a parfum scented bubble of joy, love and of course, Parisian arrogance. I felt like I had finally found what I had been looking for all my life. My happy ending. I couldn’t imagine ever becoming bored of the heart-stopping twinkling of the Eiffel tower or the romantic, bridged riverscapes running down the centre of the city.
I took a deep breath and put down my diary. My old acquaintance disillusionment, that I had first brushed shoulders with in London, looking rather smug during the financial crisis, was now trying to find a comfortable seat next to me. This time though, the loss of faith was unignorable. Can I do a backspace on my life? I wondered.
One part of me thought that I only had myself to blame. Seven years ago, I could have called it quits on the corporate rate race and computer screen bondage. But the ambition and longing for adventure was still strong. Three years ago, I chose my current job not on the basis of some well-thought out career strategy, but mainly because I wanted to live in Paris. I may have let my schooling interfere with my education but as had been evident from London and now Paris, I never let my career interfere with my experience of life. And who doesn’t think after a failure such as being made redundant from your job at 25, that the next achievement on the horizon holds the key to fulfilment and happiness?
Another part of me, however, felt like a helpless victim of circumstance. Or more precisely, a victim of the hyper 90s’, with their immaturity, ambition, promises of endless possibility, competition, ‘all’s fair in love and war’ attitude, ‘reach for the stars’ mottos, ‘the world is yours for the taking’ slogans and ‘work hard-play hard’ convictions. All that seemed so very long ago. It felt like we were now dealing with the hangover. In this hangover, it was impossible for reality to ever match expectations. We were simultaneously resisting a new reality and trying to shape it with old dreams and broken tools. I remember reading once that the economist Hyman Minsky said that stability leads to instability; the longer a trend or situation persists, the more dramatic would be the correction. How true that was, not only in economics, but generally in life.
In any case, blame game aside, the long and short of it now was that my job didn’t actually mean much to me, I actually had nothing else to keep me in Paris, I was quite exhausted actually and therefore actually, I was quite done with Paris.
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