Monday, December 19, 2005

Tam Travails

Tam Travails
by, Anita B.

I blame my upbringing in the city of Chennai for my woes today. I am studying (or at least furiously flipping page after page in weighty tomes) for the level 3 CFA exam. It is a three-year course where an exam happens every year. To fully understand what this implies you must see ‘36 Chambers of Shaolin’ - in one grueling test they decide whether to let you go to the next level or not. CFA is highly recommended for every budding investment banker/trader/financial analyst working in the U.S; I am a corporate banker in India. Yet for the last three years I have been indulging myself in an expensive course with no payback visible on the horizon. The only conclusion I have reached is that I am a muggu, a nerd, a geek, a no-life sub-human, a well-brought-up-Tam.

I think the effects of this phenomenon were strengthened when I chose to do commerce instead of science - I had signed up for the course chosen only by losers in Tamil Nadu. Now the rest of my life would be an endless endeavour to set this right. Which meant that when I was filling my admission forms for B Com, I had already gone through the brochures of ICWA, ACS, CA etc so that I could fruitfully spend extra time ‘adding value’ to myself. In my first year, I had finished a certified course from NIIT - to this day, I wonder when I will get to use my strong foundation in DOS. In the beginning of my second year, I had passed my C.A. Foundation course. The whole of second year and most of third year was spent in clearing exams for the C.A. Intermediate course. This could have gone on for an indefinite period of time, had I not started an MBA. There were temptations even then - do I write my C.A. Intermediate and then maybe finish the final after B-School…?. Luckily since enough people had told me that an MBA would be tough enough by itself, I desisted.

After two relatively ‘extra course free’ years, I thought I had finally exorcised the ghost of Madras Muggers (‘mug’ as in study, not ‘mug’ as in steal). In fact, becoming a corporate slave seemed to have been a reasonably good indicator that I had been saved from me and there would be no more attempts at trying to string more degrees to my name.

I was mistaken. One year went by in peace and harmony and at the end of it I had signed up for the ‘U.S Recognised’ CFA course. I once again attacked my books with a vengeance. And realized that I had signed up for another three years of feeling guilty about spending free time on movies or books or dining out (not that it stopped me from doing all the above). And of feeling really noble if I resisted and instead stared at my books while all my worthy compatriots were enjoying themselves.

Again I plunged into the torment of realizing in the nth hour that you still have 50% of the stuff to cram. The resolve to drop out of the course at the end of 1st year no matter whether I passed or failed. The usual pre-exam melodrama.

I passed the first year and in a happy daze had already paid the USD 500 fee for the second year before I could recollect all the trauma of studying the previous year. In fact, by the time I remembered, it was already finals time for the second year. The second year exams too got over in due course of time. Collapsed into a chair outside the exam hall with a worthy co-masochist friend. And listened to some serious soul searching. ‘What is it with us that makes us write more and more exams and collect more degrees even though we are not really getting anything out of it’. Not surprising coming from a guy who was working in Infosys in software and had bid goodbye to finance after just a year. I, of course felt smug in comparison since I was in banking which qualified as ‘finance’. And then he continued ‘I think it must be the tam in us’. How right was he! After all this guy was an engineer, and really by Indian standards he had nothing more to prove. And in all honesty, after an IIM MBA, I could at least state I had reached a bit of an academic pinnacle in India. Yet we were both spending hours making notes on heteroskedascity and delta hedging. Voila! It was not the commerce degree that was propelling me to fall deeper into the pit.

It figures. Any good Tamilian is told that the only way to come up in life is to study hard. A constant background noise throughout childhood on the importance of education had left a deep unerasable scar in our heads. Now there was nothing to do but to study more. Possibly throughout our lives (shudder). My friend took a last drag and said ‘so let me know by when we have to pay the fees for our third level’ and I nodded in understanding.

It is now almost time for level 3. A sense of déjà vu fills me again as I open the portfolio management book. My friend called to say he is definitely going to flunk this year and he can’t understand why he threw away good money on a stupid course etc etc. I listen and agree wholeheartedly and add some good criticism of my own. He is also planning to write his GMAT in October. God save us.

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