When he turned 37, Satyajit ‘Toto’ Lahiri, “without family encumbrances” and no children, found himself “truly alone.” The past two years had been gruelling. Two consequent setbacks — his parents passed away in 2005, and his prolonged divorce proceedings finally ended in 2007 — had a profound effect on him, which set his mind ticking. He thought, “When I’m 64 and my most productive and active years are behind me, what do I want to look back on? And, what would be the process of making this a reality?”
Lahiri had been working as a communications director (India & SAARC) at CA Technologies, and had previously worked at several PR agencies and MNCs as a PR/services marketing professional; at a newspaper as a business correspondent; and freelanced as a roving writer, researcher and subeditor. With a schedule in which he was either “travelling or returning from a work tour/ event virtually every three days on average,” he set out to upend his arduous lifestyle. He decided to quit his “suit-and-tie corporate life for good.”
“When I’m 64 and my most productive and active years are behind me, what do I want to look back on?”
Like Lahiri, there’s a growing tribe of men exploring the idea of an early or partial retirement, at the peak of their careers. Whether the impetus lies in following passions that were left unexplored, or as an alternative to escaping the daily grind, early retirement is an aspiration that many hold close to their hearts, but few actually realise it. Like Bharadwaj Dayala, who traverses continents on his bike today. Born into a middle-class family in Visakhapatnam, Dayala had quit college to begin his business venture in software/ hardware. He’d always nurtured the dream to travel the world, but didn’t have the time to put it to action. Then bankruptcy happened. “I lost everything, so I had the time to think about these things and what I’m going to do next. While wandering, I saw an advertisement in Thomas Cook: ‘you can travel all around Europe in 10 lakh rupees.’
So, that ignited a spark in my head. I said, ‘Okay, now that I have all the time in the world, let me start planning for a world tour.’ This is around 2003. I was 32 years old [and] an ardent rider. I didn’t even have a passport when I started planning for this.” But, then, he hatched a time-consuming plan that involved meticulously researching routes, studying rules and regulations of countries and arranging for visas. On April 2, 2006, he set off on an 18-month long journey, biking across five continents, before winding back to India on November 2, 2007. Since then, he has been fuelling his wanderlust through an irregular payroll: as a freelance web designer and programmer, and part-time supervisor at a friend’s construction company. When I spoke to him, he was holidaying in Araku Valley, planning his next trip.
For Indians, early retirement seems too good to be true. The country ranks the lowest among 43 countries in the global retirement index (2017) which takes into account healthcare, saving avenues et al. And, in most cases, people gradually realise they don’t have enough money to sustain their retirement plans, and end up resuming their work routine. Financial planners suggest that those looking to retire early (typically at 50) target a minimum retirement corpus of 10-15 times their final annual income, to sustain their lifestyles. Important elements include taking stock of current assets; the right asset allocation as per one’s risk appetite and goals; ensuring the portfolio delivers returns that beats inflation all along; reviewing and realigning expenses regularly; reviewing the portfolio frequently; ensuring the portfolio is liquid, flexible and taxefficient, freeing yourself of the liabilities — basically laying all the groundwork before the big jump. Like Mumbai-born Devrai Shanbhag, who quit his bank job in 2000 and slowly pulled out of his business ventures, Lily Investments and Lily Caterers by 2007. His love for travel (“I wanted to be a traveller, not a tourist”) strengthened his zeal. With a full-time job, he had “to compromise on trips.” So, he made a rough sketch of his financial needs by the time he would be 50; created a modest plan for travel, children’s education and medical needs; took VRS from his bank job; closed Lily Investments in 2002; and gave up Lily Caterers to his manager and senior employees, in return for a commission and rent for the kitchen and utensils.
In most cases, people gradually realise they don’t have enough corpus to sustain their retirement plans, and end up resuming their work routine
Lahiri gives a more detailed account in this regard. “I drew up a list of things I wanted to experience or achieve. I worked out the steps required to achieve that. Finally, I took a look at what my basic financial needs are, increased that by 250 per cent, looking ahead ten years onwards. I assumed I would live up to 75 years in working the sums out, and added another 10 per cent for extra safety. I also looked at my fixed asset situation (property) that I could sell in the event of a shortfall. Finally, I came to a figure of financial assets and liabilities comprising a mixture: property, stocks, continuing investments, past investments and their maturity dates, short fixed assets, liquid assets, and continuing monthly long-term investment outflows like EMIs and SIPs in mutual funds and insurance.”
Beyond their uncanny financial foresight, what these men also had in common was an uncommon passion for travel. “I have travelled to 69 nation states in my life,” says Lahiri. Today, as a 47-year old, he “resides near one of the most pristine beaches” and is busy fixing up his home in Goa. “Not just travelled — I have ‘experienced’ most of them. I am writing a book — I would never have had the time for that. My social circle is now global. My perspective on issues facing the world today has undergone a radical transformation, now that I have experienced so much beyond posh offices, business-class air travel and fancy hotel rooms.” Dayala, who is now 48, says he’s living his dream. “The struggle is absolutely worth it,” he says. “I’m not a person who accumulates a lot of wealth. I’m a man with very limited needs. So, at the max, I may want to travel around the world again, but I’ll never want to buy a house.” To fulfil his travel goals, Shanbhag purchased an SUV in 2005, “and started driving the length and breadth of India. By 2009, I was travelling five months in a year. My wife took VRS from her job with the Reserve Bank of India in 2007, and she accompanies me on many trips. Kids had completed education, so that worry was behind me. I have taken membership of different associations and organisations. I take more interest in the working of my society. Life is still hectic, but without the stress.”
What these gentlemen have achieved is what most don’t dare to dream of. But, if you do, Lahiri says, “Make not just goals and targets, but a practical, logical step-by-step plan to achieve them. Be very disciplined about these before you call it quits. Then quit and do whatever the hell you want to. Often, it may be nothing. And, that is cool, too. The wisest sages did ‘nothing’.”