Come a Long Way

T.V. Narayanan

WHEN I WAS BORN 80-plus years ago in Madathumpady, it was one of the remotest villages in India. The country was ruled by the British and the freedom struggle was underway, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

My parents hadn’t attended school because there were no schools in the village when they grew up. But they weren’t illiterate. Both learned to read and write. In fact, my mother taught me how to read and write before I attended school. I learned the alphabet by writing with my index finger on sand spread on the floor.

At the time, in India, you weren’t considered educated if you didn’t know English—which my parents didn’t. Still, my father knew the basics of mathematics, like addition, multiplication and division. When I was in high school, I taught him decimals, which he was thrilled to learn.

I was my parents’ sixth and youngest child. My father was in his 50s when I was born. Most schools at the time were established by India’s state governments. But my village had no government schools. A private school was started under the leadership of my cousin, who was about 30 years older than me. He was a college graduate. That’s the school where my siblings and I studied. It was a private school where students were charged a monthly fee of three rupees, equal to about four U.S. cents at current exchange rates. My father couldn’t afford even that amount and had to borrow.

The university matriculation examination was conducted by the state government. Even though I was in a remote village school, I ranked first in the state among approximately 250,000 students, for which I was awarded a scholarship to attend college. The scholarship was a meager 50 rupees (61 cents) per month. While I was a student in the college of engineering, my scholarship increased to 100 rupees ($1.22) per month. Without the scholarship, I couldn’t have afforded college.

After getting a bachelor’s degree in engineering, I applied for admission to the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, one of India’s premier engineering institutions, where I earned a master’s degree. I received a scholarship of 400 rupees ($5) per month from the Government of India. In return for the scholarship, I was obligated to teach at an engineering school for a minimum of three years.

My teaching career started in 1966 and I taught at another top school, the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. When my three years were up, I was interested in pursuing further studies. I applied for admission to two schools, Lehigh University in the U.S. and the University of Swansea in Britain. I won admission and financial aid from both schools. I chose Lehigh and arrived in the U.S. in August 1969 with $8 in my pocket—the maximum amount of foreign exchange you were allowed to hold in India at the time.

After earning a PhD in applied mechanics, I went back to India. At the time, almost all marriages were arranged marriages. A PhD from a foreign country was in high demand in the marriage market. That’s how I got to marry Valsala, who was a medical doctor. After our wedding, I returned to the U.S. Valsala was able to follow three months later, after she got a visa. She joined the internship and residency program at a nearby hospital. It took her four years to complete both.

I was interested in pursuing an academic career, but academic jobs paid considerably less, so I decided to look for jobs in industry. Ultimately, I accepted a job in the research division of a New Jersey engineering company that built and designed power plants, oil refineries, pharmaceutical plants and other chemical facilities. The company had subsidiaries in Europe and collaborated with companies in the Far East. That gave me the opportunity to travel internationally.

After completing her internship and residency, Valsala set up a medical practice as an anesthesiologist at a community hospital. Luckily for her, the anesthesiologists in the hospital worked as a group to fulfill their departmental duties at the hospital, but each was independent in billing and collecting money from patients and insurance companies. This worked well for Valsala, allowing her to set up her own pension plan. By this point, we were both earning good money—with Valsala earning more.

My interest turned to investing. I had grown up poor—but now I had a chance to invest. That’s when I started reading The Wall Street Journal. I must have read just about every column that Jonathan Clements wrote as a personal finance columnist for the Journal and learned much from them. I read every investment book I could find, including those by Jonathan, Burton Malkiel, John Bogle, Charles Ellis, William Bernstein, Larry Swedroe, Jeremy Siegel and many others.

One of the books that influenced me the most was Bogle on Mutual Funds. The book has been revised many times and it’s now a thick volume. I was impressed by Jack Bogle’s idea of capturing the market’s overall growth at as little cost as possible, and it’s why I like total stock market index funds.

Still, early on, I bought many individual stocks. I purchased Enron and lost every penny. I bought WorldCom and lost money. But I also had some winners, including Berkshire Hathaway. I bought three A shares (symbol: BRK-A). Unfortunately, I sold two of them in 2005, when we bought a home in Florida. I didn’t want to take out a mortgage. I retired in 1998 at age 59. My wife continued to work part-time until 2008, when we moved fulltime to Florida.

Over the years, I’ve simplified our investment accounts. Now, we have only two, at Vanguard Group and Charles Schwab. In the Schwab account, we have just one investment, our remaining share of Berkshire Hathaway, which recently closed above $500,000. I plan to move our Berkshire holding to Vanguard and close the Schwab account. Other than the one Berkshire share, I invest only in index funds these days, both the mutual-fund and exchange-traded varieties.

A change in the law that took effect in 2010 allowed everybody, no matter what their income, to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth. But the conversion meant paying taxes today. I delayed, thinking older folks won’t live long enough to benefit. It took me a long time to realize that, even if Valsala and I wouldn’t benefit, our son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren would.

In my 80s, I have two regrets. First, I didn’t write and publish anything worthwhile, even though I was always interested in writing. Second, I’ve contributed very little to charities. I hope to correct these two deficiencies during my remaining years.

I believe that luck plays an important role in life. How else could a penniless boy from India end up in the U.S. with an eight-figure net worth?

Thazhathu V. Narayanan—T.V. to his friends—has been retired for 25 years and now lives in Florida. His hobbies include reading books on investing, economics and politics, and listening to classical music—preferably Indian classical music.

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