I know you have just completed your first novel, which we’ll talk about later, but let’s start with your early interest in words. Growing up in Lahore in Pakistan, you had a keen interest in debating: how did that arise and what were you involved in?
My mother was the president of the debating society at her college. From her, I inherited a passion for public speaking and a well-reasoned argument. My father inspired in me an appreciation for facts, data and research. I started public speaking when I was 11 or 12. In the beginning, my mother used to write my speeches for me. But I soon took over! When I was 16, I competed to represent Pakistan at the World Schools Debating Championships held in Scotland. To my great surprise, I was chosen and I believe I was the youngest contestant that year. It was Pakistan’s first time participating and the debating format was completely new to us. But I made it to the finals of the individuals competition. I went on to represent Pakistan two more times at the Championship and then, at 19, when I turned too old for the competition, I coached the next Pakistan team.
You came to the UK in 1994 to be a student at the London School of Economics (LSE). Why economics and why the UK?
The UK seemed closer to home than the United States, not just geographically but also because of our shared history. However, without financial support, I couldn’t have studied abroad. Luckily, I won a merit scholarship sponsored by the British Council.
I had studied economics at school and found it fascinating. I firmly believed that most social problems have an economic basis. I found macroeconomics particularly interesting, especially the area of monetary policy, international trade and exchange rates. I think my monetary economics professor at LSE tired of me turning up at every one of his office hours and embroiling him in long discussions about inflation and the money supply! My thesis at Oxford was about studying the patterns in exchange rate crises with a special focus on Latin America. Doing that work helped me understand the limits and unintended consequences of economic policy.
In retrospect, even though I love economics, I would also have loved to study history, literature and language. I am fortunate enough to be able to do some of that now, in my second act.
And then you made the move to Oxford, and Merton, where you studied for an MPhil in Economics. What prompted that?
I loved studying economics at LSE and was all set to pursue a Master’s in economics there with a full merit scholarship. But then I heard about the MPhil programme at Oxford. The course descriptions for the economics specialisation interested me because the material relied heavily on the use of mathematics and that was an area in which I wanted to invest more time. Of course, I would need funding and it was at this point that I learned about the Americas’ Scholar programme at Merton College. I applied for it and was fortunate enough to win the scholarship. That’s how my Oxford and Merton journey came to pass.
Thinking back to your two years at Merton, do you have any outstanding memories or impressions of your time at the College?
I have many lovely memories. At that time, Dame Jessica Rawson was the Warden. As a Senior Scholar, I had dining rights at High Table twice a week. Engaging in discussions with her and other dons over dinner was a high point. I lived in college and had a beautiful bedroom, sitting room, and an en suite bathroom overlooking Chestnut Lawn. I loved it there. I guess the memory of walking past the Porters’ Lodge at 7am on my way back from an all-night party, quickly showering and showing up on time for a maths lecture still makes me laugh! I wouldn’t be able to manage that now.
After Merton, you went to the United States in 1999, where you worked for various financial organisations. Did you feel that was a natural progression from your economics studies, or was it a massive shock after Merton? Did what you had learned at Oxford and LSE – personally and educationally – prepare you for the world of US finance?
I had always intended to go into the corporate world. Doing that after Merton was at once a natural progression and a massive shock. I was not only switching from studying to working but also moving from a smaller town to a huge metropolis, from one country to another (yet again). It took some adjustment. One of the things I realised was that in the corporate world, it is often less important to find the perfectly correct solution to a problem and more important to find the good-enough, practicable solution. Being a purist, I found this a difficult lesson. Having said that, all that I had learned at Merton and LSE – the rigour, the logic, an unshakeable work ethic, a dogged curiosity – came in handy. What also came in handy was my knowledge of economics, statistical methods and corporate finance.
Your first job was at McKinsey & Company. What was it like? And how did your journey in finance progress from there?
At McKinsey, I learnt how to break complex problems into analysable parts. I exercised my love of economics in the real world as I served financial institutions, specifically investment and wealth management firms. Many McKinsey consultants move on to work in the industry they served while at McKinsey. The same happened to me and I spent over a decade in the investment and wealth management industry in both strategic and operating roles, most rewardingly at Merrill Lynch as the head of the regional chief operating officers. When I went into private equity, it was specifically to buy and sell investment and wealth management companies, where I had deep expertise. For example, one of the deals I was involved in was to buy the largest independent service provider of retirement and college savings plans in the United States.
And then, after nearly 20 years working in finance, you decided to leave and devote yourself to writing. Did anything in particular spark this decision, or had you been contemplating it for a while? Can you see yourself ever going back into the world of finance, or would you like to remain in the world of words?
I have always loved fiction. Growing up, books were my food and drink. While I was at Merton, I had my head buried either in a novel or the Financial Times. I had often thought that in an alternative universe, I would have liked to become a writer. But my decision to leave finance was not premeditated. I was on maternity leave, fully intending to return to my career, when one day, as I was discussing my love of reading and writing with my husband he said, given that you are on leave, why don’t you take a writing class? I had never studied creative writing so I said, why not? I started writing a novel as part of the class and absolutely loved the process. But it was very, very hard for me to quit the business world. I had invested my entire working life in it – I had a reputation, experience, deep networks. I would be giving up all that to start afresh in a field. But here was my thought process: I’m not going to get another life. So, if I ever want to give serious attention to writing, I’d better do it in this life. Plus, I had met all my personal goals in the business world. As it happens, my husband is also in finance so I get my finance fix from him when I need it.
Now to your book. I know it’s a novel and is set in Lahore. Can you tell us a little more about it, and what inspired you to write it? Do you often go back to Lahore – and did you need to, for the purposes of the book?
The novel focuses on the volatile friendship between two girls in an all-girls’ boarding school in Lahore. One is rich, liberal and irreverent while the other is devout and underprivileged. It is about the experience of growing up female in a gendered society. It is about how we see ourselves and who we really are. It is about the ways in which our fears drive us to betray the ones we love.
When I was growing up, I used to love creating and telling stories – to friends, classmates, anyone who would listen. The plot is loosely based on one of my favourite stories from that time.
I did go to Lahore while in the process of writing the story to conduct some on-the-ground research. Even though Lahore is entrenched in my being, it was helpful to go back and immerse myself in the sounds and smells and flavours of my homeland.
You have a four-year-old son. Do you tell stories to him? How do you juggle being a writer and a mother?
I tell Ayaan stories all the time! When I start a story, I never know where it’s going to go. I make it up as I go along, drawing from his experiences during that particular day or concepts in which he is currently interested. He loves it. As do I.
It’s never easy to juggle motherhood with anything. Motherhood is a wonderful, maddening, rewarding, stressful, all-consuming state of mind. Every minute that I spend writing is a minute I don’t spend with my son. If I allow myself, this fact can generate endless guilt. I like to remind myself that it’s the richness of time that I spend with my son which matters. Also, writing allows me more flexibility than finance. I can walk my son to his school in the middle of the day.
You’ve been living in New York for many years now, but still have strong links with Merton – so much so that you joined the board of the Merton College Charitable Corporation (MC3) several years ago and you are Chairman of the MC3 Development Committee. What drew you to do take on these roles?
Merton did so much for me. I have an abiding affection for the College and its people and want to do what I can to give back. Fortunately, alumni such as Bob McKelvey, David Harvey, the late John Kirby and others made this easy to do by founding the Merton College Charitable Corporation (MC3) – an amazing organisation for Merton alumni who are based in North America. One of the projects that the MC3 funds is the Americas’ Scholar programme – the very scholarship that paid for my own time at Merton. In fact, when I was awarded the scholarship, I was flown to the United States by MC3 to meet its members. Being a part of MC3 and leading its development efforts in the United States enables me to make sure other students can also benefit from its generosity, the way I did.
Thank you for your time, and good luck with the final stages of the book and in finding a publisher. Do you think you have another book in you, or is it too premature to ask?
Ha! I could say that it all depends on whether I have any luck in finding an agent and a publisher for my first book. But seriously, one must enjoy writing for its own sake, setting aside the process of getting published. I am happy to report that I am working on my second novel as we speak – it’s still in a stage of infancy but I am very excited about it.