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MONEY WITHIN THE MAZE - Not all that is new is fine

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By THE THIN EDGE: Ruchir Joshi
  • Published 25.07.10
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I hate my bank. It’s an institution, but I hate it with a passion that is usually reserved for the lowest of low humans. My bank screws me up, turns me into a scrunched up paper ball of anger and makes me throw myself into the dustbin and, as I land on the heap of rubbish, I hate my bank all the more. “I hate you, bank!” I shout. I would add, “Go to hell! The deepest, darkest, most untraceable corner of hell!” — except my bank has my money and I don’t want what little money I have to go to hell.

Used to be, people hated banks even when I was a kid, but that was for different reasons and in a different way. “That cashier is always delaying!” One aunty would complain, “Just my cheques he is always delaying, for no reason!” No one would dare explain to the aunty that this might be because she was in the habit of talking to the bank staff as if they were her servants. But the crucial words here are “talking to”. Whether you were rude or very polite to the point of being obsequious, the point is you had a human, personal relationship with the cashiers and officers. Yes, they drove you crazy by making you wait for the simplest of transactions, yes, sometimes the paan-chewing, chai-slurping, transistor-at-ear-cricket-commentary-listening, ajkey-go-slow-korchhi-bujhlen-to, dhoti-clad cashier or officer would take on a personal vendetta against your accounts or your safe deposit box.

Nevertheless, everything involved face-to-face interaction, or paper on which stuff was written or typed or printed: cheque, pass-book, deposit slip, letter of complaint to the manager, everything. And, if you were a halfway decent person and not too proud of how much money you had (in comparison to the poorly paid banker-pawn who served you), you would find you had a similar relationship with the bank people as you had with your local modi ki dukan. You went to the market, you went to the doctor, you went to the bank, there was nothing mystical or mysterious about it.

Being a victim of Western literature, one knew that banks were bad, or could be bad, especially when they did something nasty called ‘foreclose’ on a ranch or a farm or some other rural property in Tennessee or Nebraska. You also knew from Victorian literature that bankers could be cruel and nasty creatures, the most heartless after lawyers. But, this being India and banks being nationalized, the worst thing your own bank could do was go on strike and the worst thing your ‘banker’, that is the babu who sat on Elgin Road leching at all the college girls who had accounts, could do was to ask your parents if they could get his daughter admitted into a local college. Sure, even Indian banks shafted big businessmen and businesses in big and arcane ways, but as part of a shikkhito middle-class family you were a civilian and these things were no more than rumours.

Then came the 1980s and the slow opening up of banking operations to the private sector. Suddenly, all those banks with the boring names became even more colourless, and you had less and less lena and dena with them. Across my twenties, those forren banks with the fancy names, which till then had single main offices only on Chowringhee and Dalhousie, suddenly began to sprout branches and you could actually deposit your money in them. The branches were all air-conditioned, the cheque-books actually had your name printed on them, and the young men and women managers who swished through the doors all looked like they were as freshly minted at XLRI as crisp notes that had been recently baked at the mint. The dhoti-clad babus were still around, like torn, old five-rupee notes, but they were dwindling as a species. For a brief while, monetary innocents like myself imagined that everything would now go smoothly, efficiently and — this was the silliest assumption of all — honestly.

Around the late 1980s, me and a few others like me began to receive minor amounts of what in Bankali are called ‘foreign inward remittances’ or FIRs, that is dollars, pounds, francs and marks for making documentaries for TV channels abroad. One day, a precious consignment of pounds disappeared and stayed invisible for a period of a month before appearing in my account. I noticed the rate of exchange between the moment of disappearance (when the money was supposed to have come in) and appearance (when the money was actually credited to me) was hugely advantageous to the bank. There was no one to whom I could make an FIR about this errant FIR but nevertheless I made a noise and, since I’d had face-to-face dealings with the bank manager, a compensatory sum of Rs 16,000 was added to my account — a rare and amazing event which I did not then fully appreciate.

This small gesture kept me loyal to this brand across three cities and for nearly 20 years, even as the bank trampled across my finances like an elephant trampling through drought-affected sugar-cane fields. It was only later I realized the cunning sleight of hand with which they overcharged me for credit card payments, it was only when someone pointed out to me the lucrative nature of ‘standard delays’ on other FIRs that I charted what they had skimmed from me over the years. But the main thing that kept me with this bank was a version of that old, modi ki dukan, feeling: I knew the junior-managers who I dealt with in Calcutta and Delhi on a first- name basis and they were good people. In a crisis, I could call them up and Sushanta and Konica would do their best to help me.

As if in a thriller by Edgar Wallace, death, or at least the death of banking trust, came to me via the telephone. In London, sometime in the early 1990s, I tried calling the phone company for a problem a friend had with the billing. The complaints line was answered by a machined-voice giving me choices and asking me to press various buttons. I tried my best to get past the answering machine to a human because my problem was peculiar and not slottable into the choices available, but, like a fastening noose, the voice and its choices kept me in suspension for a good half an hour before I gave up. Soon, every business I dealt with had this wall of multiple choice answering-voice and you could only get to a phone-banking executive after much effort and alert ingenuity. Slowly, I became used to this trial by phone-button, both abroad and in India, and, like all adaptable creatures, began to design my life around the needs of my service providers rather than vice versa. However, at some point, having had enough, I decided to stop the bank with the constantly changing name from stamping over my money and shifted to a newish but very popular, very Indian, bank.

It was a bad mistake. Within a few months, I realized I had put myself into a Kafkaesque maze. If my previous bank was like a rogue animal, this bank was like a blind and hungry machine and people like me were part of its fuel. It chewed up my foreign remittances and spat them out like poshto, it bounced cheques like Michael Jordan used to bounce a basketball, professionally, but also just for fun. It took facelessness to a whole new level of anonymity. The firangs might have invented the phone-answering business-wall but it took Indian ingenuity to take it to another level. Every time I tried to do what is euphemistically called ‘phone-banking’, it became clear that there was deliberate programming on the phone lines to cut you off seven times out of ten, chop you off in mid-enquiry, right after you’d keyed in your twelve- digit account number and your several digits of card number and your four-digit pin and whatnot. When you finally did get through to some guy in Gurgaon, Lucknow or Bangalore and started to complain, the chief English words that would come out were also as if programmed, “I see, sir, I see, I see, I…”

“No,” I feel like snarling, “no, actually you see, you don’t see, you don’t see because you’re paid and programmed to be blind!” And as I slam down my phone, I see the ghost of the lechy babu in the old bank on Elgin Road grinning through paan-stained teeth as he adjusts his thick glasses, “Dekhle to? You see? Not all that is new is so fine!”