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Cheques and Balances

Stephen Leacock, a Canadian humorist, has satirized his traumatic encounter with banks in the short story ‘My Financial Career’. He says that he gets rattled when he goes to a bank. He wants to deposit $56 and opens an account. The behaviour of the accountant rattles him. He wants to withdraw $6. Then he realized that he had written a cheque for $fifty-six instead of six. He makes a pathetic attempt to look like a man who had been slighted to justify why he is withdrawing the entire amount he had deposited a few minutes back. He collects the cash and rushes out of the bank to the accompaniment of a roar of laughter that went up inside.

Banking runs in my family. My father had started his career with the National Quilon Bank in its Calcutta branch, which he joined after completing his B. A. At the Presidency College in Calcutta. The bank collapsed under the machinations of Sir C. P. Ramaswamy. On his return to Kottayam, he joined the Forward Bank as its Chief Accountant. Prominent Syrian Christian Families promoted Forward Bank in Kottayam. The fact that the bank’s secretary was C. M. Cherian, his college friend, perhaps helped.

After Forward Bank was merged with the State Bank of Travancore, he was transferred to Trivandrum. There was a cold war between the SBT staff and the newly joined staff from the Forward Bank. He had hilarious stories of the SBT officials’ ineptness and how he outplayed them on many occasions.

My two brothers, Joseph and Jacob, also had their careers in banks. So, in conversations around family dinners, I have been sufficiently educated about the intricacies of banking and have come to have high regard for the profession. I intend to comment on the qualitative changes I have seen in banks and their impact on people.

Forward Bank had its offices on the Southern side of the Thirunakkara Maidan, which in those days was the place where football tournaments and political meetings took place. I remember sitting by its windows and listening to Jawaharlal Nehru during one of his visits to Kottayam during the national elections.

At this bank, I got my first acquaintance with the Encyclopedia Britannica. The MD’s office had a complete collection. This also was the room from which one could see the Thirunakkara Maidan. Once, when my father deposited me in this room for me to watch a football match, I found Britannica more exciting than the football match. The section I read was on internal combustion engines.

But my acquaintance with banks has always been from the customer side of the counter. Though I started my career with a job at Athanasius College in Kothamangalam, I did not have a bank account there. The salary was hardly one which would be construed to contribute to a steadily rising fortune, demanding a bank to service that. The salary of a few hundred rupees was handed over as cash, without even the courtesy of hiding it in an envelope.

I got into a transactional relationship with a bank only when I became a lecturer in Aligarh. The bank on the campus was the Allahabad Bank, to which the salary cheques were directly credited. This was the typical UP bank, with the senior clerks being called Babuji. They had strange procedures continuing from an outgone era. The clerks handling cash quaintly sat on a platform above the teller’s counters. One could follow the cheque traversing various approval points until it finally appeared as cash from the teller. Since the bank was situated on the campus, we had friendly relationships with the bank staff.

When I joined PRL, I had to open an account with the State Bank of India in Navrangpura, which happened to be near Kuldip Society, my place of residence. This was a very friendly place, with total informality. The PRL clientele were treated with great respect. Our institution’s association with Vikram Sarabhai (Vikram Bhai to many) and the knowledge that we go abroad frequently (Foren, in the Ahmedabad lingua) were probably the cause of veneration. With foreign travels, Reserve Bank approvals for foreign currency became a routine. Most of our travel allowance was handed over to us as traveler’s cheques with a minuscule part as currency. Everyone first does to queue up at the airport bank counters to convert the cheques into cash. Those were the days when the foreign currency was a great rarity, held in great reverence.

When we established the Institute for Plasma Research at the Bhat village, far from the city, SBI very considerately started a branch on the campus with their office in a couple of rooms in the main building. This was very convenient as secretaries could be entrusted with cashing a cheque. With seniority, the bank officials would come to my office to have the papers associated with foreign exchange signed. But foreign cash remained elusive.

My exposure to international banks started with my trips to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna as a consultant. At every meeting, we would be ceremoniously escorted to the bank on the IAEA premises by a Secretary to encash the allowance paid by the agency. The bank at the Vienna International Centre was Bank Austria Creditanstalt. Later, when I joined for a long-term assignment, I had to open an account since salaries were credited directly into the bank account.

Money is treated as a sacred commodity in Viennese banks. Transactions are done with great solemnity. The atmosphere is hushed. One feels that one’s money is relatively safe in the bank. Ironically, the Creditanstalt crashed, and the name got erased in 2008.

When I moved to the Ahmedabad suburb of Bopal in 1989, I had two banks to choose from. Dena Bank reminded me of the Allahabad Bank. The new HDFC Bank, which had opened a branch there, was a bank with modern banking practices and impressive operational efficiency. Their staff was professional and had a friendly way of dealing with customers. They were one of the first banks to go digital, which appealed to my conviction in online processes’ productivity. They also had their investment section, which allowed me to do all investment transactions online. Their relationship managers smooth out hiccups in dealing with the bank. My association with HDFC continues even after moving to Kottayam. The bank made my transactions in purchasing an apartment in Kottayam stress-free. I can sit in the comfort of my home and engage in all types of transactions online. They have opened a branch quite close to where I stay, literally bringing banking to my doorsteps.

Banking is one of the oldest institutions serving humanity. It started with merchants making grain loans to farmers and traders while carrying goods between cities. Since then, the banking industry has evolved from a simplistic barter system and gift economies of earlier times to a modern complex, globalized, technology-driven, and internet-based e-banking model. With the continuing improvement in the digital infrastructure in India, the banking experience also should see a concurrent improvement.

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