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50th anniversary of bank nationalisation: a surreal personal memoir

Before he became a commentator on the economy and markets, our columnist was a public sector banker.

July 19, 2019 / 09:05 AM IST

After the strain on my brain in college, I was naturally searching for a job where you didn’t have to work too hard.

Best-in-class recruitment practices

So the next step was obviously to sit for the bank exams. These involved so-called tests of reasoning, where you had to look at some squiggly figures and predict how it would evolve into another scraggly figure, some proof you could add or subtract (multiplication was too hard) and tests of general knowledge. My exam had a question on the size of a record-breaking egg laid by a startled hen in Indonesia that year, which I answered correctly, thanks to my insatiable thirst for completely useless information. I think my correct call on the egg size, together with some lucky hits in the multiple choice questions, gave me the job. I was a bit sceptical about this rather novel method of choosing bankers, till a veteran told me that in his time they were chosen on the basis of their handwriting.

Top class training

Public sector bankers were encouraged to know first-hand the local products of the region to which they were posted, so that they could both relate to the people who used these products as well as exploit their commercial possibilities. During the two years of my probation in West Bengal, I accordingly took it upon me to get in-depth knowledge of a wide variety of indigenous booze that included mahua, raxi, hadia, chhang and ‘bangla’, the local hooch. You could call it a kind of ‘Know Your Customer’ programme.

Perhaps the biggest learning came from my stint in Darjeeling, where I was introduced to the wonders of a brandy called Gold Star. The chief distinguishing feature of this remarkable tipple, apart from its low cost, was its blithe freedom from any quality control whatsoever. So one day one peg was enough to zonk you while on another you could finish off an entire bottle without any effect. Every evening when you sat down to booze with Gold Star was an adventure -- you never knew what was coming next. It was a great training for dealing with life.

Unfortunately, some of us who went through this rigorous training course didn’t last too long. One colleague developed cirrhosis, another found his hands trembling, a third had partial paralysis while my liver was enlarged. I realise now, with the benefit of hindsight, that we shouldn’t have had so many peanuts with the booze.

A career in rural development

During my training at an agricultural branch, I played an important role in nation-building by participating in the great rural lending spree. Since I had little knowledge of banking and even less of agriculture, my role was confined to grabbing the left hand of the borrower, push his thumb on to a well-inked stamp pad and then press it down at various places on the loan document.

After a few weeks of this, I started dreaming that my expertise in obtaining thumb impressions had so impressed my superiors that I was called upon to use my skills at other branches also. I saw myself trudging from one village branch to another for years, affixing sundry left thumb impressions to endless documents. I saw my long slow climb up the career ladder -- from Thumb-Presser at the bank, going on to become Senior Thumb-Presser, possibly even Chief Thumb-Presser before retiring as The Venerable Thumb-Presser. After retirement, of course, I imagined I would become Consultant Thumb-Presser. That didn’t happen, but the bank was so impressed with the efficiency with which I had inked thumbs they made me Agricultural Field Officer.

My role models

In any profession, the young recruit looks up to senior people who would show them the ropes.

My mentor, the man I looked up to most in the bank, was posted in the foreign exchange branch. He was in charge of replying to telegrams. In those days, most of the foreign exchange advices from banks abroad were received by telegrams, or cables. The person who sat next to him was in charge of replying to letters. After a few days of my hero being on the job, it was noticed that he spent most of his time in the canteen, chatting with friends, or playing cards in the recreation room. His desk was squeaky clean, with no pending work, while the chap next to him was buried under a pile of letters. Upon investigation, it was found that my superhero had found the perfect answer to all telegrams that came his way. He had just one stock answer, “Message mutilated. Please send details by letter.” The letter, when it came, went to the guy sitting next to him.

Given such ingenuity, it’s little wonder my mentor’s fame spread far and wide. We acolytes sat at his feet to learn his art.

My other mentor was a senior field officer who spent much of his time fishing and I often joined him during office hours to learn more about fishes, so that when the time came, I would confidently be able to finance fishermen.

Head Office

Much of the work in the head office consisted of putting up “Notes”. Nothing was done before a note could be put up. A branch had an industrial relations problem? Put up a note to the management committee. A man had embezzled funds? Put up a detailed note. A large loan needed to be given? Put up a note for the credit cell. They needed a cupboard for the department? Put up a note for the Establishment Manager. Notes had to be put up before any decision was taken. The fatter the note, the more dicey the decision. Any credit officer worth his salt, if he had to recommend a loan that he thought might go bad, would make the note run into at least fifty pages, with a paragraph in the middle of page 27 that started with ‘However’ and went on to say the exact opposite of what the rest of the note recommended. If the loan went bad, the junior office could always point out that paragraph.

The only person who could sign a note was the guy immediately junior to the guy to whom the note was addressed. So if the chap for whom the note was addressed was the General Manager, then the person who could sign it was the Deputy General Manager. The others could only initial the notes. A strict hierarchy was mentioned in this initialling. The junior-most officer, the one who had prepared the note, initialled at the extreme left. His superior officer initialled after him and so the initials progressed from left to right. Venerable officials, those who had grown old and decrepit in the bank, said the rationale for this left to right progression lay in the old adage that the boss was always right.

The work, or lack of it

In the dark ages before the internet and the smart phone, we die-hard time wasters sometimes had no alternative but to sit in office and shake our legs, after having done the crosswords. I recall a lazy afternoon discussing football with a group of colleagues, when the talk veered around to the huge sum for which Maradona had insured his legs. A friend suggested we should do likewise. “Ha, you think you’re Maradona or what?” I laughed. “No,” said the far-sighted one, “but do you realise that we’ve been sitting here all these years shaking our legs and collecting our salaries? What if we can’t shake our legs? What would they pay us for then?” It was a sobering thought.


These fine management practices are unfortunately no longer in vogue. Those of us who worked in these banks during their heyday had a great time. And in between the fun and games, we created the great Indian middle class.

Manas Chakravarty
Manas Chakravarty
first published: Jul 19, 2019 08:45 am