September 21, 2011

Bank Uh! India

So how does it 'FEEL' like? What is the typical experience of banking in India? I had an experience today that is considered par for the course in this country. It's instructive as well as funny.

Some things change. Some things remain the same. That's the nature of India. Showrooms (think Suzuki ... or BMW) that have the look of permanence and solidity can disappear when you revisit some old location after a gap of a year or two. But a street vendor selling ice cream or sweets in front of a Pizza Hut is a permanent fixture over five years, perhaps a decade. People who are familiar with Janpath in New Delhi and know where the Hut and Sony are located will understand what I am talking about.

I recall the guy who used to collect old newspapers from our house back in my childhood days. When we moved house once to a new place which was some 15 miles from the old place, I was astonished to see that the paper-collector got to know about our new location and came to our new quarter to collect the old newspapers. I saw the guy grow old in front of my eyes ... get a head full of white hair. I think I saw his son by-and-by replace him as the guy who would travel from house to house on a bicycle to collect old newspapers, magazines, etc. which he would in turn sell to a wholesale scrap dealer.

But it's only a particular instance of a more general case. Individuals' livelihoods can be so precariously balanced in this country. They are riding a tiger and they can't afford to get down.

The PSU banks meanwhile have been affected by winds of change. The interior decor has turned less claustrophobic and more open and airy.

Although the teller/cash counter is still like a bit of a cage, it's much improved compared to the earlier state of affairs where the cashier/teller used to be stationed inside a cage which had some likeness to the cages in which dangerous wild animals are kept in zoos.

The staff of PSU banks.

Ah! That's the teachable moment. Particularly for those who are foreign to India. And I suppose those who grow foreign through the route of becoming an NRI or a green card holder.

So the PSU banks do not necessarily feel that they're in the service industry. They do not feel the need to be excessively helpful to the customer. The culture is not quite 'May I help you?'

So I was directed to a particular officer for my task and he happened to be momentarily absent from his desk and I waited in vain for some 15 minutes.

But the old-time staff are perhaps more committed to their life's calling -- they've reconciled to the fact that this is going to be the job that they're going to hold for the rest of their active life and retire from. They exhorted the front desk lady to help me. This young lady, quite unlike the older staff, appeared to be physically ill (or doing a pretty good job of acting like she was ill) 

She proceeded to take care of the trouble I had brought for her -- of course she committed an error in updating my new mailing address. She forgot to update the PIN Code or ZIP Code. In India, this can be interpreted as both a major and a minor error.

There was this staff whose job it was to update the Pass Book. (BTW, do you know what a Pass Book is? Well a Pass Book is something very familiar to the old timers but the youngsters may not be familiar with it. All the transactions (debit/credit) of an account holder are recorded in this pass book and account holders can update this pass book at any bank branch. This is a legacy from the days before online banking became quite the vogue.) When I made him my request, he made a hand signal which indicated to me that I should wait (it was quite logical as it turned out since he was busy and in the middle of another transaction). When he was free at last, he stretched his hand out to me to indicate that my turn had come. When I handed him my pass book, he did the needful and handed back my pass book to me. And the entire transaction happened without his raising his head to look at me. I'm sure he would have failed to recognize me if he saw me barely five minutes later.

Indian govt. offices are famous for a fixture called the peon. This is a low-end job which mainly involves ferrying files around from one table to the next. This bank also appeared to have two or three of the species. One of them -- clearly the senior-most among them -- was blithely humming a song as he went about his task of going from one desk to another. Quite a free-spirited bird and I suppose someone who won't develop high blood pressure.

And India moves forward at its own pace — both trying to keep pace with a fast-changing world and forcing the world to adjust itself to the pace at which India moves.

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