Authors: Ravi Subramanian
From the same author
If God was a Banker
Devil in Pinstripes
I Bought the Monk's Ferrari
Published in 2011 by
Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.
7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj
New Delhi 110002
Allahabad Bengaluru Chennai
Hyderabad Jaipur Kathmandu
Copyright © Ravi Subramanian 2011
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters, and
incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination.
Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events or
localities is entirely coincidental.
This digital edition published in 2012
Ravi Subramanian asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Digital edition prepared by Ninestars Information Technologies Ltd.
All rights reserved.
This e-book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated, without the publisher’s prior consent, in any form or cover other than that in which it is published. No part of this publication may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in a retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic, mechanical, print reproduction, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher. Any unauthorized distribution of this e-book may be considered a direct infringement of copyright and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Dedicated to my wife
Dharini and my little doll Anusha
HE rickety state transport bus was the last to leave the small run-down bus stand in Malkangiri. On board, apart from the driver and the conductor, were sixteen people, all making their way to Bhubaneswar via Koraput - a neighbouring town. Till the early nineties Malkangiri was a part of Koraput but it was carved out as a separate district in 1992. The vast dense jungle of Malkangiri was home to several tribes. Dotted with steep ghats, plateaus, valleys and wooded hills the area was beautiful, though secluded and lonely.
In one of the blocks in Malkangiri, Ganjali, the local coordinator of an NGO was resting in the dark and isolated balcony of the dak bungalow. The bungalow was about twenty-five metres away from the main road connecting the highway passing through the town to the bus depot. The only people in the bungalow were Ganjali and the caretaker. A lone bulb glowed dimly in the hall of the bungalow threatening to go off anytime, casting surreal shadows on the walls. Some would have found the scene intimidating but not Ganjali. Even though Bhubaneswar was where he carried out most of his lobbying he was not new to Malkangiri. The caretaker in the dak bungalow didn't know that, since Ganjali was staying there for the first time.
'Why is the dak bungalow empty? Does no one come here?' he asked the caretaker.
'People do come, sahib. But they mostly leave before night falls. They stay back for the night only if they miss the bus or if something urgent comes up.'
'Because this place is not safe, sahib. You are an outsider, so you do not know what happens here. Please do not venture out in the night. Just put off the lights and go to sleep. These are bad times.'
'I am anyway waiting for the bus to come. I will be leaving in an hour's time.'
'Oh yes, yes. I completely forgot, sahib!' the caretaker said as he went his way. 'Good for you. Very good.' Ganjali saw his back disappear behind the weak wooden door of the balcony as he lifted his legs up, bringing them to rest on the railing. The bus would be here any time, he thought. He patted his bag and felt the consignment. It seemed to be in order. There was another bag in the bedroom. He decided to gather it on his way out.
After a wait of around thirty minutes Ganjali heard the rumble of the bus in the distance. He got up immediately, went into his room and picked up his bag. On his way out, he tipped the caretaker a few hundred rupees which lit up the caretaker's eyes. The sound of the bus was getting closer. He ran out of the main door towards the gate and then on to the road, to the bus stand.
He was the only person at the bus stop. Not a soul in sight. Even the stars had forgotten to light up the sky. Had his wait at the balcony not gotten his eyes used to the darkness, the blackness of the night would have blinded him.
A couple of honks told him the bus was not too far. Within a few minutes he could see the headlights of the bus coming his way. It was an antiquated bus, looking like parts loosely held together by nuts and bolts and kept in place by layers of mud and dirt. It screeched to a halt at the bus stand. Ganjali got in through the door at the far end of the bus. There were enough seats for him to choose from. He quietly picked the one towards the front. Sitting on top of the rear wheels made him nauseous. In any case most people were sitting in the front and he just followed suit. A few stared at him wondering why he got in through the back door if he had to walk all the way to the front for a seat.
The bus moved. It was a journey which would take him another five hours to reach his destination. By daybreak he would be in Bhubaneswar, from where he had to take a flight to Mumbai where his family lived.
Reminiscing, he went over the events of the past few days: the hostile meeting with the tribals, the work his organisation had started there, the apathetic local administration and allegations of working against the government. His wife had warned him it would not be easy but he was extremely passionate about the cause of the tribals and he had, against all odds, taken it up. Both his grandparents belonged to this region and he had not seen any progress in the tribal areas since the time his parents decided to leave Malkangiri and moved to Mumbai in search of a better life for themselves and their children. He rested his head on the window grill as thoughts of his wife and kid haunted him. It had been a month since he had seen the innocent smiling face of his child which he knew he would never see again. A tear squeezed itself out of the corner of his eyes. He wiped it off hurriedly, reminding himself that he couldn't afford to be emotional or weak. This was the time to demonstrate his strength, the strength of his team, his group and the entire movement of which he was an integral part. The work he had begun had to be completed. He looked at his watch. It was twenty-five minutes since he had left the dak bungalow. It was time for the action to begin, for him to do what he had set out to. Everyone around him was sleeping. He counted. There were eleven Special Police Officers (SPOs) and constables in the bus. The others were tribals making their way to the city to buy essentials. He stretched to his left and pulled out his bag from below the seat. It was heavy even to drag. Bending down, he opened it and pulled out a tiffin box. A couple of wires were sticking out. He tugged a bit at the green wire, removed the tape covering it and joined it with the red wire sticking out from the other end. He closed his eyes and said his prayers.
It was six in the morning when the shrill ring of the phone broke Ganjali's wife's dream sequence. She first thought it was the alarm on her cellphone going off. But when she got hold of her cellphone, she realised it was not the alarm. She got out of the bed and picked up the call.
'Ji mein Malkangiri se bol raha hoon (I am calling from Malkangiri).' The person spoke in Hindi with a heavy Oriya accent.
'Yes, who is this?'
'Madam...,' the person on the other end rattled on.
Ganjali's wife was too shocked to react. It had happened. How much she wished what the guy was saying was not true! She stumbled back to the bed, clutching the side of the bed for support. Something inside her told her every bit of what she heard was true. Picking the remote, she switched on the TV and nervously surfed a few channels till NDTV 24x7 came on. All she could see were advertisements. She waited for the ad break to get over. Her heart was beating faster than ever. Finally news started flashing on the screen. And there it was! Something which she had feared, so wished would not transpire.
'Breaking News' screamed the ticker at the bottom of the screen. 'Naxal attack in Malkangiri kills seventeen. All passengers including eleven SPOs killed in a dastardly late night attack.'
Tears rolled down her cheeks as she looked at the picture placed on top of the TV. It was Ganjali's favourite picture. Clicked during their wedding reception, he always held her eyes looked mesmerising in that picture. The same eyes were now glistening with tears. She would never see Ganjali again. He was on that ill-fated bus targeted by the Naxalites in Malkangiri. That was what even the caller, a representative of the Orissa government, told her when he gave her the news. She closed her eyes. Something which she always did when she was stressed and jaded. Her clenched fists were the only indication she was trying to gather strength to deal with the situation. Ganjali would never come back!
OU throw a stone and you are likely to hit a banker' was a common saying in the old business district of Bombay, lined with greying stone buildings. And two out of three times it was sure to find a foreign banker. Banks, brokers, fund houses, investment bankers - all could be found in intimidating numbers in the one-kilometre radius of the Bombay Stock Exchange. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) too had its offices in the neighbourhood so that the seemingly subdued and subservient higher ups of the foreign banks could be summoned by the top brass of the RBI as and when required.
The perception in the banking circles was that the RBI looked at the foreign banks with a jaundiced eye - as organisations that would try to push the limits of regulation until someone in the corridors of power would wake up and realise their transgressions. At such times the foreign bankers would merely feign ignorance and apologise. The global financial meltdown worsened the situation for the foreign banks as it became a dirty phrase in the wood-panelled alleys of RBI.
Ronald McCain had just got out of bed on a Thursday morning. He usually got up early on Thursdays as he had a team meeting with his entire set of direct reports. Referred to as 'morning prayers', he had started this routine a few months back. Over time he had noticed many of his direct reports had started delegating this weekly meeting to their team members. This peeved him and he made it mandatory for his direct reports to inform him and take his concurrance in case they were not attending. Quite a headmasterly approach to running a bank, but that was Ronald McCain for the uninitiated! His team hated these Thursday morning meetings when Ronald would go on a rampage. What made it worse was these meetings began at 8 a.m. Such an early start in Mumbai meant that people had to leave home at 7.15. This resulted in a great deal of discomfort for his team members and under-the-breath abuses for Ronald.
However Ronald had a point. 'We must be through with our morning prayers and be back in our seats by the time our first branch throws open its doors for the public.' And when the CEO of Greater Boston Global Bank (GB2) says something, the employees don't have much choice but to listen.
Ronald McCain and his wife Sarah had relocated to India from New York a year ago. Ronald was taking over the reigns of the Indian business of GB2 from Girija Vaswani, who had run the bank admirably for over three years. Ronald was sent to India with a clear objective. 'Bring the bank at par with the GB2 culture across the globe.' A resoundingly clear but difficult-to-execute objective. Difficult because of a problem typical to most of the foreign banks in India: Indians were smart, high on intellect but loved to argue and debate. These were exactly the kind of qualities the management of these banks in the more developed western countries frowned upon. Traditionally, most of the Asia-Pacific regional offices of foreign banks had found India to be the most difficult country to work in. They encountered the maximum push back and most perplexing questions and debates in India. 'Indians argue a lot,' they would say - a statement bordering on racism. GB2 was no different.
Those were the days when a number of banks across the globe were collapsing. The 'invincible' tag associated with some banking groups was fast being relegated to archived pages of banking journals. Losses in the US led to a knee-jerk reaction the world over. Aggression was replaced by caution. The global banking mantra of 'Grow at any cost' was replaced by a desire for profitable growth'.
Banking in India, particularly retail banking, seemed to be the most affected. Traditionally banks in India looked at retail banking as an area for investment, to build a bank for the fixture. The thinking of the management was simple - 'Acquire customers now. Once we get them in, we will figure out a way to make them profitable'. This challenge, which the banks had conveniently left for a later date, remained what it started off as - a challenge. Thus most of the foreign banks, even the ones with a strong retail banking proposition globally, had a very confused strategy in India. Almost every bank in India was incurring significant losses, in its retail banking business.
The Singapore office of GB2 realised the gravity of the situation and wanted to bring in certain changes in the management structure and style to ensure maximum alignment to overall organisational goals and strategies. But it was not going to be possible with the old Indian management in place. The traditional Indian way of running these banks was not good enough in a difficult time, or so thought the management team based in Singapore. Hence, Girija had to make way for McCain to take over the reigns of GB2 in India in late 2008.
That Thursday morning, McCain was not in his element. He had just heard from the Singapore office that they had declined his overall growth plan and strategy paper. Twelve months back, when he shifted base to India, his global office had unequivocally endorsed the broad direction he had outlined for the bank. They had supported him. But this time they had communicated to him, in no uncertain terms, that they were not happy with the strategic plan - a three-year strategy docket the India team had put in place. His strategic vision had been suddenly found weak and wanting -without any conceivable reason being offered.
Were the events of the last four days responsible for this sudden shift in the stance ? He couldn't pin it down. The Asia-Pacific regional office's perception about India was not close to complimentary by a stretch of even the most charitable imagination. They often said that India made 'huge commitments' but never delivered. There was a credibility problem that the Indian team faced in its interactions with the global management.
'India is a country of glorious powerpoint presentations' was the regular party gossip and often a water-cooler conversation in the Singapore office. He had to change it and he only had two options - either try to change the work culture and make the Indian team execute well, or change the people who created obstacles in execution of strategic plans.
In any case there was no time to sort out this debate in his mind. There was a bigger battle lurking in the shadows. How was he going to handle that? He thought of talking briefly about the strategic plan in the morning prayers but he knew it was going to be dominated by the issues that had started to rock GB2 in India, especially over the last four days. This was clearly one of the biggest and gravest challenges GB2 had faced in the recent times.
Ronald was quite disciplined. He had a fixed morning routine -a routine he rigidly followed every single day. His morning cup of coffee was followed by twenty minutes of rummaging through the newspapers - he read five of them every morning. A quick shower was preceded by ten minutes of jumping around with Oodie, his dog who had dutifully followed him from New York to Mumbai. And then he would set off on his morning jog from his Malabar Hill residence down the Marine Drive, past the Police Gymkhana, crossing the Wankhede and Brabourne stadia on his left, till the Oberoi at the far end of the Marine Drive. He would then head to Oberoi Belvedere where he would shower quickly, change into his formal suit which his driver carried for him and head to office after a light breakfast. This regimen helped him keep fit, physically and mentally, to run a large bank in India, especially in a demanding environment.
Despite this hectic morning schedule, Ronald was the first in office that Thursday. He normally was the first one in on any given day. A stickler for punctuality, he made no bones about the fact that he hated latecomers. 'Do not steal bank's time,' he would tell people in meetings. 'The bank pays you for coming at 9.00 a.m., so please be in by 9.00. If you stay back and work till late to compensate your inefficiencies, it is your problem. The bank does not expect people to stay late,' he would thunder in the town hall meetings. And to be fair to Ronald, he made it a point to leave every single day at 6.30 p.m., whatever the compulsion.
He spent a few minutes at his desk clearing his mails. Quite a peculiar style he had - Ronald would never read anything marked as 'cc' to him. His secretary would read and give him only the priority mails. 'If a 'cc' has been marked for me, it's only for covering one's ass... which I refuse to cover. If people make decisions, they should learn to live with them. If I start reading all such mails, I will only be reading mails the whole day,' he had once told Sherlyn, his secretary.
At 8.00, he headed to the boardroom for 'morning prayers'. One by one, every business head made a presentation before Ronald and the team. But that day Ronald had a specific agenda in mind. He had two issues to cover. But he left it for the end, after all the business heads had spoken. He didn't want his agenda to even remotely influence their updates.
The corporate bank head spoke about three new large deals in the pipeline. Ronald was quick to point out that he had been hearing the same three names for the last three weeks. 'Closure... we need closure on these deals,' he said forcefully; in fact he said it as forcefully as could be considered civilised in a formal forum of mature adults. The treasury spoke about rising cost for funds and the need to ramp up low cost deposits by the branches.
The retail head, Ramneek Chahal, spoke about the initiatives he had taken to bring the entire team together and how he was building 'camaraderie' among his team members. His update revolved around bragging about how he was getting the team to work with each other, cutting across individual businesses and thinking of the bank as a whole. The entire management team sniggered as he said this.
Considering the fact that the losses in the retail banking sector continued to mount, much to Ronald's displeasure, the entire team was a bit put off that the retail banking team was not focusing on loss reduction but on the less important issues such as boosting employee morale and engagement. Tough times called for tough measures, but the retail banking team in India didn't quite see it that way. Ronald had already made up his mind to ease out the head of retail banking, so he did not bother much about giving feedback to Ramneek or on wasting the entire top management's time on what Ramneek had blabbered. Being conscious of time, he wanted the meeting to get over by 9.00 and hence kept pushing everyone.
The marketing team was the next in line. The head of marketing was carrying a number of props to support her claim for the work done that week. She had just begun her discourse when the door opened. Sherlyn walked into the boardroom and straight to Ronald. She bent down and whispered something into his ears. The colour on Ronalds face changed. Fair-skinned as he was, the blood gushing through the veins to his cheeks made them turn red.
'Can this wait?' he asked. 'I will be back in fifteen minutes.'
'Vardarajan claims it is urgent. If you want I can tell him you will call back the moment you are out of this meeting.'
Ronald turned towards Saurabh Bhambani, the Head of Compliance, and then looked back at Sherlyn. 'I am coming. Give me a minute.' The blank look on Saurabh's face made Ronald decide against making Varadarajan wait.
Sherlyn nodded and left the room.
'Gentlemen, I will be back in a couple of minutes. There is an urgent call I need to attend to,' and Ronald, too, followed Sherlyn. The moment he left, pandemonium broke out into the room. Everyone looked at Saurabh with eager eyes, wondering what had happened. Vardarajan would not normally call and Ronald would not leave a 'morning prayer' for anything less than 'very important'. Saurabh Bhambani just shrugged his shoulders, disappointing all the quizzical eyes focussed at him. He obviously had no clue. They had never in the past called the CEO directly.
Back in his room, a worried Ronald walked up to his desk and picked up the extension. 'Line 1,' Sherlyn had whispered to him as he walked past her desk.
'Good Morning, Mr Varadarajan. How are you?'
'Am good, Mr McCain! Hope you are doing well too.'
'Of course, I am. Thank you. How come you called so early in the morning?'
'Mr McCain, the governor wants to meet you today. Will it be possible for you to see him in his office at your convenience?'
'Today seems a bit tight, Mr Varadarajan. Will it be ok if I speak with him, or else I will ask Sherlyn to fix up a mutually convenient time?'
'If you could just hold on, Mr McCain. The governor says it's very urgent. Let me check with him again. Please bear with me, sir.' Varadarajan was too courteous for his comfort.
After a moment's pause, Varadarajan was back on the line. 'Mr McCain. Thanks for holding the line.' He was overtly polite. 'The governor has requested that you see him today. He says it is very urgent and cannot wait. It cannot be discussed over the phone. May I request you to accommodate this request?'
'Ok, what time would suit the governor ?' This was not something which would happen on any normal day. If the governor of the RBI sought a meeting with the CEO of a bank, in this manner, it spelled trouble. And if there was indeed even a hint of trouble, there was no point aggravating it by being hard-nosed. McCain knew it better than anyone else.
'He asked me to tell you that any time that fits in your schedule today would be fine by him.'
'I will be there in an hour's time. Will that be all right? Second half of the day is packed with external meetings, which will be difficult to reschedule. The morning is full of internal meetings but I can move them around and come.'
'I will tell the governor that you will be here in an hour. Thanks for accommodating, Mr McCain. Really nice of you.'
The moment he kept the phone down he had a queasy feeling in his stomach. His instinct told him something was terribly wrong. It was weird, the way the conversation had gone. Vardarajan was extremely secretive. He most probably knew the reason for this meeting but didn't drop any hint. He spoke as if he was requesting McCain for a meeting but it was not a request. It was an order. Had RBI taken serious offence to the issues that had cropped up in the last few days? Ronald wondered.