The Lady at the Bank by Murzban F Shroff

11/29/17 06:43:35PM
112 posts

I don’t know why I hated her the way I did, but I did. Maybe it was because the first time I approached her, she was feeding a cat out of her lunchbox. What was a cat doing in a bank? I wondered. And why was the lady having lunch during banking hours? All I wanted was to collect a new checkbook, and she was in charge of issuing that. But instead of attending to my request, she seemed more keen to feed the cat, who sat obediently at her feet with a bored, haughty expression. From time to time, the cat would open its mouth in a yawn, and the lady would bend down to feed it, using that same hand to scoop food out of her lunchbox and eat. God, it was disgusting! I thought, feeling the first stirrings of dislike.

The United National Bank was where I’d had an account ever since I had started working. Yes, it was ten years since I had begun my life as a content writer and seen my savings grow, diversifying into investments like fixed deposits and mutual funds. It was my grandfather who had opened the account for me, depositing a princely fifty-one rupees for good luck. “Good fortune be with you,” he had said, handing me a passbook, a checkbook, and smiling, in that knowing way of his. I was very close to my grandfather, a tall regal man of remarkable composure, who advised me to always live within my means. By minimizing his needs and keeping himself free of anger (what he called “toxic emotions”), my grandfather had lived until the age of ninety-six. So my relationship with the bank wasn’t based on commerce or on service, but more on sentiment, I should say.

There were no tangible reasons to prefer this bank over any other. It hadn’t changed its furniture in years. There was an automated teller machine that seldom worked. And the old printer squeaked plaintively while printing out passbook entries in a faint, almost unreadable type. The print quality was so poor that every year my accountant would throw up his hands in exasperation and say, “How am I to discern these entries? How am I to prepare your tax returns? How many times should I tell you this?”

I would bring this to the attention of the manager, who would be contrite and apologetic. “What to do, sir?” he would say. “ I am asking the management every time for a new printer but they say there is no budget. And I am giving them rupees sixty crore worth of deposits every year. You tell me, sir, what I am to do?” His eyes would dim with shame, and he would look at me beseechingly. Poor man, I would think. The understanding he cannot get from his management, he expects from me.

The manager’s cabin had a glass partition that was covered with posters of various financial schemes. In loud splashy colors, the posters invited customers to purchase new homes, new cars, to apply for education loans, small business loans, health insurance, and loans against shares. “The one-stop bank for all your needs,” read one poster. Another claimed: “We don’t build assets, we build relationships.” The worst thing about this bank was the queue at the cash withdrawal counter. It was long and slow moving. Punishing, you could say.

I don’t know why exactly I hated her with the intensity that I did, but I did. Maybe it was because she gave the cat priority over me, an old customer short on time, shorter still on patience. Maybe it was something about her appearance and manner: her creased sari, her languid walk, her attachment to her lunchbox, which she carried in a clingy sort of a way, her look of utter boredom when she spoke to customers, and her delight when she addressed colleagues. Still, that did not give me the right to feel the way I did.

One day I came upon her at the cash withdrawal counter and found her discussing with a colleague the events of a popular TV serial. Behind me, senior citizens and other customers languished in a long queue. There was no air-conditioning where we stood, no place to sit, either. In between chatting with her colleague and attending to customers, she would nibble at a vada dipped in thick, white chutney; then, slowly, she would wipe her chutney-stained fingers against the rim of the plate. When it was my turn to collect the cash, I saw her raise a forefinger to her tongue, wet it, and proceed to squeeze out rupee notes from a tightly-packed bundle.

That was it! I lost control.

Raising my voice, I screamed at her, “You are abusing Laxmi. You are being disrespectful to the Goddess; she who resides in these notes, she who sanctifies them!” I repeated myself twice and enjoyed seeing her discomfort. I continued to berate her until someone in the queue suggested that I should let it pass, she had learned her lesson. But I was not so sure of that. Under her lowered eyes, I saw her resentment, and knew that she could have easily wished me under a bus or a train.

This particular morning I arrive at the bank in a tearing hurry: I had to make an urgent cash withdrawal before heading to work. And, pray, what do I see?

The “deposits” and “withdrawal” counters are empty. The women are seated at their desks, their backs to the computer screens. The men are standing or leaning against their desks. In the center of the branch, in the open quadrangle, the manager is addressing his staff members, who have stopped working and are listening to him, enrapt.

The manager is all charged up. He is a short, stocky man with a delicate swell of belly. His clothes are neat; his shirtsleeves are buttoned all the way down to his wrists. His tie, a vivid orange and red, stands out like a table napkin against the white of his shirt. To his side is a tall, hefty security guard holding up a cell phone like an expert cameraman, filming the manager as he speaks.

The manager, it seems, has attended a meeting with his bosses, the details of which he is sharing with his staff. “So the Management speaks to me about customer service,” he says. “They want us to be number one. Among all banks, we should lead. And I say to them, why customer service? That is the right of every customer. The minute you become a customer, do you not automatically have a right to service? I say to them, now the time has come to talk about ‘customer delight’ and ‘customer retention.’ Because why be number one, if we are not going to stay there?” His eyes flickers over the audience and, on cue, his staff applauds.

Pleased, the manager continues: “They, the Management, tell me that they want to appoint relationship managers in every branch, and that I should decide who among you will make the best relationship manager. And I say to them, sorry, I can’t do that. Because in my branch every employee is a relationship manager. He or she knows the value of every customer. We make every customer feel special, feel at home.” Suddenly he pivots around and says to the customers present, “Come, sir, madam, tell me: am I not right? Do you not feel this is your bank? You are the owners, and we your humble servants?” The customers nod politely, and the bank manager beams proudly. At which point I look around, and that’s when I see her, the object of my aversion. She is standing a few feet away, chewing on a paratha roll. Edging closer, I whisper, “Madam, I need to make an urgent cash withdrawal. Can you please do it for me?”

She stays me with wrinkled fingers, while she finishes chewing. Then she looks at me distastefully and says, “Hush, can’t you see? Sahib is speaking. He is saying important things. We cannot interrupt him. We cannot be rude. Let him finish. Then I will help you.”

And then I knew. It was not so much her who I disliked as it was the bleak apathy that had settled into the face and body language of every person who had worked too long in a sahib-dominated culture; who took their bosses as their Gods, their customers as their burden, and their jobs as an imposition that threw up their shortcomings. It was a face I would see ever so often. At the police station where I went to report loud blaring street music and ear-shattering fireworks. At the electricity board where I went to protest illegal connections in my neighborhood or an inflated bill. At the municipality where I went to bemoan a water problem or an illegal encroachment, and where I was advised to tolerate, to adjust.

“Adjust” was a word that crept up with alarming frequency in my overpopulated country. It would forgive every aberration, soothe every inconvenience, take the conflict out of every dispute, and build bridges where none could exist.

Having understood that now, understood clearly, I nodded at the lady with conspiratorial ease. And she: she looked at me as though she was sizing me up, deciding whether I was worth her next move. Then she dipped into her lunchbox, rolled up a paratha, daubed a little pickle onto it, and held it to me, saying, “Come, have. You will like. You will enjoy. I made it myself.”

I looked at her stained fingers and hesitant face and said, “Thank you, madam. But I have just had breakfast, bumper breakfast. I am very full. Thank you.”

She thought for a moment, then said: “You are lucky. I can never eat bumper. Not allowed to. I have diabetes. Very high sugar. Insulin twice a day. Sometimes thrice. So I have to eat at regular intervals. Only small amounts. Every few hours.”

updated by @americymru: 11/29/17 06:56:32PM