Subramanian, Ravi. 2012. The Bankster. Rupa Publications. New Delhi. Pages: 358. Price: Rs 250/-
To an Indian, The Wall Street Journal’s commendation of the author, ‘Meet the John Grisham of banking’ might appear a bit patronizing, but it is nevertheless true. In ‘The Bankster’ Ravi Subramanian turned out in every bit, an ‘edge of the seat thriller’ from as wry a subject as banking. For, what would you expect from a bank - its premises buzzing with customers rushing in and out cashing cheques or buying drafts?
Although nationalized banks in the pre-liberalisation, pre-competition era were walled-in by bureaucratic procedures and riven by trade unionism, many of them provided a cordial ambience. Regular customers were recognized and personalized service was the norm. After liberalisation many non-banking financial institutions in India barged into banking. A number of multinational banks too entered the market. The accent of the private players, both national and international is on aggressive marketing. But in spite of their glitzy interiors and automated procedures, somehow the personalized service that one experienced in the banks of an earlier era has been missing.
Subramanian brought out in vivid detail the inner mechanisms of a multinational bank, including internal intrigues, coups and a bit of adultery. One would like to believe the last bit was included in the story only to embellish it and it is not really prevalent on a scale that would subvert the functioning, norms and ethics of the banking sector. The story revolves round a few central characters, Vikram, the head of retail banking, Tanuja the head of HR, Indrani, the president of the bank, Nikhil a branch manager, Harshita a conscientious Relationship Manager and Zinaida her unscrupulous counterpart of the Indian subsidiary of Greater Boston Global Bank known as GB2 within.
The author skillfully wove into the story some contemporary events. Recently a multinational bank has been in the news in the UK and the US for its role in money laundering. The same bank was involved in India in a legal battle for betraying the confidence of a client, who happens to be a popular actress. In the novel, an amoral Relationship Manager sold an unsuspecting customer a unit linked insurance product as a fixed deposit. The same Relationship Manager was also a major conduit in a money laundering operation. Her superiors ignored her malfeasance not only because she was producing results but also because she had no qualms about dangling her charms to seduce them.
In the real life case a Relationship Manager does the client in by investing her money in stocks over and over again to achieve his metrics and making profits for the bank. His indiscriminate and reckless investment of her funds in the stock market not only diminished her net worth because of his poor judgement in picking stocks, but when she actually did make a profit she had to pay a fortune as capital gains tax on short term gains.
By now everyone knows how some commercial interests in the west have been using greedy NGOs in India as Trojans to subvert power and irrigation projects in India. The agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu and the one against an irrigation project in Madhya Pradesh are cases in point.
Apart from funneling funds for such subversive activities, some employees of the bank (in the novel) play a part in circulating counterfeit currency using the bank as a conduit. All these illegal activities make for a deadly cocktail for some of its players. There were murders and chases. Technology plays a major role in solving the crimes. The author was successful in keeping a veil over the identity of the villain till the very end. The book is a good read for a cosy weekend or a journey. The only complaint this reviewer has is about is its language. It is full of banking patois and cliché-ridden.