The British Raj had ended nearly three decades ago, but Douglas Kenneth Archibald White had kept the Imperial torch burning. He was the manager of our Delhi branch, where profit was not of much importance, but “pucca”ness was.
The previous year the branch had indeed reported a profit of Rs127, largely due to an enterprising head clerk who had sold raddi (trash) for Rs900 on 30 December. But Mr White was not concerned with profit and all that nonsense. His job was to keep the flag flying.
He would condescend to be entertained by Delhi’s Lutyens crowd who valued the presence of a white man, a multi-national corp (MNC) banker at that, at their lavish dinners.
For the most part, however, Mr White attended only diplomatic events and dinners with important clients and fellow bankers. Mr White believed that he was a man to be obeyed, and in fact, he was, by one and all.
I was a newly appointed management trainee at the Bombay branch, spending time at each department by rotation. In the admin department, I worked under Rizwan Zaveri, who came from a long line of Anglophiles who had prospered by kowtowing to the benevolent British.
With the passing of the Raj the family had fallen on hard times, and hence poor Rizwan had to go to work in the bank. But Rizwan had retained his family’s awe of the gora-saab.
One day Rizwan told me in a very serious tone “Mr White, manager, Delhi, is coming tomorrow. We must make arrangements.”
Seeing the blank look on my face he explained that Mr White was very difficult, very demanding, and altogether hard to please. Hence no effort could be spared to ensure that he was satisfied with every single aspect of the arrangements during his stay.
The next afternoon Rizwan went personally to the airport, escorted Mr White to the Taj Hotel, settled him in and rushed back to make all the other necessary arrangements.
In particular, he chose his most reliable car rental company and gave detailed instructions about the car that was to pick up Mr White from the Taj the next morning, bring him to the bank, and remain at his disposal for the duration of his visit.
The next morning life was proceeding normally in the admin department until Mr White stormed in.
He addressed Rizwan directly “What sort of an idiot driver did you send for me, you nincompoop? That man is disobedient, rude, and completely worthless. Fire him immediately and get me another driver.”
After Mr White had left, a trembling Rizwan took immediate action. He fired the car rental company and engaged another car and driver from a rival company. Then he sat back, ruing his poor showing before the gora-saab and cursing the blasted driver.
A half-hour later a strange thing happened. A very worried looking man turned up at Rizwan’s desk. It turned out that he was the driver of the car that Rizwan had originally engaged.
He had been waiting at Taj hotel since 8am, but Mr White had not turned up. He had gone in to enquire and had found that Mr White had left 30 minutes ago. So, he had come to the bank to find out what had gone wrong.
Rizwan and I looked at each other, equally puzzled by the same question “what car had brought Mr White to the bank?”
We went down to investigate.
We found a dejected man, almost in tears, sitting on a stool at the back entrance of the bank where cars dropped off people.
Rizwan asked him “Tum kaun ho?’ (Who are you?)
He explained that he was the driver of a car rental company, who had been sent to pick up a guest of XYZ company from the Taj. He had been waiting in his car when a gora-saab sat in his car and ordered him to drive to our bank. He had tried to protest, saying that this was the wrong car, but the gora had fired him.
“To tum unko bank leke aaya?” Rizwan asked. (So, you brought him to the bank?)
“Aur kya karta, saab? Woh gora ne mujhe itna danta, itna danta, ki main aur kuch nahi kar saka. Sidha yahan aa gaya.” (What else could I have done, Sir? The gora fired me so much, so much, that I could not do anything else. I came straight here.)
He went on to explain that upon arrival at the bank the gora had pointed to the stool and ordered him to sit there until he had been dealt with. So, he had been sitting there.
Rizwan quickly closed the matter by patting the poor fellow on the back, tipping him generously and sending him off. Then he turned to me and said “Dekha, Boss kaisa hota hai?” (You see what a Boss is like?)
Indeed, I had seen what Boss power meant.
The “tricks of the trade” Boss
I was a trainee attached to the savings department. My task every morning was to scrutinise cheques that had come in through clearing, verify the signature, balance, date, words and figures matching, and hand them over to the officer-in-charge (OIC) for savings, for his sign-off.
One morning I came across a cheque bearing an amount, which exceeded the balance in the savings account. The cheque had been issued by a retired Rear Admiral of the Indian Navy and was drawn in favour of an elite club in which he was an office-bearer.
Unfortunately, the cheque would have to be returned with the reason “refer to drawer” or worse – “insufficient balance”. We simply could not allow a savings account to be overdrawn.
I took the precaution of investigating whether the Admiral-saab had enough money in another account so that we could transfer some money into this account and honour the cheque.
But nope, this was the Admiral’s only account.
I took the cheque to Bomi Tavaria, OIC-savings, a veteran staff officer, i.e., a promotee through the ranks, well respected because of his vast experience spanning 35 years in the bank.
Mr Tavaria looked at me and asked “Any money in some other account?”
I shook my head.
“Do you know what will happen if we return this cheque?” he asked.
I sort of guessed but waited for Mr Tavaria to elucidate.
“Big loss of face for the Admiral. The cheque favours his Club, a monthly bill payment. If his cheque bounces, the story will be all over the Club in hours.”
I nodded, not knowing where this was leading. I ventured to suggest that we could debit the suspense account and credit the Admiral’s account, honour the cheque, and then ask the Admiral to put in money to reverse the suspense entry.
Mr Tavaria nodded and said “Yes, we can do that. But it will mean going to the manager, explaining everything, and getting his signature for debiting the suspense account. Too much fuss.”
Mr Tavaria paused a very pregnant pause.
I waited to hear some words of wisdom, some solution, which would resolve this ticklish problem and avoid any fuss at the same time.
“Let me show you a trick of the trade, my boy,” said Mr Tavaria in a very genial tone.
He examined the cheque, nodded, and said “get me a blue pen”.
Quite mystified, I fetched several pens of different shades of blue.
Mr Tavaria tried each of them and selected one, nodding with satisfaction.
Then he turned to the cheque, dated 9-11-1976, and added a 1 before the 9. The date became 19 November instead of 09 November.
“Post-dated!!” he exclaimed triumphantly.
He said to me “Prepare a return memo giving the reason as ‘post-dated' and return it through clearing. Then phone the Admiral and ask him to put money in the account.”
Mr Tavaria looked at me and said “Soon you will be management. You must learn how to manage.”
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)