Monday, 26 September 2011

“The Suicide Banker” by Puneet Gupta – Book Review

Stephen Frey runs a private equity firm in the US. Frey also happens to be a novelist. Maybe I should have put it the other way around – Frey is a famous novelist who happens to run a private equity firm. It doesn’t really matter, does it? A former M&A specialist with JP Morgan, Frey has written a series of financial crime novels, all of which have been bestsellers. I have been a long time fan of Frey and often wondered when India would get its first financial thriller, one as good as a Frey novel. Puneet Gupta, a career banker, has written a novel revolving around banking fraud which I believe is the first of its kind in Indian literature. Is Gupta as good as Frey? Or is he even better? It was with a great deal of hope and anticipation that I started reading The Suicide Banker.

Sumit Sharma gives up a comfortable job with the State Bank of India to join Citizen Bank, which Gupta tells us ‘was the leading multinational financier of cars/commercial vehicles in India’. His world changes all of a sudden. He now gets paid a lot more money. He is in a posh world where the toilet looks as good as that in a five star hotel, but the urinal’s flush has a leak that can drench the front of a man’s trousers. Sumit is a victim of the erring faucet just before he is about to be interviewed. Nevertheless, Sumit gets the job and the reader gets to see, hear and touch a typical MNC Bank, the sort which can be found dime a dozen in India these days and one gets to soak up the atmosphere easily. Results (profits) matter and it’s the only thing which seems to matter. Employees are treated as resources and nothing more. Sumit is offered a job in Mumbai, kept waiting for a few days, allocated a position in Goa, one which will start after three months, sent to Pune in the interim and then transferred to Jaipur where an important post has unexpectedly fallen vacant – all of this within a month of joining. The threat of being fired is left dangling, right from day one. ‘To err may be human, but to forgive is not Citizen Bank’s policy.’

There’s always the hint of fraud taking place on a massive scale, even the Prologue describes one, and soon one sees Sumit, in his role as a credit manager, struggling to control the excesses of his fellow bankers. Soon after Sumit joins the Citizen Bank, Gupta introduces his readers to Ind-Credit Bank. Ind-Credit is about to venture into agricultural or rural banking, mainly as a result of pressure from the Reserve Bank of India which wants Ind-Credit Bank to discharge its social obligations like every other Indian bank and serve the poor and marginalised sections of society. Ind-Credit Bank is good at turning conventional wisdom upside down and follows this approach as it makes a foray into agri-banking, under the leadership of Mohit Saxena, a banker with 22 years’ experience with Asian Development Bank. Mohit has even worked with Prof Mohannad Yunnus, the founder of Grameen Bank.

After Sumit completes a year at Citizen Bank’s Jaipur branch, star performer Anupam Arora lands up. Sumit is given a very tough time by Anupam, who will never take no for an answer as he presses Sumit to clear vehicle-loan proposals for his customers. Anupam is a fraudster and Sumit soon unravels his modus operandi after some diligent investigation. Anupam bites the dust, which is to say, he is fired, but moves to another bank at a higher salary. Sumit bags the Citizen Bank star performer award and a promotion. Two months later, Sumit joins Ind-Credit Bank in Mumbai.

Gupta takes us to Sumit’s home and introduces us to his wife Shalini and toddler son Shibu, who is a year and a half old when the story begins. Like many hardworking bankers, Sumit does not get to spend much time with Shalini and Shibu. Shalini used to be a journalist with the Times of India, but she has become a stay-at-home mom. After Sumit joins Ind-Credit Bank in Mumbai, Shalini goes back to work, joining NewsFirst a 24x7 news channel. I didn’t think Shalini’s character has been properly fleshed out by Gupta. Most of the time, Shalini appears to be cross with Sumit for working long hours or for not caring for Shibu. Once she starts working, Shalini is shown to be a career woman who quickly makes it big as a chat show anchor, effortlessly handling discussions on topics such as polygamy. There are a few instances when Sumit manages to spend time with Shalini, such as when they take a holiday in Kashmir, leaving Shibu behind with his grandparents, that we hear the sort of romantic dialogues that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bollywood movie.

We do not hear or see much of Sumit’s move from Jaipur to Mumbai. Was Shalini happy to move to Mumbai? One moment we see Sumit quitting Citizen Bank to join Ind-Credit Bank and the next we see him is at a gala function at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai where top performers from Ind-Credit Bank’s agri-business are given awards. To create a rural flavour, the attire is traditional. Men wear khadi-kurta pyajamas (sic) and women wear cotton saris. The venue has rural and folk paintings on the wall and husk piles, earthern pots, bamboo sticks, lanterns etc. add to the atmosphere.

Sumit does not cease to unravel fraud even after joining Ind-Credit Bank where in his role as head of credit monitoring, he reviews and tracks the bank’s portfolio performance. We see Sumit struggle to gather data from bankers, we see his warnings being disregarded as the agri-business continues to expand fast, setting new records, we see Sumit not getting the support he needs from his boss and we also see Sumit soldier on despite so many handicaps. First Sumit unravels a small fraud, one committed by an employee, Hardeep Desai, who is literally on crutches. Sumit journeys to distant Bhuj to investigate and deliver justice, arm twisting a low level ‘docboy’ to confess in a manner which any Indian policeman would have been proud of. The fraud he uncovers is a victimless one, where neither the bank nor the customer has lost any money. However, Ind-Credit Bank has a policy of zero tolerance towards fraud and handicapped Hardeep Desai is sacked. We don’t see Sumit shedding tears over this incident as he grimly moves on, comforting himself with verses from the Bhagvad Gita suggest that a karma-yogi will do his duty, without attachment, come what may.

The agri-business at Ind-Credit Bank seems to be doing exceedingly well and no one has the appetite for bad news. Sumit is accused by his boss of behaving like a ‘jehadi with a suicide jacket’ after he makes a presentation which ruthlessly analyses the credit franchisee model used by the agri-business. ‘Well, I may be a suicide banker, but not a suicide bomber,’ is Sumit’s tart retort to the accusation. Sumit is soon convinced that there is a ‘bubble build-up’ in the agri-business. Self-conviction is, however, a far cry from absolute proof and Sumit doesn’t find many takers for his allegations and his marriage is on the rocks. The only one who reposes some faith in him is Ravi Kant, his ex-boss at Citizen Bank. Encouraged by Ravi Kant, Sumit decides to expose the guilty and save Ind-Credit Bank’s customers. All of which is easier said that done. Ultimately Sumit is forced to rely on subterfuge (which includes breaking the law) to obtain evidence, which he mails to the independent directors on the Board of Ind-Credit Bank. All hell breaks loose. I didn’t like the fact that Sumit broke the law to obtain the evidence which nailed the truth, just as he did in Hardeep Desai’s case. Couldn’t Gupta have found some other way of bringing out the truth? Do please read this novel to find out exactly how Sumit pricks the agri-banking bubble.

Gupta’s writes in the sort of every-day English used by Indian professionals. Jargon of the variety one hears in Indian banking circles is used aplenty in The Suicide Banker. The banking world described by Gupta is 24 carat and authentic. We hear Ind-Credit Bank’s CEO explain how ‘There are times when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.’ I did end up wishing Gupta’s language were more elegant. The text below is a case in point.

‘How the results look like?’ Mohit had seen the provisional quarterly results yesterday, but knew a lot can change before they are finally released.

How the results look like?’ is grammatically wrong, but this incorrect sentence is acceptable when it is spoken by a banker, one who is not a native English speaker and who has obviously not been hired on the basis of his linguistic ability. However, what follows afterwards is the third party narrator’s language and here, there is no excuse for the faulty English. Faux pas such as this are very common in The Suicide Banker, atleast one every few pages of this 279-page book. The Suicide Banker would have been a much better read if its prose had been of a higher standard. At the very least, the editors could have corrected the obvious grammatical errors.

Gupta uses a few flash-backs which do not work very well and I was left confused. Ind-Credit Bank was introduced and its foray into the agri-business explained pretty soon after the novel began and Sumit had just joined Citizen Bank. This didn’t make much sense, until Sumit suddenly quits the Citizen Bank, for no particular reason, to join Ind-Credit Bank. Gupta tells us that ‘he got an excellent opportunity to join Ind-Credit Bank and he happily accepted it.’ Was it the promise of more money? Maybe, since we later see Sumit get a cubicle for himself. When Sumit joins Ind-Credit Bank, its agri-banking division (headed by Mohit Saxena) is booming. We are told that ‘Everyone at Ind-Credit Bank dreamt of becoming a part of the Agri-Business (caps-sic). With zero defaults and a strong portfolio growth, it was a hot potato with the entire banking industry, boasting of its miraculous success. The team that created the agri-strategy, was intact and reaped the benefits of its success. They got fabulous mid-year promotions, bonuses and ESOPs. As the business grew, the team expanded and by the end of second year, there were about 800 people in the Agri-Business team. Mohit Saxena had done a fabulous job of building this business.

Towards the end, as Sumit gets to grips with the fraud being perpetuated by the agri-business division, I started feeling that Gupta’s description of the toilet at Citizen Bank, one which could be from a five star hotel, but which has a leaky faucet and could drench the front of any user’s trousers, could be an euphemism for the state of India’s private sector banks. Citizen Bank is an MNC Bank, but interestingly, Gupta never tells his readers if Ind-Credit Bank is also an MNC Bank. We only know that it is a leading private sector bank.

If Gupta hasn’t done a good job in sketching Shalini’s character, he makes up for that with his depiction of the various bankers and their clients who form part of this story. For example, we get to meet Tulsi Ram who is a client of Citizen Bank and holds a job as the head clerk at a government school in Rajasthan. We are told that Tulsi Ram runs a transport business, one which consumes most of his time. Nevertheless, Tulsi Ram manages to get to his school 4 times every month, always on a Thursday when the local transport market is closed. Tulsi Ram unfailingly charges a 2 per cent commission for processing the salaries of his colleagues at the government school.

Sumit might be a diligent credit officer, but he is not without his prejudices. ‘No girls in my team,’ Sumit has instructed his sub-ordinates. Gupta tells us that Sumit believed ‘girls were slow at work, felt ill at will, wouldn’t stay late and worst of all, they couldn’t be scolded. Handling women staff had been a tricky issue for him.’ However, when a sub-ordinate Alex Stuart requests him to hire his cousin Annie Mathew, Sumit agrees. Annie is shown to be a non-descript girl who works hard and keeps a low profile. Annie’s position in the Bank is not exactly clear, though it appears to be that of an intern or a trainee. Sumit encourages Annie to enrol for a part-time MBA. Pretty soon after Annie joins his team, we find Sumit liking Annie more than would be normal in the given circumstances. ‘She looked up and their eyes met. No makeup, Sumit noticed. Hair in ponytail. She was not very attractive, but Sumit found something very feminine about her. He could relate her to a slim, little malnourished, sultry tribal girl’. Pretty soon Sumit and Annie are having a roaring affair.

I didn’t find Annie Mathew’s and Alex Stuart’s characters to be realistic. For one, both are shown to be Marathi speakers! Later it turns out Alex is not Annie’s cousin, but an ex-boyfriend, who still wants favours from Annie. Towards the end, when Sumit needs to collect evidence to uncover the fraud being perpetuated by the agri-business, he enlists Annie’s help and she duly complies. Annie, silent, diligent and obedient, comes across as yet another two-dimensional stereotype.

Just as in the movies, many times Sumit isn’t around when Shalini and Shibu need him. There is the expected scene when Shibu is ill and Sumit is too busy with his new job at Ind-Credit Bank to help out. In another incident, Shibu’s school takes him on a day’s excursion to the Byculla zoo, but doesn’t bring him back. Shalini desperately tries to reach Sumit on his mobile, but Sumit is out romancing with Annie. Towards the end, after the bad guys have been exposed (with a lot of assistance from Annie) and Sumit leaves Ind-Credit Bank, we don’t get to know if he intends to keep seeing Annie.

Gupta’s prose might be below par, but the various jokes, one-liners and banking anecdotes which litter this novel are not. Here’s a sample: ‘HR might not be the busiest department, but it always pretended to be so.’ Some of the jokes are crude and stereotyped, such as the description of a high performing female banker who is said to have seen more laps than a napkin, but then no one has accused bankers of excessive political correctness.

One of the things I didn’t like about The Suicide Banker was that for someone without much knowledge of Indian banks, many details remain fuzzy and unclear. For example, it isn’t clear what exactly Sumit would be doing at Citizen Bank for quite some time after he starts his new job. At one point, Sumit is referred to as the future branch head for Goa. In Jaipur, he is shown to be the branch manager and yet he seems to be shit scared of Anupam Arora. Didn’t Arora report to the branch manager? The role of a credit manager – to analyse the credit worthiness of a potential client and to recommend a credit limit – could have been explained better at the outset. I am not sure if the average Joe who reads The Suicide Banker would figure out the hierarchies and verticals that characterise the average financial institution. What the heck, it is not even clear if Sumit is, like most credit managers, a chartered accountant. I got the (vague) impression that he is an MBA. One of the best things about industry specific novels like Hotel, Airport, Wheels, Moneychangers etc. (all of them by Arthur Hailey) is that not only are they very exciting, they also explain in a simple manner the workings of a specific industry to outsiders. The Suicide Banker on the other hand seems to have been written by a banker for other bankers, with so many descriptions and anecdotes that would be decipherable only to industry insiders.

One of the best bits about The Suicide Banker is the introspection which Sumit goes through after exposing each fraud and getting a few bankers into serious trouble. The final coup in the agri-business matter, sets a few thousand heads rolling. Sumit is not upset and he (rightly in my opinion) justifies his actions to himself, quoting from the Bhagvad Gita as he does. His only grumble seems to that he doesn’t get any publicity or credit for his actions.

This has turned out to be a longer review than I intended it to be. To sum up, The Suicide Banker is a very authentic description of the Indian banking scene and gives a realistic picture of the various hanky-panky activities some players indulge in to make more money. This is not very surprising since Gupta concedes in the Acknowledgements section that ‘many incidents in this novel are based on real events.’ He further concedes that ‘I am grateful to my ex-employers for providing me with such eye-opening learning opportunities.’ The language used is appropriate for dialogues between bankers, but the third party narrator’s prose ought to have been much better. Instead, it grinds along the same rut as the dialogues, errors, jargon and all. Gupta’s canvass is wide and stretches from the posh Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai to rustic Jaipur. Descriptions of bankers and their clients are very good, but that of the wife and girlfriend aren’t half as good. Despite all this, I would rate this novel as an interesting read, especially for bankers and for those curious to know how bankers make so much money and get away with it.

Is Gupta as good as Frey? No, he isn’t and my search for that un-put-downable Indian financial thriller continues.


Anonymous said...

Fabulous review.. Haven't seen such a detailed review before. Keep writing.


Anonymous said...

Dear Vinod

I am the author of this novel and am extremely impressed with your review. Thank you so much for your time and efforts. Please do write to me.. Looking forward to hear from you.

Puneet Gupta

Winnowed said...

Amitava, thank you.

Puneet, great to hear from you. I shall drop you a note shortly.

Anonymous said...

The most comprehensive novels on banking fiction that i have seen so far are If God was a Banker & Devil in Pinstripes, both of them written by Ravi Subramanian. Though not in the Arthur Hailey league, they tend to keep the reader enthused with the pace and racy storyline.