There was a time when I used to look forward to going to banks. I was not a child then, although it might have seemed so to the onlooker, me walking a couple of steps behind my father. I had then just about arrived in Madras, fresh out of college, yearning to go back to Calcutta where I had left all my friends.
There were bank accounts to be transferred, not many, just two. My father had been one of the typical office goers of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, content with the 9 to 5 job, happy with the weekend off, which gave him enough time to play cards with a group of very close friends, most of them Malayalees, of course. More about that later.
We were residing in Perambur when we decided to make Madras our home (it’s another matter that the city never really became one as far as I was concerned – I still miss good old Calcutta). I would occasionally accompany my father to the Indian Overseas Bank branch on Paper Mills Road or thereabout. Father would, as was his wont, head directly to the manager’s cabin and I would troop inside, behind him.
My early ‘banking experiences’ were extremely pleasant, thanks to a very charming manager, who was not only committed to providing the best service possible but also went out of his way to enquire about the customer and his family. Sometimes, my mother would be with us. So, eventually, the manager began treating us as family and he would order for tea, which I thought my father looked forward to (God bless his soul).
After my father’s death, my mother took the lead and handled our accounts, and I would accompany her unfailingly each time. So, over the years, I have been taught and told how to apply for the locker key, in which direction to turn the key and how many times, and how to ensure the locker remained locked once the task was done. And during all those numerous visits, my mother and I have met some lovely staff, always willing to help. There have been rare exceptions though, like one manager who was extremely rude to my mother ad I never forgave him for it. Later on, I learned he was a union leader and considered the branch his personal fiefdom.
My memories of those banking days came alive a couple of days ago when I visited a local branch of the Bank of India. Here I hold a savings account, in operation since 1988. I would have seen at least 20 branch managers in these 22 years, several staff, some retired, some no more. Every time there is a new face, I take the initiative to say a hello and forge a relationship. It works. But not always.
For example, I was intrigued to find that day a lady at the desk go through the exercise of verifying my signature despite knowing me fairly well and having seen me often enough. It is a different matter if she was only checking the availability of funds. She was probably doing her job, textbook style, but coming from the old stock I expected the human touch but it was conspicuous by its absence.
The branch had also introduced a new token system whereby you press a button on an equipment and hey presto a slip appears, complete with a token number. All you have to do is wait for your number to be announced. Typical of the present-day world where the focus is more on trying out new devices and going ‘high-tech’. But, sadly, amidst all the competition and customer-centric hype public service organisations engage in, little do they realise that they are getting further and further away from the customer. And I’m not just talking about the ATM.
The days I watched my father sip tea in the branch manager's cabin is indeed history. Yes, you might be called for tea today - when the bank schedules a public grievance meet or a medical camp and goes all out to get numbers, and customers on its side.