“Your foundations are lasting, your columns countless”

I am in Siem Reap. Yesterday, I saw the great Angkor Wat and a few other smaller, but equally impressive Shaiv, Vaishnav and Buddhist temples. Angkor Wat is almost as old as the Brihadeshwar temple in Thanjavur, only more brihad and even more impressive.

Being at Angkor Wat reminded me of another ‘kafir-e-Hindi’ at another religious shrine in another continent in a different time. Pillars of Angkor Wat—teri bina paedar tere sutun beshumar[1]made me think of Iqbal in Masjid-e-Qurtuba, Spain.

Earlier this year, I missed my chance to travel to Cordoba. I had my tickets, but I could not get a visa on time. Iqbal offered namaz in Masjid-e-Qurtuba in 1933 even though the mosque had been converted into a cathedral 700 years ago. Angkor Wat, a Vaishnav temple, also became a Buddhist shrine when Khmers converted to Buddhism. Isn’t it interesting that Khmers of Cambodia became Hindus when Buddhism was ascendant in India and they turned into Buddhists around the time when Buddhism was disappearing from its birthplace?

You cannot offer namaz in the cathedral of Cordoba anymore. Fortunately, there are no such restrictions in Angkor Wat. I could have recited Vishnu Sahashtranam in the sanctum sanctorum. I did not. Iqbal was a great poet, a philosopher and a deeply religious man.

Naghma-e-allah-hu mere rag-o-pai mein hai\…

…dil mein salat o durud, lab pe salat o durud[2]

So, he offered prayer in Cordoba and wrote an inspired poem, one of the finest in Urdu literature. I am an atheist Hindu of the 21st century. So, I only posed for selfies. I had little of Iqbal’s zauq o shauq[3], but Angkor Wat did make me think of the vast spread of Indian culture in the first millennium of the Christ across Asia—from Java and Sumatra in the east to the borders of Persia in the west. I felt immense pride that traders and priests, artisans and migrants—and not swordsmen—carried this influence to east Asia. That Angkor Wat was built by Khmers, not Indians, gives me more pride. The history of India’s soft power is way more impressive than a vast Indian empire would be.

In 1933, Iqbal was worried whether Muslims in the subcontinent would meet the same fate as they did in Spain. I have no such worries. In 2018, I see no threat to Hindus or Hinduism in India, except from themselves. Iqbal yearned for a Muslim renaissance. I am a much smaller man. So, my desires are also simpler. I just want books and documentaries, TV serials and films based on the religious, cultural and trade relations between India and its eastern neighbors. I feel bad that I know so little about this chapter of our history. Was there even a paragraph on it in our textbooks? Java, Champa, Kamboj, Shrivijaya are names I have read only in novels and epics, not in the books of history. Forget history, would someone please make a period drama on this glorious era—something like Amrit Lal Nagar’s Suhag Ke Nupur or a historically inspired work of fiction like the ones Amitava Ghosh writes?

[1] Your foundations are lasting, your columns countless

[2] The song of Allah-hu is in my veins…and the prayer and Prophet’s (PBUH) praise is in my heart and on my lips.

[3] The desire and the passion


बागों में पड़े झूले 

इस मौसम का एक गीत|

बागों में पड़े झूले

तुम भूल गए हमको
हम तुमको नहीं भूले
ये रक्स सितारों का
सुन लो कभी अफसाना
तक़दीर के मारों का
सावन का महीना है
साजन से जुदा रहकर
जीना भी क्या जीना है
रावी का किनारा हो
हर मौज के होठों पर
अफसाना हमारा हो
दिल में हैं तमन्नाएँ
डर है कि कहीं हम-तुम
बदनाम न हो जाएँ
अब और न तड़पाओ
या हमको बुला भेजो
या आप चले आओ |

अज्ञेय के जन्मदिन पर|

आज अज्ञेय का जन्मदिन है। हिंदी के श्रेष्ठतम लघु-कविता लेखक की कुछ कवितायेँ जो मुझे बेहद पसंद हैं।

जो पुल बनाएंगे
अनिवार्यतः पीछे रह जाएंगे
सेनायें हो जाएंगी पर
मारे जायेंगे रावण
विजयी होंगे राम
जो निर्माता रहे,
इतिहास में बन्दर कहलायेंगे
मेरे अज्ञातवास की
अब कितनी अवधि शेष है प्रभु?
कहाँ है वो शमी का पेड़
जिसपर मैंने अपनी
जिजिविषा लटकाई थी?
रामायण और महाभारत के प्रसंगों का ऐसा अद्भुत, ऐसा ओरिजिनल (और रेडिकल) इंटरप्रेटेशन कम हीं पढ़ने को मिलता है!
तुम सभ्य हुए नहीं
नगर में बसना
भी तुम्हें नहीं आया!
एक बात पूछूँ–(उत्तर दोगे)?
तब कैसे सीखा
विष कहाँ पाया?
मालती की गंध
बोलेगी तुम अभी मत बोलना
कह गया है जो पपीहा
उस व्यथा की परत तुम मत खोलना|

Bankers as Development Professionals

Three years ago, I called Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi with a Y-chromosome. His speech on 31st December supports my contention. Like Indira Gandhi, he is also leaning heavily on commercial banks to achieve his development goals. It is not necessarily a bad thing. Research does show that shows that forcing banks to open more branches in rural areas during Indira Gandhi’s time helped reduce poverty. Modi is leaning even more on Banks than Mrs. Gandhi did. However, I wonder if he realizes how much our Bank professionals resent the developmental work. They are not ready for this role. Their training, their sensibilities and the incentives and the work culture at the banks—nothing prepares them for the developmental role that is being thrust upon them.  Just like our power utilities dislike servicing farmers and the rural poor, banks too would be much happier if villages were left to NGOs and Mahajans.

This transformation in job description—from a commercial role to a developmental one—has some precedence. After India became independent, development administration replaced revenue collection and magistracy as the main job of district collectors. Many an ICS officer did not like this change. Others excelled at it. Our bank managers dislike their changing role even more than the ICS did. I can say so based on many conversations with bank managers who are close friends and family members. When I talk to them, I get a feeling that they have so much power to do good, but few of them are inspired to do so. They treat it as a nuisance, a burden. The little they do is out of coercion, not inspiration and it shows in their collective performance.

A lot has to change if banks have to do all that our government wants them to do. One of these changes is in the training bank officials receive at the beginning of their careers. How you are trained matters. I can say so from my own experience. I was 22 when I joined IRMA. IRMA was only one of the many management colleges I had applied for. Believe it or not the list even included NIFT. Two years at IRMA changed the way I think about what a professional can and should do. I would have been a very different person had I ended up at any other management college.  Irrespective of the career an IRMAN pursues, she or he thinks more keenly about poverty and development, sustainability and inclusiveness than your average educated Indian. IRMANS are more interested in these issues and less cynical about what professionals can do about them even when they are in other fields of work. It’s true that only interest or intent is not enough. Meaningful action is needed. Yet intentions also matter. Self-image is important. Young professionals joining public sector banks need IRMA like training—to take pride in their capacity and the growing opportunity to work not only as astute lenders and deposit mobilizers, but also as a cadre of development professionals.

On Demonetization: Things I learned from my friends who work in Government Banks

I talked to some of my friends who are in public sector banks. The news is not good.

1. RBI is still not able to print and circulate enough new notes. Further, for every ten box of new 2000 rupee notes (equals Rs. 200 crores), banks are getting only 1 box worth Rs. 5 crores only of 500 rupee notes.

2. PSU banks are getting nervous because there will be long queue of pensioners and salaried employees to collect their monthly payments from 1st of December. Banks are not in a position to pay them in cash. Not yet.

3. Entire banking system is busy managing and handling cash. All other business has slowed down or come to a halt. Deposit is growing rapidly, but credit growth has stalled. Beank officials do not have time to even assess loan applications.

4. Another thing that is keeping top management of PSU banks busy is the floating of new rules by government or RBI every few hours. Bank officials are having three-four video-conferences every day with RBI. Each comes with some new instructions and restrictions. About turns and what not.

5. In the morning, I wondered if those who do not have bank accounts have some way of exchanging their notes. Now, I know the answer: no, they do not. They have to open a new bank account. Banks have been asked to issue them a rupay card instantly after KYC.

6. One of my banker friends joked: there are more marriages happening in banks this time than in marriage halls. Government has imposed ridiculous requirements for those who want to withdraw money for weddings. But as always happens in such cases, the business of printing fake wedding cards is booming. And bank officials simply do not have time or cognitive capacity left to do check documents rigorously and ascertain their genuineness.

7. Big businessmen who employ a lot of people–formally or informally–are on a mission to have bank accounts opened for all their employees. Soon, Rs. 24,000 will magically appear in many of these accounts.

8. Do not be surprised if a lot of businesses suddenly reduce the receivables in their books.

9. Last and perhaps the least important bit. A couple of years ago, RBI had launched a drive to take old, soiled, torn notes out of circulation–with some success. This is no time to crib about currency’s vintage. Sab chalta hai; sab chalega. So, soiled notes are back in circulation again.