The nomadic life of a PSU banker


Last week’s column on what ails public sector banks prompted a recently retired banker to write me a long email about his career path. Here’s an edited version of it, reproduced with his permission.

Let’s call him Mr A. His wife describes him as a nomad, but he seems happy about the Bharat darshan he could indulge in during his career that spanned over three-and-a-half decades.

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Hailing from a middle-class family in West Bengal, A, a postgraduate, joined a mid-sized south-based public sector bank in the late 1980s as a probationary officer (PO). He started out with postings at four branches for his “on-the-job training’’ in general banking, agriculture, credit and foreign exchange in Ahmedabad (Gujarat), Balugaon (Odisha), Erode (Tamil Nadu) and Kolkata (West Bengal) for six months each.

Since there was no leased accommodation for a PO, he had to live in small, dingy rooms with professionals from varied fields. The four places were very different from one another in terms of language, food and weather.

After a successful probationary period, he was posted at Balasore in Odisha, those days known for the Chandipur beach and the Indian Ballistic Missile Defence Programme’s test range. Since new private banks had still not made their appearance, there was no competition for business. A got married during this stint, and became a father.

He had, however, barely started enjoying being a parent when he was sent to Gangtok as a manager-designate for the bank’s first branch in Sikkim. With a six-month-old daughter in their arms, the family landed in Gangtok late December when the temperature was 4 degrees Celsius.

The new branch office was almost ready, except for the strong room where money would be kept. He managed to get a decent flat, paying extra for it from his pocket since the rent far exceeded his entitlement.

By this time, new private banks started appearing on the horizon. For his bank, business was not growing on expected lines. A could not provide the customers with the latest computerised facilities, which these private banks offered. He pushed for computerising the branch, but the management saw it as an excuse for non-performance.

The next posting for the “non-performer” was Repalle in Andhra Pradesh. From Gangtok, where the average summer temperature was 9-10 Celsius, he now had to cope with temperatures as high as 35-38 degree Celsius. An equally daunting challenge was the language barrier. He left his family at his in-laws’ house in Bhubaneswar (Odisha), and went to Repalle alone.

The red chillies and spicy food were a nightmare for A till his wife joined the coastal town, which is famous for its temples, rice mills, high-quality cashew nuts and seafood.

The next stop was the foreign exchange department at the bank’s Vizag branch. He loved the city – the blue sea and its lagoon, the green pastures, mountains and hillocks, and its polite, courteous, cultured people. A posting at the foreign exchange department did not excite very many people in those days since it involved longer work hours and few holidays. A proved to be an exception. At his farewell, the chief manager spoke about his “stellar performance on a sticky wicket”. He got a promotion, and was transferred to Bhubaneswar.

This stint was a fight against bad loans. As senior manager (recovery), A spent his Sundays, and other holidays, meeting the loan defaulters. There were cases of business failures leading to bad loans, but handling the wilful defaulters – those who had money but were not paying off – was far more difficult.

By now, his daughter had started going to school. She used to ask her mother why her father had to be in office on Sundays when her friends’ fathers would take them out. 

A managed to arrive at compromise settlements for a large number of sticky accounts and recover a good amount. The branch was among the top 10 performers across India in bad loan recovery.

The reward came in the form of a posting to the Mumbai treasury. The bank’s accommodation at Jogeshwari, a western suburb of Mumbai, was decent, but finding a good school for his daughter, an ICSE student, was a challenge.

Finally, one ICSE school agreed to admit her on the condition that he would contribute handsomely to its development. His daughter could finally start going to a school, but A’s savings vanished into the blue.

The treasury markets start at 9 am, and the officers are supposed to report half an hour before that. A had to leave home by 7.15 am to drive down to the office in south Mumbai, but the return journey used to take as much as three-and-a-half hours on some days. He would reach home late, at about 9.30 pm, and immediately head to the dining table for dinner. An essential chore before going to bed was to shave so that he could get up a little late the following next morning. 

Despite the water crisis in summer, incessant rains during monsoon, high cost of living, and the mad rush in public transport, the family of three fell in love with Maximum City.

His daughter was now in Class IX and preparing for the board exams. The critical year demanded stability, but A, who had been in Mumbai for five years, was transferred to the Delhi zonal office as deputy zonal manager. He could not leave his family behind.

The toughest problem in Delhi was getting his daughter admitted to Class IX.

Initially, every day, he would give false assurances to her, a la Mr Micawber in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, that something would turn up very soon, but he was beginning to lose hope. One morning, his daughter burst into tears and asked whether she would ever get admitted to school again. In office, A broke down before the zonal manager, who took the initiative to arrange for a school admission after admonishing him. He should have put his daughter in the Central School, or he could have left his family with his in-laws and moved to Delhi alone.

A took up the idea of moving alone during the last leg of his career.

After two more stints at Raipur (Chhattisgarh) and Patna (Bihar) as zonal head, his last port of call was Mumbai again. By this time, the industry had changed – there had been privatisation, amalgamation of public sector banks and the near-collapse of a few banks of different hues. As retirement approached, he started suffering from an identity crisis as his bank was merged with another.

The list of A’s transfers is far longer than mentioned here. It made him a better banker with different exposures, but it came at a price. His daughter could not make many friends since she had been to eight schools. Often, she remained an outsider in her school. His wife, too, suffered from bouts of depression. They lived like a nomadic tribe.

A few of his colleagues, who were qualified to rise up the ladder, gave up midway, and embraced a tension-free life. He does not know whether they were wise to do so, but the children of some of them who abandoned the aspiration for promotions are well-placed in their lives.

The journey of a bank officer is a story of sacrifice and of the support the family lends. Often, like many others, A too feels that he did well professionally, but that he was probably unfair to his family. As he looks back, he becomes melancholic and remembers the lines of Edward Thomas’s The Owl:

And salted was my food, and my repose,

Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice

Speaking for all who lay under the stars,

Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

It’s a poem about both fulfilment and deprivation – about the emotions of empathy and guilt. Nothing can sum up the life of a PSU banker better.

The writer is an author and senior advisor to Jana Small Finance Bank Ltd . His latest book is Roller Coaster: An Affair with Banking. To read his previous columns, please log on to

X: @TamalBandyo


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