Monday, June 12, 2006

Lost ... and Found

The country was in the throes of a major financial crisis triggered by the precariously low level of foreign exchange reserves. The policy-makers, a worried lot, wracked their brains and evolved a scheme to mop up the savings of non-resident Indians.

The scheme was to be implemented through major banks. Targets were assigned and incentives promised. Chairmen of banks vied with one another in attracting the maximum amounts from non-residents.

The national launch of the scheme, complete with bells and whistles, was to be in a predominantly NRI pocket – and rightly so. The Chairman of the Bank, the Finance Minister and other dignitaries would grace the occasion. The branch where the function would be held was headed by Ramaswamy, basically a hands-on banker who had risen from the ranks.

He knew an opportunity when he saw one. He was in the line-up for promotion and close interaction with the top bosses at this juncture would not hurt. He was not a fool to let go of the golden chance to impress them with his ability.

Ramaswamy had excellent reputation as a good organiser. Give him a task and it would be done. Give him a target and it would be achieved. In no time, a steering committee was formed for organising the function and sub-committees were charged with the nitty-gritty of the event. Everything from the bouquets and refreshments to the public address system had been taken care of.

The D-day was drawing close. The Regional Manager who had flown down two days in advance to oversee the arrangements nodded in approval. The honour of welcoming the distinguished gathering at the event would be yours, Ramaswamy was told.

He was aware of his limitations: erudition was not his forte. He therefore sought the help of the professor of economics at the local college in drafting his address of welcome.

In the script of the oration that the learned professor had drafted for Ramaswamy, he had dwelt on the predicament the country was placed in, sprinkling some statistics, to serve as the background to the issuance of the bonds. He had then moved on to the macro-economic theory in a few sentences, peppering it with some quotes from the likes of Keynes, Adam Smith, Mahalanobis and Caldor.

Ramaswamy had read the address of welcome many times over and committed it to heart. As a matter of abundant caution (a phrase any self-respecting banker would carry to his grave), he had the script tucked away safe in one pocket of his grey safari suit (Those were the hey-days of this monstrosity of a garb) specially tailored for the occasion.

The guests were received ceremoniously and ushered onto the dais. Ramaswamy emerged from the wings and stood at the lectern. After the elaborate and formal salutations addressed to the dignitaries on the dais, Ramsawamy proceeded to deliver his speech: ‘In the economic history of post-independence India, 1991 was a watershed year, for the country witnessed a severe economic crisis, a result of the balance of payments situation depleting from USD 6823 billion in 1980 to near-zero….’

It promised to be a discourse which would have done an academic proud. But disaster struck after the first few sentences oozing with learned pronouncements: the thing Ramaswamy wanted the least happened. The next sentence simply escaped him – totally and completely. Try as he might, he just could not recall the words.

His hand desperately delved into the right pocket of his trousers but drew a blank. Undeterred, he held forth impromptu, ‘We all know how important foreign exchange is for the country. Without it, we cannot meet our import bills, we cannot develop, …’ He ad-libbed on, in the same mundane, pedestrian refrain. It was a stark contrast from the cerebrally stimulating words that had preceded it.

Then his hand strayed into the chest pocket which had the speech. A relieved Ramaswamy exclaimed, ‘Ah, kittippoyi!’ (I got it!), rather loudly, unfolded the sheet and looked at it. The adage goes ‘Lightning never strikes the same place twice’ but here it was disproved, for Ramaswamy had left his spectacles on the table in his cabin. Without the glasses, he had no use for the scholarly scripted speech. Not one to be daunted by such adversities, he went ahead with his own extempore, albeit punctuated by stammers and stutters.

God then appeared in the form of Kuttappan Pillai, his trusted aide, who, though unschooled in English, was quick to spot the predicament the boss was in, ran to the cabin and fetched the reading glasses of the chief.

‘Aang...haa... kittiyodo?’ (You got it?) the speaker could not hide his immense relief at the succour in the worst crisis of his life. Ramaswamy proceeded, ‘Having drawn down on the bulk of the foreign exchange reserves in order to meet the oil import bill, the credit ratings assigned to the country by both Moody’s and Standard & Poor were downgraded, impacting the ability to raise funds abroad, resulting in current account deficit, setting off a vicious cycle….’ The profound speech reverberated in the hall once again.

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