AN ADVANTAGE of having been a banker for over a good three decades, Viswanathan says, is that people regard you with a lot of respect. You are the poor man's Alan Greenspan. People consider you clued-up about the nuances of high finance. True, they might be consulting you on matters financial. Though it might be a simple issue, you put on the grim demeanour matched only by that of the World Bank President James Wolfensohn.
Viswanathan came to be a `consultant' of sorts to the residents of the colony on matters financial. While he was in service, he had offered service at the doorsteps of his neighbours. Even after he retired, several of his neighbours had stayed with the old private bank he used to work for. Some, however, had opened accounts with branches of nationalised banks in the vicinity of their offices.
The number of those who had been lured by the gleaming glasses and the shining chrome of the new kids on the block was not small. These banks were one-stop-shops (It might be old-fashioned not to say `shoppe' or its variants such as shopee and shoppee ) where you could buy insurance policies, get yourself a credit card, a car loan, a home loan, or whatever.
Chacko was a votary of the new generation banks. He was impressed by the smartly turned out young men, in pin stripes and navy blue neck ties and speaking with an accent, working in plush environs with piped music. When he opened an account in mid-2002, he was given a debit card. And a few weeks later, a sweet voice on the telephone told him that a pre-approved credit card with a drawing limit of Rs. 50,000 would be his.
The joining fee had been waived and there would be no annual fee for the first year. Would he please come and sign the application and complete certain simple formalities? He did. And in due course, the credit card arrived. Not given to purchases on impulses, he had no chance to use it even once. Every month, the courier would religiously bring bills demanding payment of Rs. 0.00. His wife, Aleyamma, used to tease her husband about the bills: you never use the card and make the company incur cost for sending you bills! Unfortunately, Chacko succumbed to a massive heart attack within nine months of the arrival of the credit card.
Nevertheless, bills for Rs. 0.00 continued to arrive, which she ignored.
The grieving widow was surprised when the courier delivered a bill from the credit card agency, this May, for Rs. 2,000. It covered the annual fee of her late husband's credit card from the ensuing year. No other amount was due, as the card had not been used. Aleyamma consulted
Viswanathan and replied to them that she had already informed the bank of the demise of her husband in February. Would they therefore please drop the claim? Next month, she received a bill for Rs. 2,250 (The annual fee, the late fee and the interest on the annual fee. She scurried to Viswanathan, and on his advice, sent another letter explaining that no amount may be demanded, as she had already intimated the fact of her husband's death well in time to the bank.
In July, she was again given a bill. The balance which had been Rs. 0.00 had risen to somewhere around Rs. 2,560. Viswanathan was away in the U.S. with his son, but Aleyamma, tutored well by him, sent a proper response.
She ignored the next two bills, which showed inflated amounts - Rs. 3,040 and Rs. 3720, respectively. Then, one day, she received a phone call from the credit card agency. She told the voice at the other end, "I had written to you more than once that Chacko died in February." The voice replied: "But, ma'am, the account was never closed and the late fees and interest charges still apply."
Viswanathan, who was back after his U.S. trip, happened to be there on a social visit when the call came. He took over and tried to reason with the caller. The response was, "Since it is three months past due, we are handing over the matter to our recovery department." Viswanathan asked, "So what? We'll tell them that he is dead."
"Then they'd report the account to the frauds division, or report it to the credit bureau...maybe, both!"
"Do you think God will be mad at him?"
"...Excuse me ...?"
"Did you just get what I was telling you...the part about his being dead?"
"Sir, you'll have to speak to my supervisor!"
Now, he told the supervisor the same things he had already said.
"I'd like to repeat to you that Chacko died in February."
The supervisor would have none of these: "The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply."
"You mean you want to collect from his estate?" Viswanathan obviously knew his ropes.
"Could you send us a certificate of death?"
Aleyamma sent a photocopy of the document and thought the matter would rest there. She was therefore surprised when, a few days later, they called again.
"Our system just isn't set up for death..."
"Oh..," she couldn't care less.
"I don't know what more I can do to help...", the other end was desperate.
"Well... if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing him, I suppose... I don't really think he will care...." Aleyamma was at her tether's end.
The caller was adamant, "Well...the late fees and charges do still apply."
"Would you like his new billing address?" Aleyamma felt like teasing the girl at the other end.
"That might help."
"Vault No... , ... Cemetery, ... Church, Trivandrum 695 ..."
"Ma'am, that's a cemetery!"
"What do you do with dead people on your planet?" Aleyamma asked.
The rest of the story is not pleasant.