Cartoonist Sumit Kumar’s comic is a tribute to State Bank of Patiala, where his father served his entire working life, while revisiting the story of how he single-handedly transformed the fortunes of his family with the job. PICS COURTESY/BAKARMAX.COM
Sometime last month, Delhi-based cartoonist Sumit Kumar remembers receiving an emotional call from his father.
“Hamara bank khatm, beta,” his father said between muffled sobs. He was referring to the news of five state-owned banks, including Bank of Patiala where he had served for 40 years, merging with the State Bank of India, starting April 1.
For Kumar, who had rarely seen this emotional side to his retired banker father, that moment had an unsettling impact on him.
“Now, what?” he asked. “Will you draw something about it?” his father requested.”This was the first time that my dad had asked me to do something. How could I refuse?”
This episode finds mention in the last scene of Kumar’s new comic strip titled State Bank of Comics, which he published this week on his website Bakarmax.com. The 29-year-old illustrator has previously authored two graphic novels, The Itch You Can’t Scratch and Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari.
While the mega merger, touted as the largest consolidation exercise in the banking history of India, has been heralded as a decision that could place SBI in the global league, Kumar is looking at what the decision means to families like his own.
His comic is a tribute to State Bank of Patiala, where his father served his entire working life, while revisiting the story of how he single-handedly transformed the fortunes of his family with the job. “SBP meant everything to us, especially dad. It hauled us out of poverty,” Kumar tells mid-day in a telephonic interview.
It’s not that his father, whose name he chooses not to reveal, hadn’t seen the merger coming. “As a child, I remember him discussing the possibility with us at home. We knew that it was a good thing for the bank. My father would joke about how that would make SBI with the largest network of holiday homes [in the country],” recalls Kumar, adding, “But, it only hit him, when the decision was announced last month. The thought of not being able to see Patiala branches ever again, is something he is yet to get used to.”
Kumar compares his father’s passion for banking to that of a soldier saving his country. “Imagine if an armed forces man woke up one day, and was told that the Indian Army had ceased to exist. That is exactly how he felt,” Kumar explains.
The cartoonist doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships India’s average banker faces. Kumar Senior for instance, had a fledgling start, joining as clerk at SBP’s Raibareli branch, when he was 18. “My father lost his dad at a young age, and so, the responsibility of running the family fell on his shoulders. When he completed Class XII, he took the first government job he got. It was the lowest position in the bank, but he carried. He had to earn four promotions before he became a probationary officer,” recalls Kumar. His father, now 65, retired in 2013, as assistant general manager.
Kumar says the young man rose through the ranks, learning along the way and not cowering to pressure. “He kept studying and going up, but he was to remain a troublemaker,” writes Kumar, while illustrating how his father never said ‘yes’ to decisions that were financially unsound for the bank. “Maybe that’s why we were transferred so much…” he adds in the comic. Kumar sees it as an act of courage. “We had no safety net. If he lost this banking job, there was nothing waiting for him. And yet, he wouldn’t say ‘yes’,” he says, referring to how he sustained a family of five that included his mother, Sumit and two elder sisters.
His father’s transfers to Bhopal, Kanpur, Dehradun and Kolkata, happened at critical junctures in their life. But the family went along, in the process, becoming quasi-Bengali, -Punjabi and -Bhopali, comfortable with their ambiguous identities.
In his drawings, Kumar brings to mind the famous dome-shaped SBP headquarters, located in the heart of Patiala city. “I experienced all that was new in my life, thanks to Papa and SBP,” he writes. “Air-conditioning, holiday home, air travel, 10 comics a day rented from a small shop next to SBP Burra Bazar Branch, which led to me becoming a cartoonist (sic).”
The banker father, however, hadn’t warmed up to his son’s passion for fooling around with the “rabbad and pencil”. But, Kumar, who is a computer science engineer and has trained under cartoonist Pran Kumar Sharma of Chacha Chaudhary fame, says he’d rather sketch the oddball characters than have a full-time job. He now intends to create sequels around the series, which will include characters inspired by his father and his many banking colleagues. “Bankers are strange people. They are always thinking and talking about money and profits. Even when they speak, they say little, because they prefer being economical with words,” he says, adding that may be, the simplest cartoon is the most appropriate to tell their story.