Book Review: The Financial Expert

I took a long time to complete RK Narayan’s ‘ The Financial Expert’ partly because I was busy at work, and secondly, I have developed this new habit of reading tidbits. It did not help in this case, as the book was written in four parts, and each part jumped forward almost imperceptibly.

Finally, I finished the second half of the book in two sittings, and I fell into a depression. The book which starts with perky humor ends in poignant satire in the end.

I am an investment banker, an author, and poet, and a father all rolled into one. The protagonist Margayya is a debt broker and moneylender, becomes rich by selling a book, and struggles with his identity as a father. You can figure out why the book suddenly became a reference frame for me.

So much for the harrowing experience, but that does not take away the genius of the author.

The Cover and Title:

Amazon Book cover of ‘The Financial Expert’.

The book cover is expressive. The black coated, dhoti-clad Margayya, sitting under the banyan tree ( accentuated by the fallen green banyan leaves), and his open trunk with the pen, ink bottle, forms, and stamp. The borrower’s hand handing over money to the stretched hand of Margayya, with another bundle on his lap and the stamp pad nearby, shows the detailing of the cover design.

The title ‘The Financial Expert’ is so on the dot that there is not a page that does not talk about the money lending business of Margayya, except where Margayya becomes a desperate father dealing with the idiosyncrasies and shenanigans of his son Balu.

From being the road-side lender below the road-side banyan tree to becoming the ‘richest money lender’ in the country, to the final scene, back to the trunk containing the pen, paper, ink bottle, forms, and stamp, it is a full circle of rising and fall of the financial expert.

The Plot:

The story is set in Malgudi, that little town that has been the world that RK Narayan so meticulously created. It is a world of its own, timeless yet tied up with colonial times.

Margayya is a petty moneylender who has nefarious ways to squeeze the ordinary folk who come to the Co-operative Society Bank for a loan, penny-for-the-pound. He makes money at every turn, in the process earning the wrath of the Secretary of the Bank. An encounter with the Secretary leads to the seizure of the bank loan application forms.

This puts him on a path that connects him to a priest, who advises him to propitiate Goddess Lakshmi. After 40 days of closed-door rituals that make him slim and fit, he learns that piety does not necessarily fill his pockets. He is down to the last rupee. It is when he meets Dr. Pal, a self-styled sociologist. Dr. Pal strikes a deal with Margayya for Rs 25, and asks him to print and sell the book about ‘fornication’. Disappointed at first, Margayya reluctantly takes the book to the printer Mr. Lal, who renames the title as ‘Domestic Harmony’ and prints the book. The royalties earned from the book put enough dough in Margayya’s pocket.

At some point, Margayya gives away his rights to the book to the stunned Lal and sets upon a path of money lending. Lending to desperate borrowers at exorbitant rates, he takes collateral including lands afar. He deducts the first term interest and then rotates it with another borrower. Many default and Margayya is flush with cash and collateral.

Margayya’s downfall comes with his dull and incompetent son, Balu. Balu is a reluctant student and finds his way to fix his teachers both in school and home tuition. Despite obvious signs and complaints, Margayya pushes him to take up S.S.L.C ( today’s tenth grade), which the boy fails miserably. More than that, the boy becomes obstinate and sullen, defying Margayya’s wishes and exhortations, and leaves their home.

The disappearance of Balu breaks his mother down. After a short family drama involving his brother and neighbors, Margayya reluctantly leaves for Madras ( Chennai today) to search for his son. An Inspector who he encounters in the third-class compartment of the train helps track Balu. After a lot of cajoling, Balu returns home, only to be treated with care and caution, to be spoiled more. Balu gets up late, goes out, smokes, and gets wasted. Neither parent dares to take on or admonish the spoiled youth.

With the help of his accountant Sastri, Margayya gets Balu married to a demure girl called Brinda and sets them up in a separate house in Lawley Extension. Meanwhile, Margayya brings Dr. Pal, his long-time friend into his business and lets him handle everything except cash. A few months later, Balu visits him and asks for his share of ancestral property.

It dawns on Margayya that Dr. Pal and Balu have become friends and Dr. Pal has contributed to Balu’s decline further. Angered by this discovery, Margayya rushes to Balu’s house. Told by Brinda about Balu’s nocturnal activities, Margayya gets worked up and assaults Dr.Pal who had just returned with Balu along with two ‘cinema’ girls in their Baby Astin car.

Dr. Pal goes around claiming victim to Margayya’s violent assault, while there is a rush to Margayya’s office and home by depositors to return their deposits forthwith. This results in emptying of all cash at his home and Margayya files for insolvency.

At last, Margayya and his son Balu come back to the old banyan tree from where it all started. Balu is reluctant to start, but Margayya says he would start all over.

Ordinary Characters, Extraordinary Story:

Some pieces stand out. Each character is ordinary — Margayya, his wife, Balu ( both in his childhood and spoiled youth), Brinda, Dr. Pal, the priest, the Secretary, and Arul Das of the Co-operative Bank, the Inspector… but the way they come in and leave after the scene is extraordinary storytelling.

It is hard to treat Margayya as the protagonist or the hero. He stands out as a greedy man, going to lengths to see the money.

Money was man’s greatest need like air or food. People went to horrifying lengths for its sake, like collecting rent on a dead body — it left him admiring the power and dynamism of money, its capacity to make people do strange deeds.

His walk after the tryst with the secretary is the most memorable part of the book.

Margayya’s conflicts as a husband and a businessman, and a loving but ambitious father stand out. He exudes hope at one time and melts in disappointment at another. Like how he tells his wife, Meena.

No more torn mats and dirty, greasy sarees for you. . . . And those people (he indicated the next house) will have to wonder and burst their hearts with envy.

Balu and Dr. Pal turn out to be their nemesis. The growth of Balu’s character again shines.

Balu devoted himself to the art of cultivating leisure. He was never in a hurry to get out of bed. At about nine o’clock, his father came to his bedside and in general reminded him; had you not better getup before the coffee gets too stale? . . . [While he was away from the house, his] mother waited for him interminably. . . . Sometimes he came home very late.

Margayya’s aspiration to climb the social ladder through wealth, and give his son a start — getting him convent educated, possibly sending him to England for further studies, perhaps to become a doctor, all fall apart as the prodigal son and the ambitious father get into each others’ crosshairs.

A beautiful and extraordinary story about ordinary characters in colonial India. A must-read.

~Ashok Subramanian

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