The Thane of Rajshahi

Or ‘The Return of Mr Salam’ …

The word goes out that the ‘zonal manager’ is coming. Again! Only 2 days ago he ducked in for a quick chat and a motivational moment, to rev up the troops. The staff stiffen and hurry. The languor of the afternoon’s accounting gives way to urgent arranging of chairs, spreading of a cloth (a painting sheet really) and the tidying of the many mounds of papers and record books. The program officer, the area manager’s offsider appears early on his motorbike, like John the Baptist, and looking every inch the Hamas commander – the racial melting pot here is endlessly fascinating. The branch itself does the Taubman’s spectrum from weak tea brown to eggplant black. Aloudin, the program officer, is dapper – he has a green scarf, a neat beard and a ‘squadron 110’ jacket that marks him out as a little fashion conscious. He smiles and welcomes me warmly, remarks that all Australians are so tall and wide. I tell him it’s from eating all those kangaroos. He indulges me, laughing kindly, and tells me to sit and take tea.

I do so, and the chairs assemble around me. The others take their seats nervously, and the word is confirmed. Mr Salam, is here. A vital and nimble man in his mid 50s, Mr Salam surges into the room flanked by the zonal audit manager, Mr Sadi, and the area manager, Mr Rashid. He is dressed in a check business shirt, buttoned to the neck but no tie – and a zip up woolen pullover. It’s been as cold as it gets in Bangladesh, and Mr Salaam is taking no chances. His offsiders wear suit jackets and earnest faces. But Mr Salam is the leader. All soft hands and charisma, he has an unmistakable grace. As we all know, some ‘high-ups’ owe their success to paranoia and grim concentration. Whatever faults Mr Salam may have are masked by a charm that starts with his hands, turning like aspara dancers, his voice modulating for emphasis and humour, his bright eyes betraying his intelligence and a light laugh which suggests that you should be impressed but not afraid of this man. Mr Salam comes across as a veteran of the Grameen battle. He surely echoes the followers of Castro or even Mugabe. He may not have taken up arms with Dr Yunus, but he has surely been engaged in a war for many years.

Everyone stands, there is no other way to put it, ‘to attention’. And before I can absorb the military vibe, everyone is saluting and chanting. The salute I have seen at the centre meetings. It is the greeting of the women (‘Oyko coromo srinkola e amarder poth chola’). I thought this was part of the top down discipline of the bank – a way of ensuring order when the order around is chaos. It is hard to watch, an uneducated woman in a sari, in a tin shed she and her colleagues have paid for is a challenging sight for a soft post-feminist westerner. But here the ritual is sincere and more of its place. This is the power hierarchy and the salutes are apposite. These thoughts bounce around my head as all assembled – from the zonal manager to the centre managers and the assistant – all beat their left breasts with their clenched right hand and chant the slogan of Grameen, ‘Disciplne. Unity. Courage. Hard Work’. And they mean it. Boy do they mean it.

The table then gets down to business and Mr Salam begins his address. He speaks for around 10 minutes. I have no idea what he is saying exactly but it is an exhortation, doubtless there are targets again discussed and the mission of the bank is being confirmed. The centre managers, some quite young men in their mid 20s I guess speak openly. The single female centre manager does not speak. The branch manager Akram does not say much but his deputy Abdullah is engaged, a diligent man who has ambitions, jots lines of notes. His hand shakes as he speaks to Mr Salam, no doubt providing this number, confirming that forecast, testing the feasibility of the bank’s plans – this is really a business meeting, a process repeated all over the world in board rooms and managers offices all round the world. It seems odd to me, with Mr Mujib, the liberator of Bangladesh, staring at me, and the 16 decisions in Bengali above Mr Salam, but this is more familiar than strange. This impression is only confirmed when the zonal audit manager starts to speak. Audit is audit is audit as Getrude Stein may have said when turning her mind to quality assurance and procedural consistency.

This is audit’s chance to shine. But here as anywhere that is not what audit does. In Rajshahi the universal quiet and dullness of audit is assured, the tone changes and Mr Salaam reads his newspaper and swats flies as the audit manager earnestly goes through the gears. Another man speaks, a young man, who is the centre manager representative at the zonal office, a bright young man who amuses everyone comparing Parila Paba branch to the Australian cricket team. ‘You are for Rajshahi zone what Australia is for cricket. The best!’. I ask Yunus if this is for my benefit and he shakes his head. A few words in summation from Mr Salam and that’s that. We all stand, Iqbal, a centre manager, barks a few ritual words, and the group beat their chests and chant, and the meeting is done.

Mr Salam, as expansive as a Doug Walters cover drive, then turns to me and says, ‘Now we can talk!’. I ask him what they’ve been discussing and he explains that the bank is dealing with the government’s decision to increase salaries. ‘As you know, Grameen links its salaries to the government pay scale, and it has been increased, so we are just working out what we should do about that’. I ask how big the increase was. I am thinking of CPI increases and worrying about my ignorance of Bangla inflation when he says, ‘60%’. In one year? ‘No, this was for 5 years’. That’s a crazy kind of catch up. What kind of western business could deal with a 60% salary increase. My mind is whirring – could we handle that at the credit union? No way. Could any business I know do that? What could we handle? Maybe 10%, 20% if you want to eat into profits.

I ask what percentage of costs are tied up in salaries and he explains, after brief consultation with the deputy manager, that the costs of the branch are $7.1m taka per year and that the salaries are $1.3m taka. He says, ‘But we have to pay the depositors interest’. Yes I say, I understand cost of funds. The dignatories all mumble the phrase ‘cost of funds’ and Mr Salaam, perhaps condescending, says, ‘You are an intelligent man. You must be to finish your law degree’. Intelligent or crazy I offer. He laughs, and the table laughs that genial laugh you always get anywhere in the world when you say that about studying law. Mr Salam says that the branch has to increase income to make up for the higher salaries. I resist sarcasm, and ask ‘How far can you realistically increase income’. The answer is simple: each centre manager must produce an extra 7.2 lak taka – in loans each for the year. That’s around US$1000 for each of the 6 centre managers.

It’s a nice round figure. The meeting is done. The storm leaves the room. A flurry of handshaking and good humour. Yunus explains that everyone likes Mr Salam. Not all zonal managers are as accessible or as friendly as him. I can imagine.

In the dark of the Bangla evening he jumps into his four wheel drive with his audit and area managers, a Thane of Grameen, back to his castle in Rajshahi.

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  • Photograph of Aknorm: click for her story
    Aknorm, duck eggs and microfinance, Siem Reap, 2008.