Table For Two Ravi Subramanian on his rise as a storyteller in the bank and his tryst with filter coffee
People like characters which break stereotypes. What if the author demolishes one? Meet Ravi Subramanian, one of the country’s top names in popular fiction, who calls himself more of a Punjabi than a South Indian. His father was a professor in an engineering college in Ludhiana. “I did my entire schooling in Ludhiana. Punjabi was my third language in school. I can read and write Punjabi better than Tamil,” says Subramanian as we settle for a quick bite at Le Meridien’s The One restaurant.
In fact in his first job interview, he was introduced as a Tamil who can read and write Punjabi. “The moment the interviewer said that I knew I had got the job. Those days it was very rare and hence considered an interesting trait. In my school there were only four-five Tamils. We are known to be intelligent. Again a stereotype!” he laughs adding that he didn’t have a Chennai hangover while growing up.
Time to place the order and Ravi, relishing the freshness of watermelon juice, says the Punjabi influence has infiltrated his food habits as well. “I prefer North Indian cuisine over South Indian flavour. This morning I called up room service for breakfast and ordered aloo parantha with curd. We still eat dal roti and subzi every day.” Here he settles for vegetarian cheese sandwich.
When Punjab got engulfed by insurgency, his family shifted to Bidar in Karnataka and he joined an engineering college, which was known as a capitation fee college. “It was the biggest mistake of my life. I was a meritorious student and could have got admission anywhere but I chose to be at Bidar because I was the youngest in the family and my parents wanted me to be with them. But when I graduated I realised nobody wanted to hire an engineer from a capitation fee college. I was a meritorious student but it didn’t matter. Thankfully, I got admission in IIM Ahmedabad and my life changed.” Once you get a degree from a prestigious institute, says Ravi, you start at an elevated level. “You get a halo. Opportunities come your way. However, ten years down the line the difference is limited.”
“Initially,” says Ravi, “I wanted to write just one book. Getting published was a big task 2006. I saw it as a legacy as once your name is published on a book somebody, somewhere could find it years after you are gone. Fortunately, If God Was A Banker became very successful. It created a bit of controversy as well and I started taking myself seriously as a writer.” Talking about the setting, banks don’t usually evoke emotions. “It is such a glamorous industry internally. It has got crime, money, relationships, fraud, investigation…all the ingredients of a great potboiler yet nobody writes about it. I saw it as an opportunity to find a new genre. At that time people were writing about life in IIT, falling in love and falling out of it. Writing also proved to be an escape route for me from daily stress. And when you are doing well you don’t want to give up.” As he talks, he finds French fries irresistible.
Ravi admits the setting became exciting when the private banks entered the fray. “A lot of the frauds happened when the foreign and private banks started growing rapidly. Here growth was the mantra and nobody was looking beyond two years. They were expected to deliver results in a short period of time and nobody was concerned about the long term consequences,” says Ravi, who has plenty of experience at multinational banks.
In Delhi to promote his latest title The Bankster (Rupa), Ravi says banking touches everybody’s lives as it is the second highest employer in India after Railways. But nobody knows what goes on inside a bank. “Why a bank executive sells you insurance or puts a retired person’s savings into mutual fund, which could prove disastrous? There are 100 articles about it but if you are told in what is the motivation of the person and what are the long term consequences of it, it creates an impact. It is fiction with a purpose. I was pleasantly surprised when a senior RBI official in his address to bankers asked how many of them had read The Incredible Banker. Can they take solace from the fact that what Ravi says is fiction or can it happen in real life?”
Having said that, Ravi finds Indian banking more stable than global banking. “It is largely because our regulators are stronger and are not swayed by commercial interests.”
While writing, Ravi is not particular about any kind of food but says snacking does play a role. “And I need lot of black tea and filter coffee. From food perspective my favourite is rajma chawal .”
Ravi forays into kitchen as well “I can make fabulous breakfast. French toast, omelette sandwiches and fried rice are some of my specialities. I also make a lot of South Indian adai recipes. I experiment a lot when I cook but not when I eat. In French toast I add a dash of filter coffee decoction. No book will teach you that. It adds coffee flavour to honey and vanilla. My daughter loves it.”
Ravi is very particular about his coffee and maintains the varying degrees of cappuccino that coffee joints serve is no coffee at all. “You can call me a coffee snob. I would rather not have coffee than have bad coffee. I avoid drinking coffee outside home because for me even the milk has to be freshly boiled for coffee. Outside home I drink macchiato because you can’t mess it up too much. In office I have taught my pantry guy. I have given him a percolator and coffee powder. Otherwise, I drink black tea,” the author closes the current account.