Review of ‘The Financial Expert’ by R K Narayan

‘If I get twenty thousand rupees deposit every day and pay fifteen in interest, I have still five thousand a day left in my hands as my own -‘. Such was the wizardry that prompted Margayya to offer a 20 % monthly interest to his depositors.

Even in the land of Ponzi schemes and other scams such rapacious offers should ring alarm bells as no sensible economic activity can justify such returns.

Image Courtesy – Know Your Books

And yet it is to Narayan’s credit that he makes a lovable villain of Margayya and his grand schemes that lead to him being heralded as the Financial Expert.

It begins as a story of a small man and his small schemes. And it is set in the familiar locale of Malgudi town where familiar people and sights attract our attention. So little has changed in Narayan’s magical world that echoes the familiar rhythms of a small town in South India.

Narayan’s characters are not reduced to caricatures although they are drawn to a type – Margayya is a cautious and scheming man preoccupied by money and its impact in the lives of ordinary people, Balu is a never do well and ungrateful son who does not quite know the ways of the world. Margayya’s wife – how typical that we can’t quite remember that even her name was mentioned – is a long-suffering lady whose world revolves around her son and the household. The other stock characters like Dr Pal, Lal and Sastri are effective in their cameo roles.

And the story is laden with humour as we get to understand the familiar scenes of Margayya’s life – poor and illiterate villagers who initially rely on his help to get a loan from the local Co-Op Bank and later on turn to him directly to get loan against their collaterals, his fights with the Co-Op Bank staff and the humiliation that sets him on a path of self-discover, his adventures with the priest as he resorts to extraordinary measures to seek his fortune. Even his son’s escapades as he avoids being diligent about his studies is a comic situation.

Men are foolish and gullible with regard to their finances and they are just waiting to fall a victim to someone who has a bit of sense in him. And so Margayya does not need any rationalization to continue his intricate financial stratagems that extract the money from his patrons. It is almost karmic in nature that they are destined to get the thin edge of the wedge in the deal. Margayya transforms himself from being an underdog to a financial magnate without alienating a sneaking sympathy for himself in the mind of his readers.

The story has many leaps that don’t provide an adequate narrative of the interim but in the overall narrative we can live with them as well. So Margayya’s initially fortune is made in a rather convenient manner, his continued financial success is a bit of mystery as well though of course we all know money lending to be a profitable field for someone who knows the ropes and finally Balu’s marriage too happens in a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ scene. Balu remains immature & idle and yet his mother can find no fault with him. Certain stereotypes may have been reinforced but the author can always argue that it is a reflection of reality.

The downfall comes slowly but in no uncertain manner – a single moment of rashness brings down the whole empire in a manner similar to a ‘house-of-cards’. The Ponzi nature of his operations becomes evident to the masses and this leads to a run on his operations. At the end Margayya is reconciled to his fate and happy to start afresh by tracing his first baby steps in the world of financial wizardry.

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