This literary review explores the themes, artefacts and motifs of the 1952 Indian novel ‘The Financial Expert’, authored by the late Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami (1906 – 2001). This article also provides a critique of the accuracy of the book’s depiction of microfinance in South India during the 20th Century.
About the author
R. K Narayan, full name Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami was born in 1906 and died in 2001 at the age of 94. Narayan’s name was remembered at the time as being one of the highest regarded Indian authors of English language literary works.
The Financial Expert was written in 1952, six years before Narayan authored the title which cemented his status internationally as one of the greatest Indian authors; ‘The Guide’ (1958).
A common theme in Narayan’s writings was to set the events in the fictional town of Malgudi, an ordinary hamlet loosely placed ‘in South India’. This simple construct gave Narayan legal leeway when basing his protagonists on real-life events or locations. It also kept the stories relatable to a wide Indian audience, who could draw many a parallel between Malgudi and their own town.
The book follows the rise and fall of the protagonist Margayya. Our anti-hero begins his journey as a relatively obscure middleman. Under a Banyan tree in Malgudi, he unofficially connects banks with borrowers while earning a deceitfully generous margin from the difference in interest rates.
His irksome practice quickly earns the contempt of the local bank (as well as readers). Margayya, believing that his persecution is motivated by lack of means and lower social status, vows to become a wealthy man; a financial equal of the bank’s secretary.
After dwelling on the nature of money and the position it affords its owners in society, Margayya has a revelation. He senses that a new scheme; a financial innovation of sorts, with the potential to revolutionise his life, was approaching fruition.
Margayya meets Dr Pal, an author, at a ruined temple with the River Saryu as a backdrop. He is persuaded to invest in the rights to Dr Pal’s latest book; a Karma Suture style manual. Through no effort of his own, the book becomes a fabulous success and this makes Margayya comfortably wealthy.
But this brings a little comfort to Margayya. He grows unsatisfied with the publishing business. He becomes weary of the “endless correspondence over trivialities” with book buyers.
Margayya’s dreams move quickly on. Using his own substantial capital, he forms a bank and begins lending directly borrowers in his own right.
With his business career flying high, Margayya’s family relationships make for a poor contrast.
His only son; Balu shows apathy towards his academic studies. Despite the sums that Margayya spends on private tuition to encourage this pursuit, Balu develops a fondness for tobacco over textbooks. To flex his rising status, Margayya wrangles the position of school secretary (chair of school governors) and uses this power to bully teachers to extort preferential treatment for his son
Notwithstanding these efforts, Balu repeatedly fails the matriculation exam. Much to his father’s displeasure, he embodies little remorse or shame in failure. Balu’s disgraceful progression to adulthood appears to emanate from the spoilt childhood he has enjoyed under his father’s success.
The failure of the son to fulfil his father’s selfish ambition to have a son in university creates a rift between Margayya and Balu, who subsequently runs away.
Fake news circulates of Balu’s untimely death. As he considers travelling to Madras to plan funeral arrangements, a poignant moment occurs which reveals how the toxicity of Margayya’s money obsession has become pervasive. Margayya dismisses a kind offer of an escort from his brother, on the basis that he assumed it was merely an opportunity for the brother to enjoy a free trip.
In the context of growing animosity between Margayya and Dr Pal, the latter decides to spread alarming rumours to the detriment of Margayya’s bank. This triggers a run on the bank. The financial catastrophe which ensues brings the journey around to a full circle. An impoverished Margayya is left to dwell on what could have been.
Margayya’s final act is devoid of wisdom and is perhaps a sign of the inescapable mindset that has found a home in his self. With vigour, he implores his son to take up residence beneath the Banyan tree in Malgudi and begin dealing in loans, just as he once had.
Themes and Motifs
The rights afforded to those with wealth and a class advantage
Margayya frequently incurs the wrath of other characters in this tale. He regularly dismisses this hostility as being the product of his lower social status and wealth. The reader, somewhat distant from Margayya, can see through this rationalisation, however, the grim reality of Malgudi’s hierarchy is not up for dispute.
The story is set in the decades after 1920, when the colonial rule in India was drawing to an end and by which point the British legacy of bureaucracy had been increasingly entrenched.
The discontent caused by this order rings loudly through the text. It is particularly resonant in the context of India’s notoriously durable caste system which continues to impact people today.
The deceit of those who are in the pursuit of money
Narayan uses a broad brush to paint a very bleak image of the strand of humanity who blindly pursue wealth. With virtually no subtlety, the reader witnesses the destruction of institutions:
- Margayya appears to follow religious custom with a cynical motivation. He values only the output; the potential rewards, rather than the humble application of faith and worship itself.
- The institution of the family is also reduced to being a mere vessel for advancement. Margayya acts disrespectfully towards a horoscope pundit when an unwealthy match is suggested as a wife for his son. Margayya treats his brother, who lives next door, practically like a stranger.
- In a sober reflection of Margayya’s single-mindedness, the author gives no name to his wife, despite her featuring prominently throughout the novel.
Margayya is the characterisation of an evil money man. The reader struggles to note any discernable silver lining in his character or personality. In fact, the protagonist is positively loathsome and does not endear himself to readers even by the close of the story.
Critique of content, context and accuracy
Reviewers have praised Narayan’s text for capturing an unusual level of detail in the mundane and often dark nature of finance in the 1930s.
Margayya begins as a trickster – his loans to peasants are written with convoluted interest rules that are unambiguously unfair.
As a banker, Margayya thrives by offering his deposit services to the black market. He consistently takes deposits from unsavoury sources. That Margayya is so content in facilitating their activities, demonstrates the very corruption that he rails against in the opening chapters.
The tone of corruption resonates with the pervasive sense of corruption still present in India today. Despite recent incremental improvements, Transparency International reports India as ranking 78 of 180 countries worldwide for corruption. It reports that 62% of citizen have at some point needed to pay a bribe.
The ‘Demonetisation Initiative’ enacted by the BJP in November 2016, was an extreme act which quickly removed 84% of the currency out of circulation, with the aim of bringing similar black money into the formal banking system and under the eye of the government. With hindsight, this was not considered to be a success.
It is all too easy to draw a line between the resistant, near-permanent stain of corruption on Indian public life, and the persistent, evil ambition harboured by Margayya. One could say that Narayan has personified this worldwide problem in the simple, unloveable protagonist.
Narayan, R.K. The Financial Expert. Mysore: Indian Thought Publication, 1981.
India’s Dalits still fighting untouchability 2012. BBC News. Accessed on 12 August 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-18394914
‘Corruption Perceptions Index 2018’. Transparency International 2018. Accessed on 12 August 2019. https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018
‘India Demonetisation Drive Fails to Uncover Black Money’ The Guardian Newspaper 2018. Accessed on 12 August 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/30/india-demonetisation-drive-fails-uncover-black-money
‘R K Narayan (Obituary)’. The Telegraph Newspaper 2001. Accessed on 12 August 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1330139/R-K-Narayan.html
R.E. Wolseley, “Narayan of India”, The Nation, XVII,
4 (3 October 1953), P.273.