Sumit Kumar began making comics at age 19. Ten years on, he says he hasn’t once looked back with regret. Even though his father questioned his choice for “rabbad (eraser) pencil” over engineering, Kumar devoted his life to creating graphic novels – from the tongue-in-cheek The Itch You Can’t Scratch to documenting communist history in Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari. In 2014, he started his comic website Bakarmax.
On March 31, Kumar found a subject he finally wanted to pay close and deep attention to: the State Bank of Patiala, along with five other state-owned banks, was to be merged with the State Bank of India, the country’s largest bank. The news of the merger was hailed by SBI chief Arundhati Bhattacharya for heralding an improvement in stocks and cheaper interest rates for the customers, but for Kumar’s father, who was a former employee of the State Bank of Patiala, it meant an emotional farewell.
“State Bank of Patiala helped me raise a family and build a world around it,” said Kumar’s father, now 64. “Apart from the salary, the bank taught me to deal with the public, solve problems and decide priorities.” He retired in 2013.
In the comic, Kumar’s father tells his son that their bank is “finished”, and asks his son to draw something about it. The moment is an emotional one for Kumar, because from dismissing his art, Kumar’s father is now looking for solace through it. Kumar picked up his “rabbad and pencil” and created a series called State Bank of Comics.
The comic begins with an innocuous compliment which Kumar’s father always received at public events – how he looked “fit for his age”. Behind his well-being, his father reveals, were years of struggle. “Before joining the bank, papa did many odd jobs at a young age to support his large family – he had no other option after his father died,” Kumar said.
The struggles are sketched with reference to iconic scenes from Bollywood films like Deewar (1975), to show how his father valued his self-respect, and was pushed to strive for a better future. His journey with the State Bank of Patiala began as a clerk and typist, the lowest position in the organisation. To better his job prospects, he studied while he worked, and took five years to earn a job as a graduate.
In administrative work, promotions often rely on keeping the bosses happy but Kumar’s father stood his ground when his position allowed him to take decisions. As a result, he was transferred often.
Kumar’s family remained positive about the transfers. “Bankers – unlike army officers, who are also transferred constantly – are a very silent breed,” Kumar observed. “A family that gets transferred every two-three years cannot not have stories. They’re an endless bank.”
Kumar’s ancestors had moved to Delhi from Rajasthan in 1911. Although the Capital was home, the family learnt to assimilate with multiple cultures across India, which was a boon for the children who grew up to appreciate the country’s diversity. To some extent, this even defined Sumit Kumar’s early days of sketching.
As the comic rides on the waves of nostalgia, for Kumar, the associate bank has indirectly played a role in shaping his family’s story. Knowing that his family is not the only one, Kumar intends to expand the comic. “The sequels will have fictional stories from the State Bank of Malgudi, and one from its north Indian branch. I want to build characters and tell the story of state banks like we knew them before private banks came into the picture.”
As the State Bank of Patiala ceases to exist, the merger has inspired the cartoonist to create a graphic biography of his father. Kumar does not feel this is unfair to his mother: “I don’t need to make [one] for her because she has already started drawing comics on her own.”