An exclusive interview with the career banker and prolific writer Mashrur Arefin, managing director of City Bank Limited
Mashrur Arefin, the Managing Director of City Bank Limited, is a writer and poet whose latest two books were published at this February's Ekushey Boi Mela. Shibabrata Barman interviewed him for The Business Standard (TBS).
TBS: You are a successful banker and an ambitious writer. How do you balance the two?
Mashrur Arefin: You can call me a successful banker, as I am the managing director of a big bank. However, I am not a successful writer yet. I am gaining readership – this much I can easily say. I can balance the two because I am a hard-working fellow. I don't have a drop of laziness [in me] – the most common trait of Bengalis, who typically come home at eight o'clock, and pass the time doing virtually nothing. They watch television and sit idle, but I don't. I have an around nine-thousand-plus-book-strong library, that I enter at nine o'clock every night religiously, and stay in till, say, 1 am. I work four hours, every day, engaging myself in writing and reading books. This amounts to 120 hours a month.
TBS: Some might wonder whether this hampers your attention to your banking career.
Mashrur Arefin: I am dead serious about my banking career. No one will find an echo of my literary engagements there. It's a huge bank, with about 6,500 employees and branches spread all over the country. With a 20-lakh customer base, we have the largest card business and one of the largest corporate banking businesses. We hold $4 billon LC. It's a mammoth task. Moreover, I have to deal with the regulators – Bangladesh Bank, SEC, the Board of Revenue etc. And there is press and the media to be handled.
TBS: You came from a literature background.
Mashrur Arefin: Yes, I did my major in English literature – but I did my MBA in marketing and finance as well. Finance is my passion, actually. Literature is my divine calling.
TBS: Does a baking career help you with your literary ambitions?
Mashrur Arefin: This career is the least helpful for literary engagements. It is a very stressful job. However, in my case, I thrive when I get into stressful situations. Stress keeps my brain stimulated. When my debut novel "August Abchhaya" came out last year, it created heated debate in some quarters. However, this resulted in a new book of poetry comprising 26 poems and a new novel titled "Althusser." The novel deals with French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser and Bengali poet Jibananda Das. 2019 was a year of stress for me and it was a very productive year as well. This was the first year of my responsibility as managing director of the bank and the bank saw a 27 percent increase in year-to-year profitability under my leadership.
TBS: Are you under tremendous pressure now that the sector is being forced to reduce its interest rates?
Mashrur Arefin: Yes, the nine percent ceiling of interest rates for bank borrowing, which begins April 1, is a bit of pressure. To achieve this, we have lowered our deposit interest rate to six percent. However, there are 15 other banks which haven't. I don't know how they will manage to maintain a nine percent bank borrowing rate from April 1. But as for now, we are losing our deposits to them. It's a continuous threat we are facing. The new ceiling of the interest rate will narrow the spread and every bank will lose its income significantly, in the initial year. However, I do think, in the long run banks will gain from the new arrangement. On the other hand, there is the crisis of non-performing loans (NPL). The liquidity situation is not bad right now, but the government is taking money away from the market – putting pressure on the banks.
TBS: You write poems and you write novels. Which is your prime goal?
Mashrur Arefin: I basically am a poet. Because of my reveries while walking, I fear I might also end up in a road accident like Jibanananda Das did. Lines of poems keep coming to me all the time. I keep the jottings in my iPhone notes, and at the same time I am very bothered by the politics and sociological aspects of my time. My biggest interests are economic inequality and disparity in the society. I also dream of becoming a novelist. I don't want to translate anymore. I know I should bring out the second part of the translation of Kafka. However, if I engage myself in completing the translation, my own creative schemes will be hampered.
TBS: What are your new projects?
Mashrur Arefin: I have a grand plan of writing four novels. Two of them have already materialised – "August Abchhaya" and "Althusser." I am writing my third novel now, although the theme of the fourth has already taken shape in my mind. All my novels deal with the grand subject of tension between state versus individual – the way the state devours the individual and the way individuals deal with the state. The ultimate system of everything is the structure of power manifested in violence.
TBS: Who are your favorite writers?
Mashrur Arefin: My most favorite is W B Sebald. I am standing on the footing of Kafka. I like Bibhutibhushan and Turgenev's descriptions of nature. I am a big-time fan of Jorge Luis Borges. I like the Marquez of "Love in the Time of Cholera," rather than the Marquez of "One Hundred Years of Solitude." I love reading military science a lot. The formation of battlefields is my obsession; in music, I like alternative rock.