When I was researching Aftertaste, a novel about a Bombay-based bania family that runs a mithai business, I discovered that most trade and transaction in India has flourished outside the IIM-MBA world, in a sophisticated parallel economy which has its own system of banking, networking and honour. It is a world populated by Marwaris and other banias, the diasporic trader community known for its formidable business acumen, who may have originally come from Marwar but dispersed all over the country following the smell of money.
The Todarmal family in Aftertaste — like my family—is one such bania family who had settled in Punjab. I wanted to know what makes them tick so while writing the book, I spent some fascinating time with a bania uncle — a man who may have been to one of India’s finest public schools but still has the ability to pick up a fat wad of notes and tell its value from its weight.
Tell me the secrets of a Marwari businessman, I ask him, as we sip masala chai in his office. He looks me in the eye and says, ‘First, you don’t have to be very smart — just always hungry for money. Second, you must always keep your expenses in tight check. Third, you should be able to size up people. Like I can walk into a crowded room and, in a short span of time, be able to tell each one’s net worth.’
The Marwari businessman has an obsessive and unabashed relationship with money, much like a Bengali has with books or a Malayali with communism. It informs every aspect of his life, from the time he is born. He lives for it. He ardently worships its embodiment in goddess Laxmi. Most conversations are centered around it. Marriages are based on it. And financial loss is regarded as matter-of-factly as a changing season, an opportunity to start afresh like some pot-bellied Phoenix. There is a saying in their native language, that dacoits come every year to the same Marwari house because they know they will never be disappointed. For even after he loses everything, a good Marwari makes it all back.
In the old days, a Marwari child learned his multiplication tables in quarters so that he could be an ace at accounting; when he grew up, his marriage was arranged with a girl who was just that little bit poorer than him so that she would always be beholden and not rock the family boat. Before he finished college, he would be intimately familiar with the idea of ‘padta’—the bedrock of any Marwari business — which very loosely translates into cost price. Padta is the basis on which a businessman operates and it involves a close scrutiny of every aspect that goes into the final cost price. So if a trader has stored his goods say in a godown, he will account for the rent, the watchman’s salary, electricity, etc, before deciding his sale price.
The ‘padta’ is the reason that most Marwari companies – whether it is a big business house or a small trader shop – will employ only fellow-Marwaris, even at the highest levels. There is a comfort level involved in the fact that they understand the language of the owner — both verbal and conceptual. They would have been bred on the same diet of ‘buy low, sell high and always keep expenses in check’. Unlike, say a typical Punjabi, a Marwari is never interested in showing off his money, only in making more and more. That seeps into the way he runs his business.
‘You learn to think a certain way just from watching your father and uncles from a very young age,’ says my uncle-ji. I ask him to try and remember a moment with his father that remains etched in his mind. He tells me of the day his father, a successful trader, sold a piece of land to a jeweller at a staggering profit, with seamless ease.
His father had quickly sized up the jeweller and picked up two important things: Firstly, that the man had on him a briefcase filled with cash, and wanted to empty it soon. Secondly, that he knew very little about land and property. My grand-uncle then chatted with his customer in Gujarati, the language of the trading class, which immediately put him at ease. He then put quoted a price on the land which was at least four times the market rate. When the jeweller asked him for a discount, he offered one, with a well-enacted sigh of regret. But even after that, he had made a 100% profit. ‘I really had to suppress my laughter,’ my uncle-ji recalls. ‘The customer was so happy while my father was actually screwing him!’
My family was not strictly speaking Marwari, but because it comes from the same bania community it shares many of these traits. I grew up watching uncles blithely usurp each other’s properties and aunts manipulate the family elders just to get their hands on the prize jewels. I had seen my grandfathers and uncles move their fingers through crisp notes with the dexterity of a superfast note-counting machine. Women were trained to surreptitiously stash away bits of money and jewellery unbeknownst to their husbands and sons so that they could give this to their daughters. And until she had a son, a young married woman had the status of a tulsi plant with her in-laws – one who had to be watered and then mostly ignored. After she produced a male heir, everything would change.
It was all these kinds of delicious details that found their way into the book. While many of the stories that I have mentioned may sound dated or even far-fetched, they are based on modern bania families. For example, my cousin’s father-in-law visibly discriminates between her son and daughter, and my aunt’s mother actually told her to leave her husband when he became bankrupt. While today’s Marwari is changing, and women are being given more space in the public domain, attaining wealth continues to be the prime force in the family: It changes siblings, affects marriages, it empowers, it emasculates. For no matter what they say, at the heart of any good Indian bania family lies money, not love.
Namita Devidayal was born in 1968 and graduated from Princeton University. The Music Room, her first book, was a winner of the 2008 Vodafone Crossword Popular Book Award and was named an Outlook book of 2007. A journalist with The Times of India, Namita lives in Mumbai. Her latest novel, Aftertaste is published by Random House India in July 2010.