07 July 2018

Ladders in the Sky by Murli Melwani

A gift of his travels

I picked up this book and started reading it as reference material for a research paper on the global Sindhi diaspora. The author is a global Sindhi businessman and I knew, in a patronising sort of way, that I was surely going to learn something interesting. Halfway through the fourth story, when I had to get something else done and it was a wrench to put the book down, I realised that I was in fact reading entranced. These were splendid stories: good plots, lifelike characters, beautifully laid out in clean, distinctive language. What made them even more fascinating was that each one is set in a different, exotic location. Murli Melwani is an inveterate traveller and this collection, as the jacket describes it, is a “gift of his travels”. 15 of the 23 stories are set in different parts of India and in them we encounter separatist movements, landslides, cramped urban spaces, insights into different aspects of religious devotion and various other complex situations in unexpected locales. Murli grew up in Shillong. Between school and college, he travelled a lot and visited different parts of India. Later he worked in the English Department at Sankerdev College, then took up a Coca Cola distributorship and for a while ran a bookstore. In time, he moved to work in Taiwan and his job took him to countries around the world, doing something many Sindhis do.
A little more than half the book features this diaspora, families which originated in Sindh and now live and do business in countries around the world. Water on a Hot Plate is set in Toronto. Hari and Rajni are visiting their son and in this story, they meet an Indian Chinese lady who runs a restaurant there. They converse with her in Mandarin – from their several years in Taiwan; of course they speak to her in Hindi and English too. From the Bollywood music playing in the background, Hari can tell that the India she belonged to was not the India he had left. Resh, their lunch guest, is visiting from Curacao. She speaks Dutch and English and even idiomatic Papiamentu – a Portuguese and Spanish-based Creole language – but not Sindhi.
Writing a Fairy Tale is a gripping love story in which we somehow journey into the rainforests of eco-versatile Chile – and also, unexpectedly, encounter the Arabic aspects of the country too. The Mexican Girlfriend is also a love story, and though set in a home by a lake where migratory birds flock – a real place – has more sinister than exotic twists. Followed by The Bhorwani Marriage, a high-energy satire of Sindhi weddings, including an expose of the business opportunities offered by matchmaking in the diaspora, it appears that Sindhis don’t really do romance. Family comes overwhelmingly first; business and profits are a priority; living comfort is never going to be sacrificed for a lover. 
It’s not that everyone in the community is money-minded. This book takes us beyond that stereotype, with businessmen who are polite, mature and love to read. And the skilled portrayals of many different kinds of relationships reveal the author to be an exceptionally subtle and discerning person himself. Even the businessman in Shiva with a Garland, lonely in his marriage, “had grown sensitive and become aware of many things. He had come to understand the right and wrong of things and the meaning and worth of happiness.”
Still, Murli is not just an observer of humans and their situation, not just a weaver of tales. He is a skilled businessman too and his stories give us practical never-fail tips on selling, exposure to business cycles, and the understanding that large investments, even the most obvious, could turn out to be ruinous.  There are young employers who clone themselves, swiftly learning the trade and soon enough snatching it out from under their employer’s feet to set up as competitors. Some families have members living in other countries: the father ships out goods from a manufacturing location while the sons sell in other parts of the world, creating hugely profitable companies which run around the clock. So while Murli’s Master’s is in English Literature, this book tells all kinds of things he didn’t learn at IIM-A.
I wrote this review for Hindustan Times and it appeared on Saturday 9 Jun 2018 and can be read on the HT site on this link.
Before I wrote it, I emailed Murli Melwani to find out more about him and we had an interesting discussion. One of the emails was about the pseudo Sindhi names that his book has, creative and great fun, as his explanations show, with the personality trait cleverly embedded in the name like erudite clues in a detective game! Murli said:
Phado in Sindhi means someone who throws a spanner in the works in order to negotiate an advantage. No Sindhi would take on a name like that!
Karomuwani: a curse word in Sindhi is “Karo mu thia yi” which figuratively means “you are behaving like a blackguard”. The Hindi “Kaala mou
Kurwani: “kur” in Sindhi means “a lie”; which Sindhi would like to be called a liar even if is one in real life.
Dingowani: dingo has the same connotation as “tera” in Hindi, not straight.
Loliwani: “loli” is a Sindhi paratha; a glutton
Budhwani: “buddhu;” there a bonafide Sindhi name : “Budhrani.” Which an opposite meaning, someone with “buddhi
Gawlani: “gaw”in Sindhi means grass; a man of straw.
Fatwani: comes “phatako” (the Hindi “fataka” or firecracker;) sound and fury signifying nothing.
Bujowani: “bujo” is the Sindhi term for a goad; some people have to be whipped to move their limbs.
Thaparwani: same as the Hindi “thappar”; same type as the last one above
Varyowani: “viaro” is Sindhi for “spaced out”
Charyowano: “charyo” is Sindhi for “mad” 

About a month after the review appeared, I visited Santa Clara, California, to attend the 25th International Sindhi Sammelan and was was able to meet him and his wife Mona, as they live nearby. The book in this photo of Murli and Mona is a collection of the stories which are based in India and it is the first copy the publisher sent to Murli. The dedication reads
My wife Mona
My “lucky charm”
and of course Mona was delighted with the tribute.

24 February 2018

Paiso by Maya Bathija

Well told, but only a small part of the picture

This book is well-structured and engaging, and provides an insight into five Sindhi family businesses. The Harilelas set out in retail and built their fortune in custom tailoring for American soldiers on R&R, turning Hong Kong into a popular global destination for mail-order suits. Merrimac Ventures, real estate giants and urban developers in the US, came about through the sheer bravery and brilliance of the indomitable Romila Motwani. Jet-setting Harish Fabiani grew to extraordinary wealth and fame using his native brilliance, and hobnobs with the likes of Donald Trump. The Lakhi Group is a diamond empire so professionally run and a family life so admirably simple and equal-opportunity that it shines forth in this narrative like a dazzling solitaire. And Jitendra ‘Jitu’ Virwani built his real-estate dominion brick by brick, racing ahead with giant leaps and battling all the way.
Each of these extraordinary stories has elements of some of the characteristic Sindhi ways of doing business: difficult times bravely faced; fearless risk-taking and the ability to move with great swiftness when opportunity is sighted; intensely close and devoted family relationships; the role of women defined by family background (Sindhis are remarkably heterogeneous in this and a range of other important matters); the talent for shoring up against business cycles with real estate; and an impressively large commitment to philanthropy, sometimes vulgarly demanding attention, but often (in fact in more cases than can ever be known) completely anonymous.  However, the book also has disturbingly anachronistic statements like “the Fabiani family has its roots in Pakistan.” (Roots, really? But Pakistan only came into existence in 1947 and that was when the Sindhis were rudely evicted!) 
Sindh has an ancient tradition of trade and mobility and its own range of rich products. Marco Polo wrote of the curiosities of Chin and Machin, and ‘the beautiful products of Hind and Sindh, laden on large ships which sail like mountains with the wings of the wind on the surface of the water.’ In the 1860s, a group of young men set out on the British steamship routes and ventured into trade in ports around the world. The retail chains of these early capitalists, M Dialdas, JT Chanrai, KAJ Chotirmal and others, formed the first Sindhi multinational companies. Inland, the money lenders of Shikarpur had extended their services into a phenomenally secure and sophisticated banking system with bases in South India and a network of agents on the trade routes extending from Central Asia into Russia, China and Japan. 
After Partition, many of the Sindhis forced out of their ancestral homeland with nothing, took to trading as a dignified means of earning an honest living in the places where they settled. Working on low margins, selling the packaging for an extra buck, they interfered with the profits of long-established trade cartels, for which they were resented and bitterly derided as ‘cheats’. 
Most of them had not been to Harvard Business School but they understood that the key to business success is to directly address the customers’ need, and they rebuilt their fortunes by doing precisely that: in garments, construction, education, and in time in every other industry. Partition also swelled the global outposts into communities and there are Sindhi shopkeepers in ports around the world. Many of the 'shopkeepers' grew their businesses with enterprise (and real estate) and are billionaires just as much as the five profiled in Paiso. Many of them retain links with each other, the remarkable phenomenon of a community which lost its roots when evicted from its homeland by Partition – but retains its connection in strong links which encircle the globe.
 There are Sindhi shops across the length and breadth of India too: Coonoor market, so remote in geography and culture, had a Quetta Stores when I was a child. So the phenomenon of Sindhi business is by no means restricted to glamorous billionaires.
Similarly, it is true that traditional Sindhi business families considered education “a waste of time” and that this is by no means the case today. What is less known is that a huge population of Sindhis did hold education to be extremely important. These include the entrepreneurs coming from three and four generations of education who established the Indian multinational companies Onida (Mirchandanis) and Blue Star (Advanis); the global retail giant Landmark Group (Jagtianis); and in the case of Inlaks (Shivdasanis), three generations of Oxbridge education. The Ador Group, another multinational conglomerate, continues with the third and fourth generation of university educated partners who started their business in Sindh 110 years ago. As for Dr NP Tolani of the highly reputed Tolani Shipping, he earned his PhD in 22 months – still a record at Cornell – and returned to Bombay in 1964, intent on taking up a business in which there was as little corruption as possible in India.
There are many more and most, despite strong bonds to their community and their families, and linked by the complex unspoken trauma of Partition, prefer to remain low profile and never flaunt their Sindhiness, perhaps to avoid being tarred with that ‘loud and vulgar’ brush that haunts the Sindhis, doomed as they seem to be to be represented by their flamboyant, attention-seeking brethren. Perhaps this book will help bring them out of the closet.
I wrote the above review for Hindustan Times and it was carried today. You can read it in the newspaper online here but without the line highlighted above which I have just added. It is interesting to see that HT illustrated this review with a photo of Harish Fabiani, one of the billionaires featured in this book, and his wife – who, according to Paiso, he doesn't 'allow' to call him by his name.
This review was written for Hindustan Times and appeared on Saturday 24 Feb 2018.