Indian Merchants on the Silk Road review: A book with bias and agenda

  • Saaz Aggarwal, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 19, 2015 15:09 IST
A caravan of camels resting in Antioch, the ancient city on the Silk Road, in a 19th-century coloured engraving. The expression ‘Silk Road’, an attractive (if misleading) phrase coined in the late 19th-century, adds a neat marketing flourish to this book. (Getty Images )

This book traces an Indian trade network that originated in Multan in the sixteenth century, and operated between India and Central Asia, eventually extending into Russia and China. Colonies of Indian merchants lived in distant foreign lands, at points where caravans stopped to replenish their stocks of cotton textiles, indigo, sugar, rice, spices, weapons and precious stones. In exchange, bucketful of gold and silver poured into India. While India looked to Inner Asia for horses, it dispatched livestock in the form of slaves, exporting thousands each year.

The Indian merchants lived away for long years but maintained close links with home. And they were not mere traders but sharp businessmen dedicated to multiplying their capital through the various financial instruments which they devised. They funded local agriculture, local business, travelling businessmen, and local warlords. They may have been unpopular, but their indispensable function invariably ensured their safety.

A well-timed reminder of the link between tolerance and progress, Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road is well written, well designed, and feels good to hold. However, there were a few things about it that made me uneasy. Why, for one, was Penguin Indian using an outdated colonial spelling of Sindh? Every time I read ‘Sind’ I wondered whether they were still saying ‘Cawnpore’ instead of ‘Kanpur’.

Second, in an era of diversity and inclusion, it seemed indelicate to be working so hard to consolidate brand ‘Multani’. It was as far back as the 1700s when the traders of Multan began to disperse and Shikarpur, already a major centre of Central Asian trade, became the nucleus of this network. Shikarpuri traders came from Multan — but also from Iran, Afghanistan, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and other localities of Sindh. It is the direct ancestors of those who call themselves Shikarpuris today who managed the network described in this book, until the Russian Revolution and Soviet occupation of Bukhara displaced them. However, the Shikarpuris found themselves still being called ‘Multani’, even as far from home as Coimbatore. After Partition, many Sindhis who settled in Bombay too stoically accepted the label ‘Multani’.

The truth is that ‘Multani’ is a generic which, like ‘Madrassi’, dishonours a kaleidoscope of ethnic identity. I found it surprising to see it repeatedly reinforced in a book which on the other hand traces fine caste distinctions and seems determined to establish that Khatris are Kshatriyas, not Baniyas!

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Most disturbing of all were the last two sentences in this book: “As Markovits has demonstrated, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, large numbers of Multani-Shikarpuri merchants operated a vast network of communities that stretches from Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore in the East, across the Gulf, Africa and Europe, to the Caribbean islands, Central America, Canada and the United States in the west (sic). Their ambitions, like their network, know no bounds.”

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However, Claude Markovits demonstrated two separate networks, and neither was specific to Multan. One — described here — extended overland from Shikarpur into Central Asia, Russia and China, but no further. Markovits’ second trade network, which linked the seaports listed by Scott C Levi, owes little to either Multan or Shikarpur.

It originated in the town of Hyderabad, near Karachi. It was the Hyderabadi Bhaibands who created the Indian multinationals of the mid-nineteenth century with branches in Hong Kong and Panama and every port between, and head-offices in Hyderabad, Sindh.

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It astonished me that the achievements of these remarkable entrepreneurs could be ascribed to the ‘Multani-Shikarpuri merchants’. After all, their descendants, who continue to operate the global networks, would be appalled to be classified ‘Multani-Shikarpuri’ — or even just ‘Shikarpuri’.

Levi, a careful scholar, aimed only to end with a summary flourish, not steal anyone’s thunder. Claude Markovits himself responded with the kindly dismissal, “I think it is a slip of the tongue”. However, in a book which forms part of a series about Indian business history, and which claims to set right the misconception of Eurocentric world views, it reveals its own bias and agenda.

Saaz Aggarwal is the author of Sindh — Stories from a Vanished Homeland.

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