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Review: Paiso - How Sindhis Do Business by Maya Bathija

Maya Bathija examines the Sindhi way of doing business through the stories of five families

books Updated: Feb 23, 2018 15:54 IST
Saaz Aggarwal
All about business acumen: Rupa and Harish Fabiani.
All about business acumen: Rupa and Harish Fabiani.(HT MEDIA)

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.

Jitu Virwani, Chairman and Managing Director, Embassy Group in Bangalore on 18 October 2012. (Aniruddha Chowdhury/ Mint)

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. 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.

Author Maya Bhatija (Courtesy Penguin)

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.

Read more:Sindhis and Partition: ‘The entire community behaved as one in that moment of trauma’

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.

Saaz Aggarwal is a writer and a painter. She lives in Pune.