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lifestyle Updated: Dec 19, 2015 15:09 IST

This book traces an Indian trade network that originated in Multan in the sixteenth century, and operated between India and Central Asia, eventually extending as far as Russia and China. Groups and colonies of Indian merchants lived in distant foreign lands, at points where caravans would stop to replenish their goods. These included cotton textiles, indigo and other dyes, sugar, rice, spices precious stones and jewellery and weapons. In exchange, bucketsful of gold and silver poured into India and simply disappeared. While India looked to the steppes of Inner Asia for horses, it dispatched livestock in the form of human beings, exporting thousands of slaves each year.

The Indian merchants were not really a diaspora, maintaining close links with home even when circumstances caused them to live away, often for long years at a time. And they were not mere traders: they were dedicated businessmen whose capital never paused in its function of growing and multiplying, which it did through the various financial instruments they devised. They funded local agriculture; local business and travelling businessmen; local warlords. They may have been unpopular and isolated from the communities among which they lived, but their indispensable function invariably ensured their safety.

An important and well-timed reminder of the link between tolerance and progress, Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road is well written, well designed, has a nice, pretty cover, and feels good to hold in the hand. The expression ‘Silk Road’, an attractive (if misleading) phrase coined in the late nineteenth century, adds a neat marketing flourish. However, there were a few things that made me uneasy about this book. Why, for one, was Penguin Indian using an outdated colonial spelling of Sindh? Every time I read ‘Sind’ I wondered whether ‘Cawnpore’ would be used in place of ‘Kanpur’, if that happened to be the Oxbridge standard.

Second, in a civilized world that cherishes diversity and inclusion, it seemed indelicate to be working so hard to consolidate brand ‘Multani’. Scott C Levi specifies that in the early 1700s, repeated attacks began on Multan, which resulted in a gradual dispersion of its traders. Shikarpur, by then a major centre of the Central Asian trade, became the nucleus of this network. Its traders originated not just in Multan but also Iran, Afghanistan, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and other localities of Sindh. It is the direct ancestors of those who call themselves Shikarpuris today, who managed the networks described in this book until recent times. When the Russian Revolution and Soviet occupation of Bukhara displaced the network, the Shikarpuri bankers found that, even as far away from home as Coimbatore, people were calling them Multanis. After Partition, many Sindhis who settled in Bombay 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 have it repeatedly reinforced in a book with paragraphs devoted to tracing fine caste distinctions and to proving that Khatris are Kshatriyas, not Baniyas!

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.”

The thing is, Claude Markovits actually demonstrated two separate networks, and neither of them was specific to Multan. One – the one so well described in this book – extended overland from Shikarpur into Central Asia, Russia and China, but no further.

Markovits’ second trade network, which linked the international seaports mentioned in the last two sentences, owes little to either Multan or Shikarpur. It originated in Hyderabad, a town of Sindh south of Shikarpur and close to Karachi. It was the Hyderabadi Bhaibands who sailed off to Aden, Cairo, Gibraltar and further, setting up shop and creating the Indian multinationals of the mid-nineteenth century with branches in Hong Kong and Panama and every port in between, and head offices in Hyderabad, Sindh.

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’.

Scott C Levi, reputed to be a careful scholar, only wanted to end with a summary flourish, and not to 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 that claims to set right the misconception of Eurocentric world views, it reveals its own transparent bias and agenda.

First Published: Dec 19, 2015 15:09 IST