Mumbaiwale: Can you crack this 150-year-old cloth merchants’ code?
Fabric trading in 1800s Bombay was a complex affair, with towels, hand-signals and secret bids. See how one british newspaper described it
Would you have recognised the Bombay of 150 years ago? No suburbs. No traffic jams. No concrete jungle. No malls. Could you have done business there? This image, taken from an engraving reproduced in the illustrated weekly newspaper, Graphic, in 1870 depicts an interesting moment in the brokers’ rooms of an English merchant.
What’s going on? The two gentlemen are conducting a secret deal. The man on the right is a Parsi, typically on the staff of a European cotton firm as a broker or clerk. His job would have been to show the goods, high-quality cotton fabric, to Hindu buyers like the man on the right, accept bids from each of them and submit it all in a book to his bosses.
Of course, no Hindu merchant wanted to be outbid or seen to make a ridiculous offer. So, in the absence of sealed tenders and bidding apps, a special signaling system had been devised. “The native way of making and receiving offers is very peculiar,” The Graphic notes. “The offer is never made in words but always by squeezes of the fingers and strokes of the finger across the palm, the hands being covered with a towel or scarf so bystanders may not know the offer made.”
The covert communication served two purposes. “The seller, if beaten down in his price in one particular instance, does not find his goods generally depreciated. And the purchaser may charge any profit he likes without being found out.”
Take a good look at the two men. The Graphic describes the Parsis, as a Persian community that had settled in the province of “Juzerat”, and says its people were entrusted with being intermediaries for British businessmen, to make bargains and settle disputes in Bombay. Parsis, the report says, “by their energy, industry and intelligence have become the leading commercial class in Western India”. The community “combines some of the polish of the West with the courteous gravity of the educated Eastern.”
It also describes the Hindu dealers, who flock to Bombay in winter and re-sell to traders in central and northern India, Persia, Afghanistan, Arabian regions and Africa, in slightly unsavoury terms. “Hindoos … in their loud talk, coloured turbans, and legs and feet innocent of stockings, offer a striking contrast to the spruce Parsee, in his spotless white dress peeping from beneath a good brocade coat on cold days, with China silk trousers, white stockings and dainty shoes.”
The writer, however, couldn’t decide which side drove the harder bargain, “the suave Parsee or the slovenly Hindoo”. Because (and here comes the grudging praise) “the latter is a man of considerable wealth and can be trusted for thousands of pounds.”