Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Mr. Aur-kya?

Asha and Enoch have a name for our friendly shop-keeper. They call him Mr. 'Aur-kya' - since no matter how much you buy from him - he inevitably asks 'aur kya?' (what else? i.e. do you want anything else?).

The shop is a family affair. Our dear man shows up at just after 7 am - and the shop is open to at least 11 PM every night. The family consists of his wife - a lady who clearly has problems with obesity - and 3 (or is it 4?) sons who seem to span the ages of 13 to about 23 or so. The appartment they live in as a family is on the ground floor - on the other side of the building.

The other day I asked him about where he has from. "Rajasthan" he said - and it clicked. Here is another of the amazing trading families. They are called Marwaris - since many are from the Marwar area of Rajasthan - but then there are others too - Gujarathi families and trading clans that are not only present all over India - but have colonised large areas in Africa (think trading outposts like the ones I found in deepest Uganda) and the United States (think 7-Eleven kind of convenience stores and motels).

While visiting my brother in Africa a dozen years ago I was amazed to see these families running shops in remote areas of the country. A small sociological study by a Ugandan academic that I read tried to make sense out of why these families did so well financially - and why the other people groups of native Ugandans did not seem to be moving up economically. The difference seemed to lie in how wealth was used. The 'Indians' as these trading families are called - saved religiously, kept a low profile, lived frugally - and ploughed their money back into their business - and occaionally to giving loans to help other family members get off their feet. The 'locals' (I forget the term used) had a different story to tell. The 'big man' who has made wealth suddenly finds himself called to a patron of many - relatives start sprouting up and making their home in his shelter. Money is meant to be used liberally on others - and on prestige items like the big car. Not for nothing are these nouveaux riches called 'Wa-benzi' since the Mercedes Benz still has the reputation of being the car that matters.

So why did our Indian brethren in Africa do so well and not here in the home land? I thought - and then it struck me - they are doing plenty well here too! The trading family is alive and well. We have one who live in our appartment and run that shop in the ground floor. Hailing from the bleak and barren desert landscape they have migrated far and wide - and take their flair and hard work for business with them wherever they go. While I was in Manipur for 7 months - my local host family occassionally took pity on me and my craving for chappatis. Since my hosts, the Tusing home, were a strictly rice-every-meal home (par for the course in Churachandpur town), they turned to the local Marwari family and requested them to occassionally make rotis for me.

Reality is that since our trading community families look more or less like everyone else - their presence does not strike us as strongly as the sole 'Indian' in a rural African community does. But then I remembered the 'jokes' that attributed stinginess etc. to the Marwari community. I realised that there was more than just the surface ethnic-leg-pulling going on - that there were real senses of envy and greviences by local communities even here about the shop-keepers. There is money to be made selling to the poor - but few smiles are given to the shop-keepers by those who are buying.

As I talked to our shop-keeper friend - I asked him how often he goes back to his native place. Once a year - came the reply. But what about the shop? I asked. I have to trust my family to take care of it - he says.

I have never seen the shop closed. Not for a holiday. Not for nothing. Ok - if there is a violent 'bandh' I have seen the shutters go down - but never for too long. By evening the shop is bustling with customers again. 7 AM to 11 PM. 365 days a year. Every one pitching in.

"Aur kya?"


  1. 'Doing well' can be interpreted in many ways. I personally don't believe that having a big bank balance is a measure of prosperity. Like you said, they(the marwaris) save money, therefore they live frugally. There is nothing wrong with saving money, but at the cost of living a good life? I don't think that's commendable. There are many people who don't make much money but live fantastic lives. I think a lot of the hatred towards baniyas and marwaris stems from the perception that they are greedy and conniving - not because they are 'doing well'. Monetary wealth is meaningless.

  2. Thank you dear friend for your wise comments.

    "Doing well" can never be measured by our bank balances. If it were we would have two very happy brothers living together instead of fighting with each other and one living with his family of 5 in a 27 story appartment building!

    But so much of popular perception (and popular resentment) is linked with money and what money (apparently) can buy.

    The Bible has a fantastic prayer that captures what I think our position on wealth needs to be:
    "Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
    Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’
    Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God."
    - Prov. 30.8-9

  3. “Madness is badness of spirit, when one seeks profit from all sources” - Aristotle