Interview: Mark-Anthony Falzon, author, The Sindhis; Selling Anything, Anywhere – “Sindhi women play an important part in the making of networks”
On contemporary Sindhis being embedded in societies across the world even as they retain their own culture
How did you manage all this research during lockdown?
My first and most intensive period of fieldwork was in 1999-2000, in London, Malta and Mumbai. I was at the Gateway of India for the millennium celebrations, and remember watching the first sunrise of the third millennium at the lakeside in Borivali. I have since been to India six more times, and the results of that work are contained in my scholarly writing. I also draw on them in this book, though Selling Anything, Anywhere is not aimed at the academic reader. I did intend to spend some months updating my notes in India in 2020-1, but had to resort to Zoom. There was also a fair bit of desk research, which was unaffected by Covid.
Was it really the Sindhi businessman Bhojoomal and his sons who founded Karachi?
If the memoirs of Seth Naomul Hotchand are anything to go by, then yes. Hotchand was a merchant who lived in Karachi in the nineteenth century, and who wrote the history of his family. He wrote that his ancestor Seth Bhojoomal (who originally hailed from Sehwan in Sindh) settled and established business in Kharrakbandar around 1720. The place, however, quickly silted up, and Seth Bhojoomal and his fellow Sindhi merchants relocated to a new place, later named Karachi, and developed it into a port of considerable prominence.
Claude Markovits published his findings about Sindhi global traders in 1999. Why did it take so long for this centuries-old phenomenon, well known among the Sindhis themselves and the local populations where they live, to be identified and written about?
The Sindhworki network goes back to the 1850s, and involved traders from Hyderabad-Sindh who travelled quite literally around the world in search of potential markets (usually in port cities, especially in the earlier phase). That of the Shikarpuris goes back to at least the early eighteenth century, and involved men from Shikarpur who ran an elaborate banking trade in Central Asia. You’re right in saying that it took scholars a long time to get the hint.
Some early examples were Anita Chugani’s 1995 MA thesis on Sindhworkis in Japan, my undergraduate thesis on Sindhworkis in Malta in 1996, Markovits’ benchmark book of 2000, and my book of 2005. I think the reason is that Sindhis are so adaptable and flexible in their ways that they are easily overlooked as generic “Indians”. It took Markovits considerable detective work to tease out the Shikarpuri presence in Central Asia; and Sindhworkis can be even more difficult to identify as such. For all their globetrotting and business acumen, Sindhis tend to fly under the radar.
Why are there no women in your book? There’s a brief indication of them as secret agents, and later the ones to prepare “poppadums” and pickles which the men hawked. What about the many entrepreneurs and the captains of industry?
I do mention that in some contexts Sindhi women are increasingly directly involved in business, and that women played a key role in the circulation of information – crucial to business success – back in Shikarpur and Hyderabad, and that well-connected Sindhi women in India and elsewhere play an important part in the making of networks. Still, I think your observation is justified. Mine is a partial story that leaves room for many more. Some have already been told by Rita Kothari, Subhadra Anand and yourself, and there’s a new breed of scholars (some are Sindhi women – Trisha Lalchandani, Radhika Chakraborty and others) who are researching doctorates on various aspects of Sindhis, and there’s Aruna Madnani’s Doorway to Sindh webinar series for her Sindhi Culture Foundation.
It’s papad I had in mind – not least since I must have consumed hundreds in the course of my fieldwork. Sindhis can be good hosts. You’re quite right to say papad is iconic. In part that’s because of their unique peppery taste and blistered appearance (they always remind me of Neapolitan pizza dough). But as I mention in the book, the making and selling of papads and pickles is a defining episode in the story of how many Sindhi refugees survived, and overcame, the economic hardships of Partition.
Why does your book not mention the Sindhi tradition of philanthropy? And why do you have mostly only stories of plodders and small-time dealmakers – yes, the bell-curve people – but no representative of the huge population of rags-to-riches and the “my mother’s blessings took me to where I am” people, who would have loved to be mentioned by name?
This book does not cover every aspect of Sindhi business and culture. It was prescriptively intended as a short and readable text, aimed at a popular audience. Besides, I cannot claim to have worked with a mathematically representative sample of Sindhis. That’s also why this interview is welcome: it complements the contents.
Many Sindhis are, in fact, involved in philanthropy. In the case of some of the big Sindhworki and other firms, this can be as prominent as full-scale hospitals. But I’ve met people of more modest means who funded and ran small homeopathic clinics, for example, in India and elsewhere. I think the point really is that, contrary to some of the more toxic stereotypes, Sindhis do not form isolated moneymaking enclaves; rather, they are embedded in the societies they live in in various ways that include philanthropic giving. Seth Naomul writes that on one auspicious occasion in 1805, his ancestors spent “large sums of money in charity and in feeding Brahmins and fakirs, and acquired such renown on account of their liberality that Bhats and Brahmans chanted their benevolence in songs especially composed”.
Did you observe cultural differences between the solidly Sindhi communities in Panama, Hong Kong, the Canaries (and other locations) through local influences?
You’ve put your finger on one of the most fascinating parts of the Sindhi story. Simply put, Sindhis live in places.
The very first Sindhi I interviewed ran a retail business in Malta which had been in the family for many decades. In a corner of the shop was a little shelf, and on it photos of departed family members and figures of Ganesha, Lakshmi and the Virgin Mary. When I asked, he told me he was “100% Hindu” but also a follower of a number of Catholic devotions.
In Indonesia today, there are about 10,000 Sindhis; many are businesspeople involved in many different lines. Perhaps the best known is the production of sinetron (soap operas), which they have been heavily invested in since the 1980s. The Sindhi producers even came up with an innovative product, sinetron Ramadhan, which, in turn, evolved into a new genre of Indonesian television known as sinetron Islam (Islamic soap opera). These are two small examples of their linguistic, cultural, economic and social diversity. And yet, Sindhis retain a strong sense of a networked cultural affinity, which makes it possible for them to relocate should they wish or need to.
The journalist Priya Ramani sent me an indignant message about the title of this book and I realised that it could be seen as demeaning to the community. I told her I’d ask you.
There’s the joke about the Sindhi on the moon who approached Neil Armstrong and tried to sell him a flag – old and weary, but telling. Everywhere you look you will find pockets of Sindhis selling things as diverse as souvenirs, textiles, electronics and carpets; financing films and developing real estate; manufacturing industrial plastics in West Africa and snack foods in Ulhasnagar, making bespoke suits in Hong Kong and running restaurants and hotels in dozens of locations worldwide. Selling Anything, Anywhere is my homage to a tremendous life force of adventure and enterprise.
Saaz Aggarwal is an independent journalist. She lives in Pune. She is the author, most recently, of Losing Home Finding Home