Monday, July 11, 2011

The Golden Marwaris

Many Marwaris from North India have settled in Kochi and have become millionaire businessman. A look at the reasons behind their success. Plus, have the second generation paid a social or emotional price?

Photo: S.S. Agarwal in front of the steel cables that he makes

By Shevlin Sebastian

C.P. Jain parks his black Hyundai Sonata car on MG Road, Kochi 's main thoroughfare on a quiet Tuesday in May. A hartal had been called by transport unions to protest the recent hike in petrol prices. “I was worried that somebody would throw stones,” says Jain, as he steps out of the vehicle, and gives a relieved smile.

Jain is a trim man, with silver-black hair and gold spectacles. On his feet he wears white Puma shoes. He bounds up the stairs to his second floor office. Jain has a large trading business dealing with all types of paper. And this is his 29th year in Kochi.

When he was a young man, Jain was practising as a lawyer in the Rajasthan High Court. His father, who had a business in cutting and polishing diamonds, asked him to join the family firm. Jain was not very keen. “I wanted to do something of my own,” he says. He set out for Bangalore where a school classmate of his was doing business. From there he went to Kerala. But he drew a blank on what trade to do.

However, on the Kerala Express, on which he was returning to Jaipur, he met Bala Vijayakumar (name changed), the general manager of the Nagpur-based Empress Paper Mills, which was owned by the Tatas. “Paper is a growing business in Kerala,” said Vijayakumar. “You could supply Kraft paper for the corrugated industry.”

An excited Jain went to Mumbai, met a senior Tata executive, who appointed Jain as an agent.

In February, 1982, Jain went to Kochi, much against the wishes of his family. His father said, “You will have a lot of problems. You don't know anybody there. Do you think you will be able to establish a business?”

But Jain felt inwardly confident. However, when he asked for financial help, his father refused. “I had saved about Rs 1 lakh,” he says. And his mother turned out to be silent supporter. She gave him Rs 50,000.

And right from the beginning, Jain tasted success. “The Malayala Manorama gave me good business and there were other firms also,” he says. “I was able to sell 100 tons of paper every month from the early days.” Today, Jain has become a wealthy man.

At S.S. Agarwal's bungalow, in posh Panampilly Nagar, he is walking about on bare feet. But the floor is made of spotless white marble. In the living room, there is a Ravi Varma painting, while on a mantelpiece, there is a silver idol of Radha and Krishna, apart from photos of his family. Muted lighting and wooden furniture gives the impression of tranquility.

His elegant wife, Durga, with small diamond studs in her ears, serves tea and samosas, along with jalebis. “I love Kochi for its greenery, the cleanliness, and for the peace and quiet,” says Durga, who grow up in noisy Kolkata. “We have assimilated easily into the liberal Kerala culture and have many Malayali friends. They are kind and friendly.”

As she talks, her husband’s Blackberry buzzes every now and then. Agarwal smiles easily and has the look of a happy man.

He came to Kochi in 1987. “I grew up in Salem, a dry place,” he says. “So Kerala was like a heaven for me.” Despite many warnings, he set up a flour mill in Kochi, went through teething labour problems, which almost closed down his unit, but managed to survive and prosper. Later, he built a steel factory and is now a prosperous businessman.

Incidentally, there are 2500 Marwaris in Kochi. “Around 90 per cent of the bread-winners are doing trading,” says N.L. Mittal, the secretary of the Jan Kalyan Society, which comprises Marwaris.

Asked to explain the reasons behind their success, Mittal says, “A Marwari never fears anything in business. We are a very mobile community. We can move into the deepest jungle, if we have to, if there is any scope of economic gain. Basically, we are risk-takers. We have a saying: 'Jaha ne jaye belgadi, waha jaye Marwari' – where a bullock cart cannot go, a Marwari will go.”

He says that the community members ensure that they win over the local population. “This is because we are far away from our home state of Rajasthan,” he says. “We have to be careful, and cannot afford to make enemies.”

Asked whether he would encourage a Marwari youngster from outside to do business in Kochi, businessman D.N. Singhal, says, “I will. The profit margins are better, as compared to other cities because the competition is less.”

Meanwhile, the impact on the second generation seems to be minimal. Sitting in his air-conditioned stock-broking firm in Kochi, Akshay Agarwal speaks softly into his mobile phone. It is a little incongruous that this tall North Indian, with wavy black hair, is talking in fluent Malayalam.

Akshay came to Kochi when his father became the head of a transport company. “I was only one year old,” he says. “I feel completely rooted in Kochi.” So, at his home he eats North as well as south Indian food. “In fact, my breakfast is either idli or masala dosa,” he says.

Unusually, Akshay feels out of place when he travels to North India. “It takes some time to get used to the aggressiveness of the people,” he says. “But I admire their 'can-do' attitude. There is a lot of energy and vitality in cities like Delhi and Mumbai. And there are a lot more opportunities. In contrast, people in the south are laid-back.”

But in the end, it is a trade-off. “I have a much higher standard of living in Kochi, than if I were in Delhi,” he says. “So I am happy to be here. Also, Kochi is changing. There is a flourishing business climate now.”

(The New Indian Express, south India and Delhi)

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