Kafilae is a narrative story that offers a different perspective on the Indian History. You must read it to experience the revelations as the author takes us on this literary path.
If I could take my revered ‘history teachers’ to court, I would. Don’t get me wrong. They were admirable men. Their knowledge was commendable and their sincerity beyond doubt. The problem was that they saw history as a long winding and oft boring narrative of “persons and events”. Their lectures were recitations of the lives of kings and queens, and the course of wars and revolutions. In comparison to how we view history today, it was a very restricted view. The class inherited it. I inherited and internalized it – I loved history.
Many years later, a pan-chewing bania in dhoti and kurta – the unlikeliest of all candidates – sitting next to me in the Bhubaneswar airport opened my mind to the beauty of looking at history from different facets.
This is his story.
Sitting on a singularly uncomfortable, plastic bench in the Bhubaneshwar airport I was waiting for a delayed flight to Delhi. The lobby was hot, crowded and noisy. I sighed and opened ‘A History of the Marathas’ by Grant Duff. Written at the beginning of the 20th century it was a typical, biased imperialist view of our history. Justas I was getting engrossed, someone said “Kya baat hai, jagah mil gayee”. I looked up to find an exceptionally large, oily, gentleman in the process of squeezing himself in the adjoining seat. He wiped his face with a large handkerchief and turned to me "Paan khayen ge?” I declined politely. After a while, he tried again “What are you reading?” Rather than be explicitly rude, I passed the book to him. “Only Professors read such books” he pronounced and looked at me. “I am not an academic.” I explained. “Then you must be a Maratha- why else should you read such a tome – but you don’t look like one.” Lucky for him, I was unarmed. “I am a Maratha” I said a curtly. "Kya baat hai! – Shivaji ke vanshaj!!" The guy was a pest. “You don’t like me – do you?” “My dear man”, I replied “I don’t know you – so the question does not arise”. “Then let’s get acquainted” he retorted. “I am Naresh Kakkar.” I hadn’t heard the surname before and it must have shown on my face. “We are Khatris from Punjab actually Multan in undivided India”. I nodded and went back to my book.
After a while he piped-up again. “You know Bharat ka itihaas is very lop sided. Ab dekhiye, hum khatriyon (Surname of an Indian Business Community) ki kahani kisi ne likhi hi nahin – though it spans a longer period and is as full of drama, daring and courage as yours”. I smiled. “You don’t believe me?” he queried. I closed my book, shut off my mind, surrendered unilaterally and said, “Tell me”.
“I belong to a modest Hindu trading community” he began. “My ancestors lived on the banks of the river Chenab in Multan. For over four centuries we, together with other Hindu merchants, were part of the Trans-Himalayan trade crisscrossing Central Asia in caravans along the Silk Road. From childhood we were trained in the art of finance – not war. We did not carry swords or engage in combat but believe me we were as adventurous, brave and bold as you.”
“Don’t be silly” I said. “Taking the ‘saffron standard’ across the Indus by the Maratha forces is a very different cup of tea from traders doing way-side business on the Silk Route”. “Maybe”, he said “but It all depends upon how you define courage.” “You are conditioned to believe that bravery is resoluteness in battle – correct?” “Then what else is it?” I asked. “Have you ever pondered that a person who does not know fear cannot be courageous; courage is not the absence of fear. The capacity to know fear, look at it in the face and then to conquer defines the truly brave?"
I looked at him carefully. Maybe there was something to the guy after all. And since we are on the subject, let me tell you that unlike the warrior classes who have only expended wealth in history, it is we traders who have created it. It was – and is – on the back of the affluence created by us that armies were raised and wars fought by kings and emperors”. This was a new insight. I was thinking about it when he said “Chai ke siva kuch maza nahin ata”, got up and came back with tea and eats. “No thanks” I said refusing the samosas “I’ll just have the tea”. “Koi baat nahin” he replied and proceeded demolish two plates of carbohydrates drenched in oil.
For a while there was silence. Then, he asked “Where do you stay in Delhi?” “At the India International Centre” I replied. “Ameeron ki basti main ? Kya baat hai. Chaliye hamari kahani hum aap he ke ghar se shuru karte hain.” I waited.
“If you walk out of the IIC and turn right you will find yourself in the sprawling gardens where the Lodis – who once ruled Delhi – are buried. Before they became kings, the Lodis were horse traders who escorted caravans financed by my ancestors on the route from India to Central Asia across the Indus.” “So, what’s the big deal in sitting home and paying others to face the dangers.” I said. “No, you are wrong.” he interjected. "We accompanied the caravans over ill-regulated, little-policed caravan routes through most of Central Asia. These roads – tracks really – were part of the trade network that originated in Multan in the sixteenth century, and operated between India and Central Asia extending into Russia and China”.
“You know, if on a bright spring day you could have stood on the Khyber Pass, you would have seen the astonishing spectacle of hundreds of camels carrying rich textiles of all varieties, spices, indigo, sugar, rice and other luxuries, accompanied by hundreds of slaves to be sold in the markets of Bukhara, Tashkent, Isfahan, Astrakhan on the mouth of the Volga and Moscow, where Indian merchants resided in Kitae Gorod, the home of foreign merchants. On their return journey, the same caravans brought back thousands of horses bred on the Inner Asian steppe by pastoral nomads for the armies and the aristocracies of India.” Mr Kakkar’s self-assurance was rather annoying me so I asked “But was it profiting or patriotism which drove you?. He looked at me steadily and replied “By the same token, Dr Thorat tell me what was it that drove your ancestors – plunder or patriotism?"
He had scored a point. I changed the subject. “Did you make home there?” I asked. “Yes, Indian traders, settled down for years together in caravan-serais in these exotic towns, took up residence and created a Hindu diaspora away from their homeland.
We were gifted in commerce and prospered as merchants, goldsmiths, sellers of grain, sarafs, bankers who financed the local harvests of agricultural commodities, and even craftsmen such as the ones who helped build Timur’s splendid Bibi Khanum mosque in Samarkand. For 400 years between the 16th and 19th centuries we together with other Hindu traders, were at the heart of the Central Asian economies. Farmers took loans from us during the planting season and we purchased their crops in the harvest season – arranging to have it transported to the wholesale markets. The local rulers appreciated our services which helped monetize their economies and collection of taxes. They allowed us to live in peace and dignity in the caravanserais, and permitted us to observe our customs and festivals like. We even imported Brahmins to conduct our ceremonies.
Kakkar was really perplexing me. By sight the only place I could imagine him was behind a cash counter; yet he had a fine mind. “Are you really a businessman?” I asked. “Why because I speak knowledgeably about history? Pride in in one’s heritage is a universal right – not the monopoly of a few.”
“Did your families accompany you? If not, how did you manage?” I said picking up the thread. He smiled. Most of us remained unmarried but not bachelors. The more daring occasionally married abroad or took local mistresses, but always returned home after making ‘appropriate settlements’. Our wealth and trading skillssometimes excited jealousy of the local people. Muzaffar Alam, a distinguished scholar and historian of the Mughal period writes that in Bukhara, it was generally believed that the successful way for a lover to meet the demands of his beloved was to locate and plunder the wealth of a rich Hindu merchant!!.
“How did they bring back their profits?” I asked “surely not in cash?". “Not at all” he replied. Before departing on their return journey to India from, Bukhara, Tashkent, Isfahan, Astrakhan or Moscow or wherever they were trading, they would convert their hard-earned wealth into hundis, bills of exchange, which in those turbulent times as indeed today, were the safest way to carry cash. When they arrived back home in Multan, they would encash the hundis, clear their accounts with their financiers and settle down to a life of ease and prosperity. The more ambitious among them set up their own family firms. This trade supremacy flourished right through the Mughal Empire until the end of the 19th century when the expanding Russian empire and the British -Afghan wars brought it to an end.
The important point to note Dr Thorat is that prior to the 19th century Europeans did not dominate world commerce. Before the Industrial Revolution in the West, changed the rules of the game, India and China were the largest trading nations and controlled more than forty per cent of the world’s wealth. The rise of China and India that we are now witnessing is gradually restoring the global share of wealth to a historical norm that existed prior to 1750.
He paused. “Now tell me wasn’t that a thrilling account?” I told him it was. His story had not only thrilled but put me in a reflective mood. History was about things that had happened – but did one learn anything in the recounting of this history which could guide actions in the future. I asked him and he nodded vigorously. “Of course,” he said. This story, for example, teaches us first of all that the exchange of goods and services is natural among men. Individuals trade with each other and in the process, create wealth. “I agree” I replied “but is it as simple as that? Doesn’t the state have a role? “The state is the great enabler. While individuals create wealth, it is the state which provides the enabling conditions for the creation of it – peace, law and order, a predictable and stable environment for commerce to flourish and infrastructure. When the state – any state establishes these conditions, people respond. When governments provide security of life and property, appropriate infrastructure and quick enforcement of contractual obligations, business and trade flourish, jobs are created, goods begin to move, taxes grow leading to general prosperity.” “In other words, good governance leads to prosperity” I remarked “but are such conditions present today? “I’m no politician” he said “but I can tell you that the rulers in India and in Central Asia created many of these conditions in those times. Sher Shah Suri, for example, built shady, tree-lined roads and rest houses for travelers. Akbar ruthlessly punished Afghan tribesmen who made a living by robbing caravans. Rulers of the host countries reciprocated. Thus, the Uzbek Khans of Bukhara created an official position in the administration, Yasavul-i-Hinduwan, ‘Guardian of Hindus’, whose job was to look after the welfare of Hindu traders, and help in collecting defaulted loans from among an intolerant Muslim majority. The Persian Empire equally protected Hindu merchants and their caravans. “What happens when there is a converse of good governance” I asked. Well, history shows that weak, warring and avaricious rulers tend to destroy the accumulated wealth of their country. Thus, the weakening of the central Mughal authority in the eighteenth century in a sense “invited” the brutal Nadir Shah to invade India and sack Delhi in 1739. As a result, the peace and predictable framework of the city gave way to insecurity and instability and the merchants abandoned it. You see, in all this the learning is that while the state can foster the right climate, it has its limits. Individuals create wealth through trade and investment. When the state tries to become an economic actor, it tends to fail in the long run – a recent example being India’s License Raj. “True” I said. This trde which your ancestors fostered wasn’t it a kind of globalization. Of course, it was and the lesson it taught was that Open borders create wealth for those nations that are not afraid to trade. Business is dynamic and old technologies constantly die as new ones are born. A nation should not close its borders, as we tragically did from 1950-90. The policy makers were wrong in their pessimistic belief that India could not compete with the world. They forgot that historically we have been a great trading nation and instead of forcing the economy in a “shell” in the four decades after Independence, we should have seized the moment and opened up much earlier than 1991. He was right. When the definitive step was taken, our software and outsourcing industries rose to the occasion by responding brilliantly. It was the stimulus of international demand for software and remote services from India that brought India new respect and helped lift its economic growth rate and raise millions into the new middle class.
In the midst of the conversation, the authorities announced that the flight to Delhi was ready for departure. The lobby began to stir. I looked at my watch. Good God, three hours had passed !! Listening to Mr Kakkar I had lost all track of time. In the most charming way he had brought the romance and adventure of business enterprise into the airport lobby. His narrative had made me “feel” the icy wind-swept mountain roads of Central Asia, the goings and comings in caravan-serais and the haggling of traders and shopkeepers had entered the departure lounge. He had made me see that history was about life – not about the dead. It was about what had been so that we could see where we were going or indeed where we should be going. Although I did not know it then, that meeting was to cast a long shadow on my life. It would nudge me to study the past from different points of view, commerce, politics, military history, movements in society and so on. In those three hours, he had given me a gift I could never return. As we took leave I asked Mr Kakkar “You said you were from a family of traders but not what you do”. He searched his pockets and handed me a card. It read
Naresh Kakkar Ph.D, D.Phil
Reader in History,
The university was one of the most prestigious in the world.
I nearly missed my flight.
Dr. Yashwant Thorat
His father was the late Lt Gen SPP Thorat.
Dr. Yashwant Thorat, Ph.D., served as the Managing Director of National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development.
Earlier he served as Executive Director of Reserve Bank of India.
He now serves on the Boards of several companies.
His wife, Usha Thorat served in the RBI as a Deputy Governor.
The full bio of Dr. Yashwant Thorat is at: