Eternal ‘outsiders’ – Marwaris of Kolkata / KaliKatha via Bypass

[ HardNews, Nov 2012 ]

Salt Lake City, a satellite township located east of Kolkata, was developed from 1958-1965, largely during the regime of Bidhan Chandra Roy, West Bengal’s longest serving Congressite chief minister. ‘Reclaimed’ by destroying wetlands and a rich pisciculture zone comprising of large salt-water lakes, the land-filled erstwhile marshes came to be known as Bidhannagar. The area was then parsed into sectors, plotted and allotted largely to Bengali service and professional classes, except for occasional lollies to various loyalists of the ruling parties, through the decades, till such plots lasted. These were not sold as free-hold plots but were given on lease. There had been no provision of lease-transfer, so complicated procedures were devised by the ‘leasees’ so that ‘selling’ could happen – primarily by naming the buyer as the legal inheritor of the plot. Money changed hands as usual, just that the government did not get a piece of this extra-legal action. It was losing a lot of potential revenue as Bidhannagar has emerged as an elite residential hub. This year, it has been decided that the government would make legal provisions for lease-transfer and collect revenue from these transactions.

The recent outpouring of concern around legalizing lease-transfers of property in Salt Lake City, is a potent cocktail of entrenched prejudice and false victimhood concocted and vouched for by a sizeable section of the Bengali urban middle class. It is being said quite openly that the original intention behind sealing up ecologically irreplaceable wetlands and turning them into residential plots was to enable members of the Bengali middle class to make their homes. Not going into the patently classist and racist connotation that gives to a public project like Bidhannagar, one thing is clear. Even if many Bengalis in Salt Lake City do transfer their leases to non-Bengalis (read Marwaris), we will see quite a few Bengali crorepatis emerging in the process. Neither will these Bengalis transfer lease under the kind of coercion many of their peasant brethren have faced over the last few years. In short, these would-be crorepati Bengalis are neither victims nor middle-class. Some will park their cash in Rajarhat, a new real-estate boomtown created during the previous regime largely by forcibly acquiring land from Bengali peasants, adding an ironic twist to this evicted Bengali victim story. What emerges from this is that the villainous Marwari is alive and well in many urban Bengali minds.

I know this mind well, for I too possessed it at one point. I daresay, like many Kolkata-bred Bengali children, I too grew up with a dangerous concoction of socially replicated prejudice and received wisdom. Utterly false binaries were created and perpetuated – the wily, slimy Marwari poaches upon the unsuspecting, honest Bengali so that our tragic hero loses his ancestral home, his financial status and advantageous social status vis-à-vis the baniya. The victimhood fiction masquerades as a definitive answer to a variety of questions – the decline of Bengali culture to the changing demographic compositions of certain Kolkata localities. 1943 famine is a key year in this narrative when many Marwaris who ran a significant portion of the disgraceful wartime grain-speculation racket did hoard food grains. While that is condemnable, the vicious racist edge to that is problematic. The middle class Bengalis do not harbour any visceral hate against the subinfeudatory (madhyasattwobhogi) class from which many of them come, which for decades slowly extracted the life blood out of the Bengali peasantry. While the Calcutta Marwari lobby is partly blamed (and rightly so) for scuttling the 1947 United Bengal scheme of Sarat Bose and Suhrawardy, and consequently for the partition of Bengal, the other staunch Bengali opposers of the scheme like the Congress High Command darling Bidhan Chandra Roy have gone on to become unblemished cult figures. To try to explain all misfortune by invoking ‘external conspiracies’ is a lazy route to absolve oneself of blame – a comfortable but ultimately self-destructive position.

There seems to exist a small but fashionable cottage industry that simultaneously laments the disappearing cosmopolitanism of Kolkata by documenting the present and past of its resident Armenian, Jewish and Chinese populations among others. Given that, it is also the right time to change the narrative about the Marwaris – a more numerous group that is constitutive of the famed Kolkata cosmopolitanism, or the shreds of it that remain.

The Marwaris have been part of the Bengal landscape from pre-British times. They were a conspicuous part of the entrepreneurial and industrial initiatives that was partly responsible in once making Kolkata the ‘greatest city between Aden and Singapore’. The philanthropic initiatives in Kolkata by the Marwari business houses are second to none. The dismal condition of the state’s apex health facility, the SSKM hospital does not do justice to its large Marwari benefactor Seth Sukhlal Karnani, who was also instrumental in bringing a precocious virtuoso from Kasur (near Lahore) to Kolkata, giving the world Lata Mangeshkar’s early idol, Noorjahan. Walk over to the Sambhunath Pandit Street and you will be standing in front of the only specialized Neurology institute in West Bengal, the Bangur Institute of Neurology. The Marwari House of Bangurs were also the donors behind setting up the Bangur Hospital near Tollygunge. Successive state governments could only manage to turn these great institutions of public good into dismal caricatures of their earlier selves. This closely parallels our best attempt at caricaturing Marwaris, by portraying them in films as slimy creatures who speak bad Bengali. Few of these Bengalis, including those who serve at the Bangur Institute of Neurology or who live in Bangur Avenue, know how to pronounce the name of the benefactor properly (‘Bangar’ and not ‘Bangoor’). The Marwari Hospital in North Kolkata is in shambles but does show the philanthropic imprint of this community on the city, especially on the public healthcare infrastructure.  That the Bengali ‘prince’ Dwarakanath Tagore (Rabindranath’s grandfather) was financed in his indigo ventures by Marwari trade houses of Sevaram Ramrikh Das and Tarachand Ghanshyam Das is conveniently forgotten.

When Bengali-origin people like Jhumpa Lahiri and Jaya Bhaduri, who were neither born in Bengal nor grew up here, achieve fame, we quickly feel proud to claim them as our own. Few Bengalis proudly own up in the same way people like Jagmohan Dalmiya and Bimal Jalan who were born and brought up in the city .For stalwarts like Lakshmipat Singhania and GD Birla, who made Kolkata their karmabhumi, this same sense of ‘owning’ is largely absent even though we do celebrate past Bengali entrepreneurs like Biren Mukherjee and even the semi-mythical Chad Showdagor! At a time when chit funds represent the pinnacle of Bengal based entrepreneurial skills, we forget the houses of Goenka, Birla, Oswal, Jalan, Dalmia and many others started their journey from this city. The community even got its ‘Marwari’ name from this city, a name that has become a self-identity tag. A friend of mine, from the Marwari Somani family of Kolkata, a PhD scholar in Economics at Harvard, found his match in a Kolkata Marwari family girl. This alliance between Kolkata Marwaris is very common and there is much more than locational convenience at play. There is a lot Kolkata about Kolkata Marwaris – something Bengalis find it hard to acknowledge, treating them as eternal outsiders.

At a time when subinfeudation was gasping for life, many literate middle class Bengalis landed in Burma for better opportunities. In part, Marwari trade networks in South-East Asia helped these Bengalis gain employment and remit money from Burma, the ‘Dubai’ of those days, back home to Bengal. Bengalis have arrived from the hinterland to Kolkata in batches. Some of these Johnny-come-latelys, with hardly a 50 year relationship with the city, still manage to lay a greater claim to Kolkata, of being more authentic ‘Calcatians’ vis-a-vis Marwaris. They also have arrogance of looking upon the Marwaris, who have century old residential connections with the city, as interlopers and outsiders.

Cosmopolitanism is better lived than remembered. Bengalis, whose lungi carry an unmistakably Burmese-Arakan influence, whose ‘authentic’ Malai-curry is derived from the Malay peninsula, ought to know better. An insular mediocre middle-class bengalism is surely no way to show love for Bengal.


Filed under Bengal, Community, History, Kolkata, Our underbellies

22 responses to “Eternal ‘outsiders’ – Marwaris of Kolkata / KaliKatha via Bypass

  1. anupama

    can you suggest literary representations of marwari community in kolkata ?

    • Bikram K. Basu

      Anupama, I would suggest Alka Saraogi’s Kalikata Via Bypass.
      It has been translated from original Hindi
      into Italian, German, Spanish and Malayalam.
      Not sure if it is available in English or Bengali (go figure …)
      She won the Sahitya Kala Akademi award for the novel, in 2001.

      To the blogger …
      This is a great blog, which I came across by recommendation from a friend.
      It is the only one on the web, where I found this ‘schism’ discussed in a balanced manner, and thank you for doing this.

      It is a myth that Marwaris (in Kolkata) are singularly lacking in literary / artistic pursuit. It is a stereotype, not unlike of the Jews in the West.
      Evidently, having a talent for managing pecuniary matters, disqualifies one from intellectual pursuits or bent.

      Which makes you wonder, if the stereotypes result from:
      – Identity politics (us vs. the other)
      – Financial stratification (Rich Bengalis are considered a badge of honour, but not the Marwari entrepreneur, born and raised in Bengal)
      – Cultural preserve (Bengali aesthetics trump the non-Bengali variety)

      Rajshekhar (Porshuram’s) story-telling is hilarious and insightful.
      But, I figure, again as with the Jews in the West, the stereotyping belongs to a different era and time. I can’t see myself taking glee and pleasure in putting down any community. That’s not what the Bengali expatriate should experience, and nor should any group born and raised in Bengal.

      Calcutta’s Marwaris are in many ways keeping the publishing tradition of Hindi literature alive in Calcutta. The city used to be the centre of printing in many languages. Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, English, Assamese, French. All of these languages had significant publications released from its printing presses for decades. While English and Bengali press still survives here … the quality of content is increasingly suspect and subject to the demands of the popular genres; Hindi publications in the city have nearly gone.

      The Marwaris are writing in Hindi, primarily because they share the Devanagari script in Rajasthani (which also has many dialects, and despite a large number of speakers, remains unrecognized as a national language.) This has led to the unfair diminishing of Rajasthani literature generally speaking. And has conveyed the impression that Marwaris (a misnomer) lack a literary tradition. They do have a literary tradition, and a significant one at that with a long pedigree.

      Kanhaiyalal Sethia, was a Sahitya Akademi Award winner and a PadamShree, who lived and worked in Kolkata, and wrote in Rajasthani, while campaigning for its recognition as a national language.

      A post in the thread mentioned, that if Marwaris are outsiders, then why aren’t the other so-called ‘mercantilists’ such as the Gujaratis, Punjabis, Sindhis etc. considered the same? I suppose, it is because the Bengalis consider their identity defined primarily by a cultural ethos that places a strong emphasis on language and all other arts and aesthetics (including the visual, be it theater or paintings) are satellites thereof. Rajasthanis (to use the proper term), don’t self reference themselves by the use of Rajasthani, unlike the Gujaratis, Punjabis and Sindhis. Which is why the Bengalis, don’t see them as ‘equals’.

      Language, is therefore the arbiter of recognition for the Bengali. But the Rajasthani, doesn’t depend on it for identity. To them, the identity is defined by self-sufficiency, something that’s engrained in a psyche, that over generations has learned to manage in a hostile geography with very little resource, material or monetary. It has required of them to seek opportunity ‘abroad’ (read: out of Rajasthan), and adapt the language of others to make themselves useful, productive and to collaborate. That is a good trait and one that is visible in Rajasthanis everywhere.

      Anupama’s question, made me seek the information on Rajasthani and Bengali schism on the web. Most discussion on the matter is pedestrian and either verbose or loaded with pejoratives.

      The insularity of the Rajasthani in Kolkata, is something that I’ve wondered about … and found that the charge of uniform insularity for any group of people doesn’t hold water. An insular people aren’t likely to be a boisterous bunch. It’s a matter of temperament. Each has its moment. The sobriety of a Robindrasangeet soiree at Kakababu’s is its own milieu. The chai adda with my Rajasthani friends at their place, is very much a particularly Kolkata thing. Whereas the three day wedding ceremony series, is very much a Rajasthani do.

      The ostentation of a few, uber-elite, forces the middle classes of that group, to play catch, especially given that the older generations are mostly into trade and commerce. The younger generation with growing professionalisation, has different sensibilities. Again, not uniformly, but still in evolution. The Bengalis tend to view the Rajasthanis as a uniform group … ‘Medo’. But they are a diverse groups … Oswals (mostly Jains), Agarwals (mostly Vaishnavs), Maheshwari (Shaivas); who have convergences and divergences … in all matters, including finance and business, as well as socio-cultural and political.

      Finally, the Rajasthanis haven’t expended much effort into recording or publicising their history. The last book on Rajasthan was Col Tod’s! That’s another marker of identity that the Bengali demands. Kothay? The Rajasthani in Kolkata is likely to count the greats of Bengali Renaissance, as a Great Indian Historical Figure, because the cultural markers are omnipresent. His distance from the land of his ancestors, is in many ways his distance from their history as well. A few will recount the folk version of Rana Pratap and Rana Sanga, bordering on a self-boosting hagiography.

      Well this entry has become a blog entry by itself …
      Time to going back to playing Bartleby the Scrivener.

  2. yes, even i would like to get access to a non-caricatured depiction, unlike Parashuram’s Gandoriram Batparia or Ray’s Maganlal Meghraj. Can you suggest any authentic cinema or literature on the community?

    • Prateek Agarwalla

      There are none. It’s a pity isn’t it?

      India’s most intellectual and artistically gifted community, (Bengalis),
      and India’s most enterpreneurial and professional community, (Marwaris),
      can’t make a common cause to transform Calcutta and Bengal …
      possibly even all of Eastern India … heck … probably the country.
      That thing about … what Bengal does today … etc.

      All because, stereotypes, populist rabblerousers, have for decades played up the threat of the ‘outsiders’ as the barbarians. To be frank, there is a great deal of superiority complex on part of the Bengali, and way too much docility on part of the Marwari. Neither is justified in their outdated notions and approaches. Look, what good has it done to Calcutta? And what a wasteland has Bengal become?

      One question to the Bengalis, if Marwaris are ‘outsiders’, then what special class do the Punjabis, Gujaratis, Sindhis et al. belong to? The ‘not-outsiders’? Why single out the Marwari for being the Shylock? Do we not bleed? Oh wait! I forget … that we are the proverbial ‘blood suckers’. 🙂

      That said, is there any breath to be spared to the real ‘outsiders’, who once used to be the ‘insiders’, but did indeed backstab on August 15, 1946 … The Great Calcutta Killings … I am alluding of course to the Bangladeshis who have swamped Calcutta and Bengal … and Assam … and …
      You get the idea.

      Good. Somebody had to put the perspective right.
      Q.E.D. / R.A.A

  3. Stop moaning and consider returning to ur barren homeland. Marwaris are undoubtedly one of the most hated community in India. They are shrewd cliquish backstabber who gives two hoots to morals and ethics.

  4. Upendra

    I guess the author knows nothing about how the majority marwari people are… I am not saying that everyone is bad but at the same majority of them hate Bengalis… How many Bengalis would get the chance to set up businesses in Rajasthan? I guess very Negligible. Marwaris treat Bengalis as a piece of shit… That’s not the way to treat the people where you live and earn your bread… Common go to America and start criticizing them. Man they gonna kick you out… They don’t respect Bengalis at all… How many of them would give their daughters to a Bengali Guy? Very Few… The funniest thing is marwaris are physically very weak and that’s why they always fight unitedly but yeah one thing mark my words any marwari girl who has “Dated” a non marwari guy would never enjoy the company of a marwari guy even if he pours a lot of money… Marwaris are money minded creeps… They would earn everything here but wouldn’t praise the people here… They don’t have any Rights to Stay Where You Can’t Praise…

  5. Sukrit

    About 20 years ago my mother had invested 50000 rupees in Duncan Industries, a company run by a famous marwari industrialist. Forget about the interest payments we got half the capital back few days back. These marwaris are so corrupt they would even sell their women for money. Whichever institution they enter they will eat it up like hungry wolves. They are nothing but a bunch of thugs and cheats. Bengalees will do better if they poison these filthy rats and get rid of them at the earliest.

  6. I have Marwari friends living in Kolkata, and they are so freakin obsessed with their own community.Thy brag and brag and brag about their wealth, and constantly call Kolkata as a bakwaas place and badmouth the Bengalis. I asked one of them if a marwari girl would ever date a bengali guy and he said upfront that their families would never allow their daughters to date a bengali guy. Not only do they make fun of Bengalis all the time but they hate Bengalis and West Bengal, and they are too money minded.Everything is based on Money, they judge people by how wealthy he is, not by the kind of person he is. Marwari girls never go around with Bengali guys. I speak fluent Hindi, but a marwari chap would never speak in Bengali,and all they care is whether you are a Marwari or not.Its funny how they stick together all the time among their own community members. The word “Liberal” probably doesen’t even exist in their dictionary and they would never ever change.I don’t hate anyone ,but most Marwaris I know are so cynical that we would probably laugh at their age old dogmas and orthodox value system, and the way these people make fun of us Bengalis. If we ever go to Rajasthan, I’m sure a Bengali would get an open beating if he ever spoke a word against Marwaris.

  7. Biswa Prasun Chatterji

    your article has a valid point….we have chosen to ignore this community to hide our financial insecurities and lack of enterprise….you made a good point

  8. Swarn

    There are good and bad qualities everywhere,in every community in every grouping of people, but marwaris are one community where the word good loses its relevance,they are the most pathetically backward grouping ,backward in its
    thought,thoroughly cynical about others,only consumed within themselves.The author mentions the heritage factor in favour of the marwaris of how they have tried to increase the wealth of the city,but perhaps he forgets that they were the ones who had blocked the Tatas from entering the industrial fray in bengal,they were the ones who blocked the entry of salim group and numerous others just to maintain their economic position,so whatever they have done,they have done to monopolise their position and it is also true that they have mistreated bengalis,so it is only apt that they should no longer be entertained in Bengal atleast and should be kicked out by hook or by crook. Bengalis are not without blame ,they have not taken the initiative to group together and kick out the marwaris ,we have always lacked cohesion other than DurgaPujo.The author might have had a good personal experience but marwaris are really a backstabbing bunch of hoodlums and thieves trying to pass off as gentlemen in suit and boot.It is high time that Bengalis group together instead of being waylaid and constantly fighting amongst themselves. Marwaris do not deserve to be treated respectfully.

  9. xyz

    dese marwaris consider demseves to b d best..dey always show off a lot ,throw attitude,consider demsevesto b vry rich n d most beautiful lukin ppl.(marwari youth)..despite being educated dese ppl r so racist sort off dat dey always prefer to mingle wid d ppl of deir own community n b rude to other community ppl.dey think dat dey r too smart n intelligent ..dey downlook all other region n communities ppl…dey r d modern racists..huh..d facts dat dey hate n consider all d other communities to b inferior to dem…not only bengalis..they like only 1

  10. xyz

    dey like only 1 community ppl dat is “marwaris”…dey r not at all friendly n cant b relied upon…dey r too quarrelsome n try to dominate ppl of other basically a south indian staying in calcutta..i like bengalis.i feel dey not only hate bengalis bt also south colg has a majority of marwaris n most of dem r as described above.dey make fun of our v names,attire,language etc ..not only our bt infact every other communities…dey r tooo narrow minded..

    • শশাঙ্ক

      Yes you are correct. I have traveled many parts of India, and what I have experienced was shocking to me. Except few Punjabis most of the northern Indians hate other Indians including Bengalis (Bongs/Bangu/Bangalon – a easy going Bengali girl, Jol Khabo), Tamils(Madrasi/Kala Kaoa), Kannadigas(Madrasi), North Eastern Indians (Chinki). The Marwaris/Gujaratis of Kolkata are blood suckers.

  11. To the haters who are Brahmin: we know you are Kannauji and Malayali (look at your saris and psuedio-commie mentality). If Marwaris are non-Bengali, then so are you. At least the Marwaris created jobs and a financial system. What have you done for the non-bhadralok Bengali?

    • xyz

      hmmm… first of all i m neither a kannadiga nor a malayali girl..south doesnt consist of only these 2 states..coming to sarees topic ..yeah im an ethnic wear liker too in this wats ua problem? dats our personal choice…so wat do u want us to do…imitate the marwari young bitches? well v never judge ppl by their though but ur narrow mindedness forced me to use d above language

    • xyz

      v never judge any1 by their though bt by their acts…n answer to ur last question haha….u say u ve created gud financial system n jobs for bengalis…sapno mein haha….u ve created it only for urself u ppl havent done anything for bengalis n yeah what v south indians hav done for bengalis…well i dont needa answer ur question coz u rarely find south indians in they dont hv any obligation to do so…but tell me what u ppl hv done for them staying here for years together?

  12. xyz: I meant that the upper-caste of Bengal are also from outside Bengal– Kannauj/bruj in UP or from Kerala.

    What have you done for Bengal since you came from Kerala a 1000 years ago or from UP 500 years ago?

  13. Arpit

    I dnt knw but yes..a marwari friend of mine an iitian,working in major steel plant in bengal,still he dint like the place whr he ws living, working..alws sayin delhi n rajasthan n gujarat,maharashtra r gud place,bengal s nt,infact whole eastern region n people thr r nt gud…he only made friends vth marwari people…n yes having no courage …hs real mom commited suicide in his childhood,still he dint hv guts to ask hs dad what led her to do tht…n he married a marwari girl,chosen by his family coz of wealth…alws making comments on south indian colleague of hs coz of colour…wht kind of mindset s instilled in their minds…m nt saying every marwari people r lyk that but still whtever i read in the blog,it proved true to that person.

    • arpit

      Tht person is so coward..hs family ws behind his mothers death still he dint do nythn. .dint said nythn..his dad remarried a second woman .an innocent person is killed n culprits which in hs case ws hs own family wer free…r marwadis lyk tht?hw many of u cn remain silent if ur own mom is set on fire …cn u forget ths…n cn u forgive the killers?…certainly no one…but heh he did…He even forgot hs real mom…tht lady who brought him to ths world …shame on such a person…n he himself married some 1 coz she ws wealthy…I dnt think she knew the truth otherwise nobody wud want to spend whole lyf with such a coward person who dint even stand fr hs mom.

  14. I like your style of narrative. Marwaris are the main persons behind every large scale businesses and probably only because of their strong zeal and harsh homeland. Kolkata, Guwahati and the entire eastern region is now marwari based business men seen.

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