In the summer of 1899 in Bombay, a young man of about seventeen was walking with his older brother through the crowded lanes of Kalbadevi leading to the Mulji Jetha Market. Both were in white cotton dhotis, sadras, and narrow black caps. The older brother, Dattatrey, carried a small leather case strapped shut with a buckle while the younger man, Tatya, clutched a simple cloth bag bulging with three sets of clothes brought from Dhangadh.

Mulji Jetha Market was the largest cloth trading market on the continent and Dattatrey meant to leave his young brother here in the care of Haridas Zaveri, a cloth seller. In Dattatrey’s bag was a letter of introduction written by the diwan of the small state of Dhangadh, certifying that Shri Dattatrey Abhyankar was the personal tutor of the Rajesaheb’s children. Neither brother knew what Mulji Jetha Market was like, but simply walked in the direction they had been pointed to.

Everyone around them appeared to be selling things and hurrying somewhere. Pairs of handcart pullers barged through the narrow streets, one pushing, the other pulling and shouting at people to get out of the way. A small-time fruit vendor wiping his sweaty face with the end of his turban sat by the roadside with a basketful of purple figs, while a man nearby conducted a brisk trade selling peanuts by the seer. Another sold coconut water, wielding a terrifying scythe, while the watermelon seller next to him held his own with a footlong knife that he used to slice open the fruit to display their blood-red insides.

Horses neighed, trams tooted, shoulders shoved a dozen other shoulders, and the heat beat down on Tatya’s ears, which were left uncovered by his narrow cap. The coconut seller called out to the brothers, but Dattatrey pushed forward despite the heat and their parched mouths. Tatya should have been feeling nervous. He was about to be left in strange surroundings, in a place that had more people and noise than he had ever witnessed. But instead he felt a rush of energy, and all he wanted to do at that very moment was to start sprinting, to pound over the ground faster than he ever had in his life.

Why should he feel that way, here in this throng? And sprint where? So, of course, he continued walking by his brother’s side, as the sweat dripped into his eyes, making all the colours around him shimmer bright.

A sudden turn to the right and they were confronted by a modest cream-coloured stone arch with a red swastik painted at the top. Here, finally, was Mulji Jetha Market. The brothers inhaled deeply and stepped through the arch into a cool, covered arcade, suddenly quiet after the din of the street outside.

Underfoot was bare, brown soil. A long row of small shops stretched ahead of them. Every shop consisted of a clean white mattress on a platform; each platform extended further behind into a single small room, which was often just a nook, and on each mattress sat two or three men. To the right,
another row of identical shops, and to the left the same. They had entered a grid, lanes and lanes of shops laid out in a neat maze, and they had to ask the way to shop number seventy-three. ‘Haridas Zaveri,’ said a placid old man on a white mattress, ‘is in the sixth lane of Chandra Chowk.’

‘Do you mean to say that the market has chowks of its own?’ asked Dattatrey.

‘Of course,’ said the man, rolling a paan around his red-stained mouth, ‘there are so many lanes here, they all have numbers and the crossroads have names. Go on, he’s in there, he’ll be back from the mill by now.’ The man scratched his unshaven chin and yawned.

‘It doesn’t appear much like a market,’ said Tatya in a low voice, as they walked on over the rough brown pathways. ‘Nobody seems to be selling anything.’ Dattatrey nodded. He was beginning to appear a little unsure of himself, Tatya thought. ‘Dada,’ he whispered, leaning a bit closer to him, ‘don’t worry. If this place isn’t what we thought it would be, something else will work out. But it is certain that I am staying in Bombay.’

‘Don’t be a fool,’ said Dada. ‘If this Haridas Zaveri does not work out we will go back to Dhangadh and try something else.’ Having travelled a day and a night to get this far, Tatya disagreed utterly, but nodded. He would not disobey Dada, of course. But he would find a way to make his point later.

The reason they had reached this unpromising juncture in their thoughts and conversation was that after the bustle and energy of the vendors on the street outside, this famed market of textiles exuded an air of peace and tranquillity, as if nobody had anything much to do. The deeper they went into the market, the dimmer the light. Rows upon rows of pristine white mattresses and no goods in sight; huddles of men talking in low voices was about all the activity that was going on here.

After several false turns in that neat yet confounding grid of shops, they eventually found Chandra Chowk and its sixth lane. And finally, they stood in front of shop number seventy-three. Haridas Zaveri sat on the inevitable white mattress, leaning against a large white bolster with his legs stretched out in front of him, doing nothing at all. He wore a loose mulmul kurta and a white dhoti. On a peg behind him hung a beige cap.

The wooden shutters of his shop were painted a pale pistachio green, the paint beginning to flake off in a genteel sort of way, and Tatya at once liked the smiling, middle-aged man in the midst of this serenely coloured shop. Ten minutes later the brothers were sitting on the mattress with Zaveri, the diwan’s letter of recommendation had been read and laid aside, and a young boy of about ten was trotting away, having delivered three cups of tea to shop seventy-three.

‘What is one-fourth of seventeen,’ Zaveri asked in between sips of tea. ‘And twenty-four times thirteen? What about two and a half multiplied by nine?’

Tatya answered fluently. ‘Four and one quarter. Three hundred and twelve. Twenty-two and a half.’

‘Actually,’ said Zaveri to Dattatrey, who looked on anxiously, ‘I don’t need an accountant. I don’t need help with my bookkeeping. But if you want to learn to do business, you will be useless without a head for numbers. I think this boy can learn bookkeeping too, he has an instinct for calculations. You can play with numbers, eh?’ he asked, looking at Tatya, but it wasn’t really a question.

Zaveri was smiling, and his tummy jiggled as though he were laughing, but he gazed at Tatya with a shrewd sort of look in his eyes. Tatya nodded, though ‘playing’ with numbers was a new concept for
him. He looked down at his cup of tea and considered how the extensive chart of mathematical tables he studied every evening before reciting his Ram Raksha—didki, paoki, nimki, and all the rest—could be brought into what Zaveri called ‘play’.

He was beginning to see, as he sat there, things he hadn’t noticed so far. He was starting to observe that the market was more than just white mattresses and cubby-hole rooms. It was more than the wooden chests and coats hung on pegs, and more than the men with their outstretched legs and their cups of tea and the dollops of paan they held in their mouths.

For at the back of Zaveri’s shop stood two stolid steel almirahs, hiding some silent treasure inside; and tucked in even further back was a little stairway that ran a level up, the sort a crafty, cautious creature might use to squirrel away its booty. And below the stairs, in a nook, sat an accountant—a gumastha—on a square pillow, bent over a low wooden desk, making notations into columns of numbers in an old book bound in red cloth. Presiding over it all was a framed picture of Lakshmi on the wall, smeared with the red and yellow of daily devotion; and a curl of sandalwood smoke wafted up from a glowing incense stick in a silver lotus-shaped holder.

Excerpted with permission from The Secret of More, Tejaswini Apte-Rahm, Aleph Book Company.