The three books covered in this review form parts of The Story of Indian Business, a series edited by Gurcharan Das. Each book of the series focuses on different epochs, stretching all the way from Chanakya’s Arthashashtra to the Bombay Plan of the 1940s.

Scott Levi’s Caravans – Indian Merchants on the Silk Road dispels the dual notions of India’s inter-continental trade from the Mughal era to independence being solely waterborne and also being, very largely, if not exclusively, the handiwork of European merchants.

Levi tells the fascinating story of Hindu merchants from Multan and Shikharpur who carried on overland trade from Punjab and Sind to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Iran and even Russia. They exported mainly precious stones, spices, sugar, rice, cloth and importantly, slaves. They brought back gold and bullion since there wasn’t much Indian appetite for goods from those regions, barring the one exception of horses from the Central Asian steppes which were in high demand on account of the virtually perennial wars between rival kings and chieftains, many of which were usually in progress at any given time.

The time traveller’s trade

This trade was very different in many aspects from modern versions. For one thing, traders set off, usually in convoys, and travelled to various destinations, resting in caravanserais along the way. Once they had sold off their goods, they deployed their capital and earnings to start money-lending businesses through which they financed local agriculture, businesses and even warlords.

They carried on their money-lending for long periods of time before returning home – it was frequently the case that a trader would be gone for 15 or 20 years. For this reason, there were many large Hindu-Indian settlements in Kabul, Herat and Kandahar amongst many other cities, as late as the 1940s.

Levi is a hard-working historian who has delved into many contemporary documents and other sources, as a result of which his treatise – the book was originally his PhD dissertation – is not just a dry account of trade. For example, he establishes that since the trade routes were dangerous, many liberal rulers ensured the safety of the travelling caravans as well as that of the Indian trading communities that were residents in and around various caravanserais, sometimes overriding local concerns.

When local Muslims protested against the Hindu-Indian custom of cremating the dead which not only resulted in stink, but also the ash to float around and pollute households, the Khan of Bukhara ordered his army to protect the Hindu traders and their customs. At a time when supposed protectors of the cow have turned into marauding vigilante groups who rough up and sometimes even kill cow-traders from religious antipathy, with the state either covertly encouraging such activities or turning a blind eye, the lessons of this history cannot be far to seek.

Levi is not only a rigorous historian but he writes well too, if somewhat professorially at times. For the most part, though, the book is a riveting read. Apart from the last two lines of the book, which erroneously link the historian Claude Markovits’s work with the conclusions of his own study, it is a fine example of diligent and illuminating scholarship.

Where’s the meat?

In contrast, Thomas A Timberg’s The Marwaris: From Jagat Sheth to the Birlas raises many expectations and fulfils none. Apart from retelling the well-known and the obvious – that the first generation of Marwaris started with trading to claim their share of the Indo-English trade from the British, branched into manufacturing, were conservative in their social outlook and practices, invested internal accruals into their businesses, and finally took over many firms of the departing British owners after Indian independence, the book is an almost senseless recital of names and times.

There is no mention, let alone any analysis, for example, of the “parcha” system of Marwari management that is widely credited to be an important reason for the many successes of the community. The involvement of many prominent Marwari industrialists such as Ghanashyamdas Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj in the freedom struggle and Congress politics is similarly and summarily disregarded. In every respect, the book is a significant contribution to that branch of sentimental history which sheds light on nothing.

Hit and miss

Omkar Goswami’s Goras and Desis: Managing Agencies and the Making of Corporate India is also a disappointment, barring the one chapter on Prince Dwarkanath Tagore. Goswami links Tagore’s many business ventures – including the famous Carr, Tagore and Company, the first Anglo-Indian managing agency which carried on a mind-boggling range of activities including but not restricted to plying steamships in Bengal, shipping opium to China, and owning jute mills and coal mines – to the raison d’être of managing agencies. Which was, essentially, spreading the risks of business among investors while reserving the lion’s share of profits for entrepreneurs.

The subsequent chapters, however, covering the approximately hundred years from the 1870s to the 1970s, do not hold the reader’s attention as the same point is belaboured over and over without any material that could have added to one’s understanding of the growth and ultimate fall of the managing agencies. It is truly a pity for the managing agencies that flourished mainly in Calcutta where many historical records and anecdotal recollections of boxwallah companies is even now common currency.

These three books make for a series of uneven and patchy quality. While Levi’s work is both an important contribution to Indian business history and a fascinating read, Goswami’s tome is valuable only in one aspect. Timberg’s book is forgettable.

The Story of Indian Business, edited by Gurcharan Das, Penguin India