I had no ambitious plan in mind when I started work on Ambuja. It was the early 1980s, I had recently turned thirty and it was meant to be a step up from my cotton-trading operations. There was nothing in my family’s past or in mine that foretold the future the way it unfolded. Ours was the familiar story of a Marwari business family from the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, which had achieved moderate success across generations as traders and commission agents.
The Sekhsarias—like the Poddars, Singhanias and Jhunjhunwalas— are part of the business-minded Agarwal sub-clan of the Marwari community. Along with the Maheshwaris (which includes the likes of the Birlas and Bangurs, among others) and the Oswal Jains, the Agarwals are among the most significant business communities in Rajasthan. The Agarwals are traditionally known for their aggressive approach to business and penchant for taking risks, while the Maheshwaris are considered more conservative.
The Marwaris, as is well known, have a unique talent for trading and business, a talent that they have cultivated and put to use assiduously over the centuries. An intangible factor sometimes referred to as baniya buddhi or the ‘trader’s mindset’, has ensured them success wherever they have gone. From running local businesses, to trading with camel caravans that travelled to India from Central Asia and beyond, to funding rulers throughout north India across reigns and kingdoms, the itinerant Marwari traders, moneylenders, financiers and bankers have been involved in every money-related activity throughout the history of modern India.
The arrival of the railways in the latter part of the nineteenth century made things easier for the peripatetic community, as travel became less painful and faster. This created a new class of Marwaris who based themselves in their hometowns and villages in Shekhawati, but followed the circular migration route—spending extensive periods doing business elsewhere in the country—returning to their families and homes every few months. My family belongs to this category of traders.
We, the Sekhsarias (also spelt Seksaria by some), are believed to have taken our name from the town of Sekhsar in present-day Bikaner district of Rajasthan, much like the Singhanias who come from Singhana, the Jhunjhunwalas from Jhunjhunu and the Jaipurias from Jaipur. Several generations ago, the Sekhsarias left Sekhsar for good, probably because of persistent drought conditions. They moved east to settle in the more prosperous Shekhawati region. One branch seems to have travelled 200 kilometres southeast to Nawalgarh, Shekhawati’s most prosperous town in those days. At the same time, our ancestors moved 200 kilometres northeast to set up base in the trading town of Chirawa.
Chirawa and Nawalgarh (today towns in modern-day Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan) have for some reason historically produced the largest concentration of prominent Marwari business families. The Dalmias, for example, are from Chirawa itself, while the Birlas are from Pilani, a distance of 17 kilometres. Nawalgarh, which produced the Goenkas, Khaitans, Poddars, Kedias, Ganeriwalas and Murarkas, is only 60 kilometres away. The Singhanias, Bajajs, Mittals, Ruias and Sarafs hail from other nearby towns and villages.
A walk around Chirawa gives one some idea of how prosperous it must have been in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The streets are still lined with magnificent old-time havelis of merchant families built during that period. Most are in ruins since the descendants of the original families have abandoned them. A few, like mine, have been lovingly restored and are occupied at least a few times a year. Ornately carved hanging jharoka window-frames, carved doors, beautiful frescoes on walls and ceilings and remnants of imposing chandeliers distinguish these palatial havelis that were once owned by the rich.
Our spacious but relatively simple early twentieth-century haveli is indicative of our moderate wealth in that era. My forefathers were brokers and commission agents who dealt in commodities, including cotton, bullion and oil. The haveli, built by my great-grandfather, was designed in the style of Shekhawati architecture prevalent at the time, with two storeys and two courtyards—the forecourt or the mardana (men’s courtyard) and the enclosed rear courtyard or the zenana (where women were sequestered, away from men)—hemmed in by bedrooms on both floors. Our haveli is strikingly bereft of the ornate embellishments of other havelis in the vicinity. There are no jharokas, frescoes, chandeliers, or elaborately carved doors.
The haveli was still home to our extended family when I was born on a pleasant August day in 1950, delivered by a midwife in a tiny windowless room by the inner courtyard. I was the third of five brothers in a house filled with uncles and cousins. I was born at a time when the family was debating the vital decision of shifting to Bombay for good, since the family trading business was based there. Most male members of the family spent a large part of the year in the coastal city, coming back to Chirawa only for a few months.
For over a century, Bombay had been the country’s biggest cotton trading and textile manufacturing centre. Our family procured cotton from farmers and their brokers in and around Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Still, the big trade deals, including those for export, were concluded in Bombay where the cotton exchange was located. In an earlier era, my forefathers would spend a few months in the city selling their cotton, before returning to Chirawa.
Over the years, better train connections madetravel to Bombay simpler and faster, while improved communication facilities made contacts with our up-country suppliers easier. Slowly, an increasing number of our operations began shifting from Chirawa to Bombay. By the time I was born, the men in my family were spending as much as ten months in the city.
In doing so, they were only following the illustrious footsteps of Mr Govindram Seksaria, the first known person from the Sekhsaria clan to make it big in a large city. He was no relative of ours, but his rags-to-riches story is a legend among Marwaris. A descendant of the Nawalgarh Seksarias, he was born into a humble family in 1888. He made his way to Bombay at a young age in the early part of the last century. Using his skill at enterprise and speculation, he quickly rose to become the biggest cotton trader in the country, with memberships in the two biggest cotton exchanges in the world—Liverpool and New York.
The legend about him in the Marwari community is that he would bring trunks full of cash to his residence in Marine Drive in south Bombay. He later set up several textile mills and dabbled in various businesses, including sugar, bullion, minerals, printing, banking and even funding motion pictures. He died in 1946 at the age of fifty-eight. His stature was such that the cotton market and the stock market stayed shut that day as a mark of respect.
He is now largely forgotten. Besides a few educational institutions, his lasting legacy until recently was the Bank of Rajasthan that he set up in Udaipur in 1943. At one time, it was among the largest banks in the state, with close to 300 branches. It was merged with ICICI Bank in 2010. The only reminder of his fame in the city where he once held sway is Seksaria House, an art deco building on Marine Drive named after him. Further north, towards the Chowpatty end of Marine Drive, as one turns right to Babulnath, there is yet another Sekhsaria House that abuts the main road on the left. This five-storey building, constructed in the 1930s, was once owned and occupied by my great-grandfather Basantlalji Sekhsaria and his two brothers, Gorakhramji and Dwarkadasji, when they first set up base in Bombay. The proximity of the two properties is deceptive if one were to compare the fortunes of the families that owned them.
My forefathers led a comfortable life, but not one filled with luxuries. In the social hierarchy of the Marwari business community, we were at best on the third rung. Families like the Birlas, Singhanias, Bangurs, Dalmias, Somanis, Goenkas, Sarafs, Poddars, Khaitans and a few dozen others who had transformed themselves from traders to industrialists in the early part of the last century, were at the top.
This excerpt from ‘The Ambuja Story’ by Narotam Sekhsaria has been published with permission from HarperCollins.