Tales of the Spice TradeBy Murtaza Gandhi
Murtaza "Mirchi" Gandhi shares his experiences growing up in Ahmedabad as part of a family in the spice trade.
My forefathers started the family business of spices and dry fruits more than a century ago in Ahmedabad’s Madhavpura Market. The shop, engraved in decades of history, stands three stories tall on wooden beams and pillars erected 125 years ago. Our shop is still furnished with antique wooden doors, windows and stairs. The accounts continue to be written in traditional books covered with a thick red fabric fastened with pothi binding on the same desk used since the shop’s inception. Even the accountant has not changed in the past 55 years. The old fire and water proof safe is so heavy that no one can remember the last time it was moved.
India’s spice trade attracted merchants and explorers from around the world for thousands of years. The constant rise in prices and demand of spices led to the formation of commodity markets in Gujarat such as APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee) and merchant associations known as Mahajans (guild leaders). The Mahajans maintained fair dealings and transparency between the farmer, the merchant and the consumer. One such Mahajan established the Madhavpura Market, founded more than 350 years ago.
It is in this Madhavpura Market that my great grandfather laid the foundation of our business more than a century ago. A quick success in the spices and herbs trade encouraged my forefathers to expand the business into other directions including an edible oil and chickpea flour factory and a cinema hall in Rajkot in addition to countless acres of farming land across India. Regional offices for the spice trade along with havelis (private mansions) were established in Pakistan in Karachi, Shikarpur, Quetta and Chaman. The house in Karachi was the tallest building of the town in those days. Over all we had 175 shops and mansions spread across Western India.
Our house in Kalupur, where I was also born and raised, was built around 1910 at a ten minutes walking distance from our shop. The house was large enough to accommodate our 30-member family. Somewhat of a landmark, neighbors and locals referred to the house as ‘Motu-Ghar’ (The Big House).
Having such a large joint family helped us establish and expand our business. My great grandfather had four sons. Two of them along with their families relocated Pakistan to expand business. My family’s success continued until India won independence in 1947 and Pakistan became a separate country. My grandfathers had to choose between Pakistani citizenship or returning to India and abandoning all of our property and business abroad. My great grandfather decided to call his sons back to India.
In the 1970’s, a difference in opinion between my grandfather and his brothers led to a division of the business and properties. My grandfather and his elder brother kept the shop in the Madhavpura Market from where this whole story begins. The shop was divided into two parts. My elder grandfather and his sons diverted to the business of medical (ayurvedic) and culinary herbs, where as my grandfather and his sons continued dealing in spices and later added commodities such as red chilies, garlic, coconut, tea, sugar, tamarind, turmeric, fenugreek (methi), fennel (variali) and cumin (jeeru).
Of the 3000 shops in Madhavpura, ours is the only one owned by Bohras, a minority Muslim community. Our shop and our house are respectively located near Kalupur and Dariapur, areas of the old city and sources till date of Ahmedabad’s communal violence. Ahmedabad, known around the world for its communal riots, graced us with a different experience. During the riots of 1984, 1992 and 2002 numerous attempts were made by the local extremists to vandalize and burn down our shop, but it was always protected by the Hindus living around the market. At times we also took shelter in their houses and they would later escort us to the safety of our home.
The market also inspired our surname, Gandhi, which is associated with communities who sell spices and provisions. Many of the merchants in the Madhavpura Market carried the last name Gandhi, and through the association with our business, we too eventually adopted the name some 100 years ago.
For me, the spice shop was my teacher. I have been going to the shop since I was about eight years old. It was here that I learned my first lessons in management, finance, administration, accounts and banking. During vacations I preferred spending time at the shop rather than playing video games or cricket. My friends nicknamed me Mirchi Seth (the dealer of red chilies) when they came to know about our family business.
After I passed the 10th grade I decided to quit school, continue studies through correspondence and started attending our office full time. It was a welcomed and exciting change for me for two reasons: first, I no longer had to go to school. Second, I was now independent. I no longer relied on pocket money since I was paid a healthy stipend. Apart from basic administration, my job was to regularly make surprise visits to our warehouses and cold storage units to check that everyone was doing their job properly. I was also responsible for keeping an account of stocks. Although not as exciting, the task had to be done by someone in the family to ensure exact figures since we were dealing in at least 20 commodities, each with three or more varieties. Every spice and dry fruit had to be stored separately to avoid the transfer of smell. Twenty minutes in a Cardamom warehouse and I would come out smelling like kheer (Indian sweet dish). The same amount of time in a Clove and Cinnamon warehouse would leave me smelling like a spicy curry.
Personally, I was at my peak in the business between 1999 to 2001. By this time I was well versed with the trade, mature and capable of taking my own decisions. I was travelling to different towns and villages, meeting potential buyers, suppliers, farmers, and brokers every day. My favorite was the visits to the farms where these spices grew, down south in Kerala and Karnataka and also Rajasthan, Saurashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
This period was the climax of our business since my father and his two younger brothers invested their full efforts in taking the business to greater heights. My father’s brilliance with accounts, finances and tax planning, my younger uncle’s expertise with sales and marketing and my youngest uncle’s skill for cash collection and debt recovery made them a force very difficult to compete against. I worked with them for 18 hours a day with no time for lunch. We supplied goods to all over Gujarat, and parts of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
During this time, we would call for five to six trucks of spices everyday from Kerala and announced cash prizes to the driver who would reach Ahmedabad first. We did this because even a few hours of delay would cost us thousands of rupees in business. At any point during the day there would be at least three trucks in front of my shop or warehouse waiting to be unloaded.
But things have changed in the past few years; urbanization and the development of small towns have affected the business of the whole commodity market in Ahmedabad. Earlier, customers from all over Gujarat would come to Ahmedabad to buy goods. The development of commodity markets in small towns has reduced the numbers of these buyers since the goods are available to them in nearby towns at the same wholesale price as Ahmedabad. The constant rise in fuel and transport prices also restricts them in making such timely journeys to Ahmedabad.
For the end consumer, until a few years ago, all the spices, dry fruits and dry vegetables were available only at the local provision store. These provision stores would buy the goods from wholesale markets like Madhavpura and Kalupur.
Malls and convenience store such as Reliance Fresh, Spencer’s and Big Bazaar are taking over the retail market, removing the wholesale traders, like ourselves, and the provision store owners from the chain. The mall owners buy goods in wholesale from the farmers and supply them directly to the end consumer.
Additionally, the once advantageous location on the end of three major streets outside the city has been engulfed by the growing congestion of the old city and the market place struggles to come to terms with the need for new infrastructure. Although the market still operates successfully today, the future of the place as a wholesale market is uncertain.
Posted on: Apr 21, 2011