I AM A MARWARI. I know. If three words could define the world of the Marwari man — Taboo, Society and Marriage would be them. To see how they interplay, look at the most recent Marwari divorces: Husband A was having an affair with his mother’s friends. B was too addicted to sex. C was too addicted to porn. Welcome to India’s most repressed community: the Marwari tribe. Pleasure is the tribe’s best kept secret — for generations, ‘good values’ have elevated them above base desire. Except when no one is at home — the remote is duly programmed to the cleavage show on Fashion TV.
The heads of this tribe roam in shiny black cars. They parade inside glass malls, wearing creaseless Armani suits, reeking of Eau d’Hermes. They run the Factory that provides for the rest of the clan. From this comes their sense of entitlement, the power to issue diktat. Morality is a shade greyer for the Marwari man. The tribe’s most stringent diktats apply to the female: the new urban Marwari woman must own at least one Sabyasachi — the latest marker of a chic, non-Marwari fashion sense. She can now indulge in a career (mostly a hobby or a fashion designing boutique run from home) as long as she’s present when the men return, tired from a day of gold-digging. Many Marwari women are forbidden inside their own kitchen or temple when they are menstruating. Some cannot even eat on the same breakfast table as the tribe’s chieftains. Marriage (as life itself) is clearly a community affair. A woman cannot wed just a Marwari man, she must marry his entire family. Their collective worth now depends solely on how she conducts herself. In Marwari this translates to “Dress Up”. That is why Delhi-based physiotherapist Divya Poddar’s mom-in-law won’t let her attend social gatherings without “a few diamonds.” It is the tribe’s secret code: “I belong to this family. They are treating me well”. Any display of dazzling cleavage, however, is strictly taboo; good Marwari women must not be seen with such prohibited possessions.
The diktat for men is more production oriented — “Get married, have a business with 1,000 slaves under you and procreate, procreate, procreate, until you have a male child.” That is how Kushal Ruia, 32, a Mumbai-based creative director of Amar Chitra Katha recalls the decree. When confronted with the enticing prospect of selling towels all his life, he switched to animation. Baffled aunts asked, “Beta, khargosh banaoge? (Son, you want to make rabbits?)”
“You’re expected to enter the family business. Even if you branch out, there is a stigma attached to working under someone else,” Ruia says. The Marwari tribe has always been obsessed with the idea of ownership; the maverick artist is only noteworthy after he inaugurates his own studio. An alternative where the lure of wealth isn’t a driving force is unimaginable, almost blasphemy. That is why when Ruia was recently featured in Marwar magazine, he was heralded as the harbinger of a new social order. Drumroll. It is a momentous occasion. Please put your hands together for the new Marwaris who can “make their fortunes themselves.” Truly, a giant leap for the Marwari kind.
When Kushal Ruia switched from selling towels to animation, baffled aunts asked, ‘Beta, khargosh banaoge?’
Apparently, this leaping lot is now challenging the tribe’s diktat. A rather daring specimen once proved a point by drinking beer in front of his mother on Navratri. His wife, however, could attempt no such feat; the Curse of the Mummy would forever be upon her.
IT IS A WONDER that these free-thinking revolutionaries continue to survive at home. “If I didn’t have the safety of my family’s business, I wouldn’t have experimented,” Ruia admits. It may be taboo to move out his parent’s house, but the Marwari Man also doesn’t want to. Even those who break the mould do it cautiously. Years of conditioning have turned him into a charming sort of puppet — inextricably linked to the tribe’s support system. When the safety net comes with strings attached, the burden is passed to the woman. She becomes the sole upholder of tradition and good value. Once a Marwari man in Nagpur “politely” explained to his parents why his wife shouldn’t be restricted to virtuous sarees. He considers it an accomplishment that he secured her the freedom of salwars and jeans — Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité!
Such monumental churnings aside, the likes of the rabbit- maker and beer-drinker are only contemporary lore. In popular imagination, the caricature of the Marwari has always been laced with oodles of unscrupulous ghee and paan. In her award-winning novel Kalikatha, author Alka Saraogi’s protagonist, Kishore Babu, is a Marwari with literary and political leanings. She recalls the rather perturbed reaction of eminent Hindi author Rajendra Yadav. “He refused to believe this character could possibly exist,” she laughs. Yadav’s disbelief may not be entirely unwarranted, given that Kishore Babu’s urge to serve the country extends beyond the very patriotic act of serving the Bombay Stock Exchange.
Munna Babu, Munna Halwai, Munnaji, the Marwari man has remained the eternal infant, always Mummy’s Suitable Boy
If political inner life is an essential ingredient of an intellectual man, the Marwari draws a blank. (Proximity to the office of the Finance Minister does not count.) At his core, the Marwari man is a staid, almost docile, apolitical creature. Independent thinking has never been a good value. Asking questions is taboo.
That is why a good Marwari mummy was horrified when her 16-year-old boy declared he wanted to be a journalist: “I have failed to bring you up”. Soon, the trauma took on entirely new proportions. “English honours? Isn’t that what girls do?” That was the first time the boy realised what it means to be a Marwari man. (Unless 3/50 in Math counts as the definitive moment of truth.)
What has been deemed sacred in the Marwari home is “respect for elders” — a master stroke, a classic euphemism to ensure the old patriarchal values remain unchallenged and unquestioned. In the Marwari world, the daughter is merely an impediment in the quest for a son. A child of privilege, the Marwari man has always been comfortable with this status quo. “If the first child is a daughter, there’s a fear of what the second will be,” says Reshma Jain, editor of Marwar. If the second is a girl, try a third. If that fails, the bride and her chromosomes have clearly not understood the good values that prevail in Marwari society. Most Marwari rituals revolve around the attainment and well being of a male heir. Bless the Father, Son, and Holy Husband. There’s Mai Chauth — the equivalent of Karwa Chauth for the boy, (none for the daughter) — and there’s Bachwaras — a puja and a day-long fast for the son. In joint-families, the less endowed mothers watch from sidelines feeling duly inferior. This is true not just in the home of the baniya oozing paan and ghee. None of this offends the slick Modern Marwari either. Both cling to the same brand of good values; only an Armani separates them.
Yet, the usual markers of community — language, literature, song, dance, geographic location — are curiously absent in the Marwari tribe. The language is nearing extinction and culture has been relegated to gambling on Diwali and a bajre-ki-roti at a wedding. Indardan Detha, 70, part of Rajasthan’s literary Detha family, warns against seeing the urban Marwari as representative of Marwar. “The Marwari merchants do not represent the culture of Marwar,” he says “Except for food habits, they share nothing with the Marwari peasant or the Marwari craftsmen.”
The Marwari man rarely thinks about identity; when he does, it usually draws another naught. “Besides entrepreneurial abilities, there’s nothing else left,” says Devend Darda, CEO of Lokmat group of newspapers. With no cultural framework, the Marwari man’s role models have always been good Mr Birla and Mr LN Mittal. To see how this has shaped the Marwari value system, read the latest SMS doing the rounds of Kolkata’s Marwari circuit — “My daughter is engaged to Rahul Khaitan. MBA from Wharton. Owns Ajanta steel mills.” Astounding vital stats that have permanently secured his market value. A father’s dream has come true— a good Marwari boy, brimming with good Marwari values from a good Marwari family will guarantee his daughter the good life. What more could she possibly want?
For the Marwari, the Market is not merely a place of trading. The Market is an existential construct that defines him. Enter the bazaar and some broad stereotypes become evident. Meet the old Marwari moneylender — gold chains swinging over his potbelly, he stoops over his accounts: “Maro pissa katthe?” (Where is my money?) Then there’s the Mawari trader chanting — “Oh Bhaiyo! Aato mein ghato aa gayo!” Wheat sales are dipping. The terror of his daughter’s dowry is looming large. There’s also the quintessential Marwari miser. Flamboyance is only a new good value. This original Marwari may own a BMW, yet he’ll be seen in his old white Ambassador. Especially during income tax season.
Distancing himself from the baniya Marwari, you will find the suave, polished, new Marwari tycoon (and the notso- suave tycoon getting himself polished — full body massage style — inside his glass office cabin). This tycoon has most rapidly overturned the conventional stereotype — the crass hoarder has now become India’s most elite consumer. This Brand Marwari has suddenly become more revered, almost envied. The new Bengali, the new Tamil — all are aspiring for access to his bustling Market. “A decade ago, a Bengali might have been embarrassed about his Marwari friend,” says Saraogi. “Now they flaunt it. Since having money has become respectable, everyone wants to be Marwari.”
The cosmopolitan tycoon retraces his roots only to check upon his haveli and to further solidify his contract with God. The temple of Salasarji in Rajasthan is the one-stop Marwari destination for such transactions. “The Marwari man really believes this will work,” says gourmet chef Ritu Dalmia. “He tells God, ‘give me so many crores, 10 percent aapka.’” Scratch the surface and the tycoon hasn’t evolved too far beyond Kolkata’s most famous jalebee superviser: Munna Halwai. Most Marwari men remain lifelong Munna Babus, and some even graduate to becoming your 60-year-old uncle Munnaji. Most are likely to tell Mummy to intercom the driver to turn on the AC before they reach their car. Most Mummys are likely to oblige, relieved that beta still needs them. Growing up on manicured lawns, the Marwari boy has never been allowed to trip, let alone fall. The survival skills that come from negotiating reality, failure and injury are alien to the Marwari man. A clockwork-like support system — mothers, wives, daughter-in laws, and precisely trained domestic help — has ensured the Marwari man remains the eternal infant, always Mummy’s Suitable Boy. That’s why when a Marwari woman lamented about hours of post-Holi washing, her husband offered promptly, “I’ll ask Mom to scrub you.” That’s why a grandfather exclaims in disbelief when his grandson gets into college, “You are the first child in our family who has got admission on his own merit!” That’s why a Marwari man returned after years of investment banking in the US — “Yaar, I needed my servants.”
MEET THE Gen-Next Marwari man — gelled hair, gleaming shoes, he always has a reputation to salvage. He must get an MBA and work in a reputed MNC. Even if he insists he wants to work for Daddy, Daddy has his own reputation to salvage. Eve-teasing, overt crime, street-fights are beneath the refined Marwari. Contemporary art, Bordeaux, the gym and spa — at first glance, nothing suggests the 21st century Marwari is parochial. Yet he leaves girlfriends to marry a woman who can “adjust” into his family. Yet he has Sunday rendezvous with the Boys’ Club, but doesn’t allow his wife the same freedom. Yet he uses phrases like “duties towards the husband,” and “responsibility towards my family.” It is almost as if the modern Marwari man is at odds with himself. He desperately wants to overcome is Marwariness, yet he is too dependent on it. In many ways, the new Marwari man is synthetic, almost plastic; you miss scruffy edges, raw soul, eccentric passion. He is polished like tall glass buildings; you miss the surprise of archways. He is fine red wine, you miss sour whisky. It is a curious paradox: the Marwari man is not macho or aggressive — he obeys when his father doesn’t let him wear T-shirt and shorts on the flight to Bangkok because “you might meet people”, or when his grandmother decides what he must name his son. Yet he is steeped in patriarchy, in the comforts of the old ethos, much like the community itself. That is why Marwari evolution has mysteriously stopped at Gucci, Prada and Victoria’s Secrets. Mention the other brands of the West they’ve forgotten to imitate — the idea of equality, dating, live-in relationships, and ancestral ‘good values’ are instantly evoked. “But things are changing,” says Kolkata-based photographer Leena Kejriwal. “I hear people are meeting for even six months before they get married.”
(Some names have been changed to protect identities)