Even as recently as the early 1940s, commercial cargo that unloaded from Indian fleets at Aden were subject to the least scrutiny. This practice was simply the continuation of an ancient business tradition that firmly stood on just word: trust. The maritime history of India and the world reveals that throughout the globe, merchants, traders, lenders, borrowers and banks had implicit trust in the oral word given by a Hindu businessman. A popular adage persisted even till the early 1940s: that a Hindu businessman—a bania—might delay repaying a loan but he will pay it back with compound interest on the delayed period as well. This ingrained business ethic of India is perhaps as old as the Hindu civilization itself.
Roughly around the same period—the early 1940s—crowded markets in all major cities and towns of India: from Karachi to Coimbatore, from Lahore to Vijayawada followed the same ethic. Trust was paramount. All else came next. Customer satisfaction was measured not by the praise for the product's quality or price but by the intrinsic happiness it gave the customer. Businessmen would go to extraordinary lengths to confirm to themselves that the customer had "blessed them." Even a cursory reading of the history of how India did business through the ages reveals this foundational truth. The other side of this value system was equally, if not more important: the fear of accumulating sin by breaking trust.
It was a common practice in those days for a businessman to direct a customer to a competitor’s shop if he didn’t have the goods the customer was looking for. In many cases, the businessman would personally escort the customer to that shop.
The post-industrialized and now, our automated world killed this value system with astonishing swiftness. Businesses are now run by faceless corporations where it is almost impossible to pin accountability on a real person for breach of trust. Sin has found its most devoted savior in the form of legal loopholes.
But the old world has survived only in books and anecdotes, if it is any consolation. This essay is one such real-life anecdote of Sri Rama Upadhyaya, one of the last gems produced by the mine of that ancient but timeless value system. Its authenticity, charm, its heartwarming quality derives from the reverence its author, Sri Mantapa Prabhakara Upadhyaya has towards his grandfather.
Sri Mantapa Prabhakara Upadhyaya is an accomplished Yakshagana artist and a highly successful businessman who founded a flourishing ice cream business in Bangalore. Over four decades, he has mentored several youngsters in entrepreneurship and created a new generation of employment and wealth-creators. As the essay makes it clear, a central pillar of his business success owes to the value system he imbibed from Sri Rama Upadhayaya.
On a personal note, it would be a great national service to compile the anecdotes and profiles of thousands of Rama Upadhyayas who, for centuries, embodied the business ethics that made India an economic superpower for more than two millennia.
I am the flag tied atop the tower of the home of the Mantapa family. I watched faraway vistas, I fluttered in the wind. I noisily exhibited my existence. However, the profoundly sculpted Kalashas who make up the foundation of that family are people whose virtuous lives merit a separate story each. But they neither lived for fame nor desired it. However, both the purity and the fruits of their pursuits have accrued to me. Thus, the light of their tradition is intensely reflected in the fortune that I have seen in my life and the fame that I have enjoyed. Therefore, my greatest joy lies in experiencing a deep sense of fulfilment by recalling that tradition.
Only Indians have seen harmony in such diverse areas as art, poetry, knowledge, life and death. Thus, this soil of Bharatavarsha is endowed with a specific principle, it is imbued with art, it is painted with a certain unique tinge. In every grain of this soil we see the existence of Sri Rama, we see Bhima’s shadow, we see all this in a wide array of things from the root of a tree to the horizon at the end of the ocean. We follow the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as our very lives. There are countless people who attained fruition in an entire life lived in this fashion. However, all their lives were different in their own ways. But there is a specialty in this. But the underlying philosophy is the same. In spite of this, they didn’t merely become numbers but earned esteem in the final reckoning. I am the sapling of a lineage that birthed such luminaries. Thus, a few hues of that lineage have shown themselves in my life as well.
The art of building Mantapas gave our family its name: Mantapa. Neither was it limited to merely building Mantapas with four pillars. The art and skill of its builders gave their family its name in those early years. They used technical expertise to construct highly artistic Mantapas. The guests who used to attend weddings were not only curious to look at the bride and the groom but were excited to look at these Mantapas. Circular Mantapas which rotated, Mantapas which showed the story of the Dashavatara, Mantapas which generated cool breeze to soothe the coastal heat, a tower-like Mantapa were just some of the numerous Mantapas they built. Owing to this popularity, my grandfather and his brothers were regularly invited to the Udupi Mathas during their Paryaya (succession to the Udupi Mathas) to build Mantapas. I have heard from my elders that the Puttige Matha adopted the same design that was once used in the cloth Mantapa at one of their Paryaya-s.
There were four brothers including my grandfather. Each of them had a specialty. From the very beginning, attraction towards colours, love for art and the dedication it demanded were all intrinsic parts of my lineage. One my grandfather’s younger brothers used to draw paintings on the wheels of temple chariots. One of his sons would tie a blindfold on his eyes and paint pictures. The memory of this scene which I witnessed in my childhood has remained etched in my mind till date. He also played the Mridangam in musical concerts. The lineage which lived in this manner as an undivided family eventually surrendered to the vicissitudes of time. The brothers split. The building of Mantapas was partitioned to one brother. But then, all such arts essentially flourished only with cooperation, assistance and an innate love for the art. After partition, it was but natural that their respective attentions were directed towards their needs and inevitabilities. As a consequence, the art of building Mantapas which demanded enormous time but whose ultimate joy lasted for about two days, fell into neglect. The art of building Mantapas became distant from life. But their family name, and the very reason for the name—their skill and finesse in building exquisite Mantapas of different types, these stories are still popular in my hometown.
My grandfather Rama Upadhyaya was about five feet tall. Although his complexion was fair, coastal heat had turned his skin slightly dark. Even though it appeared as if his muscles had melted and merged with his bones, his body exuded solid strength. He combed back his long and luxuriant hair and tied a small knot behind. His eyes radiated the light of a seeker engaged in a perpetual quest. A towel over his shoulder was a constant companion. His Dhoti transgressed his knees to a minor extent. This was my grandfather’s physical appearance.
Grandfather was constantly thoughtful, and addicted to work. His thoughtfulness primarily veered around work: how does one obtain the maximum benefit from doing a certain work? How does one reduce the load of work? Most such thoughts were not tinged with selfishness. He shared the fruits of these contemplations with everyone and found happiness in the benefit they derived from his advice: from a farmer who ploughed the land to a villager who cut coconuts to a fisherman to a person who daily walked to Kundapura. This was a source of astonishment to most people; others thought he was mad (there was a popular saying that this Mantapa gentleman had lost 25 paisa of his mind); but those who knew him deeply adored and respected him. Even today there is a popular idiom in our town: if anyone displays ingenuity in work, he earns the praise, “this is Mantapa’s brain.” In the centre of the Jatra (fair) in our town, he constructed an equilateral triangle. Water would gush up from its three points all at once. At the dead center of where the waters met, he placed a ball which would constantly rotate without falling. In those days, this technique was a great feat of magic which enthralled and delighted the people. Last year, when Sri Sadananda Maiya visited our shop to inaugurate it and fondly recalled that incident, I felt immensely proud of my grandfather.
My grandmother was Smt Phaniamma. She had zero knowledge of the world and was a thoroughly innocent woman. Compared to my grandfather’s shrewdness in dealings, Phaniamma was a mere infant. And he cared for her like an infant, never getting annoyed with her.
When I told her that I intended to start a shop, she gave me what little money she had and showered a wealth of her blessings. In this manner, I started my shop—armed with the Samskara and business acumen my grandfather taught me, and encouragement in the form of my grandmother’s blessings. This business came to me as a family inheritance. However, my grandfather Rama Upadhyaya started his business with zero knowledge of even the fundamentals of doing business.
Sri Rama Upadhyaya opened his shop in Saligrama. As far as I have heard, in those days, the Gauda Saraswata and Rajapura Saraswata Brahmanas—known as the Konkani community—were synonymous with business. They exerted enormous influence and were the dominant business class. In such a town, it was a huge adventure on my grandfather’s part to start a business with no prior knowledge or experience. In the initial days, he stocked only those items which were commensurate with his knowledge about them. Later, he would not say no to any customer who asked him for any item. He would tell the customer to come on a specific day and time and deliver the item accordingly. Without fail.
In this manner, the shop expanded as he gained knowledge of the people’s requirements. A measure of this expansion is the fact that his shop stocked everything that the fourteen villages surrounding Kota needed. The people living in the region didn’t find the need to go to other towns to buy items required for their daily use: nothing was unavailable in his shop. From the waist-belt tied to a newborn infant up to the earthen pot used at death, from the implements needed by a farmer up to the tools needed by a cobbler, everything was available in his shop. The prices of essentials in my grandfather’s shop matched those in Udupi and Kundapura. Thus, customers saved the money and time needed to travel to these towns. My grandfather thought his real profit lay in this convenience that the customers enjoyed. He kept his margins as low as possible. The quality of his wares was always high. For example, he would apply oil to nuts and bolts and arrange them in proper pairs, all in front of the customer. He would sell only after this demonstration. He would tell the customer to buy exactly what he needed. Due to this process of thorough examination and sale, the customer didn’t have an occasion to revisit the shop for the same item. All of this attracted people to his shop. As my grandfather said, “only the quality and price of our goods should bring customers to our shop. We should not use cheap tactics and speak lies solely to attract customers.” Grandfather lived by this principle till the very end.
To be continued
The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.