April 15, 2008

A Postcard from The Nizam Sugar Factory

Placing the yellowing postcard on the glass display case I asked Abdul Hamid, “Can you read this for me?”

He paused for a moment before bringing the yellowing postcard to his face even as he bent his head towards it. Light sauntered in through the glass door that opened into the arcade lined by commercial establishments in the British-era stone building.

Under the tight fitting white skull-cap, Abdul Hamid’s broad face ended in a flowing black beard with streaks of white. When I stepped off the arcade and took the three shiny granite steps to the glass door I found him alone in the shop, standing in the far corner. Rows upon rows of old coins and stamps lined the walls and display cases that ran the length of the narrow passageway.

“I cannot read Urdu,” I said. “I believe you can.”

Abdul Hamid said nothing while he concentrated on the address printed in Urdu. It was signed by a salesman for The Nizam Sugar Factory Limited.

Under a crescent moon cupping a lone star the postcard carried the declaration ‘NIZAM’S DOMINIONS’. To the right lay the postage: 4 PIES, printed in four scripts, English, Urdu, Devanagari and what I believe must be Telugu. Until 1957 Indian currency was transacted in Rupees, Annas (16 annas equaled a rupee), Pice, and Pies (12 pies equaled an anna).

In a steady voice Abdul Hamid read off the postcard, “24, Mr. Madan Gopal Jamalal Saudagar, Hyderabad, Deccan.”

“Madan Gopal Jamnalal,” I repeated, assuming he had read the address incorrectly for I’d heard of ‘Jamnalal’, but not ‘Jamalal'.

“Madan Gopal Jamalal Saudagar,” he corrected me. I knew Saudagar to mean ‘a merchant’, but ‘Jamalal’? I wasn’t sure if ‘Jamalal’ was a name or a caste name. For a moment I wondered if 'Jamalal' had its origins in the word jama (to stock, to hoard, to deposit, to collect), with Jamalal to mean 'one who stocks'. Over time, with the son taking over the family business from his father before passing it on to his son and so forth, Jamalal might've come to acquire a caste description denoting merchants. I could only hazard a guess. Then I turned my attention to the postcard.

Only the previous day I had purchased a kilo of sugar from a neighbourhood shop for 19 rupees so when I turned the postcard over and read the rate card for sugar that a salesman from the erstwhile Nizam Sugar Factory posted to Madan Gopal Jamalal in the December of 1940 several memories around ‘Nizam’, ‘Sugar’, and ‘Hyderabad’ launched themselves to the fore, and I bought the postcard from Abdul Hamid.

A few things quickly became evident. The fact that the address was printed meant it must have come off a printing press. The merchant Madan Gopal Jamalal must’ve been on the list the Nizam Sugar Factory sent out the Sugar Rate Cards to either on request, or on a periodic basis or when sugar became available after sugarcane harvest, more likely either of the latter two. Sugar factories relied on a network of wholesalers and retailers to distribute their stocks.

On my travels across the Deccan Plateau on vacation from school during Diwali I distinctly remember passing tractors after tractors ferrying sugarcane to sugar factories in the night. Large swathes of the Deccan Plateau were once part of Nizam’s Dominions. Every once in a while I would lean out the window of the KSRTC bus and latch on to a length of sugarcane heaped in the tractor trailor heading in the opposite direction on their way to sugar factories, holding fast as the tractor made past, freeing the length of succulence from the heap. Then I would draw the sugarcane in through the window and chew on it the length of the journey. I learnt this from seeing villagers do likewise, but took care to avoid the stunt in the presence of my parents. A cheer would go up in the bus whenever someone managed to free a length of sugarcane thus. There was a thing or two going for me as a kid visiting those rustic regions from the hinterland.

However in the summer when I headed back to the Deccan, traveling through Bijapur and Gulbarga districts, I saw fewer tractor trailers ferrying sugarcane, instead I would pass chimney after chimney in sugarcane fields along the route, spewing smoke while farmers worked to convert sugarcane extracts into jaggery.

Jaggery brings alive an old memory.

One year Sidramappa’s yield of jaggery found no takers in the market. I remember villagers in the locality saying that even the large black ants that I took care to stay away from wouldn’t touch his jaggery. Since there was no place at Sidramappa’s home to stack his load of unsold jaggery he kept them at my grandfather’s house where they sat in neat rows against the wall in the long corridor, even reaching up to the wooden ceiling. I had never seen so many cones of jaggery before. Sidramappa hoped to sell them yet but I doubt if any got sold in the end. I remember wondering why ‘this’ jaggery was black in colour, and had drawn back in shock on tasting a piece I had chipped off the cone-shaped block when no one was looking.

Sidramappa used to work as a farm-hand on my grandfather’s farm. His hopes of landing a profit for his jaggery business venture failed as miserably as the one with livestock when his herd of goats and his brood of hens were buried by a retaining wall that collapsed on them, yet again putting paid to my grandfather’s initiative in getting him started on his own. Each year he seemed to have aged considerably from the year before in the time that I saw him when I traveled on school vacation to the Deccan every year.

One day Sidramappa did not return home. He was found hacked to death on his farm. His son-in-law had taken the axe to him.

I was too young to comprehend murder at the time, but on not finding him in the courtyard where they tied buffaloes and oxen I am told I howled for a long time, searching for him in the days that followed. Now each time I see sugarcane fields and stacks of jaggery my mind jogs a long way back to childhood memories from years ago, to a fading memory of a wrinkled face smiling under a colourful turban.

In the year (1940) that Madan Gopal Jamalal received the postcard from The Nizam Sugar Factory, British India records show sugar consumption in Nizam’s Territory at 20,000 tons, the same as Delhi. However, the Per capita sugar consumption in Nizam’s Territory stood at a mere 2.8 lbs. (1.26 kgs.) to Delhi’s 44.8 lbs. (20.31 kgs.) at the time.

In the Deccan Plateau we used jaggery (gur) far more than sugar, the latter was used sparingly, usually in preparing tea. I believe the price of sugar was a factor.

The postcard addressed to Madan Gopal Jamalal from The Nizam Sugar Factory, dated December 22, 1940, states the wholesale price of sugar for the day as Rs. 33 and 8 annas per bag of 2 cwts (~ 100 kgs.), with 1 rupee fetching 3 kgs. of sugar at 5.36 annas per kilo.

The postcard further states that ‘No offer for less than 100 bags and which does not accompany with a deposit of Rs. 2/- per bag will be considered’. A discount of 2 annas per bag was applicable ‘for orders of 1000 bags and above at a time’. This discount was increased to 4 annas per bag ‘for orders of 2000 bags and above at a time’.

I’ve no way of knowing how many bags Madan Gopal Jamalal used to order at a time, surely not less than 100 bags. I do not know if he was a big time merchant or if he ran a small neighbourhood shop in Hyderabad, though I'm inclined to believe the former. With average Per capita consumption of sugar in Nizam’s territory at 1.26 kgs. in 1939-40, Madan Gopal did not stand to make much profit from the sale of sugar unless he supplied to small time retailers in turn. There is a chance he was a retailer himself, operating his shop out of a crowded neighbourhood, the volumes helping him turn in a decent profit. Or maybe sugar was just one of the things he sold in his shop.

I can only imagine and wonder as I turn the postcard in my hand, willing it to reveal more!