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!


mountainear said...

Questions, questions....a small piece of ephemera brings back so many memories and opens up so many lines of enquiry.

I look into the history of my village - trying to read photographs as I would read a book. Here with a postcard you are doing the same.

kenju said...

There are many intriguing mysteries in ancient ephemera. You have followed that one more than most are able.

Kay Cooke said...

I've never heard of jaggery before. Is it a type of toffee I wonder? What a wonderful recollection you have. Even as a child you were curious and noticed and appreciated people and their ways.

Kay Cooke said...

I've just looked up 'jaggery' in the dictionary - it's now my learned word for the day!

Lakshmi said...

A chain of thoughts from a postcard and still more answers to come...one image that comes to my mind is the stacks of sugarcane in the fields enroute to Mysore from Bangalore..

Anonymous said...

Told wonderfully, these memories spurred on by an item as small as a postcard! :)

Dawn said...

Amazing post I Must agree!
I enjoyed every bit of it

Thanks to you

Vikram Nandwani said...

Loved the Post(card from the past) :)

Anonymous said...

a sweet post :-)

Anonymous said...

great short story...detective like in its construction

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Anil. Sounds la - Amitav Ghosh.

Anil P said...

Mountainear: Very much so. A way of life can crystallise itself into ephemera.

Kenju: Thank you. Yes, not knowing add a touch of mystery.

Chiefbiscuit: Thank you :) A kiln is fired with sugarcane leftovers, and the sugarcane extract is stirred for long hours. I've written of once such experiences in a related post linked at the end of this post.

Backpakker: Yes, imagine if there were no postcards, and only email to commmunicate the Sugar rate, all communication would be locked out with the passing away of the communicators.

Seamus: Thank you. Yes, one small trigger.

Dawn: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know you enjoyed reading the post.

Vikram Nandwani: Thank you.

Kaustubh: Thanks.

Harini: :)

Uma Gowrishankar: Thanks, but that's a comparison to a collosus, am not sure I can match to :)

Di Mackey said...

I love the way you unwrapped the story for us. Beautifully written.

And thank you for commenting on the kids photographs, they will appreciate it.

Carolyn said...

You tell the story so poetically. It's amazing how much they went thru to get a bit of sugar. And the mystery surrounding the sender of the postcard is quite intriguing!

El said...

wow. you know a lot!

nice read, good flow.

Anil P said...

Di Mackey: Thanks. They did a good job.

Carolyn: Thank you. The mystery, yes :)

El: Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Very cool! You turning into quite a William Dalrymple :-)

Gauri Gharpure said...

very interesting, well-researched post, this one.. also, i read it to be Jamnalal, not Jamalal.. the na+aa is quite clear..

Macadamia The Nut said...

It's both exciting and annoying innit? The rapid flood of emotions which course through when you touch something which has created its own historic niche. Memories... Flashes of words, color, smell.. And then the futility of trying to learn more...

Beautifully written.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, What an interesting story flows from a postcard. Your blog is like receiving a postcard too. I'd love to see India one day. Vikram Seth is one of my favorite authors. Words capture the imagination.

Bee said...

My dictionary defines jaggery as "unrefined sugar made from palm sap" -- but your description of "black" and "hard" and "cone" makes it sound like burnt hard candy. What is jaggery suppose to look and taste like? Are you familiar with English/American forms such as treacle and molasses? Is it something like this? I am curious . . . because I love to bake and I have a "sweet tooth."

Did you grow up in Goa? I think it is interesting that you call the city "Bombay" instead of "Mumbai."

It fascinates me that you found my blog today -- and I yours.

Amazing Graze said...

thanks for dropping by my blog, gave me a chance to read this very well written blog of yours. i like the varied topics that you write about. & you do take great photos. :)

Anil P said...

Gauri: I thought so at first, but he insisted it was 'Jamalal' and not 'Jamnalal'. Maybe someone who reads Urdu well could confirm it. Thank you.

Shantanu: I can only smile :)

Macadamia The Nut: Very much so. Firstly the smell the postcard gathered over many a humid monsoon, the yellowing paper brittle to the touch together conspire to evoke faraway memories, mostly imagination. To hold in the hand a piece of history is to turn back time to let voices filter through.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. You must visit India, though I must say it is a challenge as well as a deliverance on more counts than one.

Bee: It's wonderful to have you read the post. Thanks for the same.

I'm not sure if sugarcane would qualify for a 'palm', moreover I would imagine 'sap' to mean extracts extracted through cuts in a palm tree.

Here, sugarcane is crushed in a crusher and the sugarcane extract is boiled for over two hours in a large metal vessel over a kiln fired largely using sugarcane leftover from the crushing. The crusher operates on the farm.

The sugarcane extract is then boiled for over two hours before transferring to a holding area where it is cooled, turning into jaggery. Then using metal buckets it is shaped into cones, each weighing around 15 kilos.

The colour of jaggery is usually a light shade of gold with a trace of brown. In Sidramappa's case it was a dark shade of brown, actually closer to black than brown, generally an indication of failure, usually because of the quality of sugarcane .

In rural India, jaggery is used extensively, and the cuisine reflects it as well. Jaggery is cheaper than sugar, a factor that explains its widespread use in the rural hinterland, the other reason could be that farmers can manufacture jaggery in their fields, cutting transportation and factory manufacturing costs.

I remember seeing jaggery used with peanuts to fight off hunger pangs. I've used the combination when trekking in the jungles.

Molasses is different from jaggery. I would imagine 'treacle' to be the other name for molasses.

Yes, I grew up in Goa.

For much of its (Bombay's) existence the character the city took did so in the time it was known as 'Bombay', a sentiment I share for, though it has no life of its own it courses with one, that which was given it by generations who knew it as Bombay. If it could it would've chosen to retain its original name, but it cannot speak on its behalf, and those who did were bereft of authority to resist the change in name.

Mumbai is a derivative as well, pushed through the legislature by a hardline party that revels in its role as a protector of the local language, Marathi, and not favourably disposed to fellow Indians from other parts of the country.

I use both names interchangeably.

You might want to read my other post related to sugarcane: A Sugarcane Morning in North Karnataka

Anonymous said...

Amazing. Love the way you tell stories. More please.

Anil P said...

Which main? What cross?: Thank you. It's encouraging to receive your feedback, helps keep me going :)

Sure there'll more on India :)

Steve Reed said...

Thanks for stopping by...your blog is like making a quick trip to India! I like the detail in your writing and the postcard story is a good example. It's interesting how a small thing can set off such a cascade of memories. (And I'd never heard of jaggery before, either!)

Anil P said...

Steve: T'was a pleasure. I suppose with too many things fighting for one's attention, sometimes the details of one can trigger a cascade of memories.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes in life we come across some pieces, a book, a stone a coin ... that takes us miles away. I remember as a kid I had gone with my mum & sister to a tour ( a bus trip) of Delhi and Agra. I met a young Australian boy who gave surfing insructions for 6 months and the rest 6 he spent on travelling. This year, for him it was India. Being poor, he could not accompany us to Qutub Minar. Heartbroken, mum, sis and I went ahead. I came back to my new friend Gary Prior with a piece of history in my closed fist. Though I couldnt afford his ticket inside, i brought out a little piece of stone from the Qutub ground. Maybe some king had walked over it. Gary and I had spent time wondering how life must have been ... only till the next stop. Your blog not just makes me wonder still, about Gary, Qutub, but also the Nizam who had the sugar factory.

Anil P said...

Arpita: Very true, assuming that one is willing to be transported by a memory, a ephemera, and a story.

Unknown said...

where should we contact to give our grown sugarcane to prepare Jaggery. please help as i don't want to send it for factory. waiting for your reply.