By Sowmya Suresh, Nanuet, United States
Antiestablishment - if Dickens’ Scrooge was the embodiment of this dubious distinction, the merchant of Hyderabad was somewhat similarly drenched in a more common affliction that was trickery.
But rest assured there was nothing common about that man.
The mystical land of India has many kinds of off-the-cuff people who ooze ephemeral mumbo-jumbo that the masses lap up eagerly. This was especially pronounced before the spread of literacy, now a vice in certain brilliant brutes.
Beneath it all is a layer that still operates stealthily, preserving and spreading a growing number of urban legends. These legends with morals don't bestow the absorber with any degree or diploma, but still leave him feeling extremely satisfied and enlightened. Like secrets, these legends are told over and over and pushed down generations. The debate is never about their authenticity, but about who told any such tale first, or what the real identity of the protagonists could be.
This particular legend could have started anywhere. It might very well have even been the author’s own ancestor.
Unlike certain legends that have a clear motive, like the one about the Indian man who preceded Neil Armstrong to the moon, but only to set up his tea stall, this legend seems to be its own motive. This will become clear when you get to learn the story, and then consider the fact that most Indians are pious, and many assume all merchants in the money-lending business are like Shylock, although most have never heard of him.
The merchant of Hyderabad came from a pious family, although he himself often questioned the existence of an all-powerful being that was always invisible. At a very young age poverty taught him that the most powerful thing on earth was something that was very visible. It was round and shiny and made of gold or silver or just something that was printed on paper. It was called currency, but really it was just money and it ran the world.
The minute he could lay his hands on some, he set up his own business selling day old newspapers to the residents of a town not that far away from his hometown of Hyderabad. He bought his ware at reasonably lowered prices considering their late unworthiness, and sold them at a higher price where they were still marketable in a town that couldn’t afford a printing press.
Some people accused him of shameless profiteering but he didn't let that faze him. He just grew and expanded his business with a single-mindedness people have now come to expect from winners. All his ideas were rooted in equally amazing simplicity, so that people wondered why they hadn't thought of it themselves. It wasn't like he had invented something complicated that benefitted mankind. Anybody could do what he did. Unfortunately for them this merchant always came up with the best ideas which the more envious ones referred to as common trickery.
Like all great men do so right before a fall, late into his career as a businessman, now married and blessed with both a boy and a girl, he made his first mistake. He took a partner without bothering to check his references. For a man from the slums, everything was rooted in a simplicity that was alien to anyone even remotely wise about the ways of the world.
Now introduced to the business of money-lending he trustingly deposited his half with his new partner. The net sum of all the profits he had made less the amount he’d used to purchase his princely bungalow, was now expendable solely at the discretion of this man the merchant had met, while part of an audience at a poetry recital. All the merchant, whose name changed during every rendition of the story, needed to be able to form friendships was to ascertain beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person shared his enthusiasm for Urdu poetry. In fact, in some versions of this legend his wife is a poet who captivates his heart during one such recital; that is, she is a Shayarani. A Shayarani as everyone knows is a female Shayar or Urdu poet. Poetry in Urdu, Shayari, follows a specific meter just like regular poetry follows other meters like Iambic or Haiku.
In this version of the rendering however the woman was a decent housewife picked, from a vast group of applicants for the said role, by his parents. This version assumes its accuracy, based on the need to keep everyone involved belonging to the same faith and presumably caste.
The merchant went about minding his various other enterprises while he continued to pump all extra cash flow into his money lending venture. Meanwhile, his family competed with his ventures for his attention. His son was just about to start school and his daughter was already delighting him with her artistic flavor, drawing anything that caught her fancy with a brilliance that apparently was so striking, only the keenest eye like his could discern its worth.
On the day his son was to start school he invited his parents over to get their blessings. As their only son, the boy was their only grandson. They dropped in on time in their new car, a gift from their brilliant son. They now lived in an ashram, a holy retreat, run by India’s then most sought after holy man; a luxury made affordable by their only successful issue. Yes, legend has it that many other ‘issues’ died and only this protagonist survived.
They brought with them a talisman and other artifacts blessed by the holy man from the ashram. As the grandma bent low to tie one such blessing around the boy’s neck, her son, the merchant, grabbed it and flung it across the large and ornate living room. Before she could open her mouth he told her without mincing any words that he did not wish his son to be raised believing that his fate could be dictated by a locket strung through a piece of thread. His parents felt hurt. Had their only son forgotten that it was their blessings that put him on the road to success. It was the same holy man from this same Ashram who had sent him personally blessed pictures of the holy deities that now hung on the walls of his unnecessarily fancy prayer room. It was his dear father's prayers that blessed him with two beautiful and wholesome children.
The merchant wouldn't give them the satisfaction. He began to explain with painstaking detail exactly how he built up his business. He told them all about the man who’d sent him to his own moneylender to be lashed on his behalf for non-payment. He told them about the paltry sum he received in exchange, with which he bought day old newspapers. Twenty lashes a day for every day the man delayed his payment, the number to be increased incrementally by five for every week he continued to default.
Did the baba, the holy man, make it so the man would continue to default? So I could be lashed far beyond my need to make money out of it? Did God make sure my luck would keep running so that this iron-clad contract would provide for me while ripping the skin off my bones?
His parents already aware of the sordid tale of his route to success weren't moved by his current renewed distress. They weren't foreigners to the world of hardship. They informed him calmly like they always did that it was God who kept him sane and healthy while he endured what he did.
He in turn informed them that he God had been the last thing on his mind when he had his eyes on the goal. He told them he had to shred his religious upbringing, his inbred beliefs that had done nothing but inhibit him into staying in his corner while waiting for things to happen. He had to become his own man to be able to take charge, he said. This talisman is an inhibitor, I urge you to take this back with you, he implored.
All of his parents’ pleas fell on deaf ears. They were genuinely afraid for him now. The talisman had come from the Goddess of wealth herself, according to the holy man. He had spun a tale about how wealth attracts wealth and how the very Goddess of wealth herself had now noticed their immensely successful son, the merchant of Hyderabad.
Finally, they left having just placed their palms on the little boy’s head as blessings. The merchant was pleased. That is all I expect, he said with satisfaction.
Months passed and the man continued to flourish. His son was doing very well at the expensive private school and the daughter kept herself busy drawing pictures of the Goddess of wealth. She would run up to her dad every evening when he got home from work and ask if her latest attempt was the one that was true to life. Her father always had just one answer, “The Goddess of wealth looks like whatever you think she looks like.” At that she would squeal out incredibly cute giggles and win his heart all over again.
His wife until now mum on the subject had her own views on this topic. She felt he could have at the very least just accepted their gift to please them. A merchant like you should know better than to say no to even a remote suggestion of money, she cleverly manipulated. Superstitious herself, she was the one who had encouraged her daughter to draw the Goddess as an attempt appease any ruffled feathers of the universe, the omnipotent judge, who was more strict than benevolent.
They would often argue about the philosophy and the metaphysics if it all. About the very existence of God and about the dangers of pooh-poohing prevalent practices. He would allay her fears by reverting to an amusing anecdote that had nothing to do with the discussion, successfully changing the topic, or just taking the question head on and telling her that he made his own destiny in a world where money rules, and where anything can be bought with that and timely wisdom.
It isn't often that destiny then tries to test such claims, but that is exactly what happened next to the brave merchant of Hyderabad.
First, he lost his best friend, his partner, his only one. The man just took off one day, and never returned. He took their moneylending assets with him, tucking the aluminum chest that contained them under his huge arms, supporting the rest of its weight on his ample belly.
Frantic with despair they looked for him everywhere. Since his entire cash flow was affected he had to sustain the growth of his other businesses by selling his assets - his beachside cottage, his daughter’s already ready dowry and even his car. Throughout the ordeal, his wife repeatedly asked him to go back and get the talisman, but he always refused. She was convinced that that piece of metal, tiny as it was, would save their fortune. That it would keep their family and their very lives from heading towards certain doom. This belief affected her health and she withered into a colorless being, drained of all energy and seemingly her very soul. She barely responded to her children's requests to go out and play or even feed them. Soon, unable to afford their wages, they began letting go their house maids, and this only made everything worse for his wife.
By the time the merchant moved the family into the basement of his own bungalow, his wife was bedridden and close to death. The merchant had to resort to this extreme measure so he could rent it out to be able to afford food and basic essentials. He transferred his son to the free local public school.
In the one room basement, his wife lay on the only single wooden cot. The others slept on straw mats on the bare floor. While he was used to this, his children would in the future, remember their time spent here as the time their dad made them experiment with minimalism. For now, blissfully unaware of their condition, they adapted like only children do. The little girl continued to draw pictures of the Goddess, especially since this seemed to be the only thing that her mother responded to favorably. She'd look at her with eyes half-open and manage a weak smile and a pat on her head.
The merchant’s woes only continued to grow. With his newly attached profile as a bad mind-reader, a less than ideal assessor of human personalities, not many people were ready to trust him with their new ventures or invest in his latest new ideas.
Over the course of the next few months they continued to eke out a meager existence, stretching the rent to pay for food and clothing and his wife’s medicines. His only happiness came from his continued patronization of the Urdu lyrics. His few trusted friends were all to be found here. They welcomed him even now with the same enthusiasm and fervor as they did their old pal the merchant of Hyderabad. Here he remained the unchallenged owner of this title.
Slowly, the merchant began to wonder if his wife might indeed be right? He would never acquiesce that someone else could be completely in charge of his destiny, no, but he did give the idea of perceived arrogance some thought. The group that surrounds you is what sustains you. Collective thoughts, when forced a particular way, do have the power to influence. What if someone who could have stopped his partner didn't, just because they no longer felt he was deserving of that act of kindness? Worse, what if someone, tipped off to his atheism, decided to play such a trickery on him just to teach him a lesson?
The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that this was the real reason behind his sudden bad luck and unbelievable misfortune.
It was late that day when they heard the knock on the door. This unprecedented event was not just shocking, the lateness jarring their senses, but also and mostly extremely perplexing. Was someone here to take this away from them as well? This little haven where they had grown to accept their fate and grow into it?
The wife coughed and turned over on her cough, disturbed. The children huddled around the single oil lamp flickering away, just about to burn out its allowed oil ration for the day. The merchant rose from his mat and peeped though the glass eye on the door as he hurriedly put on a shirt over his vest.
It was dark outside and all he could make out was a frame, a silhouette of a wispy woman, her out of place dressy Sari, draped all around her and over her head. He opened the door immediately as only a gentleman would, automatically assuming the worst about a woman in distress.
The open doorframe lit up with her beaming smile. “Greetings and apologies for disturbing you at this late hour.” The woman spoke softly, charming him instantly with her polite and pleasing demeanor.
"Are you in trouble? Do you need my help?” He asked as his wife tried to get an inside on the proceedings, coughing louder and trying to make it to the door herself.
The man’s daughter ran to him and hung on to his shirt sleeve, watching them both with more than a curious interest.
The stranger smiled at the little girl and produced a shiny brass article, a bowl no bigger than her head, from under the portion of the sari that covered her arms and said, “Just a conundrum. My money is left behind where I live and I cannot get there without money. I have been offered passage by a kind man who seeks nothing more that this bowl to be kept full with food or money or both. I am asking you to fill it either fully or at least partially so that I may return to my kingdom.”
“Why is she speaking that way?” His daughter asked, quick to observe that this wasn't language that everyday people used.
At that the woman bent low and cupped the little girl’s chin lovingly. “Aren't you clever?” She said.
The girl smiled shyly before widening her eyes in realization. As the woman had shifted her stature, the careful folds of her sari moved to reveal jewels, expensive looking gold necklaces hanging around her neck. The ornaments shone and lit up the door frame and most of the tiny dwelling. They stared agape and stood looking at her speechless.
“I know who you are and I know what you are really up to!” The five-year old girl exclaimed and ran to get her drawing folder, her sketch pad.
At this point it is necessary to point out that most storytellers assume that their audience will catch up to what was really going on. They assume this because the story taps into another well-known legend about the Goddess of wealth. She moves around flashing her all-knowing smile dressed like a queen, hiding her identity with just her acting skills and divinity, while sometimes pretending to be a beggar. She does this to supposedly test her chosen subject for humility and certain other qualities like the willingness to help a damsel in distress. If not found lacking, she then proceeds to reward the one jumped by her, bestowing upon him a chosen sum of money.
Not only was the merchant of Hyderabad totally aware of this legend, he even recognized the bowl from some of his daughter’s excellent renderings of the Goddess and in all her forms of godliness and other various forms of earthly glory.