AS BRITISH imperialists were trudging through African jungles to secure their newly conquered empire, some of the empire’s subjects were also roaming far and wide, under the cover of the Union flag. One was Allidina Visram, from Kutch, in what is now Gujarat state in India. He arrived penniless in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) on the east African coast in 1863, aged 12. He opened his first small shop 14 years later, and soon afterwards spotted his great opportunity. He opened a store at every large railway station along the 580 miles of railway track being laid down through Kenya to Uganda in the early 1900s, providing supplies to thousands of railway workers. He then opened more stores at Jinja on Lake Victoria.
Flush with success, Visram was later joined by another Gujarati, Vithaldas Haridas. He arrived in 1893 and was, if anything, even more adventurous than his mentor; he stomped 24 miles through the jungle to the small town of Iganga, where he started his own shop. More followed. These were the beginnings of some of the larger fortunes to be made in colonial Africa.
Gujaratis have never been put off by small matters such as distance or temperature. Nowadays they form one of the most prominent immigrant communities in Canada, and at the other end of the Earth they constitute a large proportion of the 155,000 immigrants of Indian origin in New Zealand. And at all points of the compass in between, from Fiji to Britain, from Myanmar to Uganda, they have built flourishing communities. It may even be true, as one Gujarati organisation has claimed, that the only countries where they have not settled are “those which are very small, undeveloped or are merely small islands without much business opportunity”.
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Business, indeed, is the principal business of Gujaratis. Everywhere, they are to be found running businesses, from corner-shops to hotels, from tech start-ups to some of the world’s largest conglomerates. Like the Jews, Chinese, English, Scots and Lebanese, they have come to form an impressive global commercial network. In proportion to their numbers (about 63m live in India, and there could be anything from 3m to 9m abroad), they could even claim to be the most successful. They bestride entire sectors of the global economy and have been at least partly responsible for the rise and fall of nations. Their influence on some advanced economies is now substantial.
Consider America. Having arrived in numbers from the 1960s onwards, Gujaratis now run about a third of all its hotels and motels. Furthermore, this was achieved mostly by just one group, essentially an extended family, the Patels, who hail originally from a string of villages between the industrial cities of Baroda (or Vadodara) and Surat (see map). Like other South Asians, they highly value degrees in medicine and engineering. But they have the added knack of turning a degree into a business opportunity. Thus they own almost half (12,000) of America’s independent pharmacies (as well as one of the biggest chains in Britain, Day Lewis). There are thousands of Gujarati doctors in America, and they are quicker than most to start up their own practices. Bhupendra Patel, for instance, studied medicine in Baroda before coming to America in 1971. He set up a practice four years later, bought his own building in Queens, a borough of New York City, in 1978 and soon had 30 or so doctors working for him. His classmates were certainly impressed; out of 120 of his peers, 90 came to America in his wake.
These stories point to a couple of outstanding characteristics. Most fundamentally, those Gujaratis who turn to business say that they are constitutionally unsuited to working for other people. For them, the best way to work for yourself is to run your own business, “to take your destiny in your hands”, as Russell Mehta, the head of Rosy Blue, a large diamond processor, puts it. For these people, enterprise is virtually a cultural obligation, and has always earned the most respect. Starting a small corner-shop is seen as more impressive than holding a mid-level management job in somebody else’s company.
A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
For many Gujaratis the point of acquiring knowledge is to attain practical goals, particularly business goals. The Gujarati word vediyo, meaning a person who studies the Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit texts that constitute the oldest skriptures of Hinduism, has come to mean a “learned fool”. Ethnic-Indian Americans have applied their practical knowledge to Silicon Valley; they are responsible for about a quarter of all startups there, and a quarter of those are thought to be Gujarati. https://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21683983-secrets-worlds-best-businesspeople-going-global?fsrc=scn%2Ffb%2Fte%2Fbl%2Fed%2Fgoingglobal