The Business Giant Of Karachi and Bombay

My great grandfather Sakharam Purushottam Marathe ‘Appasaheb’(seated right) and his three sisters, Bombay, Maharashtra. Circa. 1950

Image and Narrative points contributed by Om Marathe, Pune

IMP Research Intern : Priyanka Balwant Kale, Pune

This is a photograph of my great grandfather Sakharam Purushottam Marathe (seated right), and his three sisters, Laadu, Kusum, and Kashi (Left to Right), wearing nauvari (nine yard) sarees, a casual attire in most Maharashtrian households. The photograph was taken in Bombay around 1950, when Appasaheb returned from Karachi (now in Pakistan) to the newly formed India, and was reunited with his family. My great grandfather was fondly called Appa by his family members and Appasaheb at his workplace and his life, as it turns out was no less than an adventure.

Appasaheb was born in in 1911, in a small village called Vengurla, in Sindhudurg district, on the Konkon coastal border, north of Goa. His family owned a small farmland but the family’s fortune was negligible. Following a common tradition in the Brahmin community called ‘Vaar Laun Jevane’ – that had the community feed young Brahmin boys from poverty driven families, on different days of the week, young Appasaheb too could be found frequently having dinner at his neighbours’ homes. Appasaheb was highly intelligent, but unfortunately for his family, he had no interest in farming. In 1929, he passed the matriculation examination and moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in search of employment opportunities.

Early 20th century Bombay was a newly industrialised city with several avenues for social mobility, and even then it welcomed young hard-working men and women with open arms. Through his kins’ network, he found a job with a P. Shah and Company that supplied waterproof canvases, cushion springs etc for motor-buses. As the business expanded, a branch was opened in Karachi in Sindh across the coast (now in Pakistan). Karachi was known as Bombay’s sister city, that also fell under the Bombay Presidency. Appasaheb was appointed as the manager of the Karachi branch.

Around 1930, Appasaheb, along with his family moved to the cosmopolitan Karachi and under his direction the company flourished, and the family whose comfort and safety was a deeply important to him, settled in well. I am told, that when his sister, Ladu (seated left most) became a child widow, he found out that her in-laws were treating her horribly, and he brought her back with him to Karachi for some time. Throughout his life, he looked after everyone in his household, including his sisters. 

By 1942, it was clear that Appasaheb was a man of sharp entrepreneurial skills, with a knack of winning over anyone he met, and that year he established his own business, ‘The Sindh Industrial and Pharmaceutical Company’ (SIPCOL) in Malir, Sindh (now in Pakistan). In wake of World War II, when imports of Cod-Liver Oil were temporarily suspended, it caused a crisis in the medicinal and nutritional sector. For Appasaheb it was an opportunity – the coastal areas of Jamnagar, Porbandar and Okha (in Gujarat) had plenty of Sharks whose liver also contained medicinal and nutritional qualities similar to Cod-Liver. The supply was guaranteed, and a long story short, the Shark Liver oil under the brand name of SIPCOL was an overnight success, and multiplied Appasaheb’s fortunes.

In Karachi, the Marathe family lived in the prominent locality of Bandar road (now Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road). The Maharashtrian community with approximately 50,000 people enjoyed tremendous social currency and power and they demonstrated the vibrant culture of the community in Karachi, where people from all religions and ethnicities celebrated their diversities, and lived in harmony. Appasaheb’s daughter, my grand-aunt Vimal, was born in Karachi and she still remembers that they owned a convertible car and that Karachi is where she experienced the finest days of her life. Both of Appasaheb’s children, Vimal and my grandfather Suresh attended a Marathi medium school in Karachi called Narayan Jagannath High School.

In August 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided in two nations, Karachi became part of Pakistan, a nation with an Islamic identity, almost all Karachi residents, Muslim or Hindu assumed it was mere political theater, but when matters came to head and mob-full of refugees began arrive right into their homes, they had no choice but to flee, leaving everything behind. Appasaheb and family also remained in Karachi till 1948, assuming that the partition was not real. But when a violent mob entered their home, they had to be rescued by two loyal employees – Pathans, who helped them find shelter in a neighbour’s house. My family remains grateful to those Pathans, and their neighbours. Appasaheb rapidly wrapped up his business, and sold it all at a much lower value. The stunned family didn’t even get time to pack luggage and with meagre savings, an extra pair of clothing, his family left for India with tearful eyes.

What awaited them was a fateful journey in one of the three steamer boats to Bombay, traversing through the Arabian sea. At the docks thousands of Gujrati, Marwari, Sindhi and Marathi people awaited the boats to carry them to safety. For victims of partition, the 40-hour sea journey was a dreadful and claustrophobic experience. With no sanitation and hygiene facilities for women it was especially tortuous. My grand-aunt Vimal, I am told, hid a knife in her bag throughout the journey – for self-protection. Nonetheless, when the family finally reached Bombay, they immediately traveled on to their native village in Vengurla as their immediate resort. But Appasaheb was not one to give up, and he decided to put his past behind to reestablish a new life. He again moved to Bombay with family staying on the outskirts of Bombay, Goregaon till 1951 and later he found a 600 sq ft home in Mahim that also became a shelter for partition victims before they moved on.

Appasaheb then established a company called Sachin & Co followed by a Ramesh & Co. that sold hardware and tools and soon he became the sole suppliers of lights to ships. Secular in nature, the experience of partition and communalism did not colour his judgement, and many divisions of his company were run by skilled Muslim labour. Recognising the importance of automobiles and engineering in India’s future he bought a plot from Portuguese church in Prabhadevi area to establish Marathe Udyog Bhavan that supplied spare parts to engineers of TELCO, Philips, Mahindra and Premier Automobiles. For a church to sell their land to a Marathi Brahmin family was unheard of but they did. Among his many other achievements he even supervised the prototype for the first Offset Printing Machine in India, that received world-wide recognition. In his honour, and for his contributions to the country, and his community, the BMC (Bombay Municipal Corporation) dedicated a road Appasaheb Marathe Marg in his name that runs parallel to the Siddhivinayak Temple in Prabhadevi, Mumbai.

Appasaheb passed away in 1969, and while he was a giant in the Maharashtrian Business community, he shows us a simple, and a personal side of affection and commitment towards his family. I, his great grandson stand deeply inspired.

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dinesh

    So vividly narrated Sh OM Marathe.

  2. Balwant kale

    The story castrd bu Priyanka is realy free flowing,illustrate all dimentios. Of character , Appasaheb, many faacts wàshed span of time,explored magnificently

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