The Asian Wall Street Journal
(c) 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. To see the edition in which this article appeared, click here http://awsj.com.hk/factiva-ns
WHEN MOHAMMED Akil Syed left Uttar Pradesh over 60 years ago to make a living down South, he hardly imagined that his children would eventually make his bakery a household name in prosperous South Bombay with movie stars, politicians and wealthy businessmen as clients. Now, the annual turnover from the Syed family bakery in Bombay's Kemp's Corner is around $400,000.
The transformation of a dusty, small shop that sold soft bread, butter, and eggs into a popular minimart now called Bake House that supplies snacks of all kinds underlines the progress that self-driven entrepreneurs have made in India. But this story has one surprising twist: the Syeds are Muslim.
Much of the literature about Muslim families in India paints a picture of discrimination, segregation and economic disadvantage. Sadly, some statistics show the truth in these generalizations. While Muslims form nearly 12% of India's 1.02 billion people, their share in elite cadres of the bureaucracy the Indian Administrative, Foreign, or Police Services is less than half of that. The story is similar in both the judiciary and the private sector. True, the heads of two leading companies in the growing sectors of the Indian economy pharmaceuticals and infotech are Muslim. But overall, the community is underrepresented in the corporate sector as well.
It would seem that the only areas of public life in which Indian Muslims excel are sport and entertainment; two areas where talent is harder to suppress. Three of the eleven players in the Indian cricket team that vanquished Pakistan in the Samsung Cup of one-day internationals that ended last month in Lahore Mohammed Kaif, Zaheer Khan, and Irfan Pathan were Muslim. Likewise, three of Bollywood's biggest male stars today Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, and Shahrukh Khan are Muslim. But critics argue that they are exceptions to the rule that Muslims are rarely incorporated into mainstream Indian life.
Many in India would argue that those Muslims who overcome do so because they are exceptionally brilliant (like the missile scientist Abdul Kalam, now India's president), or due to some form of affirmative action.
This is why the Syed family story stands out. Not only have the Syeds succeeded on their own terms, they have done so in a predominantly Gujarati-speaking middle-class, conservative area. It was in Gujarat, in 2002, that hundreds of Muslims died in the violent retaliation after a Muslim mob set a train compartment afire, killing over 50 Hindu nationalist activists. This month, the Indian Supreme Court reopened the Best Bakery case, in which a Hindu mob allegedly burnt a Muslim-owned bakery (which killed 14 people) in Baroda, a city in Gujarat, during the riots that followed the burning of the train.
But Bombay is a very different city. The fact that the Syeds operate peacefully and have prospered here says as much about the inclusive ethos of Bombay, as about their own spunk. Zahid Syed, Akil's son, has never felt threatened in this part of Bombay. Of course, during periods of communal unrest he takes care to shut his shop, but his premises have never been damaged. "People know us, we have never felt unsafe," he says.
The Syeds clearly don't think of themselves as making any broad political point. But their actions underscore their deep belief in India. In pre-Partition India, the family's patriarch moved from Azamgarh to Bombay, not to Pakistan, whose raison d'etre was to be the home of the sub-continent's Muslims, and where many Muslims were migrating. Then, he made his home in this cosmopolitan city. His children invested in the business, built a clientele and developed a chain of suppliers.
In the early years after Indian independence in 1947, food was in short supply, and government-owned ration shops provided often sub-standard grain at subsidized prices. A state-run bakery made one-taste-suits-all white bread. At such a time, the Syeds offered a mouthwatering alternative, soft fresh bread at inexpensive prices. The Syed children, back from school, would slice the fresh bread with their long, sharp knives, then wrap the bread in old newspapers and present it to their customers who would rush home to share the treat with their families. "Our success was entirely due to word of mouth," says Zahid Syed, Akil's son.
But success was not instant. For many years, Akil Syed's shop remained a pau (bread) shop, offering little else. But when his health deteriorated in the late 1980s (he died in 1991) the older sons took charge. They had little choice but to drop studies and take over the business. They named their shop Bread Station. They began importing foreign-made cheeses and jams at a time when India discouraged large-scale imports of consumer products. Most shops sold Indian-made Polson butter and Verka cheese, but at Bread Station you could get Kraft cheese and Suchard's hot chocolate, although at a premium, marked-up price. Some of these initiatives were necessary. The Syeds had competition around the corner a large bakery called American Express, which smelled of cakes and two varieties of bread: brown and white.
In 1991, something else happened: India jettisoned the socialist model of self-denial, and the Syeds' business took off. "In our father's time I remember people haggled over prices because nobody had a lot of money, and there was a lot of hardship. Now, many people come and some of them spend hundreds of rupees at a time. Everybody is doing well," he says. By 1995 their business had grown enough to hire staff.
Today, the two bakeries employ nearly 40 people. Zahid Syed estimates that he gets almost 1,000 customers daily. His bakery operates from 5 am to midnight, converting three bags of 90 kg of flour each into all kinds of bread products daily. "We are successful because our clients like us otherwise we would not survive. We have trusted, old clients who come to us year after year," Mr. Syed says. They also provide home delivery, with a staff of four fielding calls and rushing to customers on motor scooters to anywhere in South Bombay. The next plan is a website. Yet despite their success, Mr. Syed does not want his children to follow the same path. "They should become professionals, lawyers, doctors, something like that." As for his own plans, he thinks setting up a supermarket would be a good idea.
Mr. Syed's father died before seeing the far-reaching benefits of India's economic liberalization, which created opportunities that extend to those who had been long perceived as victims of discrimination. His business-savvy sons anticipated these opportunities, grasped them, and carved out success.
Mr. Tripathi, a London-based writer, grew up in Bombay on the Syeds' bread.