The Rebirth: Building a New Legacy

What does it mean to be a business owner? What does it mean to come from a long line of entrepreneurs? What is the legacy that they’ve left me? What is the legacy that I’m meant to carry forward for future generations?

I found myself grappling with these questions as I started Mith Books on my own. I’ve always believed that our real opportunities in life don’t come as a present neatly wrapped up in a bow. It takes a big crisis to force us to change direction and walk down a road we would never have taken otherwise.

Growing up, I can’t say I had any aspirations to be a business owner. I loved books more than anything else. Whenever I opened a book, I entered magical worlds, travelled far far away and went on grand adventures without leaving my bedroom. Books inspired my curiosity, fired my imagination and broadened my horizons.

I wanted to be an author. A storyteller of ancient myths for the modern era. Believe me, this is not an aspiration that goes down well in a conservative and traditional Gujarati business family.

When I mentioned it to relatives, they looked at me like I had lost my mind.

My family was in textiles – both wholesale and retail. I used to watch my great-grandfather rip open crates of goods with his bare hands. It was a physically-demanding job. Needless to say, the men were in charge of the business and women managed the household and took care of the kids.

But for some unfathomable reason, my great-grandfather Mancharram Nagindas took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about the world of commerce. I ended up working in the family business. I didn’t do any heavy labour, but I was that person that quietly made things work behind-the-scenes. My first job was managing the till – collecting money from customers and giving them the appropriate change. As I grew older, I was relegated to administrative tasks and accounting.

Having said that, as a woman (and the youngest of my generation), I was never next in line to inherit anything. That privilege belonged to the eldest son. Whether he is deserving or not is another story. Like I said, I come from a traditional Gujarati family.

But what my great-grandfather did give me was a solid foundation in entrepreneurship. He instilled in me his austere work ethic of perseverance, resilience and resourcefulness. It would later prove to be far more valuable than any monetary inheritance. Those years managing the finances and watching the men in my family run a business were subconsciously grooming me to start and build my own business one day.

The Journey

There is a saying. Blessed be that which gives your children roots and wings. This proverb encapsulates the story of my life and the stories of those that have come before me.

In 1901, my ancestors left Surat, in the Indian State of Gujarat. They put down roots in Singapore and we’ve been here ever since. Five generations is a long time. Long enough to plant roots and grow attached to them. I am both Singaporean and Gujarati. I am proud of both my country of birth and my ancestry.

In 2007, I left behind my roots to discover my wings. I lived in Australia, Israel, Japan and China. I even visited all the inhabited continents. I had many adventures (and misadventures) along the way. Perhaps I’ll tell that story when I’m old enough to write a memoir.

In 2019, I returned to Singapore to rediscover my roots. A lot had transpired in my twelve years abroad. I was no longer a wide-eyed girl leaving home for the first time. I was a woman of the world. Despite all the experience I had living and working abroad – the questions that people would ask me revolved around my personal life. When I refused to answer, they would make comments on my appearance and age.

My self-esteem is not that fragile. I’ve been through things that have made me strong woman. I was not raised to be a princess. My great-grandfather made sure of that.

I had a tumultuous and heartbreaking journey with traditional publishing. I collected over 200 rejections. But no matter what happened, that little voice inside of me that wanted to tell stories never went away.

It’s one thing to run a business that you inherit from someone else. Another thing to have a dream that you create in this world step-by-step. Brick-by-brick. I realised that life had delivered me an incredible opportunity that had come disguised as a crisis. Many creative people struggle with the commercial side of publishing. But I had years and years of business experience under my belt.

I decided to start Mith Books. And with that, I became both an author and an entrepreneur.

I can’t say anyone came forward to give me a hand. All I heard from people around me was cynicism and criticism.

People who hadn’t read a book in decades offered me their opinion on how to publish a novel. People who had never started a business were giving me advice on how I should run my own. The most well-educated people I know gave me the least practical advice in the world. It was incredulous. Some unsavoury individuals even called me up a few days after my book came out to tell me I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Don’t people have anything better to do than sit around and give people advice on things they know nothing about?

Clearly not.

To everyone who’d known me growing up, I was a daughter, sister, niece and friend. To them, I was not an independent woman who’d lived abroad for twelve years. I found myself back in the precarious position of being ‘the baby’ of the family. I can’t say I liked it.

I gazed at my old bedroom. In the time that I was gone, the walls had been repainted from cream to lavender. Definitely not my choice of colour. As I rummaged through my cupboard, I found toys from back when I was a kid. Clothes that had gone out of style ages ago. Can’t believe I used to wear that. Birthday cards from two decades ago. And the list goes on… During my absence, the abode of my adolescence had also been transformed into a storage space for everyone else’s unwanted belongings.

As I rummaged through all the stuff in my bedroom, I found a huge – and I do mean huge – box full of old photographs under my bed. As I flipped through the albums (I think I’m dating myself here), I took that proverbial walk down memory lane. 

In the midst of all those photographs, I found an album. An album that would change my perspective of myself forever.

It was green in colour. It looked old. Older than anything else in that box.

I opened the album. The photographs were black and white. They were the kind of photos that you would have to order from a printing shop. The date of print was stamped at the back.

The year was 1976. The album was more than 40 years old.

I gazed at an image of a man who passed away before I was born.

Yes, I had seen photographs of him before. It is customary in Hindu households to display garlanded photographs of one’s ancestors. But this was not a photograph to remember his death. Rather, it was a memento of the life he’d lived.

My grandfather Ratilal Mancharram and I look nothing alike. We really don’t. But somewhere in the look in his far away eyes and his infectious smile, I saw myself. There is something of himself that he has left in me.

And after decades, old hand-me-down stories of his life and his beliefs come back to me. He had a diary where he’d repeatedly written a famous quote from a William Ross Wallace poem.

‘The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.’

I smile as I remember the memory. My grandfather Ratilal Mancharram’s ideas were before his time. He believed that business is not about money, but about creating value in this world through your work. A tenacious businessman, he was also actively involved in philanthropy. In a world that valued sons, he loved his daughters.

If he had lived, my life would have been very different. I would have received the encouragement and support I craved and never found.

In my post on The Spiritual Legacy of our Ancestors, I wrote:
“I now believe that when a certain vocation travels through our lineage via a great-grandfather and grandfather and then you find yourself on the same path – any deluded sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ vanishes. It is the same ‘spirit’ travelling through time and distance and passed on to me through my lineage. I embody what has gone before as I learn, evolve and pass the torch to future generations.
It is Santana Dharma – the earliest and the everlasting. That is the spiritual legacy of our ancestors. It belonged to us well before we came into this world, and it will still live on when we pass away. We are a part of them and they are a part of us.”

And with that, I know my family history has played a significant role in shaping me into who I am today. I may not have inherited anything. I may not have received any ‘help’ as I started this business, but somewhere deep down, I know I can do it.

If they can do it – I can, too.

And with that, I return to my initial musings:

What does it mean to be a business owner? What does it mean to come from a long line of entrepreneurs? What is the legacy that they’ve left me? What is the legacy that I’m meant to carry forward for future generations?

I don’t have the answers just yet. But I have a feeling I’ll discover them through the course of building my business Mith Books.

I hope that you will join me on my journey.

Author: Dipa

Founder of Mith Books

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