When Prometheus stole fire from the gods, we do not know in what form he actually carried the fire. Most denizens of gaslit cities, however, carried fire in their pockets. That is, in the form of a box of matches. Calcutta was no different. Though local match production in the city did not acquire significant dimensions till after the First World War, throughout the late nineteenth century Calcuttans of every stripe used matches. These matches were imported from Sweden, Austria, Bohemia, and later Japan. A number of pioneering businessman engaged in this import trade. Some of the most successful ones eventually set up their own production units abroad as well and created large, transnational business firms. One of the most successful amongst these men was a Parsi gentleman called Mr. M.N. Mehta.
Merwanjee Nanabhoy Mehta was born in Bombay in 1857. After finishing his schooling at the Bombay High School, he initially moved to Calcutta for college but then made the city his home for the rest of his life. He attended the St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta. After finishing college, aged only twenty years, in 1877 he invested the small capital he had in the China trade, importing Indian goods to the Qing empire. His business flourished and the young Merwanjee soon became a wealthy merchant. With the money he made, he briefly then attempted to set up manufacturing businesses in Calcutta, but did not find success in manufacturing. Abandoning manufacturing, he turned once more to international trade. Instead of looking only to the Qing empire, however, he now began to import goods into Calcutta from Bohemia. Once again he succeeded in making rapid and substantial profits. Mehta then expanded his business empire throughout the Far East, setting up branches of his firm, M.N. Mehta & Co., in Canton, Hong Kong, and Kobe. It was in Japan that he manufactured the matches that were one of the most popular in eastern India in the pre-WWI era.
Mehta belonged to the generation of Parsi stalwarts such as Dadabhai Naoroji and shared the latter’s dual commitment to both the British Empire and Indian nationalism within the Empire. In fact, the Mehta family were originally from Navsari, the very town where Naoroji had been born and the ancient town’s cosmopolitan ethos might well have equally influenced both men. Mehta’s matchbox labels, some of the most beautiful one can find from the era, bear testimony to this bivalent politics. Images of Britannia and the Indian National Congress both appear with equal frequency. Indeed he even explicitly advocated the boycott of foreign-made goods and the use of Swadeshi goods.
Mehta was also a globetrotter and in 1905 travelled to Japan, Europe and the United States. Few Calcuttans of the time would have been as widely travelled as Mehta.
Unfortunately, today both the non-dichotomous and nuanced politics that men like Mehta espoused and the enormous mercantile success they achieved have largely been forgotten. But the strikingly beautiful match labels continue to bear testimony to the cosmopolitan life of this Promethean Parsi from Calcutta.