These books are called chopdis and it is a tradition in the Banya community across India to mark the start of the New Year on Diwali by opening new account books. A puja is made on the books, to invoke the blessings of Lakshmi and as a sign of respect for the tools of their trade. And although not many people actually use the books, a few symbolic entries will be made.
Chopdi pujan used to be a very big deal, with business families officially heading to Dhanteras on the first day of Diwali to collect books from vendors at predetermined auspicious times. As recently as 2001, Namita Devidayal, writing in The Times of India, described the ritual of going to Phulchand & D Sethia, one of the largest chopdis makers, to get the chopdis as well as the kalam in bamboo used for the first entry, which was to be handed over by a girl “to symbolize Lakshmi”.
But after that, computers began to enter offices en masse and were duly equated with puja, with vermilion markings placed on their screens.
Chopdis ceased to be used for bookkeeping and part of the spirit came out of the ceremony. Arvindbhai, who sells chopdis in his shop, Arvind Book Depot, a few meters from the Mumbadevi temple, says there are still people who keep parallel accounts on paper – “they don’t trust the new system” – but there can’t be many.
Sapan Faria, who runs Oswal’s bookmaking depot, one of the few department stores still in existence (Phulchand closed a few years ago), admits that most people only make symbolic entries: “They just do it for the puja ”. Still, he says business is on the rise again, after hitting a low about four years ago. “People now want to start all the rituals again,” he says. In season, it could sell 75,000 to 80,000 chopdis, made in its three factories in Mumbai and shipped across the country from Andhra Pradesh to Rajasthan.
Outside of Mumbai, traditions can be followed even more rigorously. Sailen Avalani, a businessman from Calcutta, notes with disapproval: “In Mumbai, people go on vacation during Diwali. Here in Kolkata, we stay open for business.
It’s the banya spirit, the work before the game, and he says they are also scrupulous about every detail surrounding the chopdi pujan. “We go to the store at the appointed time. We take a red cloth to wrap the books. And after collecting the books, we walk straight ahead without looking back, because we have to focus on the new way forward.
The rituals remain or are reinvented. The chopdis that Faria sells are bound books, with the required red covers, an almanac at the beginning and printed for the year Vikram Samvat 2071 which runs from October 24, 2014 (Friday) to November 11, 2015 (Wednesday), the date of Lakshmi Puja next year. But in the past they were, as described in a Times of India report of October 2, 1903, “made of specially made Ahmedabad paper, which are so sewn or threaded that they can be reopened and after pages have been added or abstracted as the case may be, reconstituted with the greatest ease ”.
This description was given by the Chief Justice of the Presidential Small Cases Court, Rustomji Merwanji Patel, and it was not complimentary. In his view, this was “a holdover from antediluvian bookkeeping,” and businesses should move towards modern UK-bound books. It seemed to be the way pages could be added or removed amid old logs that he found objectionable, perhaps because it made them more vulnerable to fraud.