How Gordhan Tewani started making his fortune in Jamaica (Part-III)
Gordhandas Tewani was born in 1939 in Shahdadpur, Sindh where his grandfather, father and uncles were landowners, leasing property to small farmers from whom they collected monthly rent.
Tewani rented his first shop in Kingston and started selling rum, straw bags, local Khus Khus perfume, calypso records, shirts and beer mugs with Jamaica on them. He used to stand in the doorway of Caribbean Shop and invite customers to come inside, talk to them, wish them good morning.
Instead of returning to India when his four-year contract working in a store on King Street for an Indian family ended, Gordhan Tewani used a portion of his return airfare and salary he had frugally saved to establish himself in Kingston. But it wasn’t easy.
A former employee from the same store, Ram, who had opened a shop of his own in Kingston, welcomed Tewani into his home and Gordhan worked a bit with him. But not everyone was so welcoming. He relates: “The police car stop right there at the shop and the police came out and said to me: ‘You’re Gordon Tewani?’
“‘Immigration we are from. Superintendent Wright want to see you at Duke Street. So come with us.’ I was really, really, frightened. To be honest, I nearly wet my pants. Honestly, I was in my early 20s, very young, and didn’t know about these things. I was very scared. So I went there and sat quietly.
“He said: ‘I have a complaint about you.’
“I said: ‘What kind of complaint, Sir?’
“‘That you don’t have any money and you are a charge on the Government of Jamaica.’
“Luckily, I had a savings book in my pocket in which I had bonus of £100 from my boss and I had saved £100, so it showed £200.’Sir, this is my savings account book.’ I showed him.
“He said: ‘But that’s a lot of money! You have plenty money. You can go. I don’t know what this man have against you.’ I really don’t know which person he was talking about, but somebody from my community complained.”
At first, Tewani put down £55 to open a souvenir shop in a new shopping center in Montego Bay being developed by James Marzouca. Then Ram suggested: “Gordon, I know you don’t have that much money. Why don’t we go in a partnership? I’ll invest the money, you run the shop and we share the profit half and half?” But when Tewani returned to Montego Bay, he said: “I lost that £55, yes, because I signed a lease, and Mr. Marzouca threatened to sue me for three years’ [rent]. I start to almost cry in front of him. I said: ‘How am I going to pay you?’ So he just tore up the lease and said: ‘All right. Go. But you’re not going to get this money, what you paid me.’ So I lost that money.”
Tewani rented his first shop in Kingston from the Issa Group of Companies for £45 in the Henderson Shopping Centre, opposite the old Victoria Crafts Market at 1 King Street. He describes getting started: “I remember trying to do everything myself, to get a carpenter to make the showcase, I go and buy the lumber and glass, so I could save money. I went to two different Indians to sell me goods on a credit basis, of 60 or 90 days. With money left, I bought items quite cheap, like I sell rum, straw bags, local Khus Khus perfume, calypso records, shirts and beer mugs with Jamaica on them, key rings, playing cards, different souvenirs. I’d open the store shutters myself, clean the bathroom. I couldn’t afford to employ somebody. I’d sweep.
“I used to stand in the doorway of Caribbean Shop and invite customers to come inside, talk to them, wish them good morning. Those days, we got a lot of cruise ships to Kingston and American sailors. Everybody who comes to Kingston, they used to love it. I wouldn’t like to lose a customer, so I tried my best to talk to them. If you have a husband and wife, the secret is you hold the wife. If you hold the husband, the wife might say: ‘No, no, honey, we don’t need this. Let’s go.’ The wife would say: ‘He’s a nice guy. Let’s buy something from him.’ I was the first person to open the shop and when all the shops were closed, I was still open because I didn’t have anything to do at home.
“I start to board with Mrs. Short on Gore Terrace, Constant Spring Road. Lodging means breakfast, laundry and a nice, clean room with bathroom. Very nice lady, a retired Jamaican nurse who made a little money in America, bought a four-bedroom house. One bedroom for herself, she rented me one bedroom and one to Oliver Jones. She get to like me so she treated me like a son. When I’m having breakfast, she used to sit at the table and insist that I eat everything, because this is my first meal, and it’s good for me.”
Making a profit
Though Tewani badly missed his family in India, he knew the opportunities in Jamaica were better. “If I made less than one pound a day, at £20 salary, and if I’m selling in a day £20 or £30, I could easily see that I’m making £10 a day profit, you know. A person who didn’t make one pound a day and now I’m making £10, I’m doing very well.” But he lived frugally and saved every penny. “I used to cross the road at Gore Terrace every evening, go to Maurice – I still remember the name of the restaurant – have a quarter of fried chicken, French fries, bread roll, and a coke. For four years, same meal. And read a book or Readers Digest, listen to a transistor radio, fall asleep. Get up, do the same routine, catch a bus, go to work. Same routine. I couldn’t even afford a girlfriend.”
Eventually, he bought a used car and started dating. Then he met Diana Maillard and his world changed. Abdulla Marzouca’s niece, Diana Maillard, was an enchanting mixture of French, Irish and Lebanese ancestry but definitely not Indian. Tewani remembers: “My father’s Indian. I was the one to break the cycle to marry outside of India. When I got married to Diane” – he calls her Diane though her name is Diana – “a lot of the Indians didn’t want any chat with me, the Sindhi community. But let me tell you something. When I was in business, a lot of Indian bosses would approach my brother” – who joined Gordon in Jamaica after several years – “and say: ‘Would your brother marry my daughter?’ I’d say: ‘No, I can’t get married to somebody I really don’t love.’ They were wealthy, but I couldn’t do that. When I met Diane, it was different. We start to go out. We love each other. She went to do a beautician’s course in Montreal. When she left, I was a little heartbroken that I probably won’t see her again. We kept in touch because I know I loved her so I would imagine she loved me too. I couldn’t get her off my mind. I had a business. I’d finally bought a car. I used to go out on dates and after I met Diane, it was just her alone. There was nobody else.” (Continues)
Courtesy: The Gleaner, Jamaica (Published on February 19, 2012)
Click here for Part-I, Part-II