Dubai: Ishwari Srichand Tourani came to Dubai in 1959 with a five-month-old baby in her arms. She left her other daughter, Nilu Mulchandi, who was five years old at the time, with her mother in Mumbai.
She had her priorities set. Her husband, late Srichand Tourani, was working in Dubai, running a small trading business, and she would help him grow the company. Of course, she succeeded.
Ishwari and her husband hailed from a post-Partition India, where their community from Sindh - which is now a province in Pakistan - was forced to live in refugee camps. Ishwari found herself in such a set-up in Indore.
Over the weekends, Ishwari would make sweets that her husband would sell at a circus near their refugee camp. During the rest of the week, her husband sold vegetables and fruits off a cart to bring money to the table.
After her struggles post 1947, Ishwari and her husband decided to find a new home. Dubai was it.
History shows thousands of Sindhi families ended up at the Kalyan-Ulhasnagar camp on the outskirts of Bombay (now Mumbai) and started a life there. And relatively untouched by the violence that accompanied the Partition, unlike the Bengalis and the Punjabis, Sindhi Hindus peacefully settled in India and other parts of the world.
They (the Sindhis) had suddenly found themselves stateless, and so began an exodus of sorts. “The first wave of Sindhis went to Nigeria, another to the UK, mostly London. The third wave of people came to [the] Middle East,” she explains.
For the couple, “There was a choice to live in Oman or Sharjah," says Ishwari. "We picked Sharjah. There was a just a good vibe about working and living in this city.”
"Just after partition", she recalls, "we were penniless and wondering what to do and where our life was heading. A relative passed away around this time and we inherited some money from him. This was a turning point in our life. My father-in-law was given an inheritance of Rs10,000 and he chose to give a part of it to my husband to do trading.”
And so in 1950, Srichand followed his father Kundomal’s footsteps into trading. [Kundomal used to ply the trade route between Chaubar, Pasni (both now in Iran), Gwadar (now in Pakistan), Muscat and Sharjah.] However, Srichand chose a different route; he set up shop in Dubai, under the name of Wassumulls Co.
The company dealt in wholesales of textiles and after a few years, diversified into toys and readymade garments. It was the first mass importer of toys in Dubai during the early 60s. The wholesaling arm was gradually supported by retail shops that peaked at 17 across five emirates. Also, it acquired the sole selling agency for KDK fans from Matsushita Seiko, Japan. “The product was popular until such [a] time that fans were in demand,” said Ishwari.
In the 80s and 90s Wassumulls Co ventured into financial investments such as hedge funds, private equity and emerging market debt. In 2004, Wassumulls took a majority stake in Indigo Properties for real estate development. From 2004 onwards the trading arm was gradually dismantled while the financial and real estate divisions were ramped up. So far, Indigo Properties has developed projects worth more than Dh3 billion.
Ishwari lived in a patriarchal society and she lent her support to her husband quietly. While he was in the forefront of it all, Ishwari was the quiet force behind her husband who often took ill - and ran her husband's business.
“There was also nothing else to do. When I came in 1959 there were only a few women living in Dubai. A couple of Bhatia women were living. I was the first Sindhi woman to arrive in Dubai. They were mostly to themselves and I used to spend my day looking after my husband’s company and my son. It was only in 1962 that other Sindhi women started to arrive in Dubai. By 1964 many expat women had started living in Dubai and we had started to form our cliques,” she said.
But Ishwari said she never felt her life was difficult at all.
“It was a way of life and I pulled along. I missed my older daughter but it was a practical decision for me to leave her behind in India with my mother. There were no schools in Dubai so there was no point bringing her here,” she added.
“My husband was a very generous man and was instrumental in bringing at least 200 families to Dubai. We have more family here in Dubai than in India. Dubai is home to me and my children. This land has given us all a life and we are ever so grateful for that.”
Ishwari recalled the family’s closest friends were Abdullah Al Ghurair and Ebrahim Shirawi. “There was no party of ours where they did not attend. My husband had an open credit line with Mr Al Ghurair as he completely trusted him. One of the things we established in our business is honesty and integrity.”
As Ishwari’s business started picking up, the family’s lifestyle improved.
“In the early 60s there were only two Mercedes in Dubai, one was the ruler’s and the other was ours. It cost us Rs17,000 and it was a lot of money,” recalled Ishwari.
“Another milestone was getting a landline connection and our very own telephone. I still remember our first number - 2483.”
Land Rovers were said to be popular in the city. They were either privately owned or served as taxis as the roads were not as good as they are today. It was difficult to travel between cities as there were piles of sand dunes along the way and it could be manoeuvred only by a sturdy four-wheeler. The British Political agency was in charge of all matters related to foreign nationals living in the emirate.
“We had to carry our passport to travel to Abu Dhabi and for some reason we also had to carry the vaccination cards of children. We had to pay a toll to cross the border to Abu Dhabi. The highest hump on the Maktoum Bridge was the border.”
The growth was very snail-paced in the 50s, 60s right up to 70s. Things definitely improved after the Federation was formed and oil was discovered. “Rulers had a vision nd it was realised. Infrastructure improved greatly and buildings started to spring up to keep up with the population influx. The city had transformed.”
Today, Ishwari lives with her family in their plush home in Umm Suqueim.
So what is the message Ishwari would like to give to girls and women who are looking to venture into the business world? “A woman’s first responsibility is always towards her family. The best thing about a woman is that she is great at multi-tasking. A woman can do her job and manage her home equally well. We are a strong brood and every one of us must find our strength from within. She has to learn to strike a fine balance of being successful in both.
"As for running a business empire, innovation is key. There are ups and downs in a business, the key is to stay strong in all of it and innovate constantly. Most important keep patient when times are down. Hire a professional if you need to guide you in business,” the 85-year-old said.