Boolchand Pessoomal Nandwani, Ram Boolchand’s grandfather, was one of the first Indians to set up shop in Curaçao in 1930. Today Boolchand’s is a 4th generation retail empire with outposts across the Caribbean and a handful of early 20th century Indian pioneers have proliferated into a thriving community of approximately 2,000 (1-2% of Curaçao’s population), owning 68 businesses in the Free Zone, Punda and Otrobanda. Drawn by Curaçao’s economic boom in the 1970s, they decided to stay and build their families a home. Today they contribute to Curaçao’s rich multi-ethnicity, consider themselves yu di Kòrsou, speak Papiamentu, worship in a beautiful Temple (completed in 2004), have access to a wide selection of Indian groceries and are even able to cremate their deceased loved ones. Perhaps most interesting, Curaçao’s Indian community is made up of Sindhi Hindus, born and bred Immigrants (with a capital I), descendants of 1947 Partition-era Hindu refugees from the former Indian province of Sindh (nowadays part of Pakistan).
When India won independence from British colonial rule in August 1947, its land was partitioned based on religious demographics and two separate countries were created to accommodate religious differences: India (Hindu) and Pakistan (Muslim). Millions of Sindhi Hindus fled Sindh to the “new” India in overcrowded trains, leaving most of their belongings behind. Forced to rebuild their lives from scratch, they looked beyond India’s borders for employment opportunities. The great leader Mahatma Gandhi offered the following words of encouragement at that time: “the Sindhi Hindus are first-class businessmen. Why are they running away to Bombay, Madras and other places? It will not be they who will be the losers… for they will make money for themselves, wherever they go. There is hardly any place in the world where Sindhis are not found. In South Africa they were making big money and gave it liberally to the poor.”
Dr. Daswani has attributed Sindhi entrepreneurial tradition to their location of origin: Sindh is the only place where the two legendary Silkand Spice route meet… connecting East, South, and West Asia with the Mediterranean and European world, as well as parts of North and East Africa, turning its people into skillful traders. Thus Curaçao’s deep natural harbor and (tax) Freezone – historically a thriving trade hub between Europe and the Americas – presented a natural “fit” for Sindhi entrepreneurs. And according to Ram Boolchand’s father, Doulatram Boolchand Nandwani (“Dada”), Sindh resembles Curaçao in climate too.
But these similarities benefit from hindsight.
Dada’s father left India to work in Panama in the early 1900s visiting his family in India every 3 – 4 years. After working in Panama for 30 years he had made enough money to start his own business and set his sights on Guyana, where many Indians were settling at the time. But a business contact in Panama recommended Curaçao, so he opened Oriental Art Palace in Heerenstraat, selling affordable Indian and Chinese goods (such as silk fabrics and souvenirs) to tourists and locals alike.
A 38 year-old Dada, who had been living and working in India, picked up where his father had left off in Curaçao after he passed away in 1950 and decided to expand the family business opening stores in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, Aruba, Bonaire and Caracas — at one point him and his four sons were running 33 retail stores. “I would travel every week, people would ask me where I live, I’d answer: ‘on a plane!’”
When prodded for difficulties and cultural adjustments, Dada remains a consummate businessman “I learned to speak Papiamentu, Spanish, French and even some Dutch behind the counter in my store. I’d work Monday through Saturday, if customers come, I have to talk to them, I have to sell. That’s how I’d practice. If you don’t use a language, you’ll never learn it.” (He also knows Persian, Urdu, Sindhi, Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit)
Dada has served as India’s Honorary Consul, nurturing ties between India and Curaçao, helping Indian entrepreneurs build a home in Curaçao, adding to Curaçao’s multi-ethnic society and stimulating Curaçao’s economy,… all while adapting Boolchand’s retail selection several times to respond to market needs: from Indian and Chinese silks (1930-50s), (under)garments (1950-60s), Marks & Spencer apparel (1970s), ‘Bye Bye’ brand t-shirts (1990s),… to the latest in Apple, Sony and Samsung electronics (1970s-present)…. to comfy Crocs (2013)!