“My grandfather, Boolchand Pessoomal Nandwani, was the pioneer of our business in Curaçao. We honor him by naming most of our stores Boolchand’s.”
– Ram Boolchand, leading Curaçao businessman and India’s Honorary Consul to the Dutch territories in the Caribbean.
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. A handful of Indian pioneers have proliferated into a thriving community of approximately 2,000 (1-2% of Curaçao’s population), owning 68 businesses in the Freezone, Punda and Otrobanda. Most were drawn by Curaçao’s economic boom in the 1970s, created by growing tourism as well as ample employment at the Shell refinery, and decided to stay and build their families a home. Today they contribute to Curaçao’s 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. Interestingly enough, 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 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: [the province of] Sindh is the only place where the two legendary Silk and 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 (affectionately “Dada”), the province of Sindh resembles Curaçao in climate too: “very warm and dry… with little rain.”
But these similarities benefit from hindsight.
Dada’s father, Ram’s grandfather, Boolchand Pessoomal Nandwani, left India to work in Panama in the early 1900s when he was 17 years old, “the work was very heavy, Panama City was a tourist center at the time, so if a ship comes in at night, my father had to open the store so that tourists can buy. It was all work, work, work. There was no respect for personal time. Father would go back and forth to India [a 3 month journey by boat] every 3-4 years and spend a few months with the family,” Dada recalls.
After working in Panama for 30 years or so, Dada’s father had made enough money to start his own business. He had his eyes set on Guyana, where many Indians were settling at the time. But a business contact in Panama advised him to look into Curaçao — alluding to untapped opportunity. Curaçao suited Dada’s father, so he decided to stay and open Oriental Art Palace in Heerenstraat (Punda). Oriental Art Palace sold affordable imported Indian and Chinese goods (such as silk fabrics and souvenirs) — all new to Curaçao’s market — so his business prospered.
Granted, despite Curaçao and Sindh similarities, Curaçao was a far(-fetched) home even for notoriously adventurous Sindhis. Dada recalls that him and his brother-in-law went to an Indian post office to locate ‘Willemstad’ on a map in the 1930s, “we couldn’t find it anywhere! but we did find Curaçao: a tiny dot… that’s how we knew where my father had gone.”
A 38 year old Dada, who had been living and working in Pune (India), picked up where his father had left off in Curaçao after he passed away in 1950.
Over the years Dada expanded the family retail business across the Caribbean, opening stores in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Maarten, Aruba, Bonaire etc as well as 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)!