On a wintery evening last week we were invited to the house of the Gidwanis. The grandiose villa, which over the years had witnessed scores of social gatherings hosted by this well-loved Indian couple, wore a forlorn look. Except for a couple of sofas and tables lying around, the ornate furnishings and furniture that once lined the floors and walls of the villa were packed away in large cartons ready for shipment back to India. After nearly six decades in Kuwait, the Gidwanis, who had made a name for themselves in Kuwait’s business and social circles, were finally bidding adieu to the country they had come to call their second home.
However, the desolateness of the place was wiped away by the smile of Ramila Gidwani as she welcomed us to her home. Sitting down for an informal tête-à-tête with The Times Kuwait, Mrs. Gidwani, a prominent Indian socialite in her own right, spoke at length about her life in Kuwait with Bhagwan Gidwani, fondly known as the ‘Steel-man of Kuwait’.
Rewinding her thoughts back 59 years, Mrs. Gidwani recalled how in 1956 her future spouse was then a young bachelor living with his family in Kuwait and attempting to find his own way in life. “Back then, I was 20-year old who dreamt of going to work in Canada but ended up in Kuwait, where my father was employed as an engineer. I soon found work here as Personal Secretary to the manager of BOAC, the forerunner of today’s British Airways."
"Our family was originally from Pakistan, where my grandfather was the Mayor of Karachi. I still remember living in a mayoral residence and being chauffeur-driven to school every day. But the India-Pakistan partition in 1947 changed all that and our family had to join the millions who made their way to India as refugees. As children, we felt our lifestyle transformation from one of luxury to a hand-to-mouth existence after partition was horrible, and terribly unfair."
"In the sixties, there were only a handful of Indian families in Kuwait and as our families were close, Bhagwan and I got to know each other well. Eventually, one day, he proposed I accepted and the rest, as they say, has been what dreams are made of; at least for the most part. Oh, and about my adolescent dream of going to Canada, well, he has taken me to Canada five times since then.”
Having lived the major part of their lives in Kuwait, the Gidwanis raised their kids here, got them married off, had grandkids, all of whom have now branched off from Kuwait and settled down to lead their own lives in England, Switzerland, the US, Australia and elsewhere. Life could not have been better for the Gidwanis, they have had a loving family life, busy social life and a business goodwill that 82-year-old Mr. Gidwani fortified since he was 17.
'Behind every man's success is a woman', how true is this phrase with you, we asked Mr. Gidwani who had by then joined the conversation. “Could not be more true; you definitely need support at home to be strong and succeed in the market all these years."
His wife chipped in, “Though he says I was always behind him, to tell you the truth, initially I was against him entering into business. There were two Kuwaitis – Qatamis and Bahmans – who wanted to partner with him because of his experience. At that time, my daughter was born and I kept telling him – and for days I kept on crying, 'we are happy with what we have. I mean we are working, we are getting a good salary, why must you get into business, suppose it doesn’t work out. I was very scared. For days I would cry, sometimes I would fight with him saying 'no, you are not getting into this'. But once Bhagwan decides to do something, he never backs out. So he left his job and went into business. Of course, his decision was right and it has led to all this success."
"He built the Hadidco Trading and Contracting Company in Shuwaikh Industrial Area from scratch providing employment to hundreds of Indians and other nationals. One trait that has underpinned his success and made a name for him in the country’s steel-trade industry has been his unwavering honesty and ethical approach in business dealings. This honesty is still an intact quality in him and this is what makes all his colleagues, employees, partners and others trust him so completely."
"There were times when Kuwaitis would leave blank checks with him and he was free to fill in any amount. Even today, after the annual auditing process is completed and he presents the report to his partners, they never question a single line, because he has never given them an occasion to doubt his integrity and honesty in all these years."
Asked what advice he would give to someone looking to succeed in life, Mr. Gidwani said, "Work, work and work with a clean mind. Don’t look at what you are getting, actually, look at what you are gaining by giving others."
Maybe, it is this dedication to work and honesty that led him to hang onto Hadidco through all the ups and downs, even during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This integrity and diligence is also probably what compelled him to return to Kuwait post-invasion and rebuilt the company once again from scratch.
The August 1990 invasion forced many people out of Kuwait because of atrocities being committed by the occupying Iraqi troops. It was a terribly traumatic period for us, said Mrs. Gidwani, “The Iraqis started misbehaving, they would take stock from the company without paying anything or they would pay in Iraqi money. One day one Iraqi came and said 'you are not giving me the steel that I want' and he pushed Bhagwan against the wall. He said 'if you don’t make my receipt now, I'll follow you up to your house and shoot you.' That is when he decided that he didn’t want to be in this place anymore. We then made arrangements to go from here to Basra in a 50-seater bus and from there to Baghdad.
“During the early days of the invasion, when many people had already left Kuwait, about 13 of us Indian ladies gathered in our house. We used to cook together, have barbecue, and our neighbors, who were Kuwaitis, would come over and bring chicken, fish and other food items for free. They would say, 'the Iraqis might come to our house to search and they will take the food; why should we give it to them.' But once the Iraqis threatened Bhagwan, we decided to leave Kuwait for good; at least I thought I would never come back."
Countering this view Mr. Gidwani added, "But I was hoping I would come back; and even when we were back in India I would wish every day that Saddam would leave Kuwait and allow us to return here.” In February, post-liberation, and against the objections of their loved ones in India, Mr. Gidwani landed in Dubai en route to Kuwait. In May, his partners called from Switzerland and told him that they wanted him back in Kuwait to restart the company all over again. They even sent a chartered flight to pick him up from Dubai.
Her earlier desire not to return to Kuwait again notwithstanding, September 1991 saw Mrs. Gidwani joining her husband here. Recalling those early months after liberation she said, "When we came back, the Iraqis had taken everything from our house; even the flush tanks, the wires, the plugs, everything. There were oil wells burning everywhere and the house was covered in black soot. Every day when Bhagwan returned from work, his clothes would all be black and oily."
"In those days, everything was barren and the streets were empty. When you went out in the evenings, you would see nobody on the street. I went out one evening to get some milk but I came back home running. It seemed so deserted, it felt like something was wrong," added Mr. Gidwani.
Asked about their future plans, the Gidwanis said they now plan to live in Mumbai's posh, Green-Community where they have a house. They look forward to joining other friends and taking life at a leisurely pace. And, when they feel the need for a change of scenery they can always fly off to join their children in Dubai and elsewhere.
As the Gidwanis leave Kuwait and the friends they have made here over a lifetime, we wish them good luck and a happy life ahead.