I met Mohan Jashanmal last fall at India House at a party the embassy was throwing to celebrate both his 71st birthday and also the 90th anniversary of Jashanmal Stores being in the Gulf. An Indian, Mr Jashanmal had spent most of his life in the Middle East and the Gulf — Iraq, Kuwait, the UAE — and spoke some Arabic and wore a khandoura, the native Emirati dress.
He opened his family’s store in Abu Dhabi in 1962. There really wasn’t an Abu Dhabi in 1962. His office is full of photographs of him, Abu Dhabi’s (eventual) rulers and the city itself as it grew over time. In a place populated 80 percent by expats, it’s very rare to be able to talk to someone with such a history here. I really enjoyed talking to him. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about him as well.
In 1962, Mr Jashanmal was ready to return to the family business. He also got married. His wife, who was known then as Maya Malani, had just completed her university studies in Boston. He says he was a bit concerned how she might react to her new, more rustic, home.
He was right to wonder. As the plane descended for their arrival, his wife scanned the empty terrain below. “Oh my God, Mohan, are we going to crash?”
He assured her the plane was not crashing: “That, my dear, is Abu Dhabi.”
What she saw back in 1964 was a strip of concrete almost totally obscured by drifting sand dunes. There were no roads to the tent-like buildings lined along the beach about 30 metres from the Gulf.
The store “was on the Corniche”. He stops to contradict himself: “There was no Corniche. There was no water to drink, no electricity. We had our own generators.”
Like all pioneers, the family adjusted, working around the hardships of a sparsely settled place. With water so precious, he says “sea baths” were the norm. To take the sting out of having no choice, they would tell each other how much better the buckets-full of salt water were for them. “We would go for a proper bath, really, once a week to Dubai,” he says. “Already this water was expensive. What can we do? We would rather have it for cooking and drinking rather than anything else.”
Potable water was shipped in diesel barrels and they had to use filters made by Berkefeld to strain the water. Still, “there was the smell of diesel in the water”.
Thinking like a salesman, though, he saw an upside. “Berkefeld was a great sell.”