Dubai: When Indian expat Gopal Kookani came to the UAE more than 50 years ago, he was a 22-year-old eking a living as a bank clerk.
Now 73, Kookani reflects on a lifetime of struggles and fulfilments, witnessing and participating in the cultural and religious harmony of the Emirates.
Last month, Kookani relocated to Canada to be with his three daughters – Darshana, Priyanka and Mansi. He said he will be visiting the UAE often; Kookani has a Golden Visa for the UAE, which was presented to him for his contributions to the community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The father-of-three and grandfather-of-two retraced the series of events that led him to the shores of the UAE, his home for five decades.
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai) in independent India in 1951, Kookani traced his family’s migration from Karachi, in what is now Pakistan, to Mumbai during the India-Pakistan partition era.
Kookani’s father, who was a rich businessman in Karachi, provided free medical services to the community as a skilled bone setter. His grandfather had also rendered the service including to those hit by the 1935 earthquake in Quetta in British India (now in Baluchistan in Pakistan), Kookani said.
However, the family faced challenging situations after they had to leave their hometown with just 1,000 rupees during the partition.
While struggling to make ends meet after their displacement, Kookani’s father had to take on menial jobs and continued his bone-setting practice, which gradually became their primary source of income. The family settled in Mumbai, where Kookani’s father ensured that he received an education at an English-medium missionary school.
Voyage to Dubai
Kookani went on to earn a bachelor of commerce degree. He said his father did not possess 800 Indian rupees to book a flight to the UAE back then. “Instead, he got me a 300-rupee ticket on a ship,” Kookani recalled.
After a five-day voyage from Bombay via Karachi and Muscat, Kookani reached Dubai shores on February 23, 1973.
“I went to Joshi Restaurant and contacted one of my distant relatives. I was in Dubai for 10-12 days. Later, one of my cousins came from Abu Dhabi to take me there with him.”
Kookani worked at a local bank for less than a year, earning Dh700 a month before moving to a branch of a British bank on a Dh1,450 salary.
Back then, banking hours were only from 8am to 2pm, he said. Kookani progressed from a clerical position in the documents and credit department to a supervisory level.
“I worked there till 1990. Unfortunately, there was a gap of a couple of years in my career due to some health issues. I went home [to India] and came back [to the UAE] in 1992,” recounted Kookani.
But with the impact of the Gulf War, Kookani said, he could not continue in the banking sector. The next turning point in his life occurred when he was introduced to Vasu Shroff, chairman of Regal Group.
“He offered me a job. I joined Rajkamal Communications under the Regal Group, which was into satellite communications. I started as an assistant manager, became a manager and then the general manager.”
With the advent of the property boom in Dubai, Kookani was assigned to take care of Regal Group’s real estate investments. “I was appointed as the admin manager and general manager of Regal Group Investments,” he said.
Kookani continued to serve the company till 2018. “I had always held the values that my father had taught me. He used to tell me to treat every job with dignity and stay sincere and honest. I did exactly that and it never failed me,” said the veteran expat.
He said he was indebted to Emiratis and the Shroff family for paving the way for a “beautiful life” in the UAE.
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However, the family suffered a tragedy when his wife Lata Kookani passed away due to cancer on January 1, 2009. Kookani thanked the Shroffs for standing by him during the difficult time.
The Shroffs, trustees of Sindhi Guru Darbar (Shiva temple) in Bur Dubai, told Kookani to take up the post of the general manager at the temple when it was time for him to retire.
“Raju Shroff had asked to stay back at least for six months. But it so happened that I also grew so interested in the temple service that I continued for five years since 2018,” said Kookani.
During his tenure, he had many opportunities to work closely with Emirati officials of various local departments and other religious heads. He was also associated with the establishment of the new Hindu Temple Dubai in Jebel Ali.
‘I’m so grateful’
“I have been fortunate to spend a beautiful life in this great country which is known for its tolerance and the high level of safety and security it offers to its people. I am so grateful to the Rulers, officials and the people here,” Kookani said.
“My experience here has been beautiful and this is what I will cherish during the rest of my life. I am also glad that I have the Golden Visa so I can visit Dubai often.”