Wednesday, 10 August 2011

As Cool as Gokool

Who was Gokool and why was he so cool? - A look at an extremely successful life, based on a daily cup of split pea soup

“I drink my cup of split pea soup every single day of my life,” said Gokool when he was 90 years old. “But it have to be cooked with a bone with marrow in it.”

Hadji Gokool Meah was born in 1847 in the shadows of the Himalayan mountains in Kashmir. His father had died shortly before his birth, and his mother named the posthumous boy ‘Modhoo’.

When Modhoos was still a toddler, his mother got married again to a Muslim. Maybe because of this marriage, which was not appreciated by the bride’s Hindu family, or maybe due to persecution by the new Sikh Maharaj of Kashmir - Modhoo, his stepfather and mother decided to leave Kashmir. Eventually, they wound up in Calcutta, 800 miles from their homeland, and from there left for the West Indies.

On the 25th January, 1853, the Benares arrived in Trinidad after 117 days of voyage from Calcutta. Like on most ships that came from India, there were both deaths on board as well as new friendships formed. Modhoo’s mother befriended a Hindu couple, who were from Northern India, and later on this couple would prove to be godsent for her little boy.

Once in Trinidad, Modhoo and his family were indentured to Concord Estate in Point-a-Pierre. Tragedy struck the little boy three months after their arrival: his mother died from malaria. Since his stepfather took no particular interest in the boy who was not his own, little Modhoo was now on his own. Fortunately, the couple who had befriended his mother on the Benares adopted Modhoo along with a younger boy as their children. They were also the ones who gave Modhoo a new Hindu name: Gokool, but they never imposed the Hindu faith on the Muslim boy.

Gokool continued to live on Concord Estate, where at the age of fifteen he was able to take out an indentureship contract for himself. His personality was calm and well-balanced, and he had a naturally good attitude to the white creoles and Europeans who ran the large sugar estate. At the age of 24, after his adoptive father had died and his stepmother and brother had decided to return to India, Gokool remained in Trinidad and started to work as a carter. In 1872, when the second-largest sugar factory in the world, Usine St. Madeleine, was established, Gokool with his cart and donkey were able to earn 5 shillings a day - in those days a very good wage.

But being a carter did not satisfy the young, entrepreneurial Gokool. He sold his cart and donkey and along with his savings started a small shop on the main road to San Fernando. The more sedentary life also was conducive to observing the Muslim faith with the prescribed hours of prayer, as well as to getting married and starting a family. Gokool did both and became a Muslim patriarch of some dimension: 17 children were born to him by his wife Rojan, 11 of which survived.

Running a 24-hour shop kept Gokool in touch with what was going on in the larger economy. Thus, he was able to anticipate the decline of sugar in the last decade of the 19th century, when European beet sugar had captured the market overseas. With the laying off of sugar workers, his customer base dwindled, and Gokool decided to tap into the growing cocoa market. He sold his shop and in 1892 bought Diamond and Greenhill estates in Diego Martin.

“Reputedly he asked the agent of the court in Hindustani: ‘Have you ever seen ten thousand dollars?’,” writes Anthony de Verteuil in his book ‘Eight Indian Immigrants’. “He laid out his money in front of the man, and then and there, counted out the sum in full.”

To convert the exhausted sugar estates into cocoa plantations, Gokool devised an genial scheme. He offered a number of his former customers lots of 4 to 5 acres, for a period of five years, rent-free, so they could cultivate crops and sell on the market in Port-of-Spain. In return, they were to plant cocoa trees, one tree at every 12 square feet, on the land they borrowed, and after the five years were up, Gokool would pay them for each bearing cocoa tree.

So said, so done. Cocoa bears for the first time after three years, and Gokool journeyed from south - where he and his family still lived - to Diego Martin and paid off the people he had lent his land to. In 1903, when the cocoa trees had reached full maturity, he moved with his family to Diego Martin. He was very successful and made some solid income from cocoa even through the market crash in 1906 and up to 1929, when the depression finally ‘killed’ King Cocoa.

Being a fervent Muslim, Gokool lived a conservative life. Whatever money he made, he invested into property in Port-of-Spain. From successful cocoa planter, he moved to being a successful real estate agent, collecting rent from many properties in the city. He was stern with his children, workers and tenants, but in fulfilling the religious law of charity of Islam, he distributed bread to the children in the street every morning from his porch. In 1922, Gokool made the pilgrimage to Mecca together with his son, and because of that and his generosity people called him from then on ‘Haji Gokool Meah’, meah meaning ‘benefactor’.

When there was no mor income from cocoa to be made, the eager businessman decided to delve into the entertainment industry. In the early 1930s, Gokool built the ‘Metro’ cinema in Port-of-Spain, which he later re-named the ‘Globe’. He continued to drink his split pea soup every day and was of course very successful with the cinema venture. Over the years, he opened five more cinemas: the Empire, the Olympic Theatres and the London in Port-of-Spain, and the Globe and the Empire in San Fernando.

Gokool was reportedly calm in his business ventures, even if sometimes a deal was denied to him due to racial prejudice of the colonial days. His coolness, which de Verteuil compares to the ‘icy calm of the Kashmir mountains’, became proverbial in Trinidad: ‘as cool as Gokool’.

Up to a very great age, Gokool was in good health and good spirits. When he eventually died, he left a large amount of his fortune in a trust to be used for charity. The St. James mosque, which he financed in 1930, carries his name to this day: Haji Gokool Meah.

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