Jhamandas Watumull, originally from Hyderabad, Sindh (in what became Pakistan), the son of a brick contractor, was one of the first people of Indian descent to come to Hawai‘i.
Jhamandas left his home as a young boy of 14 to earn a living and help his disabled father. His mother sold her jewelry to buy his passage to the Philippines.
Jhamandas stayed with an older brother and worked in Manila’s textile mills. He opened a small import shop in Manila that specialized in imports from the Orient with his partner Rochiram Dharamdas. The shop attracted American troops stationed in the Philippines and business was good.
In 1913, when the troops were withdrawn from the Philippines and moved to Hawai‘i, the two partners decided to follow them and explore business opportunities.
A year later, Dharamdas opened a branch of ‘Dharamdas and Watumulls’ on Hotel Street in Honolulu. Unfortunately, two years later, Dharamdas died of cholera and the store became Jhamandas’ responsibility.
Unable to leave the Manila business for long, he decided to send his younger brother, Gobindram (GJ), to take care of the Honolulu store, which was renamed ‘East India Store’
GJ settled in Hawaii and, in 1922, married Ellen Jensen, an American music teacher. (IPAHawaii and Sharma)
Ellen’s sister, Elsie Jensen, traveled to Hawaii in 1928 to visit her. Elsie then started working at Watumull’s East India Store as a window display designer.
Watumull’s later commissioned Elsie to create hand-painted floral designs on silk for interior decoration. Her clothing designs would come later. (Honolulu)
During the following years, Jhamandas spent much time travelling looking for merchandise and visiting his family in Sind. Though he returned to Hawaii often, he could not make it his home as his wife Radhibai did not want to live in a foreign country.
The initial years in Hawaii were difficult and trying. As the first Indian businessmen in Hawaii, they faced many setbacks, discrimination and daunting immigration laws, including denial of citizenship to GJ although he was married to an American. His wife, Ellen, lost her American citizenship because she had married a British East Indian subject.
As time passed, the East India Store flourished, selling raw silk goods and ‘aloha shirts’ on the island, turning into a major department store, before eventually opening additional branch stores in Waikiki and the downtown Honolulu area.
They opened the Leilani Gift Shop, and introduced their coordinated Hawaiian wear for the entire family – men’s and boys’ shirts and women’s and girls’ muumuus in matching authentic island prints. The shop also sold Hawaiian gifts and souvenirs and imported goods from the Far East.
After the Partition of India in 1947, Jhamandas and his family left Sind and moved to Bombay, India. The family celebrated India’s independence in faraway Hawaii by serving refreshments at an extended Open House and offering a 10 per cent discount on all purchases at the Waikiki branch of the East India Store.
The proceeds of the day’s business were donated to Indian charities. Later the Watumulls helped install a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Kapiolani Park on Waikiki beach in Honolulu.
In 1954, there were a total of eight Watumull stores. Rejecting a consultant’s advice to change the “tourist-oriented” names of his stores like Leilani Gift Shop and focus on mainland-type goods, they opened more “tourist-oriented’ stores.
During the next 20 years, the number of stores increased to 29 and included East India Stores, Aloha Fashions, Malihini Gifts and Leilani Gift Shops.
The business became among the top 250 businesses of Hawai‘i. Over time, the Watumull stores have all closed down; one remains at the Ala Moana Center.
The Watumull family also set up several local philanthropic and educational institutions, including the Rama Watumull Fund, the J. Watumull Estate, and the Watumull Foundation.
The Watumulls are also involved in considerable charitable work in India — a hospital and an engineering college in Mumbai, a school in Pune and the funding of a Global Hospital in Mt. Abu. . (Lots of information here is from Hope, Honolulu, Watumull, Allen and Sharma.)