World’s Only Hindu Sheikh Departs – Om Shantih: Kanakbhai!
For the Khimji Ramdas business conglomerate and the close cluster of families running it in the Sultanate of Oman, he was a patriarch, who was at the helm for five decades.
For the Indian community in that Gulf country in general and the non-resident Indians in particular, he was the ever-helpful father figure “Kanakbhai” – Sheikh Kanaksi Gokaldas Khimji, to address in full form by way of the protocol.
The man who was responsible for setting up the very first Gujarati school in the desert terrain of Muscat way back in 1941 was his father Gokaldas Khimji. And the son, who continued the legacy by helping to found the first English school in 1975, breathed his last on February 18, 2021. He was 85.
As the news spread, a pall of gloom encircled Oman and several other parts of the world, esp., over the Indian diaspora.
Besides establishing a wide gamut of trade and service activities, which carry the hallmark of the legendary initials KR, he was instrumental in spreading education, sports, promotion of art, music and cultural activities in Oman.
If cricket is popular and widely enjoyed there, it is to Kanakbhai’s credit.
This writer had several opportunities to meet and talk to him. When the Embassy of India was functioning in an old building next to the Cable & Wireless and British Embassy premises inside the old Muscat city, Kanakbhai helped us in getting permission to hold a cultural evening of Hindi, Urdu and other Indian songs in 1976.
An unforgettable experience was when my Grindlays Bank colleague, Neereshwalya Vikram Dass, suddenly passed away in 1979. With no immediate male members in the family, the cremation had to be done locally. The responsibility of handling the embassy formalities rested on a few of us.
It was an unknown, daunting mission for us. As we reached the Embassy, which by then had moved close to the old Bait Al Falaj airport runway area in Greater Muttrah.
Just as we entered the premises, by sheer, happy coincidence, we spotted Kanakbhai, who was there in connection with his own work. We narrated our story to him. He wasted no time in guiding us as to how to go about the formalities. He so kindly ensured that arrangements were made for cremation on an island near the Muttrah port where a special yard had been designated for such rites.
There could be hundreds of instances of his deeds of kindness, which have gone unnoticed.
In recognition of his role in the social fabric and the paradigm boost to business in Oman, Kanakbhai and his family members were accorded Omani citizenship by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said over 25 years ago. It was an equal recognition and honour for all Indians in Oman when around the same time the late Sultan granted him the title of “Sheikh”, exclusively for the Indian community. This made him the world’s only Hindu Sheikh, officially recognised by the government.
Now that Kanakbhai is no more, little wonder then if the Indian community feels orphaned.
Shock and grief
This writer spoke to a select number of prominent persons who lived in Oman and had had the privilege of being associated with the late Sheikh.
Dr Satish Nambiar had spent his younger days in Mangaluru and is an alumnus of Kasturba Medical College, better known by its popular initials, KMC. He has been in Oman for over forty years as a well-known medical practitioner and a much sought-after family physician.
When Kanakbhai decided to step down as the chairman of the Indian Social Club in the 1990s, the mantle naturally and quite deservingly fell on Dr Nambiar.
Among the NRIs there couldn’t be a more suitable person to speak about Kanakbhai.
An eloquent speaker that he is, nevertheless, he sounded so emotional when asked to speak about the late Sheikh.
He was all praise for Kanakbhai’s role and initiative in building schools in Oman and making education affordable to all NRI children.
Speaking further, Dr Nambiar said, “The management committee of the Indian Social club and all its members join me in conveying our heartfelt condolences to all his near and dear ones and the extended family.”
“His passing is a staggering loss to the Indian community. One fondly remembers how he would go out of his way to alleviate distress amongst the common man and reach out to them at all times. He was a person
with a heart of gold and it will be a long time before we come to terms with his loss. We cumulatively pray for his soul to rest in sadgati and in eternal peace and to give the members of his family the strength and fortitude to bear this irreparable loss,” he added.
Another among the Indian expatriates who was closely associated with Sheikh Kanaksi was the former principal of Indian School, Muscat for long years, Leo Lobo.
Speaking to this writer from Canada, where he currently is, he described the Sheikh’s death as the ‘end of an era’.
Let’s hear it all in his own words, “Like all the people whose lives he touched, my wife and I are deeply saddened by the passing away of Sheikh Kanaksi Khimji, affectionately known as Kanakbhai, on the morning of 18th February.”
“We first met Kanakbhai when I arrived in Oman in the late ’70s as Principal of Indian School Muscat, formerly known as Indian Central School. The school was in its budding stage, with a couple of hundred students and a handful of teachers, and was housed in a small building in Muscat, generously given by Sheikh Kanaksi, until it moved to its current premises, on land magnanimously donated by the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said, with facilities supported by a host of generous well-wishers, prominent among them, the Khimji family.”
Adding more details, Lobo said, “He was the founding member, and Chairman of the school for over a decade, during which period It grew rapidly with the student enrolment growing into the thousands. This would not have been possible but for the broad shoulders and large heart of Kanakbhai. He was personally involved during this period in fund-raising drives for the school. He was also Patron of Indian School Wadi Kabir, where I worked as Principal and Director Academics for over 24 years, as well as the Indian School Sohar and recently established ISWKi. His generosity and support extended to other Indian Schools in Oman too.
Although he headed one of the leading business houses in Oman, he was never too busy for the school and its needs and was always ready to lend a helping hand in whatever way
possible. I remember during the early years of development in Oman, an occasion when due to sudden rains, the wadi approach to the school was flooded and some children could not get out of school. At that time, not many had 4-wheel drive vehicles. Kanakbhai himself made several trips getting the children across. He was a symbol of kindness. What struck us was how humble and respectful he was to the teachers and how he helped anyone in need, without discrimination.”
He further said, “Cricket in Oman will not be spoken of without the mention of Kanakbhai. He not only enjoyed the game immensely but was also the driving force in promoting it in Oman. He was the founding Chairman of Oman Cricket. His services were recognized by the ICC with the Lifetime Service Award and Oman today has ICC approval to host international tournaments.”
“His native place in Kutch, India, is also the beneficiary of his philanthropy where his family
has established educational and healthcare institutions, as well as a community centre that I have visited myself. As President of the Mahajan Community and the Sheikh of the Indian Community, he was always there to advise, help and solve problems whenever required. But what inspired everyone who met him was his wisdom, generosity, simplicity and his humility,” he reminisced.
In conclusion, Lobo said, “The passing of Kanakbhai is the end of an era and I am privileged to have closely known him for nearly 40 years. Om Shanti:!”
Yet another person to have closely interacted with Kanakbhai is Prescy Menezes, hailing from Mangaluru, currently leading her retired life in Mumbai.
She describes Kanakbhai as a gem of a person, kind-hearted and generous in nature. She was provided with free accommodation along with a maid. Besides, since she was the only female employee, she was provided with free air passage up to Mangaluru and back on every annual holiday.
She had landed in Oman in the early days of the Renaissance era, in the early 1970s. She was among a small number of Indian women around those days. In fact, she was the first female expatriate employee of the Khimji group. She was given the exclusive charge to head the perfumery and cosmetics division.
When the group planned to take the cosmetics line to a greater level, the employers decided to depute her to Paris to undergo a beauty consultancy course.
At that point, she says, she felt nervous and almost broke into tears. But, to instil confidence in her, the company sponsored the travel and stay expenses of her husband Clifford and their four-year-old son Deepak also to make her feel comfortable. Besides, there was an added bonanza of extending her family’s tour to Switzerland, Italy and Germany.
Such was Kanakbhai’s generosity, she gratefully recalls. She was treated by him as a sister and the whole Khimji family looked after her as their own member, for which she would remain indebted for life.
It was many years later that two other female staff joined. When she decided to quit after a few years, the employers were reluctant to lose the services of such an efficient committed employee. But as her children were growing, so were her responsibilities at home. She bade goodbye in 1981.
During a later visit to Oman, when she called on her old work spot, she was taken around and introduced to the entire staff as the “first lady” in the literal sense. She would never forget that occasion, she said.
Lawrence Pinto, Managing Editor of Images RetailME trade magazine, Dubai, UAE, had earlier served as Oman correspondent of Khaleej Times English daily for many years.
Having known the KR group and the families from close quarters, he said he was very sad to hear the news.
Speaking exclusively from Dubai, Pinto said that the Sheikh was an unassuming, amiable person. I remember meeting him on several occasions, formal and informal, be it for an interview for Khaleej Times at the KR offices, stores or any social celebration at his residence. He was an excellent host and would attend to every guest individually. He hosted almost every Indian official or celebrity visiting Oman. The guests included ministers, singers, actors and, above all, cricketers. Those hosted included Lata Mangeshkar, Madhuri Dixit, Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, to name a few.
“I particularly remember two occasions when I had to meet him over and over. The first was the India-Pakistan cricket match in 1993 when Khaleej Times was involved as the media partner. The second was in 1995 when I was working on a special report for Khaleej Times to mark the completion of KR Group’s 125 years,” Pinto added.
“His first love was cricket and if Oman is a member of the International Cricket Council today, it is because of Sheikh Kanak Khimji’s contribution.
One incident is still fresh in my mind. A few days before the India-Pak match, we were at a public event when Saleh Talib Zakwani, the owner of Apex Publishing, posed a question to Kanakbhai, whether he expected to draw a full house at the Bowshar stadium, the venue of the match which had a capacity of 22 thousand spectators. Kanakbhai modestly said, yes. Saleh was not satisfied. I decided to add my comments by quoting Bernard Shaw’s quip on cricket – ’22 fools playing and 22,000 fools watching’ and said that the stadium would not only be full but overflow. Hearing my comments Kanakbhai immediately said ‘Tumhare muh mein ghee shakkar!'”
“I pray for his ‘sadgati’ and offer my condolences to all family members.”
Speaking from Muscat, Stanley T H Fernandes, General Manager, HiTec Center LLC, who has lived in Oman for over four decades, said, “Early Thursday morning, I was shocked to receive the news of the sad demise of Sheikh Kanaksi Khimji, director of M/s Khimji Ramdas, Chairman of Oman Cricket Club and the Sheikh of the Indian Community living in the Sultanate of Oman.
His selfless contribution to the field of education, sports – cricket in particular – in Oman, and many other fields is remarkable.
“I had known him well since 1978 when he was the chairman of the then-Indian Cultural Association, now known as Indian Social Club, and later while celebrating events where I represented Photocentrecricket team and Oman Cricket Club till 1996.
“Sheikh Kanakbhai was a simple and kind-hearted personality. An open-minded philanthropist and father-like figure, he has left behind an irreplaceable void but also a memorable legacy for the Indian community living in the Sultanate of Oman.
“May his soul rest in heavenly peace.”
N Sheriff, hailing from Mangaluru, was General Manager, Finance and Administration of Jashanmal Group, Dubai for over two decades, until two years ago when he settled down back home.
Prior to his stint in the UAE, he had already served in Oman, heading Finance in the Al Harthy group for two decades. He had a few occasions to meet Sheikh Kanaksi during the period.
Like others, Sheriff too was very sad to hear the news. He recalls him as quite a thorough gentleman. “I had opportunities to meet him 4 or 5 times. I had the privilege of leading him to Sheikh Al Harthy’s office a few times when the KR group wanted to buy our Wadi Kabir warehouse.”
“I feel proud and lucky to have met this great personality 27 years ago. My heartfelt condolences to the entire Khimji family,” concluded Sheriff.
Mekerira “Bellu” Kuttappa, a passionate hockey and sports enthusiast from Coorg, recently left Oman to settle down in Bengaluru. He has lived in the Gulf for over three decades. He set up the Team Coorg hockey team and cruised it to championships in national and Gulf-level championships.
Expressing his grief over Kanakbhai’s demise, Bellu Kuttappa said, “He may not be physically with us today but his well-set legacy and his name will never fade away from our minds. Though the game of cricket was his passion, he was a great supporter of expatriate hockey too. He was the guiding spirit for all Indian expatriates living in Oman. He supported the Team Coorg and friends of the Naqvi group when the Republic Day of India Hockey Festival, Independence of India Hockey Festival and Dhyan Chand Day Hockey Festival, right from inception on a regular basis. He made it a point to be physically present during the events if he happened to be in Oman. He always hosted the Indian hockey team whenever they visited Oman for practice matches. Even a women’s hockey team from India once attended a training camp in Muscat. He had been a keen supporter of Team Coorg-Oman. He will always remain in the minds and hearts of Team Coorg members. The best way to pay tribute to him is to carry on his set vision and ideals for social and community services as our top priority.”
The author is a bank official-turned journalist, with decades of experience in India and the Middle East. A pioneering web journalist in the Western coast, he is also a cyber media consultant.