December 2004 News

Lessons From The Mountain

25 December 2004
The New York Times
Farooq Kathwari

Washington DC: My father was a lawyer by education. In early 1949, he traveled from Srinagar in Indian-controlled Kashmir to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir for a week on business. When he got there, his travel documents were revoked. He was there for a year before my mother and the three youngest children, including me, were able to join him. An older brother, 8, and sister, 7, were in school and were left behind. We thought we were going for six months. It turned out to be 10 years. We lived completely out of touch with the outside - no letters or phone calls. Very early on I saw the major sides of the conflict. We lived at 8,000 feet, at the top of a mountain. The lowest level in Kashmir is 5,000 feet so it wasn't very high. Going to school was a hike. I'd pass trees and rocks and a spring. At the end of October it started snowing. The mountain is a great teacher. It teaches you to pace yourself. It was 1960 before we were allowed to go back to Srinagar without my father, who several years later was given a job at the 1964 New York World's Fair. The family remained behind in Kashmir. He sent me applications to Columbia and New York University. I was at Kashmir University studying English literature and political science. That year a relic containing hairs of the prophet Muhammad was stolen from the shrine at Hazratbal. I was playing cricket in Delhi for the Kashmir University team when it happened, and caught a plane home. I was sitting next to the late Richard Critchfield, a journalist, and took him around to the demonstrations, which lasted 13 days until the relic was found. Two million people in the Kashmir Valley were demonstrating their outrage. A year later I left to study at New York University. I lived in Queens and also had a job in a factory that made something to do with showers. I had no experience in work. I was assigned to the foreman and to this day I still have no idea what I was supposed to do. After a few weeks, he gave me my check and said, 'Please don't come in on Monday.' I said, 'All right, I'll come in on Tuesday.' It took me a while to realize that I was being fired. I was very upset. I saw an ad for a bookkeeper at a printing company on Church Street near N.Y.U. They asked me if I had done any bookkeeping, and I said, 'Of course I have.' Then one of the partners handed me a ledger and an adding machine. The office was two partners, a young lady who was the secretary, a man who did the printing and me. When they left for lunch the secretary came over and said, 'Do you know anything about books?' She taught me in an hour. While I was at school and also at the printing company, my grandfather, who was an antiques dealer, sent me 15 baskets of Kashmiri handicrafts - woodcarvings and papier-mâché, with instructions to sell them and send him the money. I set up Kashmir Products Ltd. in my studio apartment and made my first sales to Bloomingdale's and the United Nations Gift Shop. I marketed the handicrafts part time for nearly a decade. I met my wife in college in Kashmir. You couldn't date, but when I came here we started a cautious correspondence. We decided to get married, but I didn't have the right papers to travel back to Kashmir, so we got married by telephone in 1968. We didn't want a big wedding, but my father, who had returned home, said, 'We will have a big traditional Kashmiri wedding because my son is getting married.' The wedding went on for three or four days without me. My wife joined me several months later. I completed my graduate degree in business and began working at Bear Stearns, and then went to work for New Court Securities, which is now called Rothschild Inc., the banking and investment firm. At Rothschild, one of my associates knew the president and chairman of Ethan Allen, Nat Ancell, who was interested in Kashmiri hand-embroidered fabrics. In 1973, he wanted me to join the company, and I said, 'How about a partnership?' I named it KEA International, for Kathwari Ethan Allen, and began manufacturing lighting fixtures for Ethan Allen. When he asked again if I would join Ethan Allen, I told him the one reason was to take his job. KEA merged with Ethan Allen in 1980. I became chairman and chief executive in 1988.

 

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