A family business transaction at McKees Rocks creates an avenue for conflict resolution
Sonny Gianni always claimed he would stay at McKees Rocks until his mother died.
The 1988 Sto-Rox graduate moved to the suburbs as soon as he could after amassing a small real estate empire and eventually winning a landmark lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of Mike Webster. But until a few months ago, he continued to work in a small office in the back of the Blue Eagle, his family’s store on Broadway Avenue.
Six days a week, while running errands, Gianni would sit down to eat with his mother in the apartment above where she lived before going home to Cranberry.
When Kamlaben Jani fell ill in the spring at the age of 85, Sonny and his siblings knew they would have to make some tough decisions. They decided to sell the shop while they managed to agree on an owner to whom to entrust the parental inheritance.
Seven years ago, a Muslim family from Pakistan who bought a rival store two doors down would have seemed unlikely candidates. But a slow friendship led to a deal that they now say is much bigger given their distinguished family history.
“For a long time, I was brought up hating Muslims,” Janis says, noting that his sister was once held captive for 48 hours by a neighboring Muslim family when Janis was still living in India.
Hindu-Muslim animosity on the Indian subcontinent goes back centuries and has recently reasserted itself at the center of political life there through the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. But for many families connected to either side, the feud is fused with personal history.
Anytime Market owner Mohsen Khan says his upbringing was rare in the sense that his father had Hindu friends who occasionally came to watch cricket. But the Khans, who have lived around Pittsburgh since the 1990s, haven’t gotten over the sectarian trauma. Mohsen’s grandmother was forcibly evicted from her home and sent to the newly created Pakistan during the partition of India.
“She was actually forced to leave India in 1947,” says Khan City newspaper. “One day her father said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to go.’ And she had to travel about 200 miles to Lahore and she was probably only 8 or 9 years old.’
Although leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi fought for a united, independent India, the separatist faction eventually prevailed and the Indian subcontinent was divided into two nations at the time of liberation from British rule. Most of it, modern India, was allotted for the Hindu majority, while Pakistan and West Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were formed for the Muslim minority. It is estimated that up to a million people died crossing the border after partition.
“Can you imagine hundreds of millions of people being told at the same time, ‘Leave your home and go somewhere else?'” Khan says.
When Jani arrived in the US at the age of 15, he felt he had more to fear from white American teenagers than from the small number of Pakistani Muslims then living around Pittsburgh.
His success in business meant that some of those former bullies later came to him for help, and he usually found them jobs or apartments when he could. However, he continued to hold the Pakistanis (he had long-standing friendships with Muslims from other parts of the world) for several decades.
Somehow, as rival business owners, Jani and Khan became close friends – brought together by the same mischievous sense of humor. The prank that cemented their friendship was set up by a handful of unsavory customers known to both shop owners, who would take turns sending them to the house next door with the promise that the other owner would have what they were looking for.
“You know people are in a lot of pain and they don’t know how to joke,” Khan says. “When I hear a joke from Sonny, I immediately respond to it… So over the years, I’ve also gotten to know his family. I met his mom, his sisters, his brother, his brother-in-law.”
But when it comes to the fate of a 40-year-old family legacy, as was the case at Blue Eagle before Janis, the generational conflict could quickly reignite.
Kamlaben traveled 7,000 miles from Gujarat, India to build a better life, and Blue Eagle came to embody the security and stability her family had made for themselves in America. For nearly forty years, she worked there seven days a week, Gianni says, never closing on major holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
For Gianni and his siblings, their connection to the family business was also strong.
“Blue Eagle wasn’t just a corner store to me because I raised my two kids there, Mike Webster was there. When I was kicked out of my house, I lived there,” he says.
Gianni was 22 and running a sports card store when he came across an exhausted Mike Webster sleeping at a bus stop downtown. But while others may have brushed off the brain-damaged former Steelers star, Gianni found a way to improve their fortunes by putting him on the signing-talking circuit and sharing the profits. Gianni eventually became a close friend and mentor to Webster, and after his death, he successfully sued the NFL on behalf of his estate.
Hahn says he discussed his interest in Blue Eagle before Kamlaben got sick, simply asking if he could make the first offer. Yani agreed, but did not immediately get the support of the whole family.
“I think it was harder for people in his family to accept that,” Hahn says. “Just because they are older and have been through something in India.”
Kamlaben, who according to Jani liked Khan despite her lifelong dislike of Pakistanis, helped solve the problem with her voice of support.
According to Gianni, she said, “I want you and your brother to live happily ever after, and if it makes you happy, do it.”
When Kamlaben died in August, Khan was among a small circle of friends and family invited to her Hindu memorial service. They closed the deal on the store a few weeks later.
“We are not at war, we are in friendship,” says Yani. “And now our friendship is growing.”