LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now

Gujarati  Londoners -

Chandra Patel, Beni Patel with their daughter Meera Patel


Date of photography: 25th August 2017

The Patels are exemplary citizens of Gujarati ethnicity.   Like many Asian immigrants, they came to London via Britain’s colonial territories in East Africa and approximately 400,000 Gujaratis have now made this city their home.   The Patels are proud, successful Londoners and, as they see their complex heritage as a strength, they have striven to inculcate the spirit of multi-culturalism into their daughter, Meera, who is also now a successful businesswoman.   Often affluent, middle-class people, the Gujaratis have maintained their ethnic and religious traditions, yet almost without exception, have assimilated successfully into British society.   Chandra is careful when discussing Brexit but says:  “At one time, Britain had a vast empire and its leaders then were not only pragmatic but they were people with vision;  where are such leaders now?    London has been an international community for a very long time;  if every foreigner here disappeared overnight, only a ghost town would remain.”   Meera adds:  “The popular message of the Referendum campaign was ‘getting our country back’ but I kept wondering, ‘getting it back from whom?’   I thought that Britain was functioning pretty well as it was and London is surely an excellent example of how lots of different people can live together harmoniously.   The great majority of us ‘foreigners’ have been born here, this is our country too.”


The full story:

On a perfect sunny day in August, having been invited there by Meera Patel, I was welcomed to her parents’ house in north London, a comfortable home in a prosperous part of the capital, furnished with taste and care.   In a manageable, well-kept garden, beautifully illuminated by the unusually potent sunshine, an apple tree glimmered with its fine crop of ripening fruit but, while the warm sun betokened the continuance of Summer, foliage in the flower beds seemed to announce the first hints of Autumn.   This is the home of Chandra Patel and his wife, Beni Patel ;   until her recent marriage, it was also home to their daughter, Meera, who grew up here and who still returns frequently to spend time with her folks.


Though Family Patel are Gujarati by ethnic heritage and Hindu by faith, they see themselves as British too.   Both Chandra’s and Beni’s parents were born in the Indian state of Gujarat but were carried along as part of a significant wave of migration to Africa - to be precise, to the area that now comprises modern-day Kenya.   Many thousands of Indians were encouraged to take part in the creation of what was originally, in 1895, the East Africa Protectorate, a fledgling state that had taken over the assets and personnel of the British East Africa Company.   In recognition of the large number of Indian settlers, the rupee became the new state’s official currency and its legal system an extension of Indian law.   Within a relatively short period of time, well-educated Gujaratis and other Indians had filled most of the administrative and professional jobs.  


The construction of the notorious Uganda Railway, in 1896, was remarkable, both as a feat of engineering and for having brought to Africa some 32,000 indentured Indian labourers;  it was notorious too insofar as its construction led to the deaths of more than 2,500 of these labourers, that is about four fatalities for every mile of track laid!   While the 660 mile long railway was seen by some as infrastructure of critical strategic importance, the project did face considerable local opposition.   Construction costs escalated above all estimates and even the British Parliament in London was not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this particular railway, sometimes referring to it as the ‘Lunatic Express’.  


Once the line was completed, the majority of the surviving Indian labourers returned home;  however, almost seven thousand decided to stay, swelling significantly the local community of Indian East Africans.    Through many years of hard work and enterprise, the Gujaratis were able to take advantage of the Protectorate’s extensive economic opportunities, and over five decades the Indian community prospered and grew.  


By the beginning of Word War II, Asians could be found in all occupations in Nairobi and the townships - they occupied significant roles in business, in the police force, in the colonial bureaucracy, and in all the professions.   Their undoubted commercial skills contributed manifestly to what had become Kenya’s notable economic development and prosperity, and indeed the prosperity of the whole of East Africa - prior to independence, Asian Kenyans owned almost three quarters of all private assets and trade.   So, having become by then a very influential community, Kenyan Indians also became a major force in directly challenging the palpable inequality of British colonial rule:  they demanded greater political representation and even laid the foundations of Kenyan trade unionism.   Of course, they all had the status of British Subjects until Kenyan independence, in 1963, after which time, the new Kenyan Government offered Indian immigrants the stark choice of accepting Kenyan citizenship or being classified as aliens.  


The Patel family had settled in Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, where Chandra’s father had opened a shop.   One of five children, Chandra comments:  “Life was not easy but from the very outset, my parents’ intention was that all of us should get the best education possible, and they were prepared to sacrifice almost everything to make this a reality.   I went to school locally and, after secondary school, I progressed to a Teacher Training College.”   Chandra clearly excelled academically and was offered a Commonwealth Scholarship to study Mathematics at Southampton University, an offer he was delighted to accept.   “I was 19 and full of life;  I took advantage of all the facilities on offer, and I learned a lot.   And I must say that I was almost universally welcomed.  These things make such a difference.”


“I went back home to Kenya and taught there for several years but when I was 26, I returned to London to study Charted Accountancy.   I qualified and practised for a number of years but to be honest, my heart was never entirely in it.”   For a period of time, Chandra worked as a Financial Director for an import/export business but gradually he progressed towards the ownership and management of six nursing homes within the NHS sector, employing nearly 200 people.   “I carried on with this business until my retirement, and while the work was certainly demanding, with lots of bureaucracy, it was working with people that I enjoyed enormously.   Now, on looking back, I feel that I have led a fulfilled and productive professional life.”


At that point, Beni joined us at the table, giving me the opportunity to ask her something about herself.   “My parents were born in Gujarat too:  my father trained alongside a local photographer and, later on, opened his own business in Nairobi.   We were a large family of nine children, all born in Kenya.   I was the first to leave home because, rather unconventionally, I had decided to go back to India for my secondary education, back to my parents’ homeland, though a country completely unknown to me.   I stayed for almost nine years, going on, after secondary school, to study Pharmacy.   Having been born in Africa, I found life in India an extraordinary experience;  it was also an opportunity to reconnect with my parents’ roots, with indigenous Gujarati culture and traditions, and to master my mother tongue to perfection.   I did return to Nairobi eventually, where I worked in the hospital, but there must have been a wandering spirit somewhere in my soul for, when I was 28, I left Kenya for Toronto, in Canada, where I continued with my study of Pharmacy.   While I remember those days fondly, I also remember the shocking coldness of the climate - for someone who’d only lived in East Africa and in India, all that snow took some getting used to it, at least initially.   Then, on one of my trips through London, I met my husband and the rest, as they say, is history.”   Beni smiles, looking proudly at Chandra and at her daughter, Meera.  


Though Chandra and Beni are clearly cultured people, they are at the same time a modest, unpretentious couple.   As well as English, they both speak Gujarati, Hindi and Swahili.   They are active, exemplary citizens and proud Londoners.   Though theirs is a complex background, they see this as a strength and they have striven to inculcate this spirit of multi-culturalism into their daughter, Meera, who has recently turned 30 and married.


Meera is a confident, well-educated and highly articulate young woman with a wonderful, unforgettable smile.   Born a Londoner, she attended a north London school and when I enquired how well she had done there, she replied with a modesty self-evidently inherited from her parents:  “Well, I got good enough results to get into Cambridge, to study Law, though to be honest, I never intended to practise it.   I saw it as a qualification that would serve me well in my professional life, whatever I decided to do.   University, I found, certainly does broaden the mind, irrespective of the subject you do:  it makes you think independently, encourages you to challenge orthodoxies, and forces you to master methodology;  you develop academic discipline and learn how to see the world and its people from a variety of different perspectives.”  


“I feel very strongly about the importance of these things, especially now, when our society seems to be regressing in many ways.   We are starting to force young people to decide, very early on, what it is that they want to do for the rest of their lives;  instead, we should be teaching them that there is a myriad of options ahead of them, not forcing upon their young minds lots of targets and objectives, all of which are narrow and often pointless.”   Indeed, Meera is so right;  education, a process of ‘drawing out’, should be about encouraging young minds to grow and develop in a natural way.   Finland recognised this many years ago:  instead of ‘hothousing’ young children academically, they encouraged them to play, seeing play as an essential stage of human development.   Later on, the more conventional components of a child’s education would be gradually increased but always matched to the natural development of the brains of young human beings.


“After Cambridge, I did my Master’s Degree at the London School of Economics (LSE) studying Social and Cultural Psychology - that was the place where I acquired academic maturity but I also gained the confidence to analyse, to understand and to get to grips with anything I happened to come across in my professional career.   Perhaps improbably, I now manage a care home in the Midlands which is a tough but deeply rewarding job.”  


I should say that the Patel family, who have kindly agreed to be part of Londoners at home: The Way We Live Now, are broadly typical of the Gujarati Hindu community in London.   Gujaratis have had a long and multi-facetted connection with Britain, going back to 1615 when the original East India Company set up a trading post in Gujarat.   Gujaratis have long had a tradition of seafaring and settling in foreign lands, where they usually integrate smoothly into the host community.  


In London, where approximately 400,000 Gujaratis have made their homes, they are regarded, with some justification, as affluent, middle-class people who have managed both to maintain their ethnic and religious traditions and, almost without exception, to assimilate successfully into British society.   The former British Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, quite rightly pointed out, in her message to 'Asian Business’, that:  “they are not only helping to bring new life back into the inner cities, but also into our smaller towns and villages.”   The Gujarati community is involved in the retail sector, in manufacturing, in trade, and in both financial and professional services.   Many are doctors, surgeons, solicitors, accountants, pharmacists and engineers;  they are involved in the mainstream media and in education;  and London has over one thousand Gujarati-owned hotels.   In the malicious and inflammatory pieces that are regularly penned for the so-called popular (or gutter) press, foreigners in the UK are frequently characterised as ‘scroungers’;  the exact opposite would seem to be the case with Gujaratis, amongst whom, I am told, you will struggle to find anyone claiming state benefits, even if they are entitled to them.   Such is the ethos of these remarkably independent people.


Reflecting upon the attitude of the UK media towards foreigners brought us inevitably to a discussion of ‘Brexit’ and Britain’s impending departure from the EU.   Chandra chose his words carefully;  he clearly holds strong, well-considered views on this issue but knows that any words can easily be taken out of context and misunderstood:  “I have very mixed feelings about it all.   I suspect that those in power at the time, who instigated this referendum, never expected the outcome we got, and now they are no longer to be seen.   At one time, Britain had a vast empire and it is my impression that its leaders in those days were not only pragmatic people but, at the same time, they were people with vision;  where are such leaders now?    London has been an international community for a very, very long time - if all the foreigners who are here were to leave overnight, only a ghost town would remain.   Most people in London coexist happily and what is about to happen may cause terrible disruption in lots of people’s lives, and not just to lives, but to the economy of London too, and thus the economy of the whole country.  The current uncertainty is in itself already damaging.  I am retired and some might say, ‘Why should you worry?’   But I do;  I fear for the next generation now growing up, I care about their future deeply.”


Meera is clearly amongst those whom one might safely describe as ‘this country’s future’, and she contributes her view without the least hesitation:  “Milan, remember, the main message behind the EU referendum was ‘getting our country back’ but I kept wondering, ‘getting our country back from whom?’   I thought that Britain was functioning pretty well as it was.   London is an excellent example of how so many different people can live together in harmony.   The great majority of us ‘foreigners’ have been born here, this is our country too.   I feel that my family is quite typical: yes, we are Gujarati;  yes, we are Hindu;  and yes, we are British too but, above all, we are Londoners!”  


“I don’t struggle with any imagined duality:  I am who I am, and I have no divided loyalties.   To be absolutely honest, I never felt I had to defend any aspect of who I am.   My parents implied indirectly, I think, that they have never felt themselves subject to explicit discrimination in London, and I can say the same for myself, though of course one is occasionally aware, in certain settings, that one is seen as a member of a minority.   However, I do wish to emphasise that I have never been made to feel that I didn’t fit in.   Mind you, I work at it, I try to fit in anywhere.”   Meera concludes with a broad smile.


While I was gathering up my photographic equipment, Mr Patel showed me the headline article in one of the newspapers:  John Rees-Evans, a former soldier and now a candidate for the UKIP leadership, wants to pay British Indians, and any other people with dual nationality, £9,000 to leave the UK, and to go back to where they came from.   In other words, his is a proposal for financially incentivised ethnic cleansing.   I have lived in London for over 45 years - Family Patel have been here for even longer - and while we all believe strongly in freedom of speech, we do wonder what should be the proper response, in a pluralist democracy, to such inflammatory rhetoric as this.  


In my lifetime, I have watched the nightmare of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans, in Rwanda, and in Nagorno-Karabakh, and our parents would have witnessed the ethnic cleansing of Nazi Germany, with its aim to create a ‘pure race’ of Aryan people, the Armenian Genocide, the partition of India seventy years ago, and many more equally murderous and avoidable cataclysms.   So my blood runs cold when I hear such slogans as ‘Getting our country back’, a phrase that would seem, quite shockingly, to have become an acceptable way to describe this country’s aspirations.   I sometimes wonder if those who came up with this loathsome phrase could ever have understood fully the best meaning of the terms ‘British’ and ‘nation’.


Both Mr Patel and I decide to avert our gaze from the racist utterances of John Rees-Evans and look on the bright side:  we admire what is almost a perfect summer’s day in this beautiful city of ours - London, a city as colourful as its people, and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.  


Text edited:  6th September 2017    

Page modified: 17th March 2019