As I walked from the ramp onto solid ground, it was as if my feet were standing on a lifetime of stories: my heritage, the soil in which my family tree had taken root and grown. It was 1964, three years before our move to London, and I had just made a very different journey; stepping off a ship into another world. Back then, Mumbai was still Bombay, a bustling port full of noise and energy. I gazed wide-eyed at the magnificent Gateway of India near the famous Taj Hotel, places I had only heard of or seen in photos.
But the thing which made me audibly gasp was greater than the splendour of any bricks and mortar. The people. The people all looked like me.
The feeling of belonging was overwhelming. So, this is how it feels to fit in! I’d had no idea. It is still difficult to put it into words, the intense emotion of those first steps, entering my country of origin, the sense of coming home. No longer did I feel different. Instead, I felt I could walk freely without fear. To this day, every visit to India makes the same unique and dramatic impression on me.
However, for my 14-year-old self it was something completely new and, ironically, the difference was in the similarity. The difference was, I was the same as everyone else. In this place – unlike any other I’d known – I felt a deep recognition. Any one of these people could be passed off as my brother, my sister, my uncle. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t stand out. I was flooded with relief and confidence, as if I’d found a lost piece of myself I had not even known was missing.
My family had of course told me countless tales of Mother India, waxing lyrical and oozing idealism. Now I was here and, within that one moment, every word they had told me became real around me.
Stories and histories seemed even to float on the breeze along with a good helping of second-hand nostalgia. All I could think was ‘India, India. This is my country.’
The whole adventure had begun some months previously, with a simple conversation: “If you really want the best for Ram, you need to send him to boarding school. And I know just the one.” Mr Cameron, my teacher, was talking Daddy round, dropping into the conversation irresistible morsels about Bishop Cotton’s School in Bangalore: the perfect place apparently, for me to fulfil both my senior education and my potential. It was his alma mater – and, with his recommendation, the Headmaster would be certain to accept me. There was an element of persuasion, but to be honest, not much was needed. Daddy always wanted the best for me, and was quickly convinced.
They would not send me alone however. My older brothers, Bharat, Lachu and Kanu were to travel with me in the hope that we would all get a place at the school together. We left the family nest and set sail on the SS Safina ul Hujaj, proud to be on the then-fastest ship from Mombasa to Bombay, crossing the seas in a mere ten days as opposed to the usual two weeks. And thank goodness for that because, being confined to bunk beds in third class, with military style food, I’m not sure we could have handled much longer.
I looked up to my savvier big brothers for survival, especially the eldest who somehow managed to smuggle food from the first-class section of the ship to keep us all going. Now finally we were coming into dock, watching sharks gliding territorially through the harbour waters; the Gateway of India in the distance, calling us home. We disembarked and within seconds seemed to be surrounded by coolies all fighting for the chance to take our luggage to Customs.
Admittedly, my dreamy idealism took a sharp knock with the fearful immigration and customs experience at Bombay Port.
Our bags were crammed full of presents and foodstuffs that family and friends in India had requested: tins upon tins of South African Kraft Cheese, a common request for anyone making this voyage. Finally, however, we made it through in one piece and were free to explore our motherland.
On landing, we were met by the driver of Rai Bahadur Lalchand Watanmal Boolchand who took us straight to Rai Bahadur’s office where we formally shook hands, although first all four of us had to touch his feet as a sign of respect to him – a senior friend of the family.
He had a very imperious presence and seemed almost more British than the British in his mannerisms and attitudes. The first thing he did was take us to the photographer who had a studio in the same building. “Dear boys,” he said, “The photographs will follow in due course. Now follow me and let’s go to my flat”.
With that he swept us off to his home, opposite the Cricket Club of India (CCI) premises, housing the prestigious Brabourne Stadium where Test Matches are played. As we gazed up at his beautiful ceilings, painted with scenes from Mogul times, he entertained us by recounting our family history. Even his servant remembered our grandfather, Baba Dayaram, and joined in, telling eloquent tales of his achievements and escapades and describing the family palace, Moti Mahal in Hyderabad, Sindh.
Rai Bahadur wore a ring with an exquisite blue-white diamond, sourced in Durban, a gift from our grandfather to him and a symbol of their deep friendship. Grandfather made a tradition of giving diamonds to his children and grandchildren on their marriages – rings for the sons, and other jewellery for the daughters-in-law, and had extended this special gift to his friend too. Although Rai Bahadur came from a higher caste, the Bhaibands, Grandfather’s wealth and business success gave him access to, and acceptance from, those who would normally be considered his social superiors.
Our grandfather was ahead of his time. The money he’d made from the silk trade meant that not only could he afford a palace, but he could also improve the marriageability of future generations, buying his descendants a route into higher castes.
Under normal circumstances, nobody from a higher caste would want to marry into our family – we were funeral singers by tradition - the lowest of the low. However, he dared to ask girls from the Bhaiband merchant caste, higher than ours, to marry his sons – my father and uncle – because he could afford to take them without demanding any dowry. These were known as ‘sari weddings’ because the brides could literally just turn up in their saris. Nothing was expected of them. In fact, if anything, their families received gifts from ours.
No expense was spared as my grandfather had the town lit up and sent horse drawn carriages to pick up the girls – who were of course my mother and aunt – for a double wedding which was, by all accounts, spectacular.
As we listened enthralled to the stories, we realised our family had a legacy here, and had left strong memories in the hearts and minds of those they left behind.
Eventually though, we said goodbye to Bombay and family friends, taking the Deccan Queen Express to Poona, more coolies rushing ahead to throw crisp white sheets onto our places and colonise our seats which, although booked, were never guaranteed.
Aunty Kishu chaperoned us for this part of the journey. She and Uncle Tahilram lived in Poona with their four children, Ram, Nanik, Pushpa and Mana. We were delighted to be able to stay a couple of nights with them. Then came the final leg of our journey, the overnight train to Bangalore, complete with gauge changes – a relic from the Raj – meaning we had to change trains part-way. As we surfaced the following morning, we blinked sleepily out at the station where we’d stopped.
Up and down the length of the train stood a line of waiters, not only on the platform side but also along the tracks on the outer edge. Through the windows they handed us huge banana leaves holding tantalising breakfasts of spiced omelettes, idli, sambar, dosas, papadum, yogurt and rice in a range of glorious colours and variety. The bright green of the leaves contrasted with the yellows and reds of papadums and chutneys like a work of art. They tasted as delicious as they looked and, even now when I return to South India for business, my breakfast order never changes.
As it was still the school holidays when we arrived in Bangalore, we stayed with our uncles Vashi and Dayaram Chatlani, owners of the “Favourite Shop” chain there. At first, the excitement of the trip and the newness of discovering my homeland carried me through. But it was not enough.
In the light of my powerful eureka moment disembarking in Bombay, it is perhaps surprising to learn that I longed for home from day one.
Despite feeling I had found my place, I still missed Mombasa. I missed my mother, Daddy, my Aunty Janki, Ama (my grandmother), my other siblings. I missed, dare I say it, my home. Because Mombasa was all I’d ever known. In short, I was homesick. Although I knew the school was of the highest calibre, an outstanding opportunity, my fears grew daily. The more I heard how much I would need to adapt and adjust, the more nervous I became. Some of this was exaggerated by the boys in the house where we were staying, who relished telling me, “You will have to learn at least two more languages: Telugu and Kannada... and be fluent in them just to survive in the playground!” It scared the life out of me! When I asked to see the Chemistry and Physics textbooks, I was shocked at how different they were from the ones I’d seen in Mombasa. The thought of studying my favourite subjects in such a new way, not to mention a new language, stripped away any last shred of joy.
Excerpted with permission from ‘My Silk Road: The Adventures & Struggle of a British Asian Refugee’, Ram Gidoomal, Pippa Rann Books & Media.