A Eulogy for Jayantibhai Patel

I’ve been asked by a few people to provide this, so here’s the eulogy from my grandfather’s funeral:

I’d first of all like to reiterate what Foi said and thank all the people who have supported us over the past week and for taking the time to be here today.

When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of hours being babysat in Dada’s office, impatiently flicking through television channels, waiting for him to finish work and take me home. In that office he had a little sign that I thought about as I sat down to write this. It was a picture of a bird and began with the words: “If you love something let it go…”

When you love someone like I and the rest of his grandchildren loved Dada, how do begin to let them go? Especially since without them, the world feels a little colder, a little crueller and it’s jarring to just push on with your life when you know there’s one less person in it who’d help you unconditionally, who’d treat you as a child in the good and bad ways.

I think one way to do it is through understanding, to consider the ways in which they shaped you and the world you live in, and Dada certainly did a lot of shaping. In fact, it is impossible to consider his life outside the context of history because, throughout that life, it was history he was making.

As Foi mentioned, Dada came to England in 1964. He would’ve been 31 that year, the same age I am now. The difference being of course that I am already here and happy with my place, whereas he arrived in this country, along with thousands of Kenyan and Ugandan Asians, as part of an migration wave that was not always particularly welcome.

But to be an immigrant is to be a person of ferocious hope. Of relentless care. It’s knowing that the singular ambition that drove you across oceans must not destroy community but seek to provide for it. It is to not let the hatred of others define your life. It is to know that taking a step into the dark, the unknown, is necessary in search of the light.

What I found remarkable about Dada was how he excelled at doing all of this. Firmly both a family and a community man, he was never intimidated and always compassionate. I think the fact that old school friends of mine, people I hadn’t heard from in years, got in touch to send their regards speaks to the memorable effect, through that compassion, that he had on all of those that he met on his various journeys – in England, in India, in Kenya, in America.

And for us, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, those journeys undertaken by those responsible for our being in this country are our site of understanding, our foundational myths. They keep you honest, warn you of dangers that are best avoided, remind you of values.

So what dangers did he warn me of? What values did I learn from my Dada’s life? A fair bit. The big and the small.

I learned that knowing people is nice. Helping them is better.

I learned that 3/4s of being good at your job is putting in the effort.

I learned that Johnny Walker Black Label is the finest blend whisky known to man.

I learned that a can of Fosters is an entirely appropriate drink to give a five year old.

I learned that the best thing to spend money on is other people.

I learned that when you shave, always shave with the grain and not against.

I learned that, because of my Dada’s diligence, hard work and adventurous spirit, I could be whatever I wanted to be…as long as it’s a doctor, engineer or lawyer.

I’m kidding about that last part but I know that whilst Dada wasn’t initially thrilled about my choice of career, he took my ambitions seriously if I took them seriously myself. One of my lasting memories of him is from when I went to ask to borrow the money to do my Masters. He looked at me, skeptically, as you would do if your grandchild had just told you he wanted to go to drama school at age twenty four and asked me : “What do you hope to achieve?”

I told him I was proud of the economic legacy he had left in this country and I wanted to do much the same and leave a cultural one. And when I put it in those terms, he folded his arms, nodded and told me he understood, something I never expected to happen. That was the mark of the man – often stubborn, but always just wanting the best both for and from you and I have spent the last decade desperately trying to make him as proud of me as I was of him, and I know that’s the same for all of us grandchildren.

To be honest with you, I had no idea how I was going to finish this speech. I thought maybe it should be with what Dada would’ve wanted for us. His last text message to me, sent when I was at a wedding, said simply: “Enjoy yourself”. That felt about right.

But coincidence can be a funny thing. The other night my friend Meghna was telling me, quite casually about the origin of her father’s name. A name he shares with Dada. She told me that it’s derived from a Sanskrit word meaning: “Victorious” or “the winner in the end” and when I heard that, I knew that the way to finish was to go back to Dada’s beginning.

Because although he may now have left us, we that loved him can let him go knowing he lived a life that honoured the name he was born with and seeing all of you sitting here, reflecting on the legacy he has left behind – friends, children, grandchildren, businesses, incredible stories, a way of life, a country changed – there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, that Jayantibhai Shanabhai Patel is the winner in the end.

Jyoti

I’ve not seen the name ‘Jyoti’ around as much as I have the last few days, for obvious reasons surrounding the “India’s Daughter” documentary, and it’s made me think about my maternal grandmother who shared that name. I had the good fortune of being raised and tolerated by some kind and very patient women who are thankfully still in my life and so today seems a good time to reflect on the one who isn’t.

My “Biji Ba” (basically meaning ‘other grandma’, which isn’t a great nickname in hindsight but felt affectionate enough growing up) was really bloody small, I think the smallest in a family of tiny ladies. I sometimes forget her face and voice, but the *lightness* of her is baked into my muscle memory.

She got to ‘pick’ my granddad from a selection of other blokes. My granddad showing me the photo that won it for him – casual pose, smart suit – is one of my favourite adult memories. She was a lot younger than him and it was still effectively an arranged marriage, but theirs was the strongest, most loving relationship in my family and I still hold it as a model for the affection and utter respect that married life should be built on.

She was naturally excellent at maths, despite not really having an education, which served her well when she moved over here and worked in a screw factory, enduring the taunts and spits of the other workers, some of whom I understand were members of the union that my granddad was a representative of. Which must’ve led to some interesting dinner-time conversations…

Of course, she wasn’t a saint herself, she had some objectionable old-school views, but she was progressive in enough ways – including regarding difference in caste between my Dad and my Mum – that overall I’m ok with giving her a pass.

Her death, nearly ten years ago now, had as a profound effect on me as her life, since she was the first person close to me to die. The dissonance between her last physical states – seeing her scared and struggling to breathe in a hospital and then hard as granite in the backroom of an undertakers a few days later – still sits with me. But her last act does more so: She gave all the money she had to buy computers for a girls’ orphanage in India so those kids could get the education she was always denied. I remember hearing about that as a scruffy, sad 19 year old who just delivered a speech at her funeral and that fact punching through the misery and just leaving me totally in awe of her.

My Biji Ba, and the women of her generation, have a legacy of courage and perseverance that’s flourished into better lives with varied prospects for those that followed them. I see it in my sister – a former marine engineer, fixing engines on ships all over the world, now back home running the shops that my mum was a driving force in creating. I see it in my cousin who’s overcome horrific illness that I can’t imagine how I’d begin to handle with resilience and grace and now has a job in law as she always wanted (even if she is a bit mental when it comes to cats).

They’re incredible, sophisticated, messy people whose narratives and aspirations, as a gender, tend to get buried under the histories of Great Men, so it’s been wonderful seeing some of those tales get excavated over the last few days and it excites me to imagine all the stories our daughters will get to tell – both of their lives and the ones that are yet to come.

Ba Indian Family