Book Review: An Intimate Glimpse Into the Life of a Sindhi ‘British Asian Refugee’
Ram Gidoomal’s book spans continents and relationships with ease while narrating a story of overcoming obstacles.
Photo: Suganth on Unsplash
The most striking – the most intense – experience Ram Gidoomal describes in his memoirs is the feeling that overwhelmed him when he arrived in Bombay at the age of 14. Suddenly, unexpectedly, for the first time in his life, he knew what it felt to fit in – these were people he could relate too, who were like him in many ways. It brought home the paradox of “home” for an immigrant: on one side homesickness for the country of origin, a sense of cultural belonging, allies in appearance, and the freedom from fear these bring. And on the other, the cords of daily life that tie one to the birthplace and local community.
My Silk Road: The Adventures and Struggles of a British Asian Refugee
Pippa Rann Books and Media U.K.
Ram’s family endured the transition from citizen to refugee twice. Displaced both times by political whim, they experienced a harsh wrenching from community, culture, status and education, and were summarily swept from wealth and comfort to situations of continued struggle – twice. Once as refugees when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned and Pakistan was formed, and the second when his family was deported from Kenya.
As a teenager in immigration queues, he would discover that he was an “alien”. And, despite his academic brilliance and significant contribution to early workplaces, he would remain painfully conscious that he was different.
In this book about his life, Gidoomal begins by describing his happy childhood in Kenya, followed by the challenges of adapting to Britain in the late 1960s – unwelcoming, and one where this family with a multinational trading operation begins afresh with a corner shop – and yet an obvious choice for the time.
There are intimate glimpses into a family of large and complex but congenial groups, and the poignancy of family tragedies including the loss of his birth father and then of his father-figure uncle who brought him up; precious memories handed down from the past, including those of links to the lost homeland of Sindh. There are fascinating peeps into business practices and secret codes among community networks.
Later, during his blissful days with a young family in Switzerland, he was that role-model father who changed his working hours so that he could spend time with his children, returning to office after they went to bed. As the years passed, Ram moved from his life in the corporate world to one centred on social issues and philanthropy, using his business skills to transform others’ lives. His contribution earned him a CBE, Commander of the British Empire, from the Queen of England in 1998.
In between comes a huge, surprising transformation: “By my early twenties, I had lost two fathers but gained a heavenly one in God.”
This wholehearted embracing of Jesus is disconcerting, coming from one whose community sacrificed all they had to escape conversion. As a child in a Sindhi family, Ram grew up Hindu with Sikh influences. At the Aga Khan School in Mombasa, he absorbed Islamic teachings. The choice he later made, with the backdrop of his exceptional intelligence and crystal-clear rationality, resulted from the pull of faith. Succumbing to the warmth of its embrace, he selected a life of devotion to the Church.
Through it all, his Sindhiness remained intact. He writes of his feeling of comfort on reading Matthew chapter 27 verse 59, about Joseph of Arimathea wrapping the body of Jesus in cloth: “The Greek word for this cloth is Sindhon, a cloth from Sindh. A cloth created in my homeland, holding the body of Christ.”
Indeed, the Sindhiness pervades his life: English was the language of instruction but Sindhi was the language his mother spoke to him in, the language the old men swore in, the language he was scolded in. When he fell in love, it was to a highly eligible Sindhi girl – one who, however, was initially forbidden to him as she was of another “caste”. Sunita was from a progressive Amil family, too progressive to consider caste and perhaps just worried about how she would adapt in his traditional Bhaiband family. Indeed, Gidoomal observed with admiration that his father-in-law treated his daughters and sons equally, inspiring him to do the same with his own children.
One of the most prominent themes of this book is Gidoomal’s tremendous network of relationships in every area of life. As a young executive in the 1970s, his complacent and supercilious managers failed to comprehend this tremendous asset which could have taken the bank into new markets with valuable new customers. For Gidoomal, the connections were simply a way of life, partly the community and business networks inherited from his family; partly his own aptitude to thrive on and develop relational networks – ties of location as much as shared cultural traditions among the diaspora flung across the continents. Working at Inlaks, a global company with a huge base in Nigeria, he could speak in Sindhi with the senior executives who preferred to do so when communicating confidential commercial information.
This book has an elegant story-telling style, weaving in humour, and creating a build-up of suspense as the plot unfolds. Despite being put together by a professional writer, Gidoomal’s voice comes through clearly and is the same as in his 1997 UK Maharajas, which was also written by a professional. Through the book, Gidoomal’s personal motto stands out clearly:
“Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can.”
Saaz Aggarwal is a Pune-based author and painter.