Shortly before his death in 1999, Gurinder Chadha asked her father, Bhajan, to write down some of his memories. The writer and director of Bend It Like Beckham is sad that she never found the time to look in detail at what Bhajan wrote while he was alive, but she’s now keen to learn more about her family history, a story that encompasses three continents.
Gurinder was brought up in Southall, after her father, who was born in Kenya, emigrated to England in 1961. He found it difficult to get established in the UK. A Sikh, Bhajan was even forced to shave off his beard and stop wearing his turban in order to get a job. He eventually became a postman. “I feel that he was never able to fulfil the potential that he had,” says Gurinder. “He had a great conceptual mind as far as I was concerned and a fantastic sense of humour.”
Gurinder is particularly keen to investigate a family rumour: did her great uncle live with an African woman? To find out more, she heads for Nairobi.
How exactly did a family from the Punjab end up in Africa? The answer is that Gurinder’s forebears were among thousands of Indians who travelled to East Africa in the late 19th century because the British needed trained people to help administer the region. Her great uncle, Ladha, came to Kenya as a policeman. Two brothers, Gurinder’s grandfather Bishen and Lakha, followed on.
During this era, a time of virtual apartheid, only white settlers were able to buy land cheaply. Nevertheless, there were opportunities for canny businessmen too. In 1917, the brothers set up a general trading store in a town called Kericho. BS Chadha and Sons prospered and Bishen became its driving force.
In contrast, Lakha established a mill in a remote area of the country, Lumbwa. Although nobody in her family is keen to talk about what happened, it seems that he did live with an African woman, and probably had a child. But while Gurinder wants to trace this side of the family and meet any living relatives, the trail runs cold.
As for her own father’s life in Kenya, a picture of a restless, idealistic soul emerges. As his memoirs reveal, Bhajan wasn’t interested in the family business, but preferred Nairobi with “its cinemas and other delights”. Unusually for someone of his background, Bhajan supported the Uhuru freedom movement, which campaigned against British rule.
Gurinder next travels to India. In 1947, Takar Devi, Gurinder’s grandmother, went to India with five of their children in order to find suitable husbands for her daughters. Her timing couldn’t have been worse. Independence and Partition saw 10 million refugees on the move. Dariala Jalib, Bishen’s home village, ceased to be in India and became part of Pakistan as the Punjab was divided.
Takar Devi found herself in a refugee camp. According to Gurinder’s uncle, she had to sell her jewellery to buy food. Tragically, one of her children died. Bishen had to search refugee camps to find his family. He also built a new family business in India, hoping his son Bhajan would settle. Instead, Bhajan ultimately headed to the UK.
After consulting a ‘pandit’, someone who keeps family records and finding entries that go back generations, Gurinder makes one final journey, to Pakistan. Accompanied by her uncle, who hasn’t been back since Partition, Gurinder finds her family’s former home and sees the land that was for centuries occupied by her forebears. Although she’s never felt truly at home on the Subcontinent, Gurinder says it “feels really good” to have traced her family history to a specific location, the place where her ancestors lived and died.