Born in Kenya, EastEnders star Nitin Ganatra came to live in England when he was three years old. At a time when racism was far more overt than it is today, he remembers growing up with a sense of not quite belonging. By researching his genealogy, he hopes to find a sense of home.
His first visit is to his parents in Coventry, where he learns how the family’s assets were seized by the Kenyan government when they left Africa in 1971 and, with the help of a £2,000 loan, his father Jayantilal started out in business again in the UK. He also discovers that his mother Manglaben’s parents were married when they were children, “a real shock”.
To learn more, Nitin takes a flight to Kenya, where he meets historian Professor David Anderson at Nairobi’s railway museum. Nitin’s great grandfather, Popatlal, was one of thousands of Indians who came to the country, many driven by famine at home, between 1896 and 1902 to work on constructing a railway to link Mombasa on the coast with Lake Victoria. Conditions were so bad that, of the 32,000 Indian labourers who worked on the project, around 2,500 died.
Despite this, Popatal opted to stay when his three-year contract was up, and went into business, opening a store on one of the new towns, Broderick Falls, that sprang up along the railway line. He did well, but after 1963, when Kenya achieved independence, the Indian community was treated with huge suspicion, and Nitin’s father chose to leave rather than surrender his Commonwealth passport and become a Kenyan citizen. Still, Nitin is able to see the store his family once owned.
To go back further, Nitin has to go to southern India, Gujarat. Here, before learning more about his paternal family, he goes to visit his mother’s sister, Godavriben, where he learns of “a family crisis” his mother never talked about. Nitin’s grandfather became bed-ridden with a kidney problem. Not only did his children have to go out to work, but only two daughters from his 10 offspring survived into adulthood. It’s a revelatory story that makes Nitin see his mother in a new light.
Back on the trail of his father’s forebears, Nitin visits the remote village of Jharera where his great grandfather was born. Here at last, Nitin begins to find a sense of belonging as he meets the village elder, who remembers his family. “It’s good to call somewhere home, isn’t it?” Nitin says.
He has one final journey to make. In the city of Mathura, Nitin learns, there are records of his family line. Visiting local record keepers, he’s able to go back nine generations in total. Not only that, but Nitin adds his children’s names to that of his forebears and realises that he previously visited here when he was a child.
As to what he’s learnt on his travels, Nitin says he can feel equally at home in the UK, Kenya or India. It’s less important to belong to a specific place, he’s realised, than to a family, a “tribe”.
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