her Life

My life story

Autobiographical memories inher own words written by the late Lakshmeeben V. Patel in July 2016

Early Life

My parents lived originally with my widowed paternal grandmother, who had limited means, in a small village called ”VAV” in the state of Gujarat in India. Even in poverty, my illiterate grandmother worked very hard in other people’s farms and paid for her son’s school fees and got him educated up to “matric” at a school in a nearby town. My father was ever so grateful and very proud of his mother.

In 1917, my father, leaving the family behind, decided to travel to Africa and see if he could provide a comfortable life for his family. He travelled by ship across the ocean and then by rail on land, and finally walking to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia where he knew a couple of friends who had already gone there from Gujarat.

After working there for a number of years in whatever jobs he could get, he earned enough money to pay back the debt he had incurred to travel out of India. He then decided to return home to fetch my mother. He stayed in India for some months, and that’s when I was born on the 5th December 1927. I was just three months old when my parents brought me to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia. All my siblings were born in Bulawayo; we were four sisters and two brothers.

As we grew up, our parents took great care to have us take advantage of all the educational facilities available at that time. Apart from attending the government-run English School in the morning from 8 o’clock to 1:00 o’clock, and private Gujarati School from 2 to 5 pm in the afternoon, we sisters also learnt first aid, home nursing, as well as joined Brownies and Girl Guides.

At that time nearly all the southern African countries were British colonies, including Southern and Northern Rhodesia. In all theBritish colonies, there was extreme racial discrimination in all walks of life. All educational and other facilities were separate for different races - namely Indians, Africans and Coloureds. Living or residential areas were segregated. Non-European hospitals were separate from those for Europeans.

The Gujarati community in Bulawayo had grown to be quite big, and all the children in the Bulawayo Indian School were mainly Gujaratis, so the Head Master of the English School had to make a rule that all children at the English School must speak Englishwhile in school.

In the Gujarati homes, all of us always spoke in Gujarati with each other, and all the parents felt that we should preserve our language and culture, which is why the Gujarati School was started. It was a “proper” school with qualified teachers brought from India. So we learnt not only the Gujarati language but many Indian cultural activities as well.  We recited shlokas from the Bhagwad Gita and attended Gujarati music classes, which interested me very much so my father imported a special harmonium for me from India. (I think it is still lying somewhere among my dad’s belongings.)

At home in Bulawayo, it was a rule that we all sat down together for prayers before dinner. After dinner, the whole family gathered and my father would recite and explain verses from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.  Both our parents were good singers.

The question of marriage came up when I was eighteen, and my younger sister was only sixteen at the time. The whole Gujarati Indian community was bound by “rules” of different castes within the community, and marriages could only take place within the caste that you belonged to.  My father was educated and very forward thinking but could not go against the “rules” of the community.

There were just few families of our caste in Bulawayo, so my younger sister and I were taken back to India, travelling by ship for a whole month. In India, we were partnered with spouses quite unknown to us, but somehow it worked out.

Before getting his daughters married, my father did make sure that the parents of his sons- in- law- to be, were willing to send their sons to Africa, so that his daughters could continue to live in Africa. 

New immigrants were not allowed to settle in Southern Rhodesia, but they could come to Northern Rhodesia after fulfilling some requirements which included some knowledge of the English language. That is how both the sons-in- law settled in Northern Rhodesia. My in laws wanted me to stay with them in their villagein India until their son was properly settled in Africa. So I had to stay for four and half long years in the village before coming to N. Rhodesia. Staying with a farming family with a demanding mother-in-law was an extremely difficult period of my life.

Northern Rhodesia/Zambia

When I finally returned to Africa and came to N. Rhodesia, my husband and I stayed at a friend’s house in a town called Broken Hill (now Kabwe). After a few months, we moved into two rented rooms behind a shop. We lived there for a few years and Bhaskar was born there on 29th Nov 1950.

N. Rhodesia was a British colony, so racial discrimination was the same as elsewhere in southern Africa. After a while, when the town council allocated plots and granted loans to Indians to build houses in a segregated area, we took the opportunity and built a relatively small house, because that was all we could afford. Bhaskar and Smita grew up in that house.

The Government had built a small school for Indian children, but they could not find an Indian teacher to teach there; so, when I came to Broken Hill, I became the first teacher at the Indian School. As the number of children increased in the school, I became its Head Mistress. The Gujarati community built a Hindu Hall in their residential area and wanted to start Gujarati classes there to run from 2 to 5 in the afternoon. I became the Head Mistress of that school as well.

Both our children were studying well, and ultimately went for higher education (Smita in Zambia and Bhaskar in the US) and shaped their lives. As parents, we were made very proud.

While I was Head Mistress at the Gujarati School, I, along withtwo other teachers who were under me, organised a very well-produced cultural programme every year at Diwali time for the community. Bhaskar and Smita too participated in those before they left home.

While I was teaching, I also ran a group of Indian Girl Guides and Brownies. Even after I left the job of teaching at school, I carried on with Girl Guiding for fifteen years, for which I was awarded the Lady Hone Certificate of Long Service.

I was the first Non- European to be appointed District Commissioner of all Girl Guides (that is Girl Guides of all races)in N. Rhodesia, while there was still British rule. I was also one of the three delegates from Northern Rhodesia to attend the All Africa Girl Guide Conference in Kampala Uganda. I was accompanied by the daughter of Lord Baden Powell (the founder of Girl Guides and Boy Scouts), Betty Clay.

In all my community and charity work, I had the very strong support of my husband, Vithalbhai Patel, who was also a very dedicated Rotarian, winning quite a few awards for his service.

I was President of the “Gujarati Mahila Mandal” and ran English classes for the ladies in the community. I was also the only female member of the executive committee of the “Kabwe Gujarati Samaj”.

I ultimately left school teaching to join my husband in business. I ran the clothing business which was named “Veekays” and he ran the business of building materials, called “Buildersware”.Both businesses were in different buildings owned by us.

Both of us were involved in a lot of other activities, while running the two businesses.

In 1969, at the time of the Mahatma Gandhi’s Birth Centenary, we created an elaborate Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Exhibition with the help of all the Gujarati youths in town, most of whom I had taught since they were little. At that time, amongst the Indian population, there were only Gujaratis in both the Rhodesias. No other Indians had migrated there from the other states of India.

For the exhibition, we cut out pictures from two huge albums,mounted them on big boards, which made the displays look very good. We brought pictures from wherever possible, and tried to have the exhibition cover the Mahatma’s entire life in detail. The exhibition was displayed in the Kabwe Hindu Hall and was opened by the then Governor of N. Rhodesia. We then took theexhibition to all major towns of N. Rhodesia.  It was a great success, and very well appreciated. At a different time, we also created a more elaborate “Indian Cultural Exhibition”. Earlier, at the time of Zambia’s Independence, my group of Girl Guides had presented themselves in the official March Past and took part in the hoisting of the new Zambian flag. When Indira Gandhi visited Zambia as the Indian Prime Minister, my group of Girl Guides provided the guard of honour for her.

After independence there was a lot of chaos in Zambia. There was strict currency exchange control. Money could not be transferred outside Zambia. We were allowed to buy tickets to travel out of the country, but no foreign currency travel allowances were given.Law and order was disrupted; violence broke out, people were getting killed in their own homes, and there was fear everywhere. Those Indians who had sons and daughters living in other countries, decided to leave Zambia. Those who stayed on, are still there.

Retirement in Australia

We had reached retirement age, so we too decided to sell everything and move to Australia where Smita had settled, and where the climate would suit us also. We were granted residential rights in Australia without any difficulty. We had to leave all our money behind in Zambia and travel mostly empty handed. People found ways and means to transfer money out illegally, but Vithalbhai never wanted to do anything that was illegal. I made arrangements to get some of our money out without his knowledge and settled in Australia with Smita and her family, and began integrating into the community and their circle of friends.

Visit to USA

In 1991, we travelled to America to help Bhaskar and Hema with the birth of our grandson Akhilesh Pant. When he was just ten months old, Vithalbhai Patel suffered a heart problem. He seemed to recover well after the treatment, but he suddenly suffered another attack and died, which was a tremendous shock for us. I was completely devastated and lost, He died just at the beginning of our retirement!

Visit to Zambia/Zimbabwe/S. Africa

Upon hearing of her father’s death, Smita rushed to America with her littler daughter Anjanie, leaving her son Amish with a family friend in Sydney. Bhaskar & Smita became the pillar of strength for me.

A few years after returning to Sydney, my niece Dr Bharti Patel, who was stationed in Malawi working for the Rockefeller Foundation, felt that while she could not do much for her own mother while she was in her last stages of cancer in the UK, she was in a position to invite her three remaining “masi”s (aunts) to her home in Malawi and spend time with them. Shantamasi, my younger sister, was recovering from a major operation in Gaborone, so she could not come; I went from Sydney and Manimasi, my youngest sister, came from India. Bharti took us to many places in Malawi, and we really enjoyed our stay there.  

After that Manimasi and I travelled to Zambia. We enjoyed our return immensely meeting with community members still there, but while in Zambia, I began experiencing chest pains. And it quickly got worse, so I was desperate to reach Bulawayo to my brothers’ home. With chest pains and uneasiness bothering me all the way, Manimasi and I flew to Bulawayo via Harare, where we had to wait for a few hours at the airport. On reaching Bulawayo, my conditions worsened even more, and I had to be admitted to the hospital. But being a foreign national, they would not take me in unless money was paid in advance. So I was left waiting in a wheelchair at the door, while Pannu (my brother Natubhai’s daughter) rushed at night to a relative’s house nearby to get the money. I was admitted but my condition looked critical, so Bhasu was called. He came rushing from wherever he was. My condition then became stable, fortunately, so after a few days, Bhasu returned to work. But as it turned out, I had to go to South Africa to have by-pass surgery done, as there were no facilities in Zimbabwe to do it. I was sent by plane to Pretoria where Arvindbhai’s brother Hasmukhbai was living. His wife Nimooben took me straight to the hospital. Smita came rushing from Sydney to reach before the operation. Here again, just like in Zimbabwe, the doctor would not operate until the entire payment (for hospital and doctors charges) was made in advance. My brother Manhar Mooney from Gaborone, Botswana, quickly made all the arrangements and the operation was done. I survived all that and came back to Nimooben’s place. Together with Arvindbhai’s sister, Manjuben, they took great care of me, for which I remain ever so grateful to them. 

Smita returned to Sydney, and I went to Gaborone (Manubhai’s home) to recuperate. 

Return to Australia 

After two months, when I returned to Sydney, I was still having breathing trouble; the doctor who examined me in Sydney said the operation in S. Africa was not done properly, so I needed to have another open heart surgery done in Sydney. Some of what had been done previously could be repaired (which is what keeps me going to this day), while some could not be undone. 

Bhaskar, Hema and their two sons, Arjun and Akhilesh, have lived in quite a few countries around the world, due to Bhaskar’s international work, and I was fortunate to stay with them in America (with Vithalbhai) and also in India (New Delhi). Smita’s family were not able to visit them in America or India, because of the limited free time they had while running their Post Office business, and due to concern for me if they were going to be away from home for too long. 

Singapore Visit

So, when Bhaskar was posted to Singapore, which compared to other countries they have lived in, was not so far from Sydney, Smita and Arvindbhai decided to make arrangements to get help in the post office, and for their whole family to travel with me to Singapore for a Bhagat-Patel-Pant family reunion. Because it would be a direct flight of about eight hours from Sydney to Singapore, Nimoo, my family friend doctor in Sydney, who has looked after me so well over so many years, said it would be ok for me to travel to Singapore.

Hema and Arjun came to receive us at the airport. I had expected Bhaskar also to be with them, but I thought he could be busy with some work, so I didn’t ask anything. When we reached their large apartment in the city, I was taken aback to see Bhasu (Bhaskar) at the door looking a bit weak, though happy and smiling to welcome us all. He said he didn’t want everyone to come to an empty home, so he had stayed behind. After a little while, he showed me to my room and sat next to me on the bed and told me that he had experienced a heart problem at work just a few days before, without recognising what it was. He was feeling discomfort in his chest, so he had called home to see if Hema could pick him up and take him home. Luckily, Hema was at home, so she quickly rushed to his office to pick him up; from their conversation in the car about his symptoms, Hema decided to take him straight to the hospital where he was immediately attended to and taken care of, with the insertion of a stent in one of his arteries. Doctors told him that he was actually experiencing a heart attack when he arrived at the hospital!

I was shocked and distressed to see that this heart problem was running in the family. At the same time, it was a relief that Bhasu had recovered so well in just a few days. My brother Manhar Mooney form Gaborone, who was travelling somewhere in Asia also at the time, quickly made a trip to Singapore to see Bhaskar.

While Smita’s family and I were in Singapore, Bhasu and Hema took us to show all the important and interesting places in Singapore. Smita is always interested in seeing new places, so she was very happy and excited as well. I remember she particularly enjoyed special tea made in a stall by a simple Muslim fellow (“Teh Tarik” was the name of his stall). She greeted him with “Salaam Alekum” which made him feel very happy. Hema took us across the border from Singapore to see a bit of Malaysia as well.

Smita, Arvindbhai, the children and myself, all enjoyed our reunion with Bhasu’s family in Singapore, and the Bhagat family returned to Sydney after a few days. I stayed back to be with Bhasu’s family for a longer period.

Bhasu and Hema pushed me everywhere in my wheelchair and took me to see many places including Sentosa Island; they took me also many times to the botanical gardens near their home. Arjun, who was also working in Singapore for a few months at that time, joined his parents in taking me around. Bhasu used to go for a walk in the gardens every week-end, and always brought me fresh fruit juices which were sold there, carrying containers in his hand while walking home. His love and care touched me very much.

Back to Australia 

Now I cannot travel anywhere because of my heart problem, diabetes, arthritis and other physical disabilities, but Bhasu and his family come to visit me and Smita’s family in Sydney, whenever they can. Bhaskar and Hema live and work in Boston now (Bhaskar at MIT and Hema at the Museum of Fine Arts), and both their sons work and live in other cities in the United States. I am very happy that they are all doing well.

While I am living permanently in Sydney with Smita and Arvindbhai and my grandchildren, Amish and Anjanie, I am so grateful for how I am being looked after, with utmost care and love, and with all the facilities for my comfort. That way I consider myself extremely lucky. Smita is my lifeline. Arvindbhai looks after me just as he would his own mother; he even pushes my wheelchair whenever necessary. And Amish and Anjanie have also looked after me in so many ways over the years, well before they both started working. Amish has had to lift me up from the floor a few times when I have fallen down; he is the only one with the strength to do it. He was also very close to his grandfather, Vithalbhai; he was always learning from him and helping him in the garden during the time Vithalbhai was in Sydney. During that time, I remember also Bhasu, Hema and Arjun (Akhilesh wasn’t born yet) came to visit us all, and we went together to a beach town for a few days, and the two boys played cricket with their grandfather…that was so nice! I think we have pictures of them playing.

I am extremely proud of all four of my grandchildren - Bhasu’s two sons Arjun and Akhilesh and Smita’s son Amish and daughter Anjanie. All four are well-educated with degrees in their fields of interest and working in companies according to their qualifications. Amish and Anjanie have both grown up with me. I have also had the opportunity to be with Arjun and Akhilesh whenever I went and stayed with them in different countries. When I had gone to Singapore with Smita and family, on the very first morning, while taking a bath in the tub in a new place, I slipped and fell inside the tub, and could not get up on my own and come out. Anjanie and Smita heard me shouting so they came rushing to help. Anjanie is slim and trim but very strong. They lifted me out of the bath tub. Luckily, I had not broken any bones. Now that I cannot travel anymore, it is a pleasure to see all my grandchildren together, whenever Arjun and Akhilesh are able tocome to Sydney. We are a small family, and the family get-togethers, whenever they occur, are extremely enjoyable for all of us.

Among my memories here in Sydney, is my long- time involvement with the Gujarati Seniors Bhajan group. As I was good at writing and singing bhajans, I became a very active member of it right from the start. I also had a book printed with bhajans written by me in memory of Vithalbhai. I got that book printed in India when I was staying with Bhaskar and family in Delhi, while he was President of Turner Broadcasting/ C.N.N. in India.

I have many senior friends here in Sydney, and I am “Masi” to all Smita’s and Arvindbhai’s friends.

Since many years now, I have been organizing Hindu New Year’sprayers with Smita and family for our friends and community. We started holding them at home, but the group of people attending, kept growing, and it is now so big that for several years now, we have been hiring a hall to hold the prayers. At this age, I am not able to do as much, so Smita, with family and friends, has had to organize and handle the entire function. I help as much as I can using my phone and directing to the extent they let me and need.

While we were still holding New Year’s prayers at home, I remember one year, Bhaskar‘s whole family came from India to celebrate Diwali and New Year’s with us, and Hema’s mother, Gitaben too came with them. That was special.

In terms of cultural activities, many years ago, after arriving in Sydney, we, together with family and friends, had produced a grand variety concert with all Gujarati participants -children youth and adults. The programme included garba, raas dances, songs and plays - all in Gujarati. We even had individuals wearing costumes from the Ramayan and Mahabharat. It was a big job stitching those costumes, but the concert was a great success and highly appreciated by all.

I do not feel comfortable writing about myself saying that I did this and I did that, but how else would I be able to write my story because so many of the witnesses, including my sisters and Vithalbhai, have passed away. Both my children had been living away from home in Zambia, firstly for their education and then after marriage for their jobs and careers, so they could not be involved too much in our lives during those years. Now of course I am living with Smita for the last 25 years.

I have written whatever I could remember, but I know I have missed out on many details which I do not remember at the time of writing this. I am writing this at the ripe old age of eighty nine because Akhilesh, my anthropologist grandson, during his last visit a couple of years ago, was interested in knowing details of my life, and had started asking me so many questions that I could not answer readily at that time. My hand is not steady now and I feel I am making some spelling errors, and also not writing the facts in order of the events of the time when they actually happened. (So, I have asked Bhasu to correct and edit my written account.)

I have gone through so many obstacles, but long life has also given me so many opportunities to see and experience new things, and the privilege and pleasure to witness and enjoy amazing new inventions and technologies, which I often feel my husband Vithalbhai would have enjoyed even more than me, were it not for his early passing. I have now reached the age of 89 with Smita and the whole family’s loving care. I am also fortunate to have the company and care in Sydney of my brother Natubhai and Bhabhi and their daughter, Pannu and her family. My love and blessings are always with both my children and their respective families, and my  large “extended family” members (which include fellow current and ex-residents of Kabwe and my former students) spread everywhere

Thank you all, with all my heart!

Lakshmeeben V. Patel