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Family tree: Getting back to my roots

How much do you know about your family tree? Born in Essex to Indian parents who hailed from Uganda, our writer goes in search of her long-lost ancestors in the state of Gujarat, India’s ‘jewel of the west’, and finds that delving into the past is a fascinating personal journey

Family tree: Getting back to my roots
Meera and mother outside her grandmother's former home, Bhanvad, Gujarat.

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It all feels slightly surreal. I’m having lunch with family I’d never met until today, inside a beautiful if crumbling mansion known locally as the Popat Bhavan. This is, as it happens, the ancestral home where my maternal great-grandmother Dadima once lived with her sons and their wives — including my grandfather and grandmother. And this lunch marks the beginning of a long-awaited trip through the state of Gujarat in northwest India, the birthplace of my grandparents. It’s my DIY version of Who Do You Think You Are?

I’d already visited Uganda where my parents were born and grew up until my father moved to England aged 12. Over two extended visits to the country, 18 years apart, I’d developed an idea of the life they lived in Uganda until 1972 when the then-president, Idi Amin, expelled the Asian community, resulting in mass migration to the UK. I’d seen my mother’s family’s tea estate, my father’s family’s grocery store and the houses and streets that feature in our family stories.

Gujarat, meanwhile, had taken a back seat. But its blood-link was rekindled for me when a cousin in Ottawa started developing an ancestry website called The Lohanas Of East Africa. Dipping in and out of these family trees made me realise how little I knew about Gujarat, where centuries of my ancestors lived. So, along with my mother, I travelled to Porbandar, a dusty but attractive coastal town, where Mahatma Ghandi was born.

At mansion Popat Bhavan, entering through an ornate wooden door, we were greeted warmly by cousins from my mother’s family: a complicated mix of second, third, once or twice removed; all of us thrilled to be meeting each other for the first time. They still lived on the upper floors while long-term ‘sitting’ tenants occupied the ground-floor rooms — some of them even remembered my great-grandmother.Our timing was uncanny. “The building is hard to maintain,” explained my uncle, “so we’re moving to new flats nearby.” It seemed we were witnessing the last days of the Popat clan living in this historic family dwelling. I almost felt like throwing my savings at it, in an attempt to turn it into an heritage guesthouse or, more likely, a version of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

It was easy to imagine how impressive this rambling house, one of the first buildings in the area, must have been. We explored its courtyard, balconies, grand doorways and staircase, at the foot of which my mum recalled her grandmother once giving her sweets. On the top floor was a huge terrace overlooking the rooftops of Porbandar. It happened to be Kite Festival that day and my younger cousins tried to teach me their slick kite-running skills — on the very terrace our respective grandparents would have sat out on.

Sadly, like most of my cousins, I never met my maternal grandfather, Pragjibhai Popat. He died aged 37 from a sudden heart attack in Kampala, but his portrait in the living room downstairs cemented his presence in this house. By way of contrast, I’d been blessed with spending many years with my grandmother — Vajiben Vakani — who’d become a central force in the family following his early death.

Grandma’s house

Finding my grandmother’s former home in the village of Bhanvad, 45-kilometres’ away was our next challenge. Our guide was my mother’s cousin’s son, the charismatic Anil Popat who seemed to know every soul, street and shop in the region. My mother had visited the house many years ago, so that was also something to go on. However, a fortuitous meeting with Gauri Pabari — a sort of great aunt — provided us with yet another lead: one of her relatives lived right opposite the house we were looking for. This meeting became, perhaps, the most memorable of the trip. Gauri Pabari looked a little like my grandmother with her sweet face and big smile, and the warmth she and her husband showed us made it seem as though we’d all always known each other.

Unfortunately, my phone calls to her relative across the road went unanswered, but on arrival in the village, a few choice questions as to the whereabouts of the Vakani (my grandmother’s maiden name) homestead led us almost immediately and quite bizarrely to the spot. My mother instantly recognised the house her mother had lived in, and although it was now in a state of disrepair, it was easy to imagine those carved wooden doors in better times.

After that, my maternal grandfather’s birthplace was our next stop. In the village of Kantela, there was a small Popat family shrine in a locked building that contained a family tree designed by Anil, while further along, a local school set up by my uncle still honoured the memory of both a father and younger sister lost well before their time.

At the school entrance, a woman appeared from a small house where meals were being prepared. Shantiben had glowing, elastic skin and was, I suspect, much older than she looked. “I remember your great-grandparents,” she told us, calling them by their first names, Bhanji and Puri. We were amazed, not only at her memory but her age.

It was a long day, broken up by scenes of the Gujarat countryside. Fields of cotton, cumin, sesame and pomegranate passed us by and we saw flamingos around the coastal marshes at Kuchdi. The village of Sodhana — the birthplace of my paternal grandfather, Jeshangbhai Manji Dattani — awaited us about 20 miles away. A majestic gate marked the entrance into the small village that lay at the end of a dusty road. A group of men were gathered outside the Bank of India building and we stopped to chat. My father’s sister had visited Sodhana 10 years earlier and an elderly man remembered the family.

We lived with my paternal grandparents in Essex until I was three, and then they were only a short walk away for years after. My grandfather lived the longest of all my grandparents so I knew him well, remembering him as an avid storyteller and a gourmet, who was especially fond of cheese, which may explain the obsession with that foodstuff among my cousins.

Later on in the trip over tea with my grandfather’s cousin’s son (the online family tree was coming into its own now), I realised we were probably standing right outside the very house where my grandfather grew up — but that’s a lead to follow on another trip, at another time, with my father.

Little Rann salt pan, Gujarat.

Visitng the Little Rann salt pan, Gujarat.

End of the trail

The only missing link now was my paternal grandmother’s (Santokben Thobani) birthplace. Born in Porbandar, there seemed to be no record of the house where she, her two sisters and brother, lived. I was 13 when she passed away, long before I had any interest in ancestry, and her last sibling, my great-aunt, sadly died a week before we took this trip.

But while we may not have found any physical birthplace, there was surviving family. In the busy city of Rajkot, 180 kilometres east, we found her brother’s family, the Thobanis, and I was able to meet two of my father’s cousins, along with their parents and families over various lunches and dinners. They had no clues as to any family home in Porbandar so we had to conclude that it was time to close that file.

It had been quite a trip — and one that’s about more than ancestral villages. I had also learnt about my community, the Lohanas caste. Historians trace it back to two to three millennia BC, once living in what is today’s Afghanistan and the Sindh province of today’s Pakistan, making it one of the world’s oldest surviving communities. It’s believed they fought several attempts at invasion and religious conversion, and eventually migrated south into Gujarat, swapping their warrior skills for trade and business.

We’d also managed to fit in some sights, visiting the capital Ahmedabad, home to the ashram where Gandhi lived with his wife Kasturba during the struggle for Indian independence, and travelled further to Kutch, where the city of Bhuj and surrounding villages are famous for their textiles. We explored the desert terrain of the Great Rann with its white salt pans, and the Little Rann where endangered wild asses and spectacular scenery capture the imagination. But while Ahmedabad and Rajkot wear the sheen of prosperity well, Gujarat remains a fundamentally poor region where children are seen cotton-picking instead of being at school and salt workers brave the intense desert heat for months at a time to work the pans for very little money.

I’d always thought of Uganda as my family’s homeland. The stories I’d heard growing up were set there, and when my mother’s family house was returned in the 1980s at the fall of Amin’s reign, it had felt like a special place. But Gujarat is where it had all begun. Since this trip, I now feel a personal connection to the language we speak, the food we eat and the traditions we still embrace, culturally if not religiously.

“But where are you from?” is a question I get asked frequently when travelling. When I reply, “London,” people say, “You look Indian.” If I say, “Indian,” people tell me I sound British. When I throw Kampala into the mix, it’s another look altogether. Britain, especially London (and Essex, my birthplace) and Uganda already have my heart, but now I have another place to genuinely call home. And who can complain about having three homelands?

Essentials

Getting there
Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Jet Airways and Air India all fly direct to Mumbai from Heathrow. virgin-atlantic.com   ba.com   jetairways.com   airindia.com

Jet Airways connects to Porbandar, Ahmedabad and Rajkot from Mumbai. jetairways.com

 

How do to it
Wild Frontiers offers a 15-day Gujarat group tour from £1,995 per person, excluding flights, with accommodation, meals, guided sightseeing and transfers. The tour takes in the region’s temples and ancient towns, and the chance to see local artisans weaving the region’s famous textiles. wildfrontierstravel.com

Responsible Travel offers a 17-night tailor-made Gujarat tour from £3,500 per person, based on two adults, excluding flights, including accommodation, select meals, overland transport with English-speaking drivers, activities, park fees and taxes. responsibletravel.com

 

Further information
tribalpages.com: genealogy service for online family trees
gujarattourism.com
visituganda.com

 


Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)