Land of My Father
(Webmaster's Note: This is an article written by Mr. Ronald Patel (his father Chhotabhai Patel, came to study in the U.S. in 1919.) about his trip to India in 1991.
Thank you Prof. Murali Nair of Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio for submitting this great article.)
American-born journalist C.R. Patel never knew much about his father's homeland of India or about his father, who died when he was 3. A trip to India taught him much about his heritage, his father and even himself.
The Land of My Father
AGAIN, it was time. As one of the family had done through four decades,
One of the family had died far from home. And while his ashes were in
For 13 of the 41 years, this ritual had been the solemn duty of Navin's
With Navin this day was his daughter, Madhavi, so pretty at 12, a
Immediately, the crows descended, screeching, cawing, wheeling over the
"What can this mean?'' Navin was baffled.
"Chhotabhai is coming,'' said his daughter.
The letters on the peacock stationery had begun arriving at my office in Philadelphia in the spring of 1991. "Respected Mr. Ronald Patel ,'' they began, "please, please, please come to the Cultural Festival of India, to take place outside New York City in the summer. Thousands of Indians now living in the United States will be there, and if you would but come, you would learn so much about the land of your father.''
The land of my father. I knew so little about it, but then, I knew so little about him. He had died in 1950, when I was only 3, leaving behind a small business he'd built in Detroit. Even when I was a teen, there were simply no other Indians around to ask about things. My mother, whom he'd met at her work one day in 1934,hadn't asked him much about his past, and he never said much about it to my brother or sister. To me, the youngest, he was no more than a snapshot: a Kodak Brownie print of Dad under a rakish, wide-brimmed hat, standing at the front porch with his children.
Without him, I had what might pass for an all-American childhood in the Motor City: I lived in the militantly all-white Far East Side. I went to Guardian Angels Catholic Church. I played baseball, basketball, football and played out my curiosity by becoming editor of the newspaper in junior high and high school. I was always aware, though, that I was not like all the others in my neighborhood. I was darker.
I fought people who called me "nigger'' from my first day of kindergarten until my freshman year in college, and I learned to beat on people with a ferocity that might save me from worse fights. I became flinty, tough, streetwise, and I was proud of it. I was so American that when you said "swami,'' I thought of Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent.
Which is why the peacock letterhead set off my suspicions. Listed down the side as festival sponsors were a clutch of East Coast politicians (Daniel P. Moynihan?), a number of people named Patel, and two "swamis.'' Why would I put myself in the hands of a group that included "swamis''? Too often I had read of Indian religious gurus with more Rolls-Royces than ethics, with more larceny than love in their hearts.
Still, I was drawn to the Cultural Festival of India. Of course I was wary: I decided to check things out, to investigate, to be a journalist.
The first sign that this group was looking for money, I would split. Yet perhaps in this crowd of strangers, even among some called "swami,'' I might come to understand something of my father, my unknown dad, Chhotabhai Ukabhai Patel.
And so I met India just off Exit 10 of the New Jersey Turnpike in August 1991. The campus of Middlesex County College had been turned into a monument to Indian monuments, and the parking lots were full of cars carrying Indian families to what looked like the equivalent of a state fair. My teen-age daughter and I followed the crowds to the entrance, equipped with our VIP invitation and feeling uncomfortably American in the midst of so many people speaking in the babble of another tongue.
There were Indian food stands, Indian craft stands, Indian book stalls and, most interesting to me, Indians everywhere. Up to this time, I had spoken to probably five Indians in all my 43 years.
At the VIP tent, we were assigned a tour guide, Kenny Jajal, a product-development engineer for a New York City textile company. He walked my daughter and me about the grounds, explaining every exhibit in terms of Indian lore as well as how it had been constructed here in extreme detail. Prakesh Shah, the head of an investment company in Bridgewater, N.J., was introduced to me, as was B.N. Patel, the chairman of a chemical company in Houston. Back in the VIP tent, there was Giresh Patel, a pharmacist in a Brooklyn hospital who was the official spokesman for the event. And there were even more Patels, from owners of motels to engineers, real-estate brokers and physicians, from New York to California to Michigan to Texas.
"Would you like to meet Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the inspirer of this festival?'' Kenny Jajal asked.
No sooner had I said yes than I was surrounded by a flurry of saffron-robed monks. My daughter was carefully separated from me, to remain behind with the women in the VIP area. I was swept along with the monks to another outbuilding behind the VIP area, beckoned down a long hallway lined by more monks, and finally, amid the scent of roses, seated cross-legged before a small, elderly man reposed on a futon-like cassock in an otherwise bare room. He had very soft eyes and very soft hands and a very soft voice that made you lean forward to hear what he might be saying.
Another, named Young Swami, appeared at my side to translate that Swami Maharaj was asking my impression of the festival. I paid appropriate compliments. Then Young Swami began to question me about what I knew of my father, what I knew of being a Patel.
"Pretty much nothing,'' I said. "I have a few documents here that my mother found recently. They show my father arrived in the United States in 1919.''
Young Swami looked over the copies, and he read parts of the immigration papers to Swami Maharaj. The monks who were surrounding us took notes, and the Patels who had come with me peeked over the monks' shoulders to see for themselves the curious record of Chhotabhai (pronounced CHOAT-a-bye) Patel. "We know of an Indian sailor who landed in Baltimore in the 1800s and died on the dock,'' said one of the Patels. "But we had no idea there was a Patel or any Indian like him."
An honored guest
One of the monks reminded Swami Maharaj of the need to begin the public event of the afternoon. It was time for all to go. "You must come back to be honored,'' Young Swami said. "Swami Maharaj is most interested in your story and about your father. He holds these festivals to teach children of Indians outside India about their land. You have so much to learn about it. We can show you so much.'' There was a general murmur of approval from the Patels gathered around me.
"Dad, let's get out of here,'' my daughter said when I met her back at the VIP area. "This place is weird.''
A few days later, I returned to the festival by myself to be honored, as Young Swami had asked. Thousands of people were seated under an immense tent on the college green for this event, and from my introduction I learned that the Patels in the United States had found me through reading Who's Who in America. It was also becoming apparent that the Sanstha, as Swami Maharaj's followers were known, was the socio-religious group for Patels not only in the United States (there are temples in Brooklyn, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Boston), but also throughout the world.
"Pramukh Swami is a Patel, you know,'' said Kenny Jajal.
While I was on stage, Swami Maharaj sat on a raised set of cushions in the front row of the audience, and Young Swami again arrived to lead me to him. When Swami Maharaj smiled at me, Young Swami began to glow: "Oh, Swami is so glad to see you. He knows you have other questions for him.''
I explained to Swami Maharaj that I had been very suspicious at our first meeting, that I had made the trip solely to check out the validity of this alleged Cultural Festival of India. I told him I had been impressed by the intelligent and successful people I had met on the first visit and by how much they revered him.
He only nodded. He asked about my family. We talked about children. "Family and children are very important to Swami,'' Young Swami said. I told him about a child writing to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Kid's Talk column with a question about the meaning of life. Swami Maharaj went into a rhapsody, and the scribe monks scribbled furiously to keep up with his words.
Young Swami said to me: "Oh, Swami Maharaj gives such a wonderful answer. The meaning of life is in the family, to leave behind a better existence for your family.''
The Beatles paid millions for this, I thought.
Swami Maharaj gave me presents - a rose from the bowl of roses at his side, a strand of prayer beads and a garland of sandalwood, the fragrant, sacred tree of India.
"Come to India for my next festival,'' Swami Maharaj said, with Young Swami as interpreter. "Come and I will take care of you, I will help find your family for you.''
For all my life, I had had no interest in going to India, none at all. If I were to travel that far, I'd told my wife and two kids, I would rather see the pyramids in Egypt than risk the rejection of the land of my father. He might have been a high-caste Indian, but he had married an American woman. That could make me a half-caste, a man without a place in Indian society. What kind of welcome would I receive under those customs?
Also, a division had arisen between my mother and the Indian relatives in 1950 over whether my father's body would be cremated and his ashes shipped back to India. My mother yielded, but there had been no contact for the decades after. If I had any family left, would they really care to see me?
What I knew about my father's time in America seemed a good indication that his family in India must have been of some quality. Growing up, I was told that he had come to America from Baroda, India, to go to college, traveling on his family's money. He had traveled the United States for quite a while before settling in Detroit, where he opened an appliance store and did electrical contracting. In a partnership with a contractor, he had built the house in which we lived, along with a number of other homes in the neighborhood. And we were the first family on the block to have a TV, since he sold them. To my mother and her family, he was "Pat,'' a quiet, thoughtful person who neither smoked nor drank.
Because my father was a college-educated man, I was to go to college, even though no one else in the family had yet. But with only limited funds, I had to settle for the local campus of Wayne State University. I couldn't go to New York City, where, my mother said, my father had gotten his degree.
And that was it, the extent of what I knew of Chhotabhai Patel. A set of addresses, a travelogue, not a man.
"Tell me what you find out from the Indian festival,'' my mother had said when she sent me my father's immigration documents, which she'd found at the bottom of a dresser drawer. "I'm curious to know myself about that part of India.''
She'd meant Baroda, as Dad said in conversation. She hadn't noticed that the papers didn't cite his home as Baroda, a city of 1 million you can find on any map of India. The official record said Medhad, a name I could not find in even the biggest atlas.
What was I supposed to think, then, when I answered the phone last September, a year after the Cultural Festival of India, and heard Young Swami say in a breathless rush: "We have found your family in Medhad. It is a village outside Baroda. Swami knew of it. Your family has been to the temple. Today they saw Swami Maharaj, and they are anxiously awaiting you. Come to the festival opening Akshardham and they will be there.''
It was ludicrous: This man I'd met over a summer weekend was luring me across an ocean to celebrate a monument to a religion I had not embraced. Could this be the final trick by the Sanstha before they reached deep into my pocket? I asked my wife. In that part of India, I had learned, everyone who owns land is called Patel. How could I be sure that the Patels found by the Sanstha were not just any old Patels?
"What does it matter?'' my wife said, pushing me on a plane two months later. "You can always tell them to buzz off. You're pretty good at that. And this way you'll see India no matter what.''
An uneasy visit
Nov. 24: Everyone at home is preparing for Thanksgiving, just two days away. On the other side of the world, I have spent the full day 100 miles north of Bombay touring Akshardham (House of the Lord, or Heaven), a monument built to last 1,000 years, to teach generations of Indians of their past glory, in hopes of inspiring them to glory once more. The 6,000 metric tons of pink sandstone came from the same source as the Taj Mahal; 8 million man-hours of volunteer labor have fashioned them into a shrine and education center of staggering proportion and beauty. I'm celebrating the opening with 350,000 people, and yet I feel uneasy, suspicious, alone.
I'm waiting for the promised meeting with my family. "They are coming,'' I am told repeatedly. But they are not here. It is about 40 miles from Baroda, where my cousin supposedly lives, to the festival site of Gandhigard, the capital city of Gujarat State. And it is a difficult road to travel, I am told. But as night falls on the festival, I begin to doubt that they ever will arrive, if ever they left.
Throughout the day, I have been driven everywhere by Vyomesh Byatt, an Indian industrialist assigned by Swami Maharaj to translate for me. Vyomesh has been upbeat all day, but even he seems a little down as he drops me off at the hotel. As I head toward the elevator, he stops by the festival's liaison desk in the hotel lobby. Suddenly, Vyomesh rushes toward me: "Young Swami just called. Your family is here. We must go back immediately to the reception room.''
There is a special waiting room set aside for the guests of Swami Maharaj at Akshardham. It is considered a holy place, so you must remove your shoes at the door as though you were entering a temple. Ornate, gilt Wood furniture with silken cushions is arranged on a pale blue carpet under, at this hour, a garish fluorescent glow. There are three conversation areas in this room, and in one of them three men are gathered around Young Swami. One is taller than most Indians, with a ragged look to his face and hair. One is fatter than most Indians, with a oily look to him. And one . .
One looks like my father.
"This is Navin Patel,'' Young Swami says, "your cousin.'' The others are friends who drove Navin to the festival. They speak English, but haltingly, so there is an awkwardness to the introductions. There is a stiffness to the entire moment until we settle into the chairs, Navin and I sitting face to face. I see a slightly plump, slightly balding Indian businessman. What he sees, he would later tell his family, is a very large American.
"How is your mother, Joanna?'' he asks. "And your sister, Kitya, and Jerror, your brother?''
He knows their names, I think. He can't pronounce them, but he knows Joan, Kathy and Jerry.
"I know of you all, from your father's letters,'' he says.
"Letters?'' I say.
"Oh yes, we have been saving your father's letters for all these years. I have them here.''
Navin picks up from the couch a small white plastic bag and opens it with care. From it, he takes a card and hands it to me. It is a Christmas card, with the date 1947 on the back and some writing in strange swirls. Navin points to one line: "This is where your father says he has a new son, Ram, or Ronald.''
There are other letters. One is on the letterhead of C.U. Patel, Times Square Station, New York, New York, dated 1921. One is in my mother's writing. It tells of my father's funeral.
We spend a few minutes looking at the letters, turning them over, noting the dates. That is about all I can read without knowing Gujarati, the language in which they are written. Navin and I are starting to feel familiar with each other when suddenly we are summoned to see Swami Maharaj. He has set aside a few moments for us now, having heard that Patel has met Patel, interrupting his busy night of seeing supplicant after supplicant.
We enter the chambers of Swami Maharaj next door. My cousin and his friends drop to bow to him. Two monks bring a chair forward for me, so that I will not have to sit cross-legged in the Indian fashion of all others in the room. Young Swami tells the assemblage about the meeting and how we know now that Ronald Patel belongs to the village of Medhad, India.
Swami Maharaj nods to each visitor as a blessing. He smiles over at me. There are some awkward laughs as the festival photographer arranges us for a photo: Swami, cousin and me. And then it is time for Swami Maharaj to receive yet another devoted follower, one from the long line outside his door that we had passed by.
It is also time for Navin to go, the trip back being worse in the dark. I want to take the letters from him, but I hesitate. He seems to want to hold onto them. It may be his right, I think. They were written to his family.
"When you come to Baroda,'' he says, "we can go over these letters. I will have copies made for me, and you may take these.
"On Thursday I will show you Baroda. And on Friday, we will go to the village and see where your father was born.''
o o o o o
I am sitting in a bullock cart on the dirt road to the village of Medhad, about 60 miles north of Bombay. The cart driver is dressed in a military uniform. The two bulls are wearing garlands of flowers, and I am wearing garlands of flowers. There are so many more flowers on the cart that I can smell nothing else, and the roses and chrysanthemums draped on me are slightly cool and refreshing against my neck.
In front of me is a procession of the villagers of Medhad: first a few men to set off fireworks as we move along the trail; then the children, carrying coconuts as offerings to me; then the women; then a band blaring wild wails of Indian music; then the men; and lastly me, on the cart, surrounded by relatives.
Looking around at the earthen-brick homes on the path to Medhad, at the crowd clothed in a tapestry of colors, at the dust rising in the air as each foot shuffles, I think of the fading Kodak snapshot of my father at home, my only previous link with him. I know now that I am in his land, the exotic, faraway India of tigers, elephants and cobras, of rail-thin beggars and of reincarnation. And I realize how little I had known of him, and how I had never felt that so strongly before.
The procession begins, passing first under an archway of gay fabric stretched over the road, then under a banner reading, in English, "Village of Medhad Welcomes Mr. Ronald.'' We lurch on awhile, then stop, lurch and stop, paced by the fireworks arcing into the sky ahead. The bulls stop whenever the fireworks go off.
The "Surrounding Peoples'' are in the crowd, I am told, people who work these lands as nomads and who were lured here by word-of-mouth sweeping the region about a lost son returning to India. They, too, had heard of how my cousin, Navin Patel, had performed the shraddha, the Hindu remembrance for the dead, last year in honor of my father and in it had read an omen of my coming.
The dust envelops us as we move on; we are traveling in a cloud. Children run back and forth, racing to the front of the procession to see the fireworks and back to the rear to see me bumping along.
Petting the bulls
We reach the village and pause before a wildly colorful tent stretching
The rose petals, I believe. It was the rose petals that broke through my American resolve. As I enter the pavilion, they are raining rose petals on me. Suddenly gone is the notion that I am a stranger here; no more am I alone in this world. I am filled with the feeling that these are my people, my beginnings. And I am moved to tears.
I am led to a stage inside the pavilion. Over it hang two banners, again in English: "Villagers of Medhad Glad to Receive You'' and "Hearty Welcome Home to Mr. Ronald.'' The stage is draped with garlands of more chrysanthemums and roses and carpeted with fine Indian fabrics. The crowd files in behind me, filling all the seats, squatting on the ground in any empty corner of the tent, spilling out of the pavilion. Men, mostly, gather in front of the stage. Women gather on one side. The band takes up another side. And beyond the seated women, 30 or so mothers with babies and toddlers stand apart so as not to create a disturbance.
Village girls dance
Eight girls of the village step forward to dance and sing a song
Once a year, after the monsoon, the young and beautiful women of the
A hymn to the region's religious leader, Swami Maharaj, follows, as do
Each notable of the village, including every Patel, places a garland
Giving a speech
I give a little speech. I say, truthfully, that all I had planned to say had been swept from my mind by the wonder of their welcome. I say I understand now how my father had summoned the courage to leave India, to be the first Indian to live in the United States as far as anyone has traced. He had courage, I say, because he knew that no matter what he did or what was said of him, he had the love of his village to make him feel whole. I thank them for having such love for my father and say that I consider the songs, dances and flowers to be praise for him, not for me at all.
For the first time in my life, I speak as the son of my father, the son of Chhotabhai.
From the pavilion I go to see the family home. It is a fine home by
My every step is followed by a crowd of villagers as I go from home to
Beyond my relatives, every other villager asks, through my cousin, for
Stopping to visit
Along the way, I am saying a hello of my own: At various stops my
Chhotabhai Ukabhai Patel was born in Medhad in 1900. He was the third
Each recollection adds some detail or nuance to the emerging portrait of my father, but as I meet each elderly villager, I ask my cousin if this is the one, the one man I have been most anxious to meet. No, no, no, I am told. I must wait to see him in the home of the current village leader, his son. Finally, we are there, coming from the dark pathways into a room overly bright with fluorescent light.
Lines of nine decades
Inside, sitting on a bed in the far corner of the room, is a thin,
He is Ranchodbhai Babubhai Patel, and he is 96 years old.
He and my father played together as boys.
His body is obviously exhausted, but his eyes are bright as he reaches
He remembers so much:
Chhotabhai was known early on for his intelligence - the villagers gave
At the time, Medhad was reachable only by a footpath. It was about 11
Rajah at work
Matching Ranchodbhai's recollections with the few written family records, I see now that after Baroda High School, in April 1919, Chhotabhai passed the exams to enter the University of Bombay. But someone or something intervened, and Chhotabhai instead had a ticket to Oxford and to England. Again, it must have been the family's relationship to the rajah at work.
The leader of Baroda at that time was one of the richest men in the world, and he was close to the British. Also, the British had begun to search India for young leaders who might be suitable for further British education. They planned to train a new generation for the Indian Civil Service (sometimes called the Heavenborn) to take charge of the country as lackeys to the English. At the same time, April 1919 lives forever in the Indian mind as the date of the Amritsar massacre, when thousands of unarmed Indians were mowed down by British machine gunners upset that the Indians were not clearing an area quickly enough. More than 400 of them were killed.
Chhotabhai was a courageous boy to risk trading the simple life of an Indian village for England. And then to have summoned the further courage to sneak around the British, to board a boat for Canada almost immediately after arriving in England, and to find a way into the United States - that obviously was an astonishing feat to those back home.
On his bed in the corner of the overly bright room, Ranchodbhai recalls the day of Chhotabhai's departure. It was a special day for all in the village. As though recounting an epic myth, he whispers a detailed account.
It was Shravan Sudh Satam Samvat and Shittla Satam when Chhotabhai left, he says, using the Gujarati words that are unique for each day of the year. (The swamis translate that to be in September of 1919, which agrees with immigration papers my father filed saying he arrived in the United States in November of 1919.) Chhotabhai that day was tired of the long trek to Baroda by the path, so as he left Medhad, downstream from Baroda on the river, he took a different path to the train. He shed all but a few clothes, swam the river with his bags, emerged on the other side and walked three miles to a village that had a train station. Yet another example of how innovative Chhotabhai was, Ranchodbhai says. Chhotabhai caught the train to Bombay and was never seen again.
Mind is spinning
His story done, my father's friend turns to me. He places his hand on my head to bless me. I touch his robe, gently, and leave his home in silence, my mind spinning with the wonder of how my father's existence had meant so much to his friends and family - and so little, up to now, to me.
Driving away from the village, we stop for a moment at a turn in the
"How long has this land been in the family?'' I ask him.
"Six hundred years,'' he says.
One heck of a man
That night, back in my room at Baroda's Hotel Rama, I say aloud to the
Earlier in the day, Navin and my Indian translator, Vyomesh Byatt, collaborated on translating a few of my father's letters for me. It was a torturous and time-consuming task because of his penmanship and his antiquated Gujarati phrases. "He makes his N's like V's,'' Vyomesh complained. But as he made his way through the letters, Vyomesh also said, "You know, I'm really coming to like this guy.''
I pick up the letters from the dressing table and once again turn them over in my hands and in my mind.
My father wrote to his brother as if he were the eldest son, though he
His letters home also told of how he was struggling in America to become something. He wrote of spending the early 1920s in New York City, attempting to develop an import business for Indian goods. He wrote of traveling around the country for a time, and of stopping in Detroit in the mid-1920s to open a store selling radios. In the 1930s, he struggled with the Depression, like everyone else, but he also found that being an Indian carried a special burden.
No justice for Indian
"But there is no justice for the Indian in America,'' he wrote. "The
Navin's father, Jay, read many letters to the village, I had been told,
How odd, I thought. The Detroit campus of Michigan's state university
When told, Swami Maharaj smiled widely. He motioned for me to move
Interpreted as blessing
I became front-page news across that region of India. The reporters made much of how I had arrived in my village as Lord God Rama had returned to his village in Indian mythology. The photograph of my slight wave to the crowd as I stepped from the bullock cart was interpreted as the blessing that Rama gives to his people.
Sure enough, looking at a statue of Rama, you can see that he does hold
My momentary stroking of the one bull, I read, was viewed by the
On the day I left India, Ranchodbhai Patel, who had preserved the legend of my father for 73 years, died.
The coincidences were so numerous that many of my friends and relatives
But there was one more: For years I have gone by C . R . Patel , for several silly reasons. But I also liked it for a family cause. C. U. Patel, my father, attempted to become a journalist while in New York City, and he was rejected - there was no place for Indians on the American newspapers of the 1920s. C . R . Patel is fairly well-known as an editor in America.
I figured the C. was for Dad.
Little did I know that I should have always used it somewhere in my
The father's name is commonly the middle name for an Indian boy.
(Submitted by Prof. Murali Nair)
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