My family said, ‘At least he’s not English. He’s Irish, so we can understand each other in a colonial way’

New to the Parish: Dipti Pandya and her daughter Leela O’Reilly have been charting their heritage

Family tree: Dipti Pandya and her daughter Leela O’Reilly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Family tree: Dipti Pandya and her daughter Leela O’Reilly. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

On the evening of Sunday, May 9th, 14-year-old Leela O’Reilly sat down at the computer with her mother, Dipti Pandya, and logged into Zoom to speak with her grandfather in London.

The family had gathered to discuss the circumstances that brought Navin Pandya, Dipti’s father, to the UK more than half a century earlier. Leela, who was in the final term of her second year at Maynooth Post Primary School, in Co Kildare, took notes as her grandfather started speaking about his family’s odyssey from India to Kenya and, later, his own journey to England.

When Leela’s history teacher first told her class about the “history in my place” project, Leela planned to write about her father’s family connection to the Irish explorer Thomas Crean. But she then decided to take a closer look at her mother’s background.

I always knew we were different. We celebrated the different holidays, we watched Bollywood movies, and my name is not Irish or English. My grandparents came for long visits to Ireland, and my granny wore saris around the house

Born and brought up in south London, Dipti often spent summer holidays in Mombasa, in Kenya, where her father visited his parents and siblings. “My dad’s whole family lived in one house near the beach,” she says. “It was filled with cousins my age and felt like heaven. Because my dad had been away and he was the youngest son, he was the mummy’s boy coming home and was spoiled.”

Dipti moved to Ireland in 1995 to study at Maynooth University for an Erasmus term but ended up staying, and later met and married Leela’s dad, Paul. “When we got married a lot of my family said, ‘At least he’s not English,’” Dipti jokes. “They said, ‘He’s Irish. We can understand each other in a colonial way.’”

Dipti grew up hearing snippets of information about her parents’ background, but it was only when Leela, who is her eldest daughter, embarked on her school project that she discovered the real details of the journey that brought her family across the globe.

“Leela has a very close relationship with her grandfather. During Covid she’s done his online Tesco shopping order every Wednesday,” says Dipti. “He wanted to have the accurate information and gathered all the dates before we spoke. He even spoke to his brother, who is 85, in Kenya. He was delighted to do it and so proud.”

Leela admits she has often reflected on her Indian heritage growing up. “My mum talked to us about it, and I always knew we were different. We celebrated the different holidays, we watched Bollywood movies, and my name is not Irish or English. My grandparents came for long visits to Ireland, and my granny wore saris around the house.”

I realised I didn’t know anything about what had really happened. I didn’t know about the revolution in Uganda or that we even had relatives in Uganda. I also didn’t realise how much the British had changed lots of countries

She found much of her grandfather’s tale of migration shocking. “I realised I didn’t know anything about what had really happened. I didn’t know about the revolution in Uganda or that we even had relatives in Uganda. I also didn’t realise how much the British had changed lots of countries. I mean apart from Ireland, but also India, Pakistan and Kenya.”

After the conversation, Leela carefully documented every detail. When she finally put pen to paper, she opened the project with a history of the migration of Indians to Kenya and the UK before moving on to her own family’s story – her grandmother’s arrival in London from Kenya in 1960 and her grandfather’s journey five years later.

She wrote how Navin moved for further studies but also to help support his family back in Kenya, where life was becoming increasingly difficult for people of Indian background. “As he was the youngest it was decided he could leave, as he was not married and therefore more flexible than the others,” wrote Leela.

Three years after arriving in London he married Harsha, who had left India as a child, emigrated to Kenya and then moved to London with her mother and youngest brother. The couple hoped to return to Kenya but did not want to give up their British citizenship. In 1970 they bought their first home and went on to have two children, Dipti and her brother.

“My grandfather remembers that when he and Harsha set up a home there were not many other Indians living in London,” she wrote. “A local cinema showed Indian movies, and that was where my grandparents would see and meet other Asians. However, many of these Indians were from India, and not east Africa, so in many respects they had less in common.”

As a story – being a migrant two times – it’s very interesting, the fact that they went from India to Kenya, then Kenya to the UK, and then I came here and my brother went to Austin. That’s a trail not many people have followed

The couple also struggled to find ingredients for Gujarati dishes – the food from the Indian province where both their families had originated, wrote Leela. This later changed when many Gujarati Indians fled to the UK from Uganda after their forced expulsion by Idi Amin, the country’s military ruler, in 1972.

Leela writes that her grandparents were twice migrants – “first moving from India to Kenya during the British empire and then moving from Kenya to the UK after Kenya gained independence”.

Today, London is a totally different place from the city Leela’s grandparents landed in more than half a century ago. “He’s seen big changes in the UK,” she says. “When they arrived they only knew one other Indian family, but today there’s a couple of Indian families on his road, and in the nursing home next to their house there’s a whole Indian section.”

By documenting her grandfather’s experiences, Leela has created an important family archive for generations to come. “This information was very close to being lost. If I’d written about my Irish family we wouldn’t know all this.”

It has also given her a deeper pride in her own diverse background.

“Growing up, I never felt I was just Irish. I mean, I am Irish: I was born here and I’ve never lived anywhere else. But I’ve never met anyone with the same name as me – my first name is Indian and my surname is Irish. My grandparents would have never known an O’Reilly.”

Meanwhile, Dipti is keen to make the time to write about her own grandmother’s story. “She came to London alone with two kids and didn’t speak English. They were strong women, both my mum and my granny. Speaking to my dad brought up a lot of emotions; he was very honest. But it’s definitely brought our family closer together.

“There was also the pleasure of seeing my father so happy. As a story – being a migrant two times – it’s very interesting, the fact that they went from India to Kenya, then Kenya to the UK, and then I came here and my brother went to Austin. That’s a trail not many people have followed. I like the uniqueness of that.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish

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