Today is my dad’s birthday. He’s a man who has faced many difficulties and adversities in life, but has never given up. He has always persevered and risen up to many challenges, keeping his problems to himself, smiling and helping others along the way. I wanted to write about my dad on his birthday today.
My dad Puspakkant Sheth was born in Nairobi, Kenya, on 23rd May 1953, the same year when Queen Elizabeth II took the throne in the UK, when Grace Kelly and Ava Gardener came to Kenya to film ‘Mogambo’ and when Ian Fleming wrote the first 007 book – Casino Royale. 1953 was the year Disney released Peter Pan – the boy who never wanted to grow up.
We are Gujarati Indians by background (Gujarati’s are one of the most flourishing immigrant communities in Britain, Canada and around the world. Back in the 16th Century, when the Portuguese, Dutch and the British started arriving in India, they chose to work with Gujaratis as trading partners because of their “ethical business practices based on fair trade and honest dealings giving Gujarati traders a reputation of being trustworthy”.)
My grandfather, and his ancestors before him, were food-artists who created beautiful Indian sweets and snacks (Bhagwanji Hansraj & Sons). He had travelled by boat from Porbandar (Gandhi’s birthplace), on the coast in Gujarat, to East Africa in the 1930s. My dad remembers seeing his father selling snacks outside his school everyday at home time. He reluctantly learnt the family trade, along with his brother, who continues to run the family business in Bolton and Manchester today.
My dad grew up with his 2 brothers and 4 sisters, friends, cousins and extended family in Kenya. He was especially close to his mum, who died in a fire, when he was just 13 years old. As the eldest son, he had to light her funeral pyre. I can’t imagine how hard that must have been. My dad needed to quickly grow up quickly to help his father earn enough money and to help him raise the younger members of the family. In the 70s, it had become very uncomfortable being an Indian in Africa, especially Uganda and Kenya. They saved up just enough money to escape to Britain as refugees, in the 70’s, to rebuild their lives here.
Soon after they arrived in the UK, at the age of 19, my grandfather told my dad that he needed to get married, he wasn’t someone you argued with. Dad wasn’t too keen initially but slowly warmed to the idea. He was introduced to and married to my mum Vasanti at the age of 20 – I am told he was quite the romantic (he still is). He had found a life partner to share his joys, sorrows, responsibilities and dreams with. Together they looked after the family and they ran a convenience store at the front of the house.
Dad often ran 2 or 3 jobs at the same time to make ends meet. Dad’s skills of persuasion, numeracy, making people feel comfortable and desire for variety shaped his career. He started out as a book keeper, then accountant, rose to store manager at FADS (the furniture store), he ran a corner-shop, he learnt the family craft from his dad and ran an Indian-sweet shop, he sold the first frozen samosas/snacks, he owned and ran a restaurant in India, he owned a marble finishing business, worked at the citizens advice bureau, worked as a translator for the court, he worked in a bank and he owned/ran post offices for a couple of decades, which he still does today.
Dad has helped dozens of people buy and sell business, and especially post offices, and has taken real pleasure in seeing them succeed and flourish. He has always gone out of his way for people in need, for family, friends and complete strangers, often stretching himself beyond the call of duty, despite people taking advantage of his good nature.
On a personal level my dad loves to read (which he instilled in me from a young age), he loves to perform (he even did some stage acting as a young man), to watch films especially old Westerns and Kung Fu films (which we did together a lot when I was growing up), going to the theatre (there is still an actor/performer in him) and he loves to cook and to eat good food. He speaks many languages and is usually the life of the party, confident, jovial and fun to be around.
I remember my dad discouraging me from pursuing a career in acting at the age of 18 – “you don’t want to have to compromise your art and your principles, to put food on the table“. He encouraged me to go to LSE and become an actuary in the pursuit of financial stability. Whilst I struggled with his advice at the time, I am very grateful now. Having been an atheist for much of his life, he found religion & spirituality in his 40s and introduced it to my mum and me, when I was 16. We studied, learnt and explored our faith together and we developed a whole new outlook on life. I find that I am a lot like my dad (and my mum) and have learnt so much from him, consciously and subconsciously.
At the age of 63, Dad, I pray that you keep learning new things, keep seeking out new experiences and don’t allow your body and mind to grow old too quickly. Stay young, stay active, keep dreaming and share your stories, help and wisdom with everyone around you.
Ronald Regan became president of the United States of America, at the age of 70. Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, was 69 years old before he started the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. J.R.R.Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, in his 60s. People have climbed mountains, produced music, written books and even gone into space well into their 70s and even 80s.
You have lived a very busy, difficult and full life. Today, please take a moment to reflect on all that you have achieved – you have so many people around you that love you so much and are so grateful for your help and inspiration.
My birthday wish is that you still feel as excited about the future, as there are so many dreams in you still to be fulfilled…
“Dreams have no age limit!”