The Father’s Story: Dr. Ravi Datt Puri, Prize-Winning Engineer
I was 24 when I arrived here from New Delhi with a suitcase of clothes, a degree in mathematics and a few pounds in my pocket. At the time, £3 was the limit set by the Indian authorities. I landed at Heathrow on 14 November 1959. I had been told that it would be better to wait to buy an overcoat in England, but those who advised me didn’t know that England would be very cold in November. So I wore my woollen dressing gown while waiting at King’s Cross for my train north.
I was still wearing it when I arrived early in the morning at my new home in Middlesbrough – where the milkman found me on the doorstep and spied my suitcase. “Son, have you just arrived? Why are you standing in the rain?” I said I’d rung the doorbell but nobody answered, so I was waiting. “That’s not on,” he said putting his finger on the bell and singing Singin’ in the Rain. He didn’t stop singing and ringing until the landlady opened the door. “Your guest is outside in the cold, don’t you realise?”
Back home, we thought very highly of England. In our imaginations everything in England was beautiful, everything was super-efficient. So I was disappointed to see that there was not much difference in many ways between New Delhi, Bombay and London. I thought the roads would be much better and wider but they were not. There were many double-deckers – just as there were in Bombay.
I had no problem making conversation but I struggled with slang. I remember asking an English friend: “What is this ‘How do?’ What do they mean?” And food was definitely a problem! The landlady would serve cold meat like ham, which I’d never tasted before. In the beginning I wouldn’t touch it, hoping that she would ask me if I would like to eat something different. But there was no question of that! Eat it or leave it. I can hardly blame Britishers for that: it is for us either to adopt English habits or forget it.
I was lucky to have a job in my hand before I left India, with an engineering firm in Middlesbrough. I thought I was coming for two years but when I started working my eyes opened to how many opportunities there were. I was made welcome at every place. And if I ever faced difficulties, the fellow next to him put the culprit right immediately rather than encouraging him to go ahead.
Only once has my nationality counted against me: when Imperial College awarded a less qualified class mate a bursary instead of me. When I asked why, I was told, “We award these bursaries to our own people first.” “You mean white people?” It was the first time ever I used the word “white”. “Yes.” I said, “Professor, would you do us a favour? Please don’t give the eyewash to foreign students because they cannot afford to travel to interviews and go back with empty pockets.”
I went on to obtain a PhD, work as a lecturer and then as a structural engineer. In 1968, I went home to get married. Some might have called it an arranged marriage but I think of it as semiarranged – I was introduced to my wife by my parents. However, I made a promise to myself that I would not force my children to marry that way. I’ve given them a free hand.
After 50 years, I think of Britain as my home. Of course I still miss the sun… but even Britishers miss that!
The Daughter’s Story: Kavita Puri, Radio 4 Presenter
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve heard the “£3 story”. It wasn’t just my dad. My parents’ acquaintances would regale us with tales of how they sewed extra pounds into their saris, or how they got ripped off when they arrived at Heathrow because taxi drivers knew anyone from India had three pounds (a quick journey to Hounslow and “That’ll be three pounds, sir”).
I always assumed they were exaggerating: it sounded ridiculous that you would come to this country with so little. So I did some research. There was very little written about that early pioneer generation, but it’s true. In the 50s, Indian authorities faced a shortage of foreign currency and imposed controls: a £3 limit per person, the equivalent of £50 in today’s money – barely enough for a week’s bed and board.
Not one person I spoke to of that first generation of immigrants from India and Pakistan imagined they would stay. They thought, “I’ll come for a couple of years, make my money and go back”. But it was harder than they thought: to get a ticket to go home was impossibly expensive and, as the years went on, the immigration controls became stricter – they feared that if they went back they might not be able to return.
They must have been terribly lonely. To call home in those days cost £3 a minute. Not that my dad will dwell on that side of things – even all these years later. You just had to get on with it.
Growing up in Kent, we were the only nonwhite family on the street. Some of my English friends had much stricter parents than mine but I knew what the boundaries were. They wouldn’t have wanted me to have a boyfriend when I was doing my A-levels, for example. Like many second-generation children, I was brought up with a strong work ethic: education is everything. I studied law at Cambridge – which my parents were very proud of – but I didn’t want to be a lawyer. When I told them I wanted to be a journalist they were mortified!
If people ask me whether I feel British, I say British Asian. It was never difficult to navigate the waters because my parents moved between those worlds, too. The successes of my generation are well known but it’s only because of what my parents’ generation went through.