Filthy rich! That’s how rich I wanted to be. What was the point in being ‘just rich’, when you could aspire to own the stars! I’m not talking about a few nice motors on the front driveway. I’m talking the full monty: private jet, lush apartment in New York, mansion in the country, and enough staff to cater for my every whim. Oh, and a sushi chef for my refined palate and expensive tastes. I wanted it all. I wanted to be ‘filthy rich’. If gold itself could have been made to ooze out of my pores I’d have been the first to find out how.
Being rich meant more to me than having a tidy bank balance. It was about what money had to offer; there was status and recognition for sure, but above all, it would give me power. Power to do what I wanted and get what I wanted. When I was younger, I recall being told about a very wealthy man we knew who had made his money in an unscrupulous fashion. Behind his back there were mutterings, but when his family suddenly appeared one day at a function they were treated like royalty. You see, at the end of the day, money trumps morals; money equals power.
And yet, years later, standing on a stunning beach in Mauritius with my family, I felt I had anything but power. Cooped up on a private island in paradise meant I was losing money every second; I could almost see the pound signs going into the ether, washed away in the surf. Don’t get me wrong, I had a forgiving wife and kids to die for. But in truth, once I had spent a few days doing the family thing I was ready to get back to my first love and the source of my wealth: property.
In the gleaming sun I was getting restless. The missus loved strolling along the beach. This was her thing, the sun on her back, lost in the beauty of the expansive blue ocean, picking up shiny pebbles and imagining how many years they had been around for. For Maria, the beach was where she felt connected to a grander purpose. She never said it, but I could see it in the way she would stand on the sand, peacefully gazing for what seemed like hours into thin air.
As far as I was concerned, once you’d seen it, you’d seen it. And if you really wanted to see it again you could always take a photo of it. I remember when my twin sister, Meera, went to Malaysia and I had to sit through several reels of film that she had taken. Of course, I smiled and looked interested; that is, until we got to the sequence of pictures capturing a sunset over a thirty-minute time span. Now, that was excruciating. What a waste – just the scenery and no people in it. I mean, what craziness was that?
While Maria hankered after the sun, I always went for the shade. It made no sense at all. One half of the world wanted to be lighter and the other darker. At least here in the shade I could do some thinking about my property business. I was sure going to make the most of the few days I had left. Finding a tatty piece of paper, I began pulling together an expansion strategy – new divisions, three-year sale projections, calculations on how many years to make it into the Rich List – not forgetting corporate responsibility and all that jazz. There was no way I was going to be selfish with my money. I’d do my bit for the odd good cause and reap the adulation when people found out it was Mr so-and-so who gave the big fat donation.
I had found my own little study on this beautiful beach. I had finally arrived! This wasn’t so bad after all: a comfy beach chair, someone to wipe my glasses when they got misty, and an ice-cold beer to quench my thirst. My own private island. Now, that was a thought, but only if you could sell the sand. After all, I was here to make money, not build sandcastles.
If my early life was a colour, it would have been beige. Not interesting enough to be brown or daring enough to be grey. Watford in the seventies was just beige.
Meera, my twin sister, and I lived in a small terraced house with our parents. Having been dragged out by the doctors ahead of my sister, this unquestionably granted me the position of ‘lord and master’ over her. My line of persuasion was that in Indian culture the eldest was to be revered, dare I say worshipped… But in reality, my attempts were all in vain. I may have been the elder twin, but it was clear to all from the outset that Meera was the natural leader. Not only was she beautiful and charming, but she was also far more intelligent than I could ever be.
When we were sent to our local primary school it took me a while to adjust, as at first I was unwilling to speak. For a while I had been happy for Meera to speak on my behalf, and anyway, whatever I thought sounded much better coming from her. I wasn’t deemed intelligent enough to be jealous. When the words finally did start to arrive, they didn’t come easily – I just didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, and even as a kid, speaking to others just seemed to make this more obvious. Years later I would regularly sit down and watch a TV singing programme called The Voice, and at times be moved to tears by the unique talents of the contestants. It only recently dawned upon me why I was so enraptured by this programme – this was people expressing their voice, and I had spent my early childhood devoid of one.
Amid the beige of growing up in Watford, there were fleeting moments of colour. There was the occasional family house party blaring out ABBA with one of my married uncles trying to flirt with my mother. And then there was good old Lincolnshire (and I am not talking sausage). The thing is, even if we wanted to get out of caravanning, we couldn’t. My drop-dead gorgeous aunt would occasionally come with us. On the last day of our holiday a beauty contest would be held and she would win not just the competition but also, you’ve guessed right, another caravan holiday. My parents could have chosen anywhere in the world, but we always ended up in some rain-sodden field.
And then there was our occasional meal at a local restaurant. It’s interesting, isn’t it, what facts we remember about our respective histories? For some it might be meaningful relationships, for others visiting exciting places, but for me it was eating mouth-watering deep-fried chicken ’n’ chips. The taste was sumptuous, but without fail, each time we went, my sister and I would be given just one chicken leg each. Whoever heard of a one-footed chicken? But my parents were having none of it.
Some years later, I would come across a book which I would read to my kids about Marvin the sheep. He was always after a little bit more, and before he knew it, he had moved from a few blades of grass to devouring fields, countries, continents, and finally the world. Left rather lonely and feeling a tad sick, Marvin proceeded to puke it all out, returning the world back to its former state – fields, sheep and all. Marvin was now back with his friends and much happier. The problem was, unlike Marvin, I felt I never had that little bit more as a kid, and deep down I sure wanted a taste of it.1
But ‘excess’ was not something the Raithatha family did. This restrained attitude to life clearly had a lot to do with my family history. Coming from a line of economic migrants, we were part of a chain of Indians who had moved to East Africa and subsequently to the UK in search of work and financial stability. During the Second World War, my grandfather Govindji had made a load of money by briefly returning to India and exporting fabrics and blankets back to Kenya. Other business ventures would follow in sisal fibre, land and property.
Govindji had begun his entrepreneurial career supporting his father in their small grocery shop in Mombasa, and one day the expectations would be on my father to also support his parent. But first he was to be educated, and in 1959 my father, Mahendra, was sent to the UK to further his studies in civil engineering.
Mahendra’s initial year in the UK went smoothly enough. But with emerging financial issues in Kenya, my father’s yearly allowance soon began to dry up. Govindji was a huge risk-taker. He pursued a ‘live or let die’ attitude. Being with him was like being on a terrifying roller coaster; there were the highs of excess and the deep lows of financial insecurity. This latest bout caused huge strain for my father as he tried to complete his studies and look after his younger brother who had followed him to the UK. With no real family to turn to in Britain, Mahendra struggled through for a number of years.
As for my mother, Sarojini, she came to the UK from Uganda in 1970 after her arranged marriage to my father. The whole of her family would follow two years later as refugees after the expulsion of the Asian community from Uganda by Idi Amin. For a while her parents and four sisters would remain with our parents as they took stock of having lost in an instant their home, business and possessions. They had arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. The comfortable existence they had created in Uganda was suddenly swept away and they would have to take up the arduous task of beginning from scratch. They may have come as refugees, but they would do all in their power to win back every last penny they had lost.
Unsurprisingly, creating financial security would become an obsession for many within the East African Asian community. And so, like many other East African Asians, my father and mother quickly programmed themselves into working hard and building a nest egg. It would become their mantra as my father pursued a career as a civil engineer and my mother chipped in with various part-time jobs.
But despite living in a different country, my father still felt he was pursuing the life his parents wanted for him. My father had been brought up in a house of dominant ‘alpha’ characters. Any drive or will to buck the status quo was slowly squeezed out of him. He was like the kid in the film Dead Poets Society who wanted to be on stage but his father refused to let him do so. I have no idea what my father wanted to be, I just don’t think he was allowed the opportunity to work this out. His dad had good intentions, but Mahendra’s life had already been mapped out for him: civil engineering, arranged marriage, supporting the family business. He was part of a big family where individuality was the cardinal sin.
However, an outlet from Mahendra’s somewhat constrained life would come from an unlikely source. As a child, my father would frequently visit the Hindu temple. After his arranged marriage to my mother, he had installed a small temple in our house with little statues representing the various Indian deities. His fascination with spirituality grew as he watched the weekly Sunday church service on TV.
However, it was the Hare Krishna movement that was to really grab his attention. In the sixties and seventies it became a huge movement, with references appearing in several pop songs. The Beatles had been fascinated by this, and nearby in Aldenham, George Harrison had gifted a house to the cause. In 1973, at this very temple, my father met A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Prabhupada had committed himself to spreading the movement in the West, and my father was thrilled to have had the privilege to meet the spiritual leader in person.
That single meeting was to have profound significance. Mahendra was captivated by the movement’s message of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra to cleanse the heart, free oneself from past karma – actions in a previous life affecting a person’s present life – and bring liberation.
My father was both a quiet and a private man. He never spoke much about his past or his feelings but here, for the first time, at the temple, he was able to express himself with like-minded people. Following the Hindu deity Krishna would give Mahendra a new identity, helping him deal with life and providing a safe place to exist. For Mahendra, the aim of Hinduism was to escape the materialism of this world and the reincarnation cycle to reach moksha, ‘oneness with god’. Religion pointed to another world, a better world, and in his eyes this was most certainly an attractive proposition. In the years to come, rising early and chanting for up to five hours a day would help my father get through the many family difficulties that would come his way, difficulties that really began with the recession of the early eighties.
When this economic crisis kicked in, the rhythm of our family life was suddenly disrupted. With unemployment pushing more than three million, my father found himself to be one of those thrown on the rubbish heap. Despite a period of uncertainty, he eventually struck lucky and was offered a promising engineering position in a local company. However, in spite of this opportunity, my father surprisingly opted to join his elder brother in the family construction and swimming pool business in Nairobi, Kenya. They needed his help, and in the Asian community, when family call, you go. My grandfather had died a few years prior to this, but his presence had certainly not disappeared. It had been his desire that his sons would one day work together, and my father was not about to let Govindji’s dream perish. Mahendra did what any dutiful son would do, and in 1981 the Raithatha household uprooted to start a new life in East Africa.
Interestingly, the opportunity to move abroad as a relatively young child – I was about eight years old – filled me with anticipation and excitement. Back then, I was unable to process why I held such feelings. After all, school life was great and I had some amazing friends. It would be some years before I would be able to articulate what had been going on beneath the surface.
On reflection, I believe that my longing to move abroad was in part owing to my South Asian ethnicity. Now don’t get me wrong, all our White neighbours were warm and welcoming. Nonetheless, I was living at a time when racism was socially prevalent, and to be called a ‘paki’ was not unusual. With this came an acute awareness of the difference my ethnicity presented in a country where I was part of the minority.
Evidently, what had been simmering underneath – though I was unable to articulate it at the time – were deep questions: could Watford ever truly be home? Would I ever be accepted for who I am? I wonder if these thoughts might have also contributed to my lack of having a voice as a child, though how my twin sister had dealt with any such thoughts was clearly very different. On the surface I was known as the ‘happy-go-lucky kid’ but, unbeknown to me, there was a lot going on underneath. They often say that when you become a young adult you should go travelling to find yourself. I suppose for me that journey would start sooner than expected.