Saturday 27 March marked exactly thirty years to the day since my dad first arrived in London, leaving behind everything he had grown up with in India. He was 27 and it was his first-ever flight. Thai Airways from Delhi to Heathrow. Long side-burns and bell-bottoms were still in vogue in South India. This post is dedicated to my dad, whose move changed the course of Ramanathan history. The year is 1980. Enjoy!
My dad never wanted to leave India, even though many of his med school mates had already emigrated to America and Britain. After completing his postgraduate Master of Surgery
(MS) degree in Chennai (Madras) in the late 1970s, his plan was to return to his ancestral town of Erode
and spend at least five years at its primary health centre
. It seemed a simple enough plan, even if it lacked ambition. My dad was/is an idealist. Besides, his father had been in poor health for a few years so he felt it was his duty to support him. So after completing his MS in General Surgery
my dad returned to Erode and applied to work at its General Hospital. Rather surprisingly, there were no available jobs. And after my grandfather's health deteriorated in the summer of 1979, my dad was not keen to move back to Chennai. And even if he did, his previous work experiences there promised poor remuneration. As a result, my grandfather encouraged my dad to try his luck abroad and so he applied for the Professional & Linguistic Assessment Board
(PLAB) test, that is the compulsory procedure for overseas doctors to practice in the UK. Sadly however, on 4 November of the same year, my grandfather passed away at the age of only 54. With two degrees, no job and a family to look after, my dad was a confused young man. Should he stay in India or head abroad?
Shortly after my grandfather's death my dad received confirmation of his PLAB test date, but postponed it in light of the family tragedy. Sometime later a letter arrived confirming a rescheduled date to complete the test in April 1980. My dad was not keen to leave my grandmother on her own so he didn't act upon the letter. Then during a visit by my great-uncle (grandfather's brother), he happened to see the letter and asked my dad about it. My dad explained why he wasn't keen to go, a view my grandmother and many other family members concurred with, but my great-uncle felt otherwise. He thought it was too good an opportunity for my dad to forego. The elders were worried about how the temptations of the Wild West would have a corrosive influence on him. Thankfully in the end, sense prevailed.
A lot of preparation was necessary. This was the first-time my dad would be travelling abroad and his first-time on an aeroplane. Since he couldn't afford the flight ticket and visa, he borrowed the money from his cousin in Bombay. A college mate that had already emigrated to America arranged some pounds sterling for my dad. In those days, India had very strict controls on foreign currency exchange and the amount of foreign currency that you could travel with abroad. Another college mate sorted out the brief stay and travel arrangements in Delhi. It was a team effort. And after completing all the requisite religious pilgrimages, finally the big day arrived. A couple days before his flight to London, the entire extended family saw my dad off at Erode Railway Station
in grand style. My dad was to become (in all probability) the first person in his caste community to travel abroad, and possibly even aboard an aircraft. He was already making history.
The layover in Delhi was short and the people who looked after him were very nice, although they did drop him off at the airport several hours before his flight because they didn't want to travel back home in the dark! It was all a new and surreal experience for my dad so he didn't really mind. Besides, this wasn't the first time he was leaving his family. At the tender age of five and a half, my grandfather enrolled my dad into one of India's prestigious British-era boarding schools, several hundred kilometres away from home in Erode, and where he remained until his graduation at the age of fifteen. My dad joined Lawrence School, Lovedale
in the year of its centenary celebrations.
His first love was Mathematics and he even aspired to study Engineering at an Indian Institute of Technology
(IIT). In fact, within a month of joining the boarding school, he was promptly promoted to the next class due to his aptitude in Math, though it was delayed by another month due to his weakness in English. Thereafter my dad excelled in Math but didn't break any records in his other subjects. He loved extracurriculars and took part in several sports, including field hockey, cricket and football. He even captained the school team in the latter. But he always felt out of place in an institution designed for rich kids. My grandfather was not very wealthy and had very little education, having left school at twelve. It was a real struggle to pay the exorbitant school tuition fees, but my grandfather was determined to provide as good an education as possible for my dad, however extreme the financial burdens it imposed on the family.
My dad's two sisters, one older and one younger, grew up and went to school in Erode itself. But since the death of my grandfather's elder brother, and later his sister-in-law, my grandfather had taken in his brother's family and was providing for all of them, as well as for his short-tempered mother (my great-grandmother). A total of eleven! Moreover, my grandfather was heavily involved in domestic politics and was a member of the ruling Congress Party
's branch in Erode. At one point, he was even President of the Erode branch. And though it seems incredulous, given the corruption that pervades modern Indian politics, my grandfather used to invest his own money into the party. He was a Gandhian
, wearing only Khadi
(handwoven cloth) until his death and a no-nonsense, though short-tempered politician.
Anyways, I digress. Despite my dad's engineering ambitions, my grandfather wanted my dad to become a doctor. There were no doctors in our family. After all, we came from a caste of weavers
. If any members had not become weavers they had at least found work elsewhere in the textile industry. My grandfather wanted more for his son, a whole lot more. And even though it was not his first-choice, my dad recognised the sacrifices his family had made for him and agreed to study medicine. Interestingly however, while waiting to hear the results of his med school application, my dad moved to the nearby city of Coimbatore
and started on an Engineering course. Think of it as an insurance policy. A month later and thanks in no small part to the caste-based quota system
, my dad was admitted into Chennai's Stanley Medical College
. He was not even sixteen! My dad spent the better part of the next decade in Chennai studying medicine.
And in his spare time he played a lot of field hockey, first representing his medical college, then the University of Madras and eventually captaining both. He was a very talented hockey player and won competitions all over India. Even today you can see his name on Stanley Medical College's Hall of Fame board, for his achievements in hockey. Indeed, one of the players who played under his captaincy, Vasudevan Bhaskaran
, went on to captain India to the Gold Medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics
and later became its national coach.
But we return to London. It was the morning of Thursday 27 March 1980. My dad had just entered Heathrow Airport and made his way to the immigration counter. Over the course of the next hour, two short exchanges would leave an unforgettable impression of what life would be like in this new country. The white immigration officer asked to see my dad's PLAB test documents but he didn't have them on him because he thought it would be safer to store them in his suitcase. Upon conveying this information, the officer asked my dad rather innocuously if he had a return ticket, to which my dad replied equally innocently in the affirmative. "Good", said the officer while adding rather curtly, "you made need to use it". My dad was rather startled, though the officer asked my dad to leave his travel documents with him and was allowed to go down to the baggage carousels and collect the necessary documents. Worried sick as he was for the suitcase to arrive intact, my dad left the contents of it wide open while scurrying back to the immigration counter with the crucial documents.
Luckily, there were no further problems and my dad made a successful entry into the UK. And incredibly, nobody had stolen anything from his wide-open suitcase by the time he got back to it. The next challenge was to figure out how to make his way to the Underground and his final destination, Gordon Hill Station
. Upon taking a seat in the Piccadilly Line
carriage, a white passenger sitting across from my dad asked him if he was new to the country. (An Asian lad with a thick accent, two big suitcases, bell-bottoms and long side-burns in early 1980? He certainly wasn't from these parts!) My dad said yes and unexpectedly received a reply he'll never forget alongwith an outstretched hand, "How lovely, welcome to the United Kingdom". And there it was, in the space of an hour, two sides of the British coin.
The friendly passenger convinced my dad that not all Brits were like the immigration officer. But the journey was not yet over. For some reason, the college mate with whom my dad was to be staying, gave instructions to switch from the Underground to the Suburban Rail network at Finsbury Park
, instead of staying on the Piccadilly Line, all the way to its penultimate station, Oakwood
. So poor dad was forced to reorient himself at Finsbury Park, while carrying his two heavy suitcases up a fairly steep spiral staircase. Another unforgettable moment. He eventually arrived at Gordon Hill Station and was picked up by his mate who lived nearby. That afternoon my dad experienced his first English pub at The Robin Hood
, near Chase Farm Hospital
. He studied hard for his PLAB test, sat it a couple weeks after his arrival and soon started work at Chase Farm Hospital. Over the course of the next seven years, my dad fell in love with everything British.
But his life in England began not just in London, but in Enfield
where I have been living since my move here in 2007. In fact, the nearest station to my flat is Gordon Hill and I travel through Finsbury Park's spiral staircases almost on a daily basis, continually reliving my dad's first brush with this amazing city. My dad loves retelling the tale of his first trip to London and I hope you enjoyed it too! It seems surreal that the only reason my dad came to Enfield was because the friend he stayed with was living and working here. That friend has moved on, but not only did my dad end up working in a few hospitals in the area, but we bought a flat here before moving to Oman (in fact the one I'm living and typing this from right now!), my sister was born in the hospital just down the road and where my dad first worked, and thirty years later, I'm keeping the Ramanathan flame burning in the same area. May there be many more years of the Ramanathans in Enfield!