48 hours that changed my life

In mid-2015 my entire world came crashing down. Everything I understood about life and my purpose on this journey was shattered in an instant.

Thankfully most of us have an extraordinary ability to adapt and rebuild. To salvage some strength from adversity. To find happiness from deep sorrow.

A remarkable study by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert demonstrates precisely this. Our ability to feign happiness and trick our minds into becoming happy once again is a built-in human trait.

It’s how many prisoners are able to cope with prolonged incarceration. It probably explains how those with little property or prospects can lead normal fulfilling lives. And it’s how most of us are able to dust ourselves off and move on in life if we don’t get that job we wanted or if an important relationship breaks down.

So I’m able to share this story thanks to my genetics – our shared genetics – and the fact that I have managed to rebuild my shattered world.

As a former City Councillor and parliamentary candidate it’s fair to say politics has always been a big part of my life. I was one of those weird 90s teenagers who always preferred Newsnight over Neighbours and Channel 4 News over Changing Rooms.

My passion for politics began at an early age. Indeed it is part of my own family history.

I am the son and grandson of Ugandan Asian refugees who arrived in the UK with nothing following the 1972 expulsion ordered by Idi Amin. This was a major political event, an African holocaust in the making.

Thanks to the intervention of the British government – and the compassion of the British people – thousands of lives were saved, including those of my family.

My parents and grandparents chose to settle in Leicester and I was born and raised on the St Matthew’s council estate. Life was incredibly tough for all of us and we experienced great hardship. As my father struggled to find work and provide for his young family, food was often scarce and new clothes were always a luxury.

Luckily, although my upbringing was extremely poor, my family was able to survive – and later thrive – thanks in part to our welfare state. We had a home thanks to the Council. Health care was free and easily accessible. And I had free school meals for much of my early education.

My grandparents were a big part of our family life and I frequently sat on the sofa with both of my grandfathers to watch the news whenever it was on. My maternal grandfather in particular was an avid news watcher. He would always explain to me the nature and relevance of world events.

As I grew up I began to understand more and more each day that we lived in an unjust world. I saw there were countless other families and children in Britain and elsewhere who were also suffering disadvantage and discrimination.

Looking back I think it was at the age of around 8 or 9 where, having experienced injustice – both first hand and vicariously – that a seed was planted in my head; not only that politics was really important, but that the decisions made by powerful people could affect many lives.

I was incredibly lucky to be taught by some very kind and compassionate teachers and several of them clearly saw something in me that I was unaware of.

At age 12 I was encouraged to get involved in student politics at Babington Community College, representing my class and later my year group, on the student forum. Later at Regent College when I was 16 another teacher prompted me to stand in the NUS elections and I was elected Vice President of the student body.

Over the following 10 years my passion for politics and my desire to help people, particularly those who were being badly treated, continued to grow.

I went to Brunel University in London to study politics and history. I became an active member of the Labour Party. And after finishing law school in Leicester I qualified as a defence solicitor, working primarily on Legal Aid cases, helping some of the poorest people in society to have access to justice.

All the while I would share my achievements and happy milestones with my family, but particularly with my grandfather; the man who kick-started my interest in politics – and the only person who really enjoyed watching Question Time as much as I did.

In 2011 at the age of 29 I was elected as the youngest Councillor in the city of Leicester. It was an incredible feeling to have been chosen to represent my local community on the Council.

It just so happened that I was also the first non-white politician ever to be elected – at any level – to represent Beaumont Leys, a predominantly white working class area of Leicester.

But for me this wasn’t particularly noteworthy at the time. It was the area I had grown up in and gone to school. White working class people were my community and it was now my job to fight for their interests.

Over the course of my 4-year term I worked incredibly hard – along with my Labour colleagues – to resolve disputes, champion causes, save jobs, and make a positive difference.

By my early 30s it seemed a logical next step to seek a prominent political role, and try to continue putting my beliefs and values into practice, working to help people and challenge injustice.

In August 2014 I was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Harborough constituency in Leicestershire.

I was set to stand for a national political party in a UK general election. It was a surreal moment, but something that many friends and family members had been predicting ever since I was a teenager.

Of course in reality the prospect of me becoming an MP in 2015 was very slim. The constituency was considered to be a very safe seat for the incumbent Conservative Party.

But I persisted and from January 2015 right through to early May we ran the most exciting and enjoyable election campaign the constituency had seen in decades.

A relatively dormant local party was enthused and revitalised. My team and I attended public demonstrations and campaign events. I took part in hustings and debates at the secular society, a Hindu community forum, the chamber of commerce and the National Farmers Union.

For the first time in years we ran Council candidates on every ballot paper and in every ward. And I took dozens of local activists out to campaign with me in some of the most marginal constituencies across the East Midlands, helping many of my party’s candidates in the key winnable seats.

Whenever I had a few spare hours I’d pop over to see my grandfather to update him on the latest campaign event and opinion polls and generally put the world to rights.

We even sat together on his couch and watched the Leaders’ Question Time debates on Thursday 30 April 2015. Sadly it was to be the last time I’d see him alive.

On Wednesday 6 May 2015, the day before the general election, we received a distressed phone call from one of my aunties. She said my grandfather was unwell and told my parents to get over to the house. I was upstairs on the computer and oblivious to what was going on.

A frantic phone call from my father 20 minutes later spurred me into action and I began getting ready to head over to my grandfather’s house.

It was one of those strange moments, which many people will have experienced, where an otherwise ordinary day becomes extra-ordinary. You experience time in slow motion, with heightened senses, and remember every little detail.

Before I had the chance to put on my shoes another phone call confirmed the awful news. My grandfather had died. His heart had suddenly stopped working and he had collapsed at home. His name was Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani and he was 80 years old.

I’ve always found it really strange how we experience the death of a loved one. It’s as if the whole world stops turning and nothing makes sense any more.

It even sometimes makes us angry to see other people just carrying on with their normal lives, chatting away, laughing, behaving as if everything’s okay. Grief really is a complex emotion.

The suddenness of my grandfather’s passing hit me like a tonne of bricks. Not just because I had lost someone whom I loved so dearly. But because this was the man who had inspired me to dedicate so much of my life to politics.

It didn’t make sense for this to be happening the day before the General Election. We were supposed to be experiencing the election together. We were meant to discuss my result and consider the next steps.

In the Hindu tradition, a death prompts the beginning of two weeks of prayer and rituals at the home of the deceased, with extended family coming together to support one another.

On Election Day I was away from my campaign team and the constituency. I spent the day covering my grandfather’s lounge floor with sheets, and helping to rearrange the furniture, to prepare for the many inevitable visitors coming to pay their respects.

Soon after 10pm once the polls had closed, I forced myself to shave and put on a suit, and made my way over to the result counting venue – a dreary leisure centre in the middle of nowhere; a typically British democratic custom.

During that election count – as night turned to day – I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions, not least because of the many surprising results from around the country.

On a personal level I was blown away by the kindness and compassion shown to me by my political adversaries, including the incumbent Member of Parliament, who would go on to be re-elected.

Unfortunately Harborough was the last constituency in the entire East Midlands to declare its result. We were up all night and I gave my concession speech at around 9.30am on Friday morning.

We managed to come in second overall, and it was the best result for my party locally since the 1979 election, which was before I was even born.

I didn’t immediately know it at the time, but the events of those two days – the sudden bereavement and the exhaustion of election night – had a monumental impact on my life.

In the short term I experienced a crisis with my mental health. I was signed-off from work for several weeks with bereavement-related stress.

Up until that point I had never experienced any problem with my mental health and, if truth be told, I never really used to believe that a mental health problem could be as debilitating as a physical health problem. This was the first of my epiphanies.

In the longer term my entire life was completely changed by those catastrophic 48-hours. My whole world was knocked off its axis, causing me to re-evaluate everything, not just in my own life but philosophically as well.

It prompted me to engage on a journey of discovery. To try to make sense of life and our purpose here on Earth. To learn more about humanity. And to understand our place in the known universe.

Most importantly of all I learnt to truly value family bonds and friendships much more than my career and ambition.

In this new age of social media, with constant global news coverage and information overload, I have come to realise that our most meaningful relationships – with the people we care deeply about – are the best way to stay grounded, to be happy.

And to find the strength and resolve we need to work hard and make this a better world.

Dedicated to my grandfather Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani

In memory of my wonderful grandfather

Biography

Nana on pilgrimage in IndiaMy beloved grandfather Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani was born on 15 June 1934 in Porbander, India. He was the eldest child of 10 children born to Narsidas Kalidas Dattani and Premkurben Narsidas Dattani. In 1955 at age 21 he married my grandmother Kanta Nathalal Kanabar. They began their married lives in Kenya, moved to Uganda, and eventually settled in Britain in 1969. They both worked very hard to purchase a family home in Leicester. They had 5 daughters – Naina, Daxa, Amita, Sonal and Dinta – and from their daughters’ marriages they gained 5 sons-in-law and 14 grandchildren. After a long, happy and fulfilling life my grandfather passed away peacefully at home on Wednesday 6 May 2015.

Obituary

Everyone has experienced loss before. We all know what it feels like to lose someone we love. Sadly for our family the loss of our father and grandfather is all the more distressing because it happened so suddenly. On Wednesday morning he was laughing, joking and spending time with those he loved. By late afternoon he was gone.

As a father, grandfather, brother and uncle, Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani lived a long, happy and fulfilling life for 80 years and 11 months. He was loving, supportive, independent and stubborn. He was also sensitive, kind and a real perfectionist, always wanting everything to be clean, tidy and in its rightful place.

Me and nana at a family birthday partyHe was the best grandfather; silly and playful, and always interested in what was going on in each of our lives. He poked fun at all of his grandchildren from a young age. His favourite catchphrase was “eneh ghoro ghoro khawo cheh” (you want to ride the horsey horsey) – or if we visited him at home he would say “ja Kitkat layleh” (go, take a Kitkat). Nana teased the non-vegetarians, saying that all we ever ate was sausages, and he had various nicknames for us all. For example I was his Prime Minister, Niraj was always called “teenio”, and his youngest granddaughter Ria was his “dhingli” (doll).

But nana also had a more formal side. He took his responsibilities as a husband and father extremely seriously. Time and again he demonstrated his love, compassion, integrity and work ethic.

He moved his family around East Africa and then eventually to Britain, always with the love and support of his beloved wife, Kantaben Jayantilal Dattani. He worked long back-breaking hours in tough jobs to provide for his family. Together with his wife they raised their 5 daughters, helped them to meet and marry their husbands, and then cherished all of their 14 grandchildren.

Nana waving at the camera for meIn-fact he became a father figure at a very young age, assisting his parents with their finances and, together with his wife, working to raise not only his own brothers and sisters, but also his wife’s brothers and sisters.

He was a father to many, not for any personal recognition, but because it was his duty and he had so much love for those younger than him. That’s the kind of person he was. Not selfish, but selfless; thinking and doing more for others than he did for himself.

His character developed over many years of marriage with Kanta, the love of his life. Where he was sensitive, she made him strong. Where he was sometimes indecisive, she got him to decide and act. And where he was a bit stingy when they went shopping, she would make him get his wallet out!

Nana felt lost and lonely after the passing of his wife in early 2012, but his daughters, sons and grandkids rallied round. We kept him happy and interested in life.

He loved going to India despite his occasional poor health. But we fulfilled his wish of going on jathra (pilgrimage) and completing jamanapan (religious rituals) for his late wife, as well as feeding 101 priests a variety of food over three days. Whilst on his last trip to India he really enjoyed his freedom, dressing up nicely and eating at some of the finest hotels and restaurants.

Celebrating nana's 80th birthday in June 2014He was so happy and overjoyed when his daughters, sons and grandchildren celebrated his 80th birthday in June last year. He was a real family man and enjoyed having his loved ones around him, talking loudly and laughing together.

Nana and nanima were very proud of the unity they had created amongst their 5 daughters and their families. After nanima passed away, nana felt he still had a mission to complete: to see his grandkids married off and to keep his daughters smiling. He never wanted to concern his daughters. If he had a fall or a health problem he didn’t want the girls to know, because he knew they would first tell him off, but then start to worry about him.

At the same time he loved having a good old chat with his daughters. Whenever Amita auntie or Dinta auntie came to Leicester to see him, he would start ringing round to let everyone know they were here. With my mum Naina he used to joke that she ate tul like chevdo and he always relied on her for his head massages. Sonal auntie was his tornado; she would rush around him and get things sorted out. And he would ring Daxa auntie to share his pains, his sorrows, and his pleasure.

Nana and nanima surrounded by their familyMost of all he loved talking with his daughters about anything and everything – and he was terrible at keeping secrets. But he also enjoyed celebrating good news and he had so much to look forward to and so much to live for.

Later this year he was going to attend Suraj and Janki’s engagement chundari and he was so thrilled to be finally getting a daughter-in-law. He was also looking forward to Sejal and Steven’s wedding, the second of his grandkids to get married. And he was so thrilled at the prospect of finally becoming a great grandfather later this year, with Sharina and Bunty expecting their first child.

Nana was a man of faith and read his prayers often. In later years it was clear his spirit had outgrown his body. His mind, his soul, and his hopes were full of youth, but his body had become frail. In recent weeks he had started to have visions of his beloved wife Kanta. He told us he had actually seen her appearing to him, calling to him.

So now he has been reunited with the love of his life. The energy of his being has been transformed and will live on for eternity. He is now, and he will always remain, a huge part of us all. Although we miss him more than anyone can imagine, we are grateful that we managed to spend so much time with him, especially in these last few years.

But now his wife Kanta has her husband back. And that’s how they will remain. Together – forever.

Two soul mates reunited once more

In memory of my beloved grandmother

Biography

My beloved grandmother Kantaben Jayantilal Dattani was born Kanta Nathalal Kanabar in Kenya on 5 February 1938. She was the eldest child of 7 children born to Nathalal Jivan Kanabar and Premkurben Nathalal Kanabar. In 1955 at age 17 she married my grandfather Jayantilal Narsidas Dattani. They began their married lives in Kenya, moved to Uganda and then eventually settled in Britain in 1969. They both worked very hard to purchase a family home in Leicester. They had 5 daughters, and from their daughters’ marriages, they gained 5 son-in-laws and 14 grandchildren. After leading a wonderful, fulfilling and exemplary life, and enjoying a marriage that lasted 57 years, my grandmother took her last breath on Sunday 15 January 2012 surrounded by her family.

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Obituary

Losing my grandmother has been an exceptionally difficult and distressing time for me and my entire family. We didn’t just lose a wife and a mother, a sister and a grandmother; we lost the rock upon which our family was built.

She was our strength and stability in an uncertain world. She was our source of unconditional love when things were tough. She was our friend bringing joy into our lives with her infectious smile and cheeky sense of humour. And she was our spiritual guru, teaching us how to lead exemplary lives, how to love, how to respect women, and how to praise the word of almighty God.

Understandably everyone that knows us will by now have gone back to their normal everyday lives. But for us, our lives have been changed forever, because our mother has left us.

But she has left us safe in the knowledge that we, her sons and daughters, are now the living embodiment of her values, her teachings and her compassion. Anyone who really knew my nanima knew that she was a great soul with an abundance of love. This is because she was a mother for most of her life.

Not only was she a mother figure to her own younger brothers and sisters, but she also became a mother figure to her younger brothers and sisters-in-law at the tender age of 19, following the untimely death of her mother-in-law. At age 20 she became a mother to her own children when she gave birth to the first of her five daughters.

As her faith in God grew stronger with each passing year so her blessings multiplied. Not only was she blessed with 5 daughters, and through their marriages, 5 sons, but she was also blessed with 14 grandchildren; 7 boys and 7 girls. Most importantly of all, she was blessed with the love, warmth and support of her husband, my grandfather, Jayantilal Dattani, with whom she spent nearly 57 years in marriage.

My grandmother’s favourite quote from the Bhagavad Gita was this: “Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and wears new ones.” (2:22)

Our family may feel lost and desperately sad at her passing, but we have taken great comfort in the fact that her soul has merely changed clothes, having discarded a body that could no longer keep up with her. However rather than being reborn we know that her soul has broken free from the cycle of births and deaths and that she now resides in the all-encompassing and loving embrace of almighty God.

Thank you to everyone who has sent prayers and messages of condolence to me and my family in recent weeks; they were a great comfort to us all and we very much appreciated them. May God grant nanima’s soul eternal peace. Jai Shree Krishna.

In loving memory of my grandfather

c. 1920 – 15 April 2001

My grandfather Purshotam Meghani passed away 10 years ago today. I remember his life and his death in such vivid detail, it certainly doesn’t feel like he’s been gone for a decade.

He was an ultra-conservative, strict, traditional man. But he was also caring and deeply religious. He was born in Gujarat in northern India around 1920; we never actually knew his real birth day. Both he and my grandmother moved to Uganda sometime after India’s independence in 1947, and having worked hard as a labourer most of his life, my grandfather started a small family business selling household goods.

My grandparents had 3 sons including my father, and the entire family were among the thousands of Ugandan Asian families who were forcibly expelled from the country, by Idi Amin. The bittersweet irony of this for me of course, is that were it not for the actions of this ruthless dictator, my father would never have met my mother.

I have clear memories of accompanying my grandfather to the local shops, parks and temples as a very young boy. I felt safe when I was with him. Occasionally groups of teenagers would hurl racist abuse at us as we walked along the St Matthews estate. Of course I didn’t know what racism was back then, but I certainly knew that we were being sworn and shouted at.

In spite of how fearful it must have been for my elderly grandfather, he was always happy to take me to the nearby park. I’d play on the swings for hours as my grandfather looked on, and we used to enjoy feeding all the little hungry pigeons.

One hot sunny day in the summer when I was around 5 or 6 I remember slowly creeping past one of my teachers whose back was turned, and walking out of school. I saw no problem in wanting to visit my grandparents and spend the afternoon playing in the park with my grandfather. My plan would have worked too had it not been for my eagle-eyed father who spotted me as I was walking past our house. Needless to say he was not best pleased with my poor teachers when he hurriedly took me back to school.

My understanding of life and my views have developed sharply at odds with those of my grandfather. And yet he taught me so much about courage and about resilience. As I grew older and my grandfather was able spend less and less time outdoors, I would visit him and we’d sit together in the lounge watching the news. He would sit silently in his armchair wearing his thick black rimmed glasses. He barely spoke a word of English and yet he always seemed to understand enough of what was being said on television.

This man, without whom I would not exist, survived the Second World War, extreme hardship, a deadly house fire, and a serious industrial accident in the mid-1970s which saw him lose the tips of several fingers. He had also been expelled from one country because of his race, and experienced hatred in another country, because of his race.

My grandfather was a very religious man and he had worked hard throughout his life to provide for his family. He also had the potential to be extremely strict and he had a ferocious temper. His entrenched and antiquated views were only quelled much later by the gradual deterioration of his health.

He was the type of man that never sought or particularly welcomed help from others, and he had what seemed like an inherent mistrust of peoples’ motives. But he was also kind and compassionate, especially to me, and he had developed a very silly but highly amusing sense of humour in his later years.

For the last decade of his life he was unable to speak very much, having been partially paralysed on one side of his body after a major stroke, and he had also developed dementia. What was meant to be just another routine visit to hospital in early 2001 quickly became something far more serious. After several weeks on a ward at the Leicester General Hospital he contracted MRSA. He died at around 9am on Sunday the 15th of April 2001.

My grandfather’s mind and body lives on through his children and his grandchildren, but his soul has long since moved on. I pray for God to watch over him always.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti…