HOW do you begin to write about someone so deeply loved and to whom you owe your very existence?
It is impossible to sum up in words what my mother meant to us as a family, but the extraordinary story of her life needs to be told, however inadequate mere words are to her enduring legacy.
My mother was an unassuming, quiet woman. But that calm, beatific exterior belied an unwavering inner strength and quiet determination that was at the core of her generous, kind-hearted soul.
For my sister Sadhana, brother Kalpesh and I, she was the one constant in our lives. Our best friend, mentor, and the epicentre of our family, who was our morning, noon and night. She was the guiding light and inspiration of our family and the wider Asian Media Group (AMG) family.
She was a remarkable woman, who with my late father Ramniklal Solanki, founded Garavi Gujarat and helped build AMG into Britain’s biggest Asian publishing house.
My parents’ story is one of remarkable resilience, fortitude and triumph against seemingly impossible odds. Their unique and enduring partnership saw the setting up of one of the country’s first ethnic publications at a time when there were few Indians in Britain, the technology to launch a Gujarati publication did not exist and they had limited financial resources.
Armed with nothing but a steely determination and a noble vision to bring the Gujarati community together and be their voice, they launched Garavi Gujarat on April 1, 1968, as a hand-written, black and white, cyclo-styled newssheet from a small terraced house in Wembley, north London. What many thought was an April Fool’s joke grew to become the biggest selling Gujarati newspaper outside of India and is today published weekly in two editions in the UK and the US, and read all over the world.
The success of the paper was undoubtedly down to my father’s journalistic flair, but my mother was instrumental in ensuring its long-term success. She played much more than a supporting role to my father. She was his confidante, his wise counsel who possessed a razor-sharp business mind, intrinsically understanding every aspect of the publishing business.
My mother had an innate understanding of the role of the newspaper as a powerful voice for Asian communities and as a tribune for equality and justice. She championed many causes in the paper – from culture, literature and religion to charitable campaigns.
While my father was the brilliant editor and face of Garavi Gujarat, my mother was the behind-the-scenes force who ensured deadlines were met and the paper reached readers on time. She kept the many wheels of the business in motion, overseeing the circulation, finances, and other administrative duties.
Her attention to detail and ability to pick up on the minutiae of the business ensured projects were completed – it was a much-admired trait recognised within AMG as staff went to her if things were not going to plan. It was, however, her warmth and kindness that made AMG a truly family business.
Born in the small village of Nani-Pethan in the state of Gujarat, India, my mother was the second-youngest of eight children. Her father was a farmer who lived by strict Gandhian principles. He wore only khadi and was a strict vegetarian who practised yoga every morning.
My grandfather was a devotee of Dayanand Saraswatiji, the great Hindu reformer who lived his life in accordance with a strong moral code. He took part in the Indian independence struggle and participated in Mahatma Gandhi’s famous salt march to Dandi in 1930.
Such was the family’s fervent commitment to the struggle that my grandfather lost one of his sons when he was violently struck on the head by a British soldier.
My maternal grandmother was a kind, loving housewife who also acted as the local midwife. She instilled a strong sense of charity and service in her children and ensured all of them – boys and girls – were educated and treated equally, something quite rare in 1930s rural India.
My mother was only the second girl from her village to go the local high school in Navsari, the nearest town, and during the monsoon season, she walked the five-mile journey each way, every day. The determination she showed at an early age and which helped her gain qualifications to become a teacher was to become a hallmark of her character.
It was this environment in which my mother grew up and it informed her world view, giving her a strong commitment to service, a compassion for those less fortunate and an unswerving moral compass.
She married my father in 1955, and it was on my mother’s instigation that they emigrated to UK in the 1960s after the passing of my paternal grandfather.
The rain and fog of 1960s Britain were not the most welcoming environment for the newly arrived young couple from India. The harsh winters, the unavailability of Indian vegetables and spices, coupled with the rising tide of racism – some very overt – made for very difficult years. But like so many of that pioneering and courageous generation, my parents buckled down and worked all hours, holding down two jobs for many years to finance the paper until it became financially viable.
With the exodus of Asians from East Africa and the campaigning zeal the paper took on, Garavi Gujarat’s readership grew and it rapidly became a powerful voice for the community. The publication’s success during that time and since has been well documented, and our expansion into new markets in the US and the launch of new titles and events, all came about only with her guidance, advice and blessings.
She was key to the launch of Asian Trader magazine, Pharmacy Business and Asian Hospitality, taking a keen interest in their content and progress. As AMG’s stable of titles grew, so did its printing facilities, and she played a crucial role in selecting and investing in state-of-the-art printing presses, finishing equipment and the move from hot metal to computerised typesetting.
When Garavi Gujarat was launched in the US in 1992, my mother, father and brother Kalpesh spent many months travelling the country, scoping the market, building networks, and establishing a US base. She was by my father’s side at every step of the journey to establish both the paper and the group on a firm footing.
It was a partnership of equals, and she played a key role in every important business decision for many decades.
My parents shared a love of literature, and for many years our home in Wembley was a revolving door for poets, authors and eminent journalists who came to stay during the summer months.
They hosted many evenings in our garden for friends to hear the great Indian poets including Uma Shankar Joshi, Niranjan Bhagat and Suresh Dalal recite their timeless poetry.
That open house also extended to friends and friends of friends from India and to my parents’ extended families from various parts of the world. They were all made to feel welcome and at home. My mother often told us “the joy in living is giving”.
That giving was a central part of her life. She donated to numerous charitable causes in the UK and India, including the long-term education of orphan children.
Each year she undertook to pay the school fees of the children of the dozen or so domestic staff at AMG’s India office and home.
My mother was a voracious reader who was deeply rooted in her religion. She read about Hindu philosophy, feminism and culture, and often gave lessons from her extensive reading to her children and grandchildren who – along with my father – were at the heart of her life.
She enjoyed meeting and listening to many Hindu saints who often visited our London home and offices, and was particularly close to His Holiness Pujya Swami Chidanand Sarawatiji (HH Pujya Muniji) of Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh, India, who affectionately called her ‘Ba’.
My parents were utterly devoted to each other. They shared a deep and abiding love throughout their 64 years of marriage and were inseparable. On the few occasions when they were apart, my father would write daily letters to her and when telephone calls became feasible, they spoke more than a few times a day.
Each day when my father rose in the early hours to write, he would make special masala tea for my mother, which they shared religiously every morning.
When we lost my sister Smita to leukaemia some 28 years ago, it was my parents’ inner strength and faith in the Almighty that helped us through this tragic time.
My father’s demise in March 2020 left a huge void in our lives, and my mother lost her lifelong soulmate. This inevitably had an impact on her health, but she remained strong for her children and grandchildren, helping each one of us to come to terms with the loss of a much-loved father and grandfather.
She took great interest in each of her 11 grandchildren, and she was their confidante and keeper of their secrets. She enjoyed long conversations with each of them and would revel in their success at university, work and in finding their life partners. They all adored her, and her particular gift was to make each one feel unique and special.
For her children she was our Shakti, our guru and guide. We all drew tremendous strength and energy from her very presence. Her wisdom would help us see the other perspective, her words would resolve doubt, and her smile remove any inner turmoil.
We could speak to her about almost any issue – good or bad, matters of the heart, emotional or work stress – and invariably we would all leave the conversation feeling better and renewed.
In all the many cherished years we spent with her, she never once spoke ill of anyone and always looked for the good in people. She radiated love and kindness in abundance and encouraged everyone to forgive and to live in harmony.
It is said that people walk in and out of your lives, but only special people leave footprints in your heart. My mother undoubtedly left an indelible footprint on the many thousands of hearts that she touched with her love, kindness and boundless generosity.
Her light shone brightly. It was no ordinary light and though it may now have dimmed, it will continue to illuminate our lives in a new divine form.