When one mentions the name Ruparelia, the first images that come to the mind of most Ugandans are that of Sudhir’s family.
However, the Ruparelias have an extended family of which the Sudhirs form only one part. On Capital FM’s Desert Island Discs, Simon Kasyate tracks down Babulai Valji Ruparelia, a brother to Sudhir’s father, who tells the story of how the Ruparelias came to Uganda and settled in the country: -
We have the privilege to host Mzee Babulai Valji Ruparelia. He is as Ugandan as the word Uganda but when he begins to speak and you pick his accent. His skin colour and accent may be different from ours but I can tell you in every sense of the word he is Ugandan. Good evening and welcome to the programme Mzee.
Good evening to you and thank you for hosting this programme and calling me. I hope I will be able to be helpful in you queries about my life.
Any relation with Sudhir? Let’s start there.
Yes, he is my younger brother’s son. His father was my younger brother. He passed away in 1992 in the UK.
We are meant to understand that in fact you are as indigenous, as Ugandan, as it gets. That, in fact, whereas you are of Indian descent, you only went to India for the first time at the age of 11. When and where were you born?
My father was born in 1905 in India. My grandfather, I think, was born around 1875. He came to Uganda sometime around 1907. My father was two years then and had an elder sister who they came with and they settled in Jinja in 1907 or 1908.
My grandfather had four brothers and they all came to Uganda later on; some in 1910, 1912. My grandfather and his younger brother settled in Mombasa; so, he was the supplier of goods to his other brothers in Uganda. He was trading goods from India and he was also partner [in] those businesses which were in Uganda.
The history we read in the books says that Indians came here as traders and artisans through the railway. So we can comfortably say that your father and grandfather came along those lines, right?
Yes. I remember when I was very young, my grandmother told me that my grandfather was running a canteen along the railway line when it was proceeding from Mombasa to Uganda. They would move the canteen as the railway makes progress to Uganda so they were, in a way, suppliers of goods to the workers of the railway at the time.
The railway from Mombasa ended in Kenya. Then they came to Entebbe. One brother established a business in Entebbe. One brother went to Jinja. Another brother’s son joined the uncle in Entebbe. One brother came later on and found conditions unsuitable; so, he went back to India. One brother went to Mombasa.
My father grew up in Jinja and later married. In those times, marriage was at an early age. I think he got married in 1922. He must have been about 17 or 18 years old.
Did they get you immediately after that?
No. I was born in 1929. I had a sister [born earlier] in 1924, another sister was born 1928 and Sudhir’s father, my other brother, was born 1932.
You may wish to describe to us what life was like growing up in Uganda at that time.
My grandfather possibly came to Kampala at around 1922 with the family and they started a different business from what they had in Jinja. In Jinja, they were supplying clothing, foodstuffs, groceries and things like that. In Kampala, my father started a motor spare parts business in the 1920s. I was born in Kampala and my elder sisters too.
Paint for us a picture of what Kampala was at that time.
Kampala was not busy as it is now. It’s now a hundred times busier. There were no cars. I remember in 1933, Kampala had about four or five private vehicles and my father had one. We hardly saw any vehicle on the road and the tarmac was done in 1937/38 in Kampala.
Any buildings that still stand out today that were [there] then?
Alid Ishlam street. We had settled on Luwum street. It is where we lived. It’s where we set [up] a shop. The old building is still there. It hasn’t been demolished. Most of the buildings on that street are still there because it was in the name of the pioneering Alid Ishlam who started a lot of businesses in Uganda. He had 104 shops; that is what I read in the Uganda journal.
Did [your father] introduce you to business at a tender age or did he take you to school? Which schools did you go to if at all you went to school?
My father carried on the spare parts business up to 1937. I was about eight years old and my father had to close down the business because he had some problems with an Italian priest whom he gave a lift in our lorry. The lorry had an accident and the priest lost one leg and sued my father for the damages. The court gave him Shs 40,000 for damages in 1937, which my father couldn’t pay because it was a lot of money at that time; so, we had to close down the business.
Plays, ‘Mera Jeevan Kogaz’ [by Kishore Kumar]
Babulai, do you have any recollection of your childhood at home and what you indulged in? If it was an education, where [did you go] to school? If it were friends, which friends [did] you [make]?
Initially, I went to an Indian school which was near the Hindu Temple in Kampala; it was in Nakasero, where I studied three years with my sister. From there, I went to Old Kampala to a government Indian school. It was entirely for Indians.
What is there at that particular spot today if you went there?
Now it is Old Kampala primary school and Old Kampala Secondary School.
How long did you study there?
I studied there for about three years because in 1939, in December, my family moved to India.
Did you find a difference in the way life was when you went back to India as compared to Uganda? Do you now enrol into school? What direction does your life take?
Well, the situation in India and the environment was quite different from that in Uganda. We had to make adjustments to fit in almost all the environments, including the social environment. I spent seven years in India, did some studies there and I came back to Uganda in 1948.
You were above eighteen years of age when you returned to Uganda. What occasion lured you back to Uganda?
My parents had already come back to Uganda while I was still in India and they had settled in Mbale. I wanted to come back and join them. There was no real intention to study further but I wanted to come back and join them and look for a job as well.
My elder sister had got married and was staying in Jinja so I stayed two months with her from December 1949. Then I came back to Kampala, where I met my uncle, and he tried to look for a job for me in Standard Chartered bank.
So, you were looking for a job to be employed as opposed to engaging in business [like] your father and family members?
Initially, there were no resources; so, I had to look for a job to keep me going, because I couldn’t be a burden on my maternal uncle for long. I had to work to earn money and to pay for my upkeep. I had to work with Standard Chartered, then went to Customs and worked with them for six months, then I joined the Indian lawyers firm and worked six months there.
What were you working as in all these places?
I was an accountant and clerk filing cases and going to court on hearing days.
Did you at this point in time, with the small job you were doing, think of getting involved in marriage?
My parents moved from Mbale in 1952 and decided to settle in Kampala. They decided to get me married because you know ours is an arranged marriage. I saw my bride before our marriage but I couldn’t talk to her because there is no way of talking to your partner about anything. You just see. If you are happy with face beauty, clothing, style, you tell your parents, ‘yes’.
Where would they show her to you from? Do they take you to her home?
I saw my wife in her maternal uncle’s home because, normally, we don’t see her at her parents’ home. You have to see her at a third party’s home; so, her maternal uncle arranged for her to come. She was from Mpigi; so, her maternal uncle called her to Kampala. They called me as well to see her and she brought a cup of tea. That is the norm when she comes to meet her prospective husband, which I enjoyed.
Between the time you accepted a cup of tea and the time you accepted her, how long was that?
It took another 15 to 20 days [before] I nodded my head that I accept her as my partner.
Did you have much choice?
I had another choice but my maternal uncle wasn’t in favour of that marriage, which was with a Masaka girl. My uncle said ‘no’, because her father was abusive and he said we couldn’t join that family. [He said] it would cause me problems at a later stage in my life.
When you talk about Masaka and Mpigi girls, are we talking about native Ugandans or Ugandans of Indian origin?
At that time, there was no Ugandan citizenship because they were born in 1937. My wife was born in 1937. She was holding a Ugandan passport, not a Uganda protectorate passport. That was the norm at that time. The Masaka girl was also born to parents who were holding Indian passports when they came from India and eventually got a Ugandan protectorate passport when they settled in Uganda.
Plays Jis Gali Mein Tera Ghar by Mukesh
You picked the Mpigi girl as opposed to the Masaka girl. When do you get married and start your family?
When I got married, I was working with an Indian firm. I was getting Shs 600 per month.
What would be the equivalent of Shs 600 today?
About Shs 135,000, and that was nothing. But Shs 600 shillings was quite good at that time because Standard bank gave me Shs 250, Customs gave me Shs 227, the law firm gave me Shs 375. From the Indian firm, I joined a British firm and they gave me Shs 800. Then I joined another British firm that gave me Shs 840 shillings but there, I only worked for one month.
Why do you work for one month and retire?
I had to go to Nairobi on a certain errand but I couldn’t take the permission on a Saturday from the boss because Saturday and Sunday were holidays in British firms. I told my Indian colleague to tell our boss that I had to go to Nairobi suddenly so I couldn’t take his permission.
He told the boss but the boss was bigheaded. When I returned from Nairobi after a week, he said, “You didn’t take my permission but this time I will let you go but next time I will fire you.” Within five minutes, I went to my office, wrote my resignation, gave it to him and said: “I am going”.
What is it that you had gone to do [in Nairobi]?
My sister had some problem with her family; so, I had to rush up there.
Why did you take the resignation step?
It was my ego. I wouldn’t accept rubbish from anybody. I gave him a 30 days’ notice.
This Ruparelia name, is it your grandfather’s name or father’s name? Whose is it?
It’s a family name like you have your personal name, father’s name and clan name. This is my clan name.
Was your wife working and bringing more food on the table when you quit employment to go into private business?
Life wasn’t very expensive at that time. My father was working in Nyanza garage. I was contributing my share to house upkeep. The money I was getting was enough. I was giving my share for the rent and I was doing some savings. Money was enough to keep you going throughout the month but there was no money in my bank account. When I left British Tobacco in Jinja in May 1954, I went to Tanzania for a tour with my brother-in-law for two weeks.
From there, I had some relations from Lake Katwe and they came to stay with us for one night. They talked about a shop that we could use in Kabatooro. My wife moved there in October 1954 and stayed there till March 1962. Then I [also] went to Kasese.
My brother-in-law was our business partner. He also had a shop in Kabatooro that he closed and went to Kasese too. But I found out that the business he was doing was not profitable and wouldn’t last long. He was selling items like clothing, shirts, and groceries so I moved out of the business in 1963 and went back to Katwe, which was an African area.
You always moved to places where opportunities seemed to be available. Is that a trait you learnt in your life or you were always conditioned by the circumstances you found yourselves in?
Despite circumstances, when something happens, you have to make your own effort to rectify the situation. If you do not do it, then you end up suffering big financial losses here and there because you do not sometimes trust your in-laws.
Plays Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din
Is there one time when opportunity led you back into Kampala because I am sure, as you grew older, you intensified the need to play on the big stage.
You see in 1972, Amin sent away Asians from the county and my wife was a British passport holder. I inquired at the immigration office what would be the position of my wife but they didn’t reply. I sent a telegram from Kasese asking whether she could stay but they didn’t reply at all. So, I had no choice but to send away my wife and four children to the UK so my wife and children went in October 1972.
But I thought the expulsion of Indians meant people of Indian descent. How come you were spared?
It was a question of how brave you were. Many Indians had Ugandan passports but they left the country at the last moment. Though they had valid passports, they got scared.
For me, I had a feeling that Amin would not last long because if even Hitler vanished from the world after 59 years’ activity, who is Amin compared to Hitler? So I said I should stay. If people are kind, they like you and accept you, they [will] protect you.
At what point does your family return to Uganda? And what were you doing by the fall of Idi Amin?
By the fall of Amin, we didn’t have jobs because my shop in Kasese, I had sold it to a Munyankore man who only paid me half the money. I move to Kampala in January 1973 and my wife’s cousin was living in Kampala with his family. They were brave as well but they were very scared.
They invited me and said: ‘We have six rooms but we are using two rooms. Four are empty. You stay with us and we will take care of you.’ I stayed with them for three years and got a proposal from an Indian that Amin’s minister was looking for a manager for his factory in Kawempe; so, I took over the factory, [which was] making soap and plastic bags.
How is your relationship with your nephew? Are you good friends? Is he a rock on which you rely now that you have advanced age?
He is a very busy man and he doesn’t have time to say hullo to me. Maybe when he says hullo to me in five to 10 minutes, then he will call me. We meet sometimes and say hullo but there is no regularity in keeping relationship; so he is a different man.
If you were marooned on a desert island and you were given just one person or thing to carry, what or who would it be?
Plays Khilona Kar Tum Ko by Sanjeev Kumar & Mumtaz