‘Rishi is brought up with Indian values — respect our parents, respect our uncles, — but he is more British.’
The port of Southampton, and its 189-year-old majestic Royal Pier, has always been a place where history has been fashioned for Britain and the world.
The Mayflower departed from this Hampshire town, in south England on an English Channel estuary, via Plymouth, in 1620, taking a sturdy bunch of 102 pilgrims across the choppy Atlantic, over ten rough weeks, to establish a ‘New World’ that became America and Canada.
The ill-fated RMS Titanic sailed away to its doom from Southampton piers.
During World War II, the port city was heavily bombed and in June 1944 platoons and platoons of British, French, Canadian and American soldiers — some 3.5 million men — left from its docks for the D-Day landing in Normandy to liberate France from the Nazis, which eventually won the war for the Allies 11 months later.
Southampton once again found a special karmic toehold in history, in 21st century, as the proud birthplace of the United Kingdom’s first Hindu and first British Asian prime minister.
Rishi Sunak was born in the Southampton General Hospital on May 12, 1980. And if you walk further through the port area to the Southampton Royal Pier building, once a steamer departure terminal, 5.6 km from the hospital, you will come to a restaurant, classily done up in gold and blue, named Kuti’s Brasserie, which has won several awards including the 2019 Tiffin Cup.
As a teenager, Sunak worked for one or two summers, in 1989-1999, at this British Bangladeshi-owned eatery, welcoming patrons, maybe even his parents, and serving up its signature dishes, like probably Lamb Chops, Tandoori Pheasant, Malai Kofta, biryanis and Peshawari Naan.
Kuti Miah, a Bangladeshi emigrant, who came to Britain to work as a waiter in the mid-1970s, becoming a swanky restaurant owner less than two decades later, says enthusiastically that he has known Rishi since he was a few weeks old.
An expansive and ebullient restaurateur, it would seem, he is unstrained in his praise for Rishi.
He describes, animatedly, in a heavy Bangladeshi accent, that has just a thin Southampton veneer, UK’s first ethnic minority PM as “Wonderful! He was wonderful. People trust in him. He is a religious person. But he is very passionate about his work. He and his dad are very people-loving, human loving. They are very down to earth people.”
Miah got to know Rishi’s parents in the 1980s. Dr Yashvir and Usha Sunak are both from Africa.
Yashvir, whose family had its roots in Gujranwala, Punjab, now Pakistan, was born in Kenya and after the Sunaks migrated to England, he studied medicine at the University of Liverpool and joined the National Health Service.
Usha, a pharmacist — the daughter of a tax official Raghubir Sain Berry MBE, who left Jassowal Sudan village, Ludhiana district, to work in Africa — is from Tanganyika.
Her amazing, resourceful, mother Sraksha sold all her jewellery to move to Britain in 1966 and worked as a bookkeeper for an estate agent and paid for Usha and her siblings to journey to England, for a better life, when Usha was 15.
Rishi’s parents met the Indian way through family/friends and married in Leicester in 1977 and then shifted south to Southampton, where Rishi and later his siblings Sanjay and Raakhi were born.
Yashvir had a surgery on one of Southampton’s main drags and Usha worked as pharmacist, but later set up the Sunak Pharmacy.
Miah crossed paths with Dr Sunak when he was working at an Indian restaurant in this city, which is 110 km southwest of London.
“I came to Southampton as a restaurant head waiter. Rishi’s dad was my boss’s GP. One lunchtime, Dr Sunak came for lunch. That’s how I bumped into them. I open the door and I saw a pram with a baby (Rishi) and Dr Sunak and Mrs Sunak. I asked my boss who they are. He said: ‘He is a GP'”
Sometime later, when Miah needed help from a doctor, he asked if he could make an appointment at Dr Sunak’s surgery.
“I joined with his surgery. I am still at the same surgery on 34, Raymond road. All the doctors have changed. Everybody has retired and the new doctors are in now.”
About 22,000 Britons of Asian origin live in Southampton.
Everyone knows everyone and they congregate for festivals and holidays, sometimes at the Southampton Hindu Temple or at each other’s homes. The Sunaks are a friendly popular family, according to Miah.
“They are down-to-earth people, honestly, believe me. They have the values; they respect each other.”
Over the years Miah got to know the Sunaks better and better.
When Miah began his brasserie, the Sunaks were frequent visitors marking family occasions with a dinner at Kuti’s Brasserie, including, apparently, every Christmas Eve.
“I came to Southampton a few days after Rishi was born. Rishi’s dad is like my elder brother. I call him my elder brother — you know how in India we respect someone elder than you, plus his dad was my GP as well.”
Miah depicts the Sunaks as being proper Britishers with Indian values.
“Rishi is pure British, but he follows Hinduism. He is British born, from an ethnic minority and he follows Hinduism. He is brought up with Indian values — our Indian qualities like respect our parents, respect our uncles, we respect people, we know how to take care of our guests — but he is more British.”
Rishi went off to boarding school at Stroud, Romsey, northwest of Southampton and later Winchester College and would come home to the Sunak six-bedroom house at Spindlewood Close, Bassett, not far from where Miah lives, during the hols.
Recalls Miah, “Rishi, he was in boarding school when he came and he say ‘Uncle give me some work to do’. He wanted to earn experience and his own money and that is the normal procedure.”
Miah spent several minutes during this conversation with Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com, belabouring over how vital and traditional it is for British youngsters, including his own son, to take any kind of summer job to gain skills and experience.
Rishi worked either one summer or two — Miah can’t be sure — at Kuti’s Brasserie, following Miah’s lead, doing similar tasks as him.
Restaurateurs are entertainers says Miah, both philosophically and practically, “We entertain people. We serve people, clear the table, whatever is needed to be done, we do.”
Remembering Rishi’s calibre of work, he says, “He was very hard working. A very nice person. He can get on with everyone, the people with whom he was working. Everyone loved him — the customers. He is a people person. He can very easily talk to people. You can see that now even. How he connects with the people — very talkative person. He can explain things very nicely. He is very, very, clever with his mouth.”
After Rishi moved away from Southampton to Kirby and London, Miah saw him less frequently.
“Last time he came to the mandir just before the last elections and did some puja at the time of Navratri.”
Miah was busy with apparently local restaurant festival work. “I couldn’t see him.” Miah is often in touch with Rishi’s parents.
The history-altering news on October 24 that Rishi was going to be prime minister was a huge, huge, deal for Miah, he states.
“I am over the moon. Believe me, I saw him grow up and I knew! I said, ‘Rishi you are going to be something one day’ because he was very clever. He was very nice to everyone. You could tell he would become someone (big).
“I said, ‘Why don’t you go into politics?’ He kept it very secret. He never told anyone what he was working on — he is a very clever boy. Sorry madam, to call him a boy. I do apologise, because I see him like my nephew. I pray for him. I bless him.
“But he is the prime minister of our United Kingdom now. Every one of our Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani people, everyone is so happy to see our ethnic minority person as the PM.
“It is unbelievable isn’t it? Unbelievable in the United Kingdom, who was once ruling the world!”
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com
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