Navnat – in UK, A Historical Perspective
by Jayant Doshi
One youth asked me if Navnat is one community, and if yes, why is Jain Social Group membership restricted to Jains only? This was a valid observation from a youngster who is puzzled by the complexities of our community structure. This is a question that must arise in many minds, and I have tried in this article to explain the background and the past so that it can be understood by the present generation. I will go through history of Navnat in this country, based on my experiences of working in the association almost from its inception. I am not claiming to be an expert on the subject; and I stand corrected if any errors or omissions are found in this article. I am writing about the working of the community over the years based on my recollections, and it is not meant to criticise or praise any one to the exclusion of others.
Origin of Navnat
Historically, as per the Vedas, the Indian society was divided into four castes or social categories, and such division was based on the inherent qualities or “career potential” of the individuals. Originally every caste was given equal importance, and considered essential for the proper functioning of society. Caste, originally determined by the qualities and aptitudes of the individual, was made hereditary by self-interested people in positions of power and authority. They wanted to perpetuate their caste-based social privileges. As a result, the caste system degenerated. Over centuries, the class divide became more intense, and with vast geographical distances, the groupings became smaller and restrictive. Castes sub-divided and formed smaller sub-castes. Each grouping developed its own traditions, customs, and way of life. Vaniks, the business community, faced the same fate. Depending on various factors, vaniks were sub-divided into various sub-castes. Indians migrated to East Africa at the end of nineteenth century, and early years of the twentieth century. British brought the Indians to build the railways, but as time passed, others followed to open up and develop the economy of the country. It was in 1930’s, when we had well settled into trade and commerce, and in our lives, that the idea of Navnat was mooted and formed. Navnat literally means “nine castes”, and that is exactly what it represented. The large population of vaniks in Mombasa consisted mainly of Jains, and so called Dasha and Visha Shrimali caste, with a small numbers in other vanik castes. The common factor amongst these sub-castes was that marriage between these nine sub-castes was permitted, and that is where the common factors seemed to end. However, as the other sub-castes were in very small numbers, it was felt that if all the sub-castes were combined, it would be to the advantage of everyone in the community. This is how Navnat came into existence. As years passed by, the concept spread through rest of East Africa. While most centres in East Africa embraced this concept, they still had a separate organisation of the majority Jain vanik community. However, Mombasa kept a very good balance and created a solid Navnat organisation based on social activities, and at the same time had a Jain organisation to cater for the religious needs of the majority.
Concept of Navnat Community
Navnat as a concept or a community is not a known in India, except by association with East Africa. Centuries of history of the caste system was moulded and changed by this new concept. Have we succeeded in eradicating the sub-caste divisions, and create a new caste and community as such? In East Africa, the concept of Navnat might not have been that great. But in the United Kingdom, the younger generation define themselves by identifying themselves as “Navnatees”. Whether the old sub-caste divisions have been obliterated or not, is questionable. Whether the “new” caste of Navnat has taken hold, or it is a myth, is debateable. When we see so many organisations and associations representing our comparatively small community, compared with many other much larger communities, then one can deduce that the inherent differences are still causing that schism and divide in our lives. The Oshwal community comes from a small area in Saurashtra (part of Gujarat). Because of their common past and traditions, common customs and history, they have managed to remain as one united community. Navnat, on the contrary, represents lots of castes, and come from vastly differing and distant geographical locations. Also there are distinct religious differences which are reflected in the formation of different organisations. Each caste or each geographical location has had their own customs and traditions. These differences have always been reflected in the way they have mingled and formed various associations. Once at a meeting, where all the vanik organisations were represented, on Oshwal member put this very succinctly: “At this meeting, there is one Oshwal organisation, and twenty five Navnat organisations – and Navnat organisations have to decide who to invite.” Over the years this schism and division has been popping out in the past in the form of a different organisation. The nine vanik sub-castes which form Navnat are Dasha Shrimali, Visa Shrimali, Dasha Sorathia, Visa Sorathia, Modh, Khadaytia, Porwad, Kapod, and Shrimali Soni. Many people confuse Visa Oshwals with our Visa Shrimali. Visa Oshwal is totally a different caste and community and they come from only one region surrounding the city of Jamnagar, while Navnat community comes from every corner of the State of Gujarat. Visa Oshwal is comparatively a very small community, perhaps less then one hundred thousand throughout the world; and a large proportion of that number lives in this country or in East Africa. Navnat Vanik community in India will run into millions and as such is a large community even though in this country we number a few thousand, and only a fraction of Visa Oshwal community in this country.
Migration to UK and the Beginnings
Kenya got independence in 1963. While the future seemed uncertain, and many Indians opted to retain their British passports, there was not any migration in the early years. However, with the introduction of exchange control in late 1967, and the speculators realising that a killing was to be made, they started offering free tickets to those Indians who otherwise could not afford even a train ticket, and in return the person was expected to carry the foreign exchange allowance for the speculator. This very soon created what is now famously known as the great “exodus”. In three months estimated 70000 Indians left Kenya and moved to England. Until then, there was a small population of Indians who lived here and came originally from India. It was at the time of Diwali 1969 that Jayantilal H Kothari and Amratlal B Mavani approached Chhotalal Kothari who had come to this country in 1964, and who was aware of many of the Navnat families who had come to this country. Chhotalal Kothari gave a list of most of the Navnat members who had settled in London. Then Jayantilal H Kothari and Amratlal B Mavani went to visit each Navnat family, asked them to give a donation as khushi bhet which they intended to send to Navnat Prakash, the newsletter being published in Mombasa, and make aware our community in East Africa of our existence in this country. This can be identified as the beginning of the formation of the organisation which later became known as Navnat Vanik Association of UK. I was also approached, and gave my contribution, but when the talk of forming a Navnat organisation was raised, I firmly expressed my views that we should leave those caste differences and thoughts behind us, and that we should think and behave as Indians in this country. It was not long after that conversation that I realised that the caste system, the customs and traditions are so entwined in our lives that it would be difficult to discard them over night. I realised that the caste based social organisation would be required in our lives for many years to come.
Formation of a National Organisation
While in East Africa, many attempts were made to create an East Africa based Navnat body but it never materialised. The number of Navnat families in this country was comparatively small, and they were spread all over the country, with the main concentration in London, with some families in big cities like Leicester and Manchester. It was in 1970 that the plans were made to form a Navnat body to represent the community on a countrywide basis. The founding members of the association decided to create a national body and include all the community members in the country. I was not in the country during these formative years, and as such am not able to throw more light on the same. When Navnat Vanik Association of UK (hereinafter called NVA) was formed, Navnitray Sheth became the first president, and Pranlal Sheth, a barrister by profession, became the first vice president, and the one who drafted the constitution. The first committee had representatives from other cities also, but as the main concentration of Navnat families was in north London, the hub of the activities was north London. The first ever gathering of the Navnat community took place in Wellingborough in October 1971, and can be called first ever Priti Bhojan in this country.
Unity in Tatters
However, with the influx of refugees from Uganda, and a large numbers of Navnat community within that, changed the whole picture. The countrywide association became less appealing. Over the years, local organisations started springing up to cater for the needs of the local members. Manchester opted for a wholly Jain organisation. Leicester originally had Midland Navnat Vanik Association, but that did not last long after Jain Samaj was formed and Jain Derasar built. Luton formed a Navnat Vanik Association, but after a few decades of existence they decided to wind up the organisation. The original Navnat Vanik Association of UK became much more of a London organisation, or more like an organisation of the North and West areas of London where our community members were most concentrated. Even in North London serious attempts were made to form a separate Jain organisation, and a meeting was held at a residence of a community member in Neasden. Some members, including myself, strongly opposed such splinter group and warned that such a move will split our community into small groups. South London followed the national trend by forming a Vanik organisation. Years later east London followed by forming a Jain organisation. While ideas were floated to form a sort of federation or association between these various organisations, it never materialised.
The Early Years
It was in February 1973 that Amratlal B Mavani, a committee member, published the very first issue of what was then called Navnat News. The first issue had only two sheets, and copies were made and posted to members. Originally the newsletter was published on a bi-monthly basis. This newsletter became the foundation on which the future success of the organisation was established. Over the years, its regular publication made it the anchor of the association. As it was posted only to members, the association was able to claim membership not only all over UK, but in other countries and continents also. It carried an editorial in English and Gujarati, which gave it an appearance of a genuine newspaper. During the seventies and eighties, it carried editorials on social issues and problems, and extolled the members to change and reform. The editorials covered subjects from how to behave at functions and queuing at buffet meals, to reforms in our customs and traditions; from talking about the virtues of living in this country to learning from the good we see in other cultures; from asking the youths to participate in community activities to asking our fragmented organisations to unite and be strong. Its regularity and punctuality became its trade mark, and envy of so many other community organisations. No other community organisation has managed to publish a monthly newsletter so regularly, month after month, as we have managed to do. The activities of NVA in the initial years were very limited. It was at the annual general meeting held in December 1973, which I did not attend, that my name was proposed and I was elected to the committee. It was in the very first committee meeting in January 1974, which I also could not attend, that my name was proposed and I was included in the Navnat News sub-committee of five. While the sub-committee was appointed it never met and had no influence or participation in the production or distribution of Navnat News. This is when my long association, and active participation, in NVA began. It is based on my experiences, my memories of those years on which I have based my presentation of the history of the community in this country. Amratlal B Mavani was elected the president, and still remained the editor of Navnat News, and Vinod Udani became the secretary for the first time. It was from that time, and over the next twenty years, that my association and working relationship with Vinod Udani began, and while we did not always see eye to eye, we did establish a good working relationship. The total strength of the committee then was 25, and initially the committee meetings were held at residence of one of the committee members. Soon everyone found out that the loud arguments, and the table thumping, was not very welcome either for the residents of the house or for good neighbourly relations. The committee meeting was transferred to the hall in Neasden, which in many respects served as the community headquarters for years to come. The meeting was held at 2.00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. I remember that at the very first meeting the committee members were served tea and snacks, and one member asked who was paying for all this. When the secretary reported that the expenses were from the association, that committee member stood up in anger, banged the table and threw a pound note on the table, and said that: “ I will never eat anything paid by community funds.” This was the standard of ethics of that generation, and that particular incident marked the way the affairs of the association were run for many years to come. As that member put it in very blunt words that a committee member is elected to serve the community with “heart, physical effort and money”. Over the years as committee member I learnt that no one ever tried to benefit from working for the association, and that great care was taken to ensure that no community funds were unduly spent or wasted. The annual general meetings were held in the same hall, and in spite of the meeting being in winter months, the hall used to be packed with many members standing outside in the courtyard. The meetings used to be lively, with a keen contest for the election of committee members. However, talking with those present, one immediately found out the reason for such huge attendance at such meetings. Having left East Africa, quite often without a chance to inform friends and relatives, many community members had lost contact with those they knew. Also many were looking for suitable matches for their grown up, or possibly growing, children and coming to such a meeting meant that they would meet many people they knew before, establish contacts, and possibly get recommendations for their children for whom the parents were searching for suitable life partners. At the same time the meetings used to be very lively with some searching questions thrown at the out going committee. The voting for the election was close, and as one member used to say “this is the test of how the public view your work in the committee for the past year, and if you pass this then you should be proud that you have done good work.” Up to this time, few programmes took place, and even those were based on ticket sales. However, the very first free for all and open to the whole community programme took place in April of 1974. A programme was arranged in a hall in North London near Turnpike station to celebrate the 2500th birthday of Lord Mahavira. It was assumed that participating members will donate to cover the costs, and food was ordered on the basis of estimates of how many could be expected to attend. Each committee member was asked to give £10 each, collecting £250.00 all together. However at the gates, the collection amounted to only £150.00. Many people actually walked on the other side of the road, and used the other door to escape the eyes of those who were collecting the funds. After this experience the committee always had a ticket for every programme to cover the costs, and to get a better estimate of how many people would attend. While the programme was fairly successful, the catering side was a fiasco. In those days there were very few catering firms, and those that existed were known for being stingy on quantities. Most of the food items were exhausted before even half the people had eaten. There was total chaos. People scrambled to get something from those who were serving, which included me too. A point came when the servers could not cope and they quit. More then half those who attended must have gone home without any food, and also the pushing and chaos was not a good experience for those who came. The committee meetings, which were held on Saturday afternoons, were acrimonious, with heated arguments, and very democratic in every respect. Sometimes in July, there were heated arguments over some issues, and the then President resigned. The then vice-President Trambaklal Shah took over as acting president till the next elections. The secretary was worried about Navnat News, and I assured him that until an editor is appointed I will do the newsletter. But in time my work was appreciated, and I became more like a permanent editor. Over the next thirty years, I was editor for more then twenty two years. But the early years were hard work. I would write every page by hand, with hardly one or two pages of typed material. I would post the pages to the printer who would make plates and print out the full issue, staple all the pages, and then deliver the issue by taxi to Vinod Udani. Vinodbhai would have kept all the envelopes ready with addresses. He would fold the newsletters, put them in the envelopes, stamp them, and then take bagful of newsletters to the post office. He would make a few trips before all the copies were posted. As the volume increased, then other members helped to address the envelopes, and helped in packing the newsletter. Sometimes in the eighties, the name was changed to Navnat Darpan.
Editor for Navnat News
When I took over in August 1974, Navnat News was published every other month but soon after the committee, with my approval, decided to make it into a monthly issue. In this country, we must be the only organisation which has had a monthly newsletter for so many years, and at times I feel pride, and self satisfaction, that I achieved that. No other organisation, as far as I know, has been able to maintain this regularity in publishing its newsletter. Our newsletter became the cornerstone of our success. The newsletter was posted free of charge of members only. Because of this, our membership extended not only throughout UK, but also in far away countries as Europe, Africa, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada and USA. The punctuality of the newsletter was maintained for a long time, and members would start phoning if they did not get the newsletter after a particular designated date. I would gather all the material and sit down one Saturday morning and write the whole issue. It would take me most of the day to finish the job. I had to take great care that I did not make any mistake. A mistake or a blob on the page would mean scratching the page and starting all over again, and as far I can remember, that never happened. For the editorial I never got around writing a draft in rough. I always started writing straight from my mind whatever I had decided to write. This meant that sometimes there were mistakes in language or in the flow of thoughts, but I could not afford to spend more time then I was doing in writing the issue month after month. In late eighties, or early nineties, the use of computers became easy and we started giving the type setting to an expert. In the mid nineties, colour printing was introduced. Then in the early new century, it was decided to outsource printing to India. Over the years I maintained certain standard and stuck to certain principles. No matter what the amount that was donated, I always gave same amount of space for social news to every one. The feature of my editorship was that every issue carried an editorial in English and Gujarati. I tried to cover topics relating to the community, and had courage to write critical but constructive points whenever needed. My principles, and my strict discipline, were misunderstood quite often and that led to me resigning or giving up the editorship several times. At the cost of self boasting, I can say that to date no one has even tried to match the quality of the newsletter I published for such a long time. At times it hurt me when my work was never given due appreciation or recognised by the community.
A Year of Change and Consolidation
At the beginning of 1976 when the elections took place, NVA faced its first crisis. Trambakbhai took on the mantle of presidency for some years to come, and made a great success of it with his vast experience and dedication to his work. But no name came forward for the post of secretary. Every name that was suggested was withdrawn before even it was written down. Then suddenly, from the back of the packed hall, a young man walked towards the stage and said that he will become the secretary. The young man was none other then Bipin Mehta. Over the next twelve months he was instrumental in some major new developments in the history of NVA. The first, if I remember correctly, Priti Bhojan was held that year. A charge of 50 P per person was kept and a record 2500 people attended that lunch. Ever since then it has become the feature of NVA annual diary. Also the same year NVA for the first time organised Navratri, and that also became a regular feature in the annual programs of NVA. A youth committee was established to encourage youths to take part in the community. It was either in 1975 or 1976 that NVA took over organising Paryushan, which was up to that time being organised by private individuals. The year marked the turning point for the community. Programmes were well planned and executed. Benchmark programmes were started in this year which became the norm for the annual NVA calendar. This included Priti Bhojan, Paryushan, Navratri and New Year. Seventies saw huge demand for any of these programmes. Newly arrived community members were keen to meet their lost connections, and made sure that they always attended such mass programmes. Diwali get together was held on the New Year in Brent Town Hall, and the hall used to get packed irrespective of which day of the week or what the weather was.
Right from 1968 or so Paryushan was celebrated at some homes in Neasden. Kantibhai Sanghrajka and Jayantibhai Kothari were instrumental in arranging these at their homes for whoever of the community can be accommodated. In the early years, NVA committee felt that it should not get into any controversy by arranging religious programmes, inclduing Paryushan. It was also felt that the two gentlemen were doing a good job and the committee should let them carry on with the same. However, around 1975 or 1976 it was felt that with the increase in our community population, and desire of many more community members to participate in this religious period, the committee approached these gentlemen and suggested that now NVA can organise the festival in a hall. The first Paryushan was celebrated in the well used Neasden hall. Attempts were made to accommodate Derawasi in the same hall by providing them the use of the stage. However, numbers of Derawasi participating was not that large, and using the stage was not an ideal solution. When the Paryushan were moved to Kingsbury, and when the demand from Derawasi members warranted it, two halls were hired to accommodate both the sects.
It was sometimes in 1977 that some ladies met at a member’s residence in Neasden where the seeds were sowed for the future Bhagini Samaj. Ever since its formation, Bhagini Samaj has become the most successful wing of Navnat. Its programs are varied and interesting, and quite successful in terms of attendance, content and organisation. It soon became the practice for all the major programs to be arranged by NVA, while all the entertainment programs were normally organised by Bhagini. Later, arranging overseas trips became the hall mark of Bhagini. Over the years, it organised many very successful overseas trips and established its reputation for perfection in details and bargaining for the trips. For all these years, Bhagini has maintained its strength and its good activities. It has always stood by the main committee, and has helped the NVA in all its activities. Bhagini has almost become the right hand of the main body, and their cooperation and good working relation has been marvellous.
It was 1976 or a year later that formation of a youth wing was encouraged and a meeting called to form such a body. While Bipin Mehta called the meeting, I chaired the first such meeting when a group of youths came to attend. After some heated discussion, the meeting decided to form an independent association for the youths. While the committee of Navnat did not like this they had to accept the democratic decision of the youths. The very term “youth” is a ever changing phase of our lives. The youth of yesterday is the parent or elder of tomorrow. As such the situation in the youth association was always fluid. For many years it remained quite active, but with change of generation, or passing by of the previous youths, created a vacuum, and the continuity of the organisation was always under threat. But for many years the youths formed an active and integral part of our community and they contributed constructively by brining our youths into the fold. Their major contribution was starting a newsletter of their own (now called Focus but had many names over the years) which after many years was incorporated into the main Darpan. The youth newsletter brought extra life into the community newsletter. Even though the youths faced a crisis in forming an active committee, or finding active office bearers, they managed to keep producing their newsletter on a regular basis. Youth newsletter changed its name many times and settled on the name “Focus” for the last decade or more. The format and contents have been changing with each change of editor. Youths have arranged some classy programmes, and they have tried to balance between modern life in this country and the traditional cultural values of the community. Their relationship with the main body, and the levels of cooperation, unlike the Bhagini, have been like a yo-yo. But they have always maintained their independence. Over the years they have shown that they can work independently, but also with responsibility and prudence. While the elders, and the main body committee, have many times not seen eye to eye with the youths, their ability to survive and to run their organisation successfully has been commendable.
Ever since my childhood, I had been hearing of attempts to unite the Navnat community in East Africa. Many suggestions and attempts were made to call a national conference but it never materialised. The desire or the dream to unite has been haunting the community ever since we came to this country. However, the diversities, and the differences in our backgrounds keep simmering and showing up, and destroying this dream of uniting the community. It was in 1970 that the formation of Navnat Vanik Association represented the first attempt to unite the community. Soon after the influx of our community members from Uganda, it became clear that the attempt to unify via the formation of this organisation had been a dismal failure. In was in 1977 that Midland Navnat Vanik Association (now defunct) arranged a celebration of thirty years of India’s independence, and invited leading vaniks from all over the country. The president, who was also a councillor, pleaded to the vaniks to unite and form a national body, and to exert influence on the national stage like other communities. Committee members of Navnat Vanik Association of UK, including myself, were present there and they took up this challenge. A sub-committee was formed and this included Trambaklal Shah, Dhirajlal Maniar, Bipin Mehta, Navnitlal Sheth, Pranlal Sheth and myself. The committee met several times in a restaurant in the city centre. Right from the beginning, there were two distinct lines of thinking. One group wanted the National body to be apolitical, pronouncing its opinions and protests on a national level, and create a semi political body to influence policy at government level. The other group felt that we were too small a community in terms of numbers, and we should concentrate more on the issues that affect our community members directly. Also there was disagreement on the format of such a body. One side wanted a strong central body that would control every small decision and actions of each of the affiliated bodies. The other wanted a loosely bound central body that would discuss, suggest and specify actions for the affiliated organisations to act upon. Ultimately it was decided that a national conference should be called to present a case for a national organisation. Lot of work was put in contacting local organisations and individuals all over the country before a date was fixed. The conference was held in the Neasden hall. The attendance was stunning. Besides representatives of the five main associations from London, Leicester, Luton and Manchester, there were individuals from Glasgow, Coventry, Birmingham, Brighton and a few other places. Each delegation was given time to speak, and if a gist of what was said can be put in one sentence, then all the delegates, except those from London, had one comment to make: “We will accept any central body as long as it was not dominated by London.” While a national body was formed, the sentiment expressed at the conference resulted in a council with little power and influence.
Formation of a National Council
A subcommittee was formed to formulate a constitution. Taking the sentiments of the conference in consideration, the delegate representation from London was restricted to a maximum of 10, and to me this led to the shattering of the dreams of those who worked to create this body. London represented over 80% of the community in this country, and by restricting their presence, the council became worth little. Without London presence there was nothing left. A meeting was called in Leicester and the National Council of Vanik Association came into existence. Lots of attempts were made to enrol Oshwal Association, but due to historical animosity, it was wishful thinking that they would agree to join. When the council was established there were only five Navnat associations through out the country. Today that number is more like thirty. Whether this represents an increase in our community population, or if it represents the diversities of the community being mirrored in the multiple organisations, is debateable. Oshwal, with at least five times our numbers still works under one umbrella organisation, whilst Navnat with such small population, has so many organisations. National Council, since its inception, has been still in existence and has been holding regular meetings. It might have lots of achievements to their credit, but the general public do not seem to be aware of the same. The major achievement seems to be the publication of the national Directory, which NVA had already been producing before the national council took it over. Without the representatives of NVA, the council will have hardly any one. Over the past decade or more all the meeting are held in London, and most of the main office bearers have been from London. So while everyone strongly opposed domination from London, in reality London dominates the national Council. Without London there would be no national council. As to the achievements of the national council, there could be lot to debate about, but to most it is no more then a talking shop, and whatever it is doing, it is not being publicised enough for members to bother about it. But one thing is sure. The national council has totally failed to mirror the dreams and wishes of its creators.
Unity – More Attempts
The dream to create a united community came popping up in time. In 1987 Gurudev Chitrabhanu, at a public meeting in Kingsbury school, extolled the community to unite. The call was answered immediately, when a group of community leaders had quick standing meeting and came up with a proposal to form a Federation of Jain Organisations. After this initial announcement, no further was heard of the federation. Then in the year 2000, Gurudev Chitrabhanu made the same suggestion in the same hall, and a suggestion was made on the spot to form a Confederation of Jain Organisations. This time the proposal went one step further and a meeting of the various representatives was called to form this confederation. But rivalry and back biting, and accusations of hijacking of the plan, led to a boycott of the initial meeting by majority of those that would have made the idea viable. While the confederation might still be in existence, much has not been heard of the same since.
The very first attempt to buy a community hall was made sometimes in 1975 or so. The hall in Willesden Green would have been ideal for our purpose at the time, but a clause in the deeds stopped us from buying the same. Later another hall was seen in north London but not much progress was made on the property. In 1983 NVA faced a major crisis. At the election every name of president was withdrawn. At the last minute name of J J Mehta was proposed and as there were no other names, he was declared elected. Then name of vice president came but after that no names came forward for any of the other posts. The election was postponed. Next attempt to complete the election was made on the New Years day gathering. However the members had come to meet and greet and were in no mood to even give a few minutes to the process of electing a committee. In spite of shouting on the loud speaker, the organisers failed to do anything. The election was postponed again. At the third attempt, while the presence was not great, a list of potential committee members had been prepared in advance, and each one had been approached for their consent. The committee was formed. During the tenure of this committee the attempt to buy community hall were given priority. A hall was found in Harrow Wealdstone, an offer put, and the hall was bought at the end of 1983 for the sum of £105,000/-. There were insufficient funds, and as such the purchase was financed by taking a £65,000.00 loan from the bank.
Soon after the purchase and the completion, the committee called a general election. Some of the outgoing committee members called a meeting of some of the well-wishers of the community at the surgery of Shailesh Vora. I was present also. Fears were expressed that no attempt was being made to raise funds to repay the bank loan, and if appropriate action is not taken then the community can face a bleak future. Some of the good community workers of the past were asked to come back and take control of the association. The election took place and literally everyone from the previous committee left, and a new committee of old and tested community leaders came back in the driving seat. The very first committee meeting discussed the urgency of repaying the bank loan, before the burden of the debt brought down the association. Plans were discussed as to how best to raise funds from community members. Various options were presented, discussed at length and the final decision was made to make a house to house visit. A list of potential donors was prepared based on the amounts that could be expected. Three times a week I would leave home at seven in the evening in my seven-seat car, pick up six other members and we would start our house to house visits. The fundraising group consisted of the high power members of the committee. The president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, editor, and two committee members went from house to house, and we were given great honor by all the members we visited. The community leaders are traditionally considered as “sanghpati” and to receive the “sangh” in one’s home is considered the greatest honour one can be bestowed with. We carried on working until at least 11.30. Even at that late hour, without prior communication or information, we were given the most loving reception that can be expected. We had the fortune to have Pranlal Parekh in our group, whose command of Gujarati and his articulate presentation to community members made a big difference to what we collected. He very skilfully convinced everyone to give much more then what their original intention was. Within a short span of thirty days, we were able to collect over seventy thousand pounds. We would have collected a lot more but then some politics in the committee discouraged the fundraisers from continuing their work. But the community released a sigh of relief to see this big debt being cleared within such a short time. Soon after the opening and naming of the halls ceremony took place when substantial funds were raised. A souvenir was published on the occasion of the opening of the newly named Navnat Bhavan. Over the years, it became the focus of community activities. The hall was not big enough for the major annual functions of the community, and the demand to look for a bigger hall was voiced from almost the time this Navnat Bhavan was put to use. But over the years it became evident that the small hall was highly used for small functions. Early morning yoga, yoga classes at night, elders group gathering once a week, bhagini and youth functions, meetings, lectures, engagement parties, prathna sabha, and last and most important, the hall gave birth to the most important activity of the community when bridge club was established. Being conveniently situated, it became the focus of the community. While other halls were used to stage major functions, the Bhavan became very useful all small programs, and to host lectures and other talks at very short notice. For twenty years, it served the community well. However, the desire to get a much larger property always persisted. In 1995 Bipin Mehta presented a project for acquiring larger property for the community. The plan was approved and a special committee was established to specifically look for and acquire a larger property for the community. The building project committee came to be known as the BP2000 committee. After several years of putting a lot of effort into fundraising, and looking for the right property, the committee decided to resign. But one member of the committee decided not to give us, and with the help of the president of NVA and a trustee, the committee continued its work until it managed to find the right property and the present Navnat Centre was purchased.
In 1986 a sub-committee was formed to cater for the needs of the elderly and retired members of the community. Initially, the main activity was religious discourses and bhajans. For many years this failed to attract more than a handful members. Different days and times were tried but no change occurred. Then after a decade or so later, playing cards was introduced and slowly membership increased. Meeting every Friday became popular and attendance increased to fifty or more, with membership rising into three figures.
The president of the committee normally is treated with lot of respect by the community and is treated as the leader of the community. Over the years, three presidents have put their mark on the affairs of NVA and on the community and it would be right to mention them. Trambaklal Shah represented the norms and thoughts of Africa. He was very active for many years in Nairobi, and as such he commanded lot of respect amongst the Navnat community when he became president. He set the norms which became the standard bearers of the NVA affairs. It became normal for the president to attend every engagement, wedding and funeral in the community. Announcing the engagement or wedding on behalf of NVA has since then become the standard practice, and the host normally gives some donation to NVA. On hearing of a death in the community, he would normally visit the bereaved family, help in the funeral arrangements, and then attend the funeral also. The high standards set by Trambaklal Shah were an act difficult to follow by everyone, and it was feared that this will deter any one from taking on the post of the president. However, the community was fortunate to get Vinod Udani as president who followed those norms to the same standard. He stayed as president for about thirteen years, and during that period consolidated the affairs of the community. He represented a mixture of east African ethos and a partial influence of this country. On his retirement it seemed NVA will find it difficult to replace that, but then a younger and more dynamic person in the form of Subhash Bakhai came on the stage and he has successfully handled the mantle of the presidency for as long as the previous president