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Page last updated at 13:43 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 14:43 UK

Kiss and Patel

Former press adviser to William Hague Priti Patel, actor Dev Patel, actress Bharti Patel, actor Dharmesh Patel, actress Youkti Patel and actor Himesh Patel.
Just six of the UK's 250,000 Patels

By Clare Jenkins

There's more to Patel than just being one of Britain's most common surnames - it's a club too, in which members like to marry others with the same last name.

It's a late spring evening in Wembley, north London, and car after car is pulling into the car park of a smart, purpose-built community centre.

Out of them step gorgeous young women in high heels and the latest fashions and handsome young men in jeans and smart shirts. They're all British Indian and most of them are called Patel.

Hear Meet the Patels on Radio 4 at 1100 BST on Friday
Or listen to it here on the iPlayer

This is a "singles mingles" evening, a matchmaking event organised by the local Patel community, to bring together some of their 20-somethings with a view to finding a lifelong partner.

There are more than a quarter of a million Patels in Britain and more than half of them are married to people also born Patel. It's one of the traditions of a community originating in Gujarat, western India, that now boasts one of the most common surnames in the UK, along with Smith and Singh.

But why is it important to marry someone from the same community, the same "clan"?

"It's our culture and tradition," says one of the young women at the event, who didn't want to be named.

It's seen as important to marry within the Patel community

"It's about passing that onto our kids - our upbringing, our values. In our culture when you get married you get married to a family, so it eases us into it."

Arranged marriages are common among south Asian communities. But according to the Patels their marriages are more "introduced" than arranged. Hence the Wembley event.

As the guests arrive they are handed lists relating first names (surnames are obviously a given at this do), ages, qualifications and occupations of their opposite numbers, together with the names of the villages their forefathers came from.

"You look for the village where your own folks come from," one of the girls explains. "But you can't link up with someone who's from your own village because they'll be too close, like your cousin or your brother."


So marrying your cousin is out. And so, traditionally, is marrying outside your caste. To help people sort through these complications each caste has its own directories, some up to 1,000 pages thick. They're arranged alphabetically by village and detail people's names, addresses and the details of any eligible sons and daughters.

"It's like a database so we can know how many Patels there are," says Ramesh Patel, president of the Yorkshire Leuva Patel Society (Leuva being the farming or landowning caste).

There are half a dozen castes among the Patels
They traditionally congregated in different clusters of villages, or gams, in Gujarat
All have slightly different cultural values

"We can find out whether someone's son or daughter is suitable for mine - their ages, whether they have a degree. Then we can introduce them and if they like each other, fair enough. If not, by all means move on."

Ramesh himself married Jashu, another Patel and daughter of a family friend. Reflecting on a 40-year relationship that, initially, owed everything to a shared surname, Jashu says "the family rules are nearly the same so you just fit in".

The Patel diaspora is not only found in the UK, where they are traditionally linked with corner shops, but also the US where they tend to be associated with the motel business.


In both cases it meant they had a business and a home combined. Today they're in many professions, among them pharmacy, medicine, dentistry and IT, and in many businesses.

"Gujarati people are businessmen," says Ramesh who, with his wife, runs two "corner shops" in Leeds. "They are hard-working and honest workers, so when they came over they built themselves little empires. And that continues to this day."

Bradford restaurateur Bobby Patel says enterprise and the instinct for "an environment to make money" is "engrained in the Patels".

Patels are traditionally linked with corner shops

Nowhere is it more successfully engrained than in Bhikhu and Vijay Patel, owners of the Basildon-based pharmaceutical company Waymade Healthcare. Joint 141st on the annual Sunday Times Rich List, they're worth £370m - even after the credit crunch.

In 2000, the Rich List database threw up the interesting idea that you're seven times more likely to be a millionaire if you're called Patel than if you're called Smith. Which may be one reason they like to stick together.

Defining the extended family's philosophy, Bikhu says simply: "One works very hard, looks after the family and always saves a little for a rainy day."

"When you earn £100 you want to earn £200. You try to do better and better for your children, talk to any Patel and they want to educate their kids. This may not be unique to Patels, our values are very similar to other Indians, but we seem to excel at it."


But while he and Vijay both married into the Patel community, there are signs of change. As the younger generation of Patels moves away from a corner-shop lifestyle and through university into professional careers, such traditions are inevitably breaking down. Two of Ramesh and Jashu's daughters have married Punjabis, one son took an English bride.

"Things are changing so fast, both here and in India," says Ramesh. "With the younger generation, in 10 year's time there won't be a gap left. We have to change with them, and a lot of my generation agree, otherwise we will get left behind."

Back at the Wembley matchmaking evening the noise level has risen and the mothers who are acting as chaperones are beginning to look more relaxed.

"For a nicer life you need a partner," says one sari-clad Mum. "For your health, for your support you need a partner who can understand yourself and you can understand him. If it is a Patel, it is preferable. If not, it doesn't matter."

Below is a selection of your comments.

This is true of many gujarati community, whether you call yourself Patels, or Prajapaties or Mistry or Chauhans, or Parmars, Taiylors, Luhar... ect. They all follow the same pattern, most community will introduce their children to their community for finding partners. In most case they are introduced to one another as opposed to arranged marriages.
Natu Mistry, Sutton Coldfield, England

This aspect of the lives of people of India is rejected, ignored, and at best regarded as archaic, and old fashioned, controlling the lives of children, and seeking old age security. Nothing could be farther from the truth. People of India, whether living in India or anywhere else, are a shining example of preserving the best of their culture and absorbing the best of wherever they live. If the rest of the world followed this pattern, there would be lot less violence in the world. Congrats and Thanks for this write-up.
Pandit Krishna Narayan Haksar, Clearwater, USA

I am from Gujarat and have grown up amongst Patels. I had a girlfriend who was a Patel and her parents didn't approve of our relationship only because I was not Patel. They would want to marry only Patels, even if they are no good.
Aks, Bristol

Insular and money obsessed. What's impressive about that?
Christopher King, Islington

I think it's slightly depressing that people still feel pressure to marry someone from the same caste.
Peter , Amsterdam

Why didn't she want to be named? If there's 249,999 other Patels, I'm pretty sure she's not going to be the only one with that forename.
Sam, Kent

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