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The south Asian experience

By Barnie Choudhury
Social affairs correspondent

The Mattanis: Three generations, two cultures

What is it like to be a family embedded in more than one culture and history at the same time? For the Mattani family in Leicester, it all comes down to finding happiness.

Click here to watch an interview with the family

"At the school that I went to in London, there weren't very many Asians so all the other people thought of me as alien, from Mars.

"And if I mentioned Africa, they thought I had been living in the jungles with the lions."


Population:Two million plus (1999)
Leicester:30% non-white
Prediction: Europe's first non-white majority by 2011?

Click here for full analysis
Priti Mattani is fortunate. The curious stares and name-calling of teenage school pupils in the late 1970s were her first and only taste of racism in Britain.

More than 20 years on, she is married to Hemant and they are parents to two teenage daughters, Shefali, 16, and Nefali, 10.

Priti and Hemant both graduated from British universities before going to run the family business in Leicester.

The business has gone from strength to strength and specialises in two of the most important elements of Indian culture - clothes and music.

They have recently dipped into the dotcom waters with a website which entices customers to come to the heart of England for "For the best in everything Indian".

Like many of the first generation of Asians who arrived in the Midlands city, their families left India to start successful businesses in Central and East Africa.

Chandu Mattani was born in Gujarat and went to Zambia and then Zimbabwe at the age of eighteen.

In 1977, the Queen's Silver Jubilee year, he decided to bring his family to Britain. As she now celebrates 50 years of her reign, the Mattani family are looking back at their own quarter century of success in Britain.

Settling in the UK

Leicester proved an easy choice of new home for Chandu. Firstly, it was fertile ground for business. Secondly, he could be sure that his culture would not be diluted in one of the emerging centres of British-Indian life.

What we've learned is that it's important to take up the good things from all communities and religions. We'd like to pass that onto our daughters as well.
"If I had settled somewhere else where there was no Indian population, I think my children would have grown up in a completely different environment," said Chandu.

"I think that something different might have come out."

The Mattani family home, now holding three generations, has a relaxed sense of 'let's get on with it without fuss or conflict'.

It's a happy home next door to one of the city's golf clubs. The area has a distinctive sense of affluence with BMWs or similar cars parked in most of the drives.

For the Mattanis the comfort has come through hard and long hours to make it happen, the Asian way.

Chandu Mattani: Quarter century of success.
Five minutes drive from their home and you find yourself deep in Asian culture. The shops along Belgrave Road, where you find the family business, have regenerated and recreated the city.

The road is so much part of Leicester's immigration experience that it even has one of the country's few Bank of India branches.

Leicester is a very different place than that of 30 years ago when its leaders took out adverts in the Ugandan press urging those being expelled to keep away.

"Our whole community is the Gujarati community in Leicester," says Hemant. "We feel part of that community and proud of it as well."

But the experience of bring British with roots elsewhere means the Mattanis celebrate and savour a little of everything that has formed who they are today.

"What we've learned is that it's important to take up the good things from all communities and religions," says Hemant. We'd like to pass that onto our daughters as well."

Marriage and relationships

So it is hardly surprising that when you broach the question of how Priti met Hemant you get what many would consider an unorthodox response.

"We both didn't tell our parents until a time we'd decided that we wanted to get married," Priti laughs.

Priti Mattani:
Runs family business with Hemant.

So you both went behind your parents' backs?

"I didn't," says Hemant, "after a while I did tell my father."

One of the stereotypes of Indian-Britons is the arranged marriage. But it's a custom that has been rapidly fading into history since the mid 1970s.

In the case of the Mattanis, the path to happiness was undoubtedly smoother because the two families were already close friends who shared a cultural and religious background.

So what would happen now if Priti and Hemant's own daughters brought home boyfriends from different races, religions or even caste?

"You don't have much choice now," jokes Hemant. "At 12 they threaten to call some of these action lines or parent lines to complain. "At 16 they get their provisional driving licences and at 18, they say they're going to do what they're going to do!"

What they have done as parents, he says, is try to show their daughters the right way to take the right decision, whatever that decision may turn out to be.

"At the end of the day, it is their decision," he says. "I have seen many cases where parents oppose [what their children want] and they don't see the other side.

"And they lose whole links with their children."

I'm a British businessman with Indian roots. My daughter's a British-Indian because of Indian roots There are good things in there.

Hemant Mattani
Shefali is not so sure that her parents would be so laid back if she chose to go outside her community.

"You've got these cultural differences," she says. "Why make your life more difficult? I think they'd prefer it if [I was with] somebody from my community, or at least Gujarati."

So where does she place her identity? Does she see herself as any different to other students at her private school?

Shefali loves music and films, both Hindi and English. She says that the interest in Hindi cinema has come from her own voyage of discovery and has nothing to do with her family's influence. She slips easily between three languages: English, French and Gujarati.

"I went to India and I met all my grandparents' relatives," she says. "It was really nice to be able to speak to them, otherwise they wouldn't have understood.
"My grandfather felt proud as well because they phoned him and said your grand-daughter can speak to us. It was really nice."

While she cherishes her cultural heritage, the idea of staying in a close-knit family and community in Leicester no longer has such appeal.

Like so many of her generation, she has her eyes set on university and London.

"It's not getting away from my family. It's just that I love London. It's more busy and interesting. But I'd like to continue living in an extended family because I like living with my grandparents and mum and dad."

A place in society

In the 25 years since Chandu first set foot in Leicester, the family has seen great improvement in the attitudes between the different races.

Today, they find themselves sympathising with Home Secretary David Blunkett when he says that immigrants should sit a citizenship test and be fluent in English. And, at the same time, they see no reason why it means the latest immigrants cannot also hold onto their own culture and mother tongue.

"I'm a British businessman with Indian roots," says Hemant. "My daughter's a British-Indian because the Indian roots are there. It's not something [we would want] to eradicate. There are good things in there. But this is our home and the first priority is here."

"Both sides are accepting each other more than twenty years ago," he continues. "At that time, [white people] thought of us as a bunch of immigrants. Now there's a lot more awareness on both sides."

Leicester has long had a reputation for being the model of multiculturalism. It is easy to understand why when you see the contribution that it has made to one family's happiness.

"I want to salute Britain," says Chandu. "To accept so many different people, it needed to have something. And that is tolerance and I admire Britain for that.

"What I say to the Asian communities and everyone is that if you want respect you have to give it. That is my golden rule."

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