Outsiders in London

All photographs:  copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK


Ranjeet Kaur Bhachu

Age: 82

Born in Nakuru, Kenya

Father & Mother both born in India

Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Punjabi


Ranjeet is Punjabi by ethnicity and Sikh by religion.   Both her parents were born in India and were part of the wave of economic migration from India to Africa which began with the construction of the East African Railways.   Over 30,000 indentured labourers were recruited in British India, as well as many highly-qualified civil engineers, to complete this remarkable feat of engineering, a feat that claimed four lives for each mile of track laid, a death toll of more than 2,500 men!   Amongst those who survived, some thousands remained and settled in Kenya and Uganda, then British colonial states in East Africa, inviting their families to join them and thus infusing these colonies with their own culture, traditions and lifestyles.    

Ranjeet was born in Nakuru, in the mid-west of Kenya, into a well-respected family;  her father worked in the Kenyan Public Works Department as a Civil Engineer and she had two sisters and three brothers.   From the very outset, her life was destined to be a rather migratory one, as the entire family usually followed Father to wherever was the location of his next construction project - indeed, this way of life was later to be repeated in her own married life.   Her family relocated in quick succession to the capital, Nairobi, and then to a nearby town, called Nyeri.   Ranjeet was educated in the Sikh religious schools associated with the Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) where the emphasis was on learning Punjabi but not so much on learning English - this was rather atypical as English had by then become the official language of the whole region.   When her grandfather, an enthusiastic upholder of Sikh tradition, discovered that her school was mixed - there were no single sex schools in Nyeri - he insisted that she no longer attend.   Ranjeet was unhappy at being suddenly removed from education but fortunately, the strength of her feelings was regarded and she was given private tuition at home instead.   Of course, at that time, the education of girls was seen as of secondary importance;  learning how to undertake successfully all the tasks of the household and so preparing a girl to be a good wife to her future husband was acknowledged as having priority.   Indeed, by the age of 12, Ranjeet was able to cook a complete meal for her family, and even allowed to cook for guests.   The entire family, her mother especially, enforced traditional Sikh values with considerable vigour and little latitude.

Sikhism originates in the teachings of Guru Nanak and his nine successors, and embraces his teaching that the ‘Realisation of Truth is higher than all else.   Higher still is truthful living.’   Sikhism emphasises the principle of equality between all human beings and rejects discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, or gender.   It encourages an active, creative and practical life, conducted with truthfulness, self-control and purity.   Whilst in the Sikh scriptures, women are regarded as equal to men, with the same souls as men - it was the first of the great world religions to proclaim this - it must be recognised that culturally, the social constraints on women are greater than those placed on men.   Before marriage, girls normally live very sheltered lives, remaining largely within the confines of the family home and having very limited experience of life.   Arranged marriage still remains the accepted norm and whilst such unions often produce very satisfactory outcomes and happy family lives, when ‘arranged marriage’ is in effect ‘forced marriage’, they also bring girls a great deal of misery and pain.

In a recent interview, Ranjeet reminisces:  “In my family, it was the tradition for marriages to be arranged, of course, but unlike some other households, we were never allowed even to know who our future husband was to be.  Arrangements were made between families, often many years ahead, with children and youngsters always excluded from the discussion.   At one time, I remember when a family from Nairobi came to tea:  I brought the tea in and someone commented that I was clearly of marriageable age.   It all started from there - I was 13 at the time.   On another occasion,  I recall that a son from that family was mentioned in conversation;  he was a professional, it seemed, a Civil Engineer like my father, but that was all that was said.   Nothing more was mentioned and I certainly did not get to meet this young man who was destined to be my future husband.   Soon afterwards, I was engaged in a brief ceremony that involved the two families though not the young man himself.”   Ranjeet was married when she was 14 and that was the first time she saw the face of the person with whom she was to share her adult life.

Again, following the established custom, Ranjeet moved into the home of her in-laws, and this was not an easy transition.   Completely inexperienced, in a strange home, and surrounded by a new family of almost complete strangers, she was expected to embark upon an intimate relationship with someone she’d only just met and didn’t really know.  Of course, young girls were groomed for years in preparation for this very moment but overcoming such momentous changes and new experiences all at the same time can be another matter.   “I was fortunate,” says Ranjeet, “I gradually developed affection for my husband and my new family was very kind and accepting towards me, though I was always aware that I was a sort of guest in their house and that my conduct towards my husband’s parents and siblings had to reflect this.”

Having married a civil engineer and, like her own mother, having to follow her peripatetic husband on his various assignments, Ranjeet’s life continued the same migratory pattern she had grown up with.   From Kenya, they moved to Tanzania and from there, to Zambia.   Ranjeet had her first child when she was barely 16 and went on to have nine more children after that, of whom eight survive and prosper.   Once Britain had started to pull out of Africa and new socio-economic storms began to build up, even before Idi Amin determined on the forcible expulsion of Asians from Uganda, a considerable number of Sikhs decided to leave East Africa and to seek a more stable future for their children in Canada, Australia and the UK.

The Bhachu family relocated to North London in 1975 but with his father continuing to work on major projects in Zambia, Gopal, the eldest son, became the de facto head of the household.   Although the Bhachu family was long accustomed to moving from one place to another, even from one country to another, the move to England was more significant.  Youngsters are generally quite good at connecting and identifying with new host cultures but by this time, Ranjeet herself was 44 and she found the transition to the UK rather more difficult.   Lacking her husband’s routine support, she had to some extent to play both his role and her own within her large family and, without adequate English, she struggled to overcome many obstacles.   She was not completely isolated, however;  in addition to support from Gopal, other members of her family had by then settled or were settling in north and north-west London, creating the support networks that are so very important to all newcomers to a foreign country.   Over 760,000 Sikhs moved to the UK, with many of these settling in Edgware, Perivale and Southall, where new Sikh Gurdwaras have become the centres of their social, cultural and spiritual lives.

Ranjeet took a job as a seamstress in a garment factory in Edgware, and then later worked in a pizza factory;  both establishments employed mainly women from similar backgrounds, with Punjabi being the main language in the workplace.   For a period of time, she also worked as a care assistant in an old people’s home but her lack of English posed something of a problem.   Her husband did return briefly from his itinerant work in Africa and was employed for a short time as a Civil Engineer for Camden Council, but he was also contributing to a major project in Dubai.   Then, in 1980, he was tempted back to Africa, to help with the expansion of a hospital in Tanzania, a hospital he had helped to design and build 30 years before.   Unfortunately, this was an ill-fated return and his demanding, industrious life came to a sudden end, following a road traffic accident, only six months after his arrival.   He was 56 years old, leaving his wife, Ranjeet, a widow at 49.

Unsurprisingly, her life just seemed to fall apart.   The shock of losing her husband so suddenly and so tragically in a distant land brought on ill health and it took Ranjeet many years to rediscover any enthusiasm for life;  she seemed to have lost any appetite for enjoying what was by now her very extended family, or any curiosity for exploring London, the capital of her host country, and perhaps starting to understand the complex network of interdependencies which makes this city so unique. But even when her sadness did begin to lift, there remained a major obstacle in Ranjeet’s way:  while she had acquired some English over the years, this is simply not adequate for her to converse, for her to take part fully and to engage socially, for her to share her experience with others via the common language of English.  

Mastering a language is easier when one is young and while a great deal can be achieved in maturity, not everyone has the same facility for languages.   Ranjeet is well-integrated and well-respected in her own community, of which she is an active member, but her inadequate English has always remained a barrier to her greater integration into the cosmopolitan life of London.   In some more traditional Sikh families, women are sometimes not encouraged to learn English or to establish contacts with ‘strangers’ outside the family circle and the local Sikh community, but despite the limitations of her English, Ranjeet has an extraordinarily open personality, a lively and inquisitive intelligence and, having had to manage so much of her life on her own, she has a remarkable spirit of independence that truly radiates.


As Ranjeet’s English is not adequate, it was agreed that this interview would be best conducted in Punjabi and I should therefore like to record my thanks to Gopal Bhachu for generously volunteering his time and expertise to provide simultaneous translation for the interview.

Interview Date: 1st December 2013

Updated:  23rd December 2013

Update  (January 2018)

We have to report the sad news that on Friday, 5th January 2018, Ranjeet Kaur Bhachu quietly passed away;  she was 89 and her health had been failing for some considerable time.  Ranjeet will be greatly mourned by her extended family and by everyone who knew her. 

May she rest in peace.

Born:  14 May 1929;  died:  5 January 2018

Ranjeet is Punjabi by ethnicity and Sikh by religion and the Bhachu family relocated to North London in 1975 but with her husband continuing to work on major engineering projects in Zambia, Ranjeet became virtually a single parent, bringing up her large family of eight surviving children.   Although long accustomed to moving from one country to another, the Bhachu family’s move to England was more significant for Ranjeet:  mastering a language is easier when one is young and while a great deal can be achieved in maturity, not everyone has the same facility for languages.   Though well-integrated and well-respected in her own community, of which she is an active member, Ranjeet’s inadequate English has always remained a barrier to her greater integration into the cosmopolitan life of London.

Photography: London 1st December  2013