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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

A diaspora chapter ends: Top Indian in UK town passes away

Bhagwanji Lakhani, who became a major figure in Leicester after he opened the British town’s first Indian vegetarian restaurant, has died aged 89.

world Updated: Nov 03, 2017 23:51 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
File photo of Bhagwanji Lakhani (right) with his son Dharmesh (left).
File photo of Bhagwanji Lakhani (right) with his son Dharmesh (left).(Facebook)

Bhagwanji Lakhani, who was among thousands expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda in the early 1970s and emerged as a major figure in the community after he arrived in the British the town of Leicester and opened the first Indian vegetarian restaurant when racism was rife, has died aged 89.

Bobby’s, his restaurant named after the 1976 Bollywood hit film, has become a landmark in the east Midlands city and a symbol of the journey of thousands of Indian refugees from destitution to integration and success.

Known for his affable disposition and love for Bollywood, Lakhani’s restaurant on Belgrave Road (also called the Golden Mile) witnessed the area become a hub of Asian business and culture as many Indian banks and shops established themselves over the decades.

Several residents of Leicester expressed grief on Friday and paid tributes to Lakhani’s life and work that reflected the journey of many Indians across continents and constraints. His wife Mangala died in 2006, and he is survived by four daughters and two sons.

Jaffer Kapasi, a prominent Indian businessman who was among those expelled from Uganda but is now that country’s honorary consul general, said: “He won many awards for the quality of food served and for service with a smile. He was a refugee like me from Uganda. 

“Bhagwanji Kaka was involved in a number of charities, sponsored food at several temples and other organisations. He contributed to the success of the Golden Mile and will be sorely missed not only by his family but customers and the business world of Leicester.”

According to Uday Dholakia, chairman of the Indo-British Trade Council, “Bhagwanjibhai epitomised the Asian entrepreneurial spirit, having the resilience and courage to start a business against all odds. He was an icon who stamped the unique contribution to Leicester by the Bobby’s brand.”

Ather Mirza of the University of Leicester added: “He was a towering personality, always friendly and very well respected.  His restaurant was instrumental in creating a hub for people especially when East African Asians were settling in Leicester in the 1970s, helping to create that ‘home away from home’ atmosphere for the community.” 

Dharmesh, Lakhani’s son, told the Leicester Mercury, a leading local daily: “He worked at Bobby’s until well into his 80s…He was an amazing man and a very special dad to me and my five siblings as well as being something of a pillar of the community here.” 

Lakhani, who would have turned 90 on November 10, died in his family home in Syston. “We all said our goodbyes and we sang his favourite songs from Bollywood films together. It bought him great peace,” he added.

Leicester’s assistant mayor Manjula Sood said: “He was a legend – we’ve lost a friend and a great community champion. I’ve known him since he and his family came to Leicester, he was an amazing man.”

First Published: Nov 03, 2017 23:39 IST

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