Review of ‘Lest We Forget’ by Hasmita Shah, a true story of trans-continental migration, assimilation, ethics and sacrifice by Jains
When Hasmita Shah sent me an early draft of this exceptional book, there were many times when I had tears in my eyes. I had the good fortune to know and meet her parents several times, and also know many of the family members very well. However, there were also many elements in her personal history that related to my own – and the book rekindled those memories. In particular, it reminded me about the huge privilege of the family and culture that I had inherited for free and how it had influenced so much that I have done in my life.
This biography cum eulogy, is a dedication to Hasmita’s ‘ordinary’ parents whom she affectionately called Kaka and Ba (Hansraj Lakhamshi Shah & Gunvanti Lakhamshi Shah), whose life and legacy were truly extra-ordinary. Starting from India, they migrated to Kenya and finally settled in the UK, a life journey similar to that of my own parents Keshavji Rupshi Shah and Savitaben. A secret ingredient of this story is the Jain culture and faith, which is one of the oldest living Dharmas of the world, and timeless in its vision of a peaceful and sustainable life, where mind, body, spirit, family and community, are all in harmony. It’s a philosophy of life which is generous and inclusive, where nature and all living beings are worthy of the highest respect, and humans are endowed to live as a trustee of nature, rather than its master or bully. Kaka and Ba truly embraced this spirit, and carried it through the arrow of time, transforming all the people whom they met and touched, including Hasmita. One of their beloved grandsons Raju, who spent many summers in this country, went on to become a Chair of the Young Jains of America, a dynamic and progressive Jain movement in the western world.
The story shares the hardship of life in Kenya, where businesses required hard work and perseverance, but the joys of sharing and community helped overcome these challenges. Even though life was simple and modest, the spirit made it joyous and bountiful. There is tragedy in this early story, and the huge challenges of migration and assimilation in the West, without the benefit of knowing English language and culture, but the will to accept and integrate overcame everything.
For Hasmita, the book is cathartic, as she openly admits her rebellious nature as a teenager, and the huge embarrassment she felt growing up in London, with such ‘traditional and illiterate’ parents. In spite of not allowing them to come to school for parents evening, or to the campus at Reading University where she studied, Kaka took two bags of fresh fruit and vegetables to her offices in the City of London every week. There was love and forgiveness, and compassion towards a daughter starting a new family, balancing work and home duties in the West. Hasmita and Hitesh have two brilliant sons, Nikhil and Arjun, who espouse the values of their grandparents and have benefited from the sacrifices of their grandparents. Personally for me, the honesty, courage and humility of Hasmita as a writer of this story is very inspiring and uplifting.
For migrants to any new country, it is important that their history is preserved, and the stories shared widely with current and future generations. The ‘NOW’ society of today is often very ignorant of its history, and rarely sees this history as important for study and reflection. This results in severe ‘identity crises’ which may take years to manifest, and can significantly dent self-esteem and self-confidence of future generations. Often the young people do not know or understand the real cause of their symptoms and unease, and it is stories like these that can become medicine for their spirit and growth. I hope and pray that this book is read and shared widely, and that it inspires great enquiry and discussion within migrant families about their roots and better futures. In the living Jain community today, young people are hugely talented and creative, and I pray that such a book inspires them to discover their own family stories, and even write and publish them. It certainly has helped me.
The paperback book is available on Amazon for £7.99 and also on Kindle.