From Shop of Books to House of Lords

Letter from New Delhi

Lord Ranbir Singh Suri Set up a Bookshop in Mombasa and later a fashion business in London while contributing to community welfare for five decades and became Lord Suri

From a bookseller in Mombasa in Kenya to a Member of the House of Lords in Britain is a marathon safari. This journey by Lord Ranbir Singh Suri, the second turbanded Sikh in this august house, is commendable because he twice established his business and continued to social welfare for five decades.

He started his business career in Kenya as an importer of educational supplies serving students in Mombasa, the coastal city, known as the Gateway of East Africa. As owner of Suri Bookshop, he interacted with leading British publishers like Macmillan, Longmans Green & Co, William Collins among others.

In addition, he was active is social service as the President of Siri Guru Singh Sabha (Sikh Community), Vice Chairman Lions Club, Vice Chairman Indian Association, St. John’s Ambulance, Member of Kenya Republic Day Celebration Committee and was appointed Hon. Correspondent to British High Commission.

In 1974 he decided to migrate with his family to Britain, challenging himself to a new business of fashion accessories in complete contrast to the educational supplies business in Mombasa. He recalls, “Much to my disbelief, I encountered a harsh reality not previously experienced. The estate agents who offered me business premises to rent strongly advised me not to be ‘the front man’ in a fashion accessories boutique as customers would not be forthcoming. Not to be put off, my wife was recruited in and she ran our boutique full time whilst I ventured on looking for further trading opportunities.”

“We were determined to stand on our own feet and to earn our living without committing to the state for benefits. Our children, still at school, soon matured by taking on household responsibilities whilst my wife and I spent working long days and no holidays for many years to come. In 1977 I established a wholesale fashion jewellery and accessories business, and through its success I built up a sound property portfolio. The company is still trading strongly with those very children now in the management ranks and myself at the helm,” he said.

“Over the years I have championed community and local action and have held posts in the community, including: Justice of the Peace, General Commissioner of Income Tax, Middlesex Probation Committee, Home Office Advisory Council of Race Relations, Member of Board of Visitors of HM Prison Pentonville and Mentor to The Prince’s Youth Business Trust,” he related.

In his maiden speech in the House of Lords on 15 January 2015, he said, “Little did I know back in 1974 when I emigrated from Kenya to the UK, that I would be bestowed with this great honour to work alongside your Lordships to continue contributing towards building a cohesive multi-cultural society in this country. I am humbled to join this House and family, which strive to represent the diversity of the population in this great nation.”

Advocating better mental health for prisoners and deprived citizens, he said, “During my involvement as a Voluntary Associate at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, prior to commencing my voluntary career in Probation and Magistracy, it was evident that poor mental health and the lack of mental health care provision hindered people from making the journey to recovery.

“I would like to share a particular case where I supported a fellow Sikh who was imprisoned for murder. This individual who I will call Tej, which is not his real name, was further isolated in this environment through lack of communication as he was not literate and unable to converse in English. Tej was fluent in his mother tongue Punjabi which limited his interactions, intensified his isolation and sense of hopelessness, contributing to his depression, and being at a high risk of suicide.

“Through my weekly visits, we established a rapport over a cup of tea and biscuits. Over time Tej was persuaded to join literacy classes in prison, which reduced some of the isolation, and frequency of suicidal thoughts. Through continual support, Tej was transferred to a prison nearer to his hometown in order to rebuild his relationship with his family who had severed all links with him.

“My work within the prison environment, led me to visiting the young people at Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Their mental health contributed to sense of despair and low aspirations. It could be said that the young people were like tender green shoots waiting to be trained along a framework that would build on their aspirations, acquire new skills, knowledge through education, which would be utilized in a productive way to reduce the cost to society, he told the House of Lords.

“It has been important to me to have put my business skills into the field and mentored young people through The Prince’s Youth Business Trust, sharing my knowledge and experience of starting businesses thereby giving them the tools to take the first steps in building a new life and contributing to their community but also to the economy of the country,” he concluded.

What influenced his thinking? He replied, “In 1956, I had the privilege of meeting with the President of India at that time, Mr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, who was visiting Kenya to open the Mahatma Gandhi Academy. In his speech, he emphasized that although he was an academic, philosopher and statesman, he still considered the world as his school. This analogy has influenced my thinking on education, which has brought me here today.”

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi


* Published in print edition on 13 February  2015

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