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Rooting for my roots: Venki Ramakrishnan said he was Indian only by chance. Was he wrong?

Venki Ramakrishnan
By Rajiv Shah 
I wasn’t surprised, but surely liked it, when a few years ago, Nobel laureate (2009) Venkatraman "Venki" Ramakrishnan, a structural biologist, said he was Indian only by chance, perhaps during a visit to Vadodara, where he did his graduation. I tried searching his quote but couldn’t find it on the web (I think it was published in the “Indian Express”), though I finally found a quote where he suggested somewhat similar about his birth -- in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu. 
In 2009, the year he got Nobel, “The Telegraph” quoted Venki as urging Indians “not to get too jingoistic” about his Indian origins. He said, “I don’t think they should make too much of it... Fundamentally, it is not important that it was an Indian who did this.” He added, “Science is done for the pursuit of knowledge. It is not done to represent your national team. It has no national boundaries whatsoever. This is the thing that people need to realise.”
I wasn’t surprised with this statement for a simple reason: Till a few weeks ago, I didn’t know my “roots” – especially from my father’s side. My mother, of course, belonged to the well-known Kinariwala family of Ahmedabad. My maternal uncle, Vinod Kinariwala, a Gujarat College student, was martyred at the hands of a British cop in 1942 during a Quit India demonstration -- so my maternal roots weren’t ever in doubt. My lovely wife, who belongs to the same sub-caste as my mother’s, has made me “aware” of these roots an umpteen number of times.
However, there has never been clarity about my paternal roots. My father used to vaguely tell me that he belonged to a village called Arab Timbdi or Timbdi, in the valley of Girnar hills of Saurashtra, but I never took notice of it. I also vaguely recall, he was in touch with the leaders his Hindu sub-caste, Khadaita Vaniya, in Mangrol, a town in Saurashtra region of Gujarat. Mangrol is about 100 km from Timbdi and Arab Timbdi (both pretty near to each other). Helped monetarily by his relatives, this is the town where my father, having lost his parents in a pandemic, was being taken care of at an orphanage run by the sub-caste to which he belonged.
I became a little curious about my roots after an extremely well-written article in a Gujarati journal “Kumar”, by one Lalit Shah about my father, published in its June 2002 issue, two years after his death, stating that my father belonged to Arab Timbdi, and that he was originally a Jain, but as he was admitted in a Khadaita Vaniya orphanage, he became a Hindu. But I never cared to find out who this Lalit Shah and whether what he said was true.
It so happened that we visited Junagarh, a historic city of Saurashtra in 2006 (or was it 2005?, I don’t remember). After enjoying the town, including the lovely temple commemorating Gujarati poet Narsinh Mehta, whom Gandhiji held in high esteem, and the ancient fort of Uppar Kot, which has some exciting Buddhist caves and a lovely “garden” where Zulifkar Ali Bhutto’s parents, the then nawabs, would perhaps relax, the museum, and other spots, I decided to pay a visit to the spot identified by Lalit Shah as my “roots” – Arab Timbdi.
Accompanied by a government official (I think he was a mamlatdar), who got in touch of me (after all, I was a "Times of India" man then) to take me to the spot, we visited the village late in the evening, and were taken to an influential person’s residence, where we met an old man of 80, who couldn’t really locate whether my father’s predecessors lived in the village, even as telling me several details about the village itself and how once Jains ruled the roost there.
The matter ended there. Years later, perhaps it was 2011 or 2012, I found out, from some papers belonging to my father, who this Lalit Shah was: He belonged to Dhrangadhra, a town about 100 km west of Ahmedabad. We didn’t have his address, so I decided to get in touch with an ex-MLA I knew pretty well, Dhanraj Kella, who once represented a constituency next to Dhrangardha, Wadhwan, to find out about Lalit Shah. Kella’s response was quick: He told me, Lalit Shah passed away a few years ago, and his son had little knowledge about what was written in “Kumar.”
Arjun Modhwadia
There the matter seemed to end, though my wife, ever so anxious about the matter, always told me that “perhaps” my father belonged to Limbdi. Though she would insist I should try to dig details, contact those whom I knew, especially Congress leader from Porbandar Arjun Modhwadia, to whom I had approached once about my roots, I really didn’t care to find out anything about my “roots” for eight more years. 
I always wondered: Does it matter, as I have held that view that belonging to a religion or caste is “forced” upon the child by society, and the child has no option but to accept it. As Jignesh Mevani, a Gujarat Dalit rights leader, once said, referring to a non-Dalit’s roots, “Is it his fault that he was born in an upper caste? The important thing is, what are his views on casteism.”
It was late evening, and, according to my mobile archives, on August 13, 2020, at around 8 pm, I got a phone call from one Kantibhai Kagrana, who told me that he needed the photograph of my father and that of my father with Dr Zakir Husain, former President of India, for printing in the journal periodically published by the Khadaita sub-caste. He gave me his son Jagrat’s number, whom I should send a WhatApp. The periodical was indeed published.
Insisted by my wife, I got a little curioser: Does he know my roots? After sending relevant photographs, I phoned him up to find out. That was evening August 26, to be exact. He told me that my father indeed belonged to Timbdi, that his grandmother (if I remember correctly) was my grandfather’s cousin, and that once the pandemic ends, I should visit Mangrol, and he would take me to Timbdi, where I could see the house to which my father was born.
Ever since then, I have been in touch with Jagrat Kagrana (he calls himself Jagrat Shah on his Facebook wall), who on phone told me my entire lineage telling me that I happen to be his his “mama”, i.e. maternal uncle. He also gave me reference to a cousin from my paternal side, Gokaldas Shah (my father’s sister’s son), who lived in Mumbai, but passed away a few years ago, and whom I remember having last met during my marriage in 1978, and had visited his house as a child with my parents.
I sent the “Kumar” article to Kantibhai Kagrana, who also gave me reference to one Dr Arvind Kamdar who lives in Mumbai, whom, he said, my father knew pretty well. It is the latter who, I was told, contacted the “Times of India” to find out my mobile number. Both Kantibhai Kagrana and Dr Arvind Kamdar denied that my father was originally Jain, telling me, “Perhaps the ‘Kumar’ author mistook your father as Jain because Mangrol is dominated by Jains.” 
Kotyark Temple: Clan deity of Khadaita sub-caste
Kantibhai Kagrana also told me a few more details about my paternal side: That our kul devi (clan deity) was in Mahudi, the small town of a well-known Jain pilgrimage site, about 60 odd kilometres north of Ahmedabad, at the Kotyark Temple. We have visited this temple several times over after our way back from the Jain pilgrimage site. “We are about Khadaita 3,000 families only in Saurashtra. We will send you more details how a few families reached Saurashtra”, Jagrat Kagrana told me.
While I await details, I have wondered: What’s the use? Does it matter? Be that as it may, I told about all this to Modhwadia, who is a keen social observer as well. I have known Modhwadia for about two decades as a more balanced Congressperson. Belonging to Saurashtra, I had asked him once whether he could find out my roots, so I just recalled, talking to him about it, telling me, “We appear to have found our roots”, though adding, “But does it matter?”
Frank and open minded, Modhwadia chided me, “You may go anywhere, you may be cut off from your roots, but it is always important to find the roots and know about them.” I smiled, left the matter there. Meanwile, I have been “waiting” – so to say – to get “details” from the Kagrana family more about the “history” of my father’s lineage. Am a little curious, more so is my dear sweet wife!

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