The accounting family

Hon. Eriya Kategaya and Naru Thakkar at the signing of the mutual recognition agreement between the five accountancy institutes of the five member countries. COURTESY PHOTOS

What you need to know:

Accountancy runs in the Thakkar family. In this excerpt Vali Jamal in his book Ugandan Asians, Then and Now, Here and There, We Contributed, We Contribute by talks to NarendraThakkar about the family’s contribution to the country

My father Ambalal Herjivandas Thakkar was born in Virsad, Gujarat, India, in 1901. He studied as a Registered Accountant, which qualification was upgraded to Chartered Accountant when India established the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

After completing his studies my father ventured into business with a tobacco company called Golden Tobacco. The business failed and my father earned his living by tutoring students. He had his wife Maniben and three sons and two daughters to support. Around 1933 or so, the late Sheth Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta invited my father to come and work at his sugar estate in Lugazi as an accountant and company secretary. My father jumped at this offer, leaving behind my mother to look after the family.

In 1939 at the outbreak of the war, Britain introduced the income tax in Uganda as a temporary wartime measure, and it was then that my father sought the blessings of Nanji Sheth to start his own accountancy practice, one of the first in Uganda, the start of the unique family firm that has now survived three generations. My mother came to Uganda in 1938 and lived at Lugazi till the late 1940s when the family moved to Kampala to a comfortable house on Martini Road in Old Kampala. By this time, the family comprised six children – sons Kantilal, Bhanu, Naru (myself), Arvind, and Prakash and daughter Saroj. I and the last three were born at Nsambya Hospital.

Second son Jayant had stayed back in India to qualify as an MBBS and came to Uganda in 1952 to commence his medical practice. Number three Bhanu did his schooling in Kampala and later went to Switzerland with the Swiss Re insurance company. On his return, he handled the family insurance business.

My father was a very religious person and instilled those principles in us as well. He was the life-long President of Shree Sanatan Dharma Mandal and with Maniben did the ground-breaking for the construction of the Bat Valley School, which still exists, though in a very dilapidated state.

He spearheaded the reconstruction of the Hindu temple in Nakasero, for which he travelled all over Uganda to raise funds. A shortfall was made good by a loan from the Bank of Baroda on a personal guarantee by him and Dhanji Kala. This debt continued till 1962 when Swami Satyamitranand Giriji, on his visit made a clarion call to the devotees to resolve the matter. The call was answered amply. The Hindu temple even now has a marble plaque at the entrance in memory of the sacrifices of my father.

I was born in 1939 and after completing my schooling in Kampala, I went to UK in 1958 to study as a Chartered Accountant. In those days students had to pay a premium to join a firm of accountants for article clerkship. After some struggle Citroen & Partners took me in without charging any premium, but with a weekly salary of just two pounds and ten shillings. A weakly salary, one could say.

We have moved ahead a bit fast, so now’s the time to introduce the power behind the throne. In secondary school I had fallen in love with Urmila, the eldest daughter of late Dolatrai Jinabhai Desai and Sarlaben. Those were the days when even holding hands was taboo and here there was the additional taboo that we came from different castes – I from the Lohana community and Urmila from Surti Brahmins.

Urmila went for her BA to MS University in Baroda, in 1960, and come 1962 boys chosen by her father were trooping in to see her at the university. Urmila was aghast. She kept me informed of the ongoing procession.

I gathered together my friends at East Africa House in Marble Arch (the meeting place of East African students in London) and in response to my sob story they chipped in and in April 1962 I flew in Urmila to London. We married at the Wood Green Town Hall. It was an international elopement, absolutely imperative as inter-caste marriages were simply not allowed those days. (Only one had occurred before then among Uganda Asians, also on elopement - Jayant Madhvani to his beloved Meenaben.) The whole of Uganda was aflame – the son of AH Thakkar, a Lohana, married the daughter of DJ Desai, Surti Brahmin, arey, baap rey baap, what are things coming to!

I qualified as CA in 1964. It was a bitter-sweet time as my father died in February and Bhanu died in December. Kantilal carried on with the practice till I took over in 1965. Kantilal retired to UK in 1967.

My family started to expand. The first daughter, Nimisha was born in 1965, followed by Saloni in 1967, Urnisha in 1968, and son Sameer in 1972. Little did we know that in five months after this birth we would have to leave beloved Uganda. I wanted to stay on but left in September 1972, as I was on the hit list of Amin, as were Anil Clerk, Manubhai Madhvani and a dozen others. I left Uganda penniless, not even the 50 pound allowance in my pocket.

We went to Bangalore, India, to try to regroup. Luck just was not on my side and I left Urmila and children to go to Kisumu in 1978. Within a year Amin fell and I crossed over to Kampala in June (1979) by car. I cried passing the Kakira and Lugazi sugar estates, both taken over by elephant grass and bushes. The road was more pot holes than tarmac. Kampala was even more saddening, dead bodies on the roads and even on the golf course. Broken tanks and APCs were everywhere.

The late Dhiru Khiroya gave me shelter until Gurdial Singh and Shafiq Arain sought me out to look after the sale of merchandise for the coming elections in 1980. They accommodated me in a comfortable flat in Uganda House.

I began the process of repossessing my properties. By 1984 the ones on Acacia Avenue and Kampala Road were secured but the one on Baskerville Avenue proved difficult, as the occupant was a Big One with a Letter from President Amin - Capital Letters have to be used, please! I plucked up enough courage to approach the Minister of Public Service, a National Resistance Movement cadre. True to the principles of the Movement, he literally ordered the fellow out, and dilapidated and broken down though the house was, it was finally in my possession.

Having overcome some of the hurdles, in 1985 I began the long journey of rebuilding the sacred family accountancy practice. My offices were in my residence on Acacia Avenue. Soon enough I moved to the upper floor of DL Patel Press, and in 1987 to these rooms on Kampala Road, in RS Almeida & Sons building. Sameer, the third generation accountant in our family was made a partner in 2009. Sameer is happily married to Harjit who hails from a Sikh family - like father like son: accountant, and no caste/sect barriers in love. They have two daughters, Elina and Seanna.

Urmila’s social work
Urmila did a lot of social work in Bangalore, teaching raas and garba to the children and also played a lead role in the formation of Pragati Mandal so that ladies would have social activities to assist the needy. Even in UK, where she shifted in 1982, she carried on the same activities but in addition she was also a weekly presenter of an Asian programme on Sun Rise Radio for 17 years. She formed a group to cater for social activities for Asian senior ladies. Recognition came in Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s New Year’s Honours List of 2010 in the form of the Most Honourable Order of the British Empire (MBE). Her social work continued in Uganda, with additional work as a presenter on Uganda Television.

I am now an active and highly respected member in the Uganda society. I am currently the President of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Uganda and recently made history by being a signatory to the mutual recognition agreement signed by the presidents of the respective institutes of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, in the presence of Rt Hon Eriya Kategaya, the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs. Following in the footsteps of my father I am the current Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Shree Sanatan Dharma Mandal.

I am active in Freemasonry and in fact I am credited with reviving the Fraternity in Uganda, in 1985. We have assisted Mengo Hospital and the Hospice Centre. The biggest charity so far has been the donation of a fully furnished dormitory to the Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped in Mengo.

I came back to Uganda not only to reclaim what was lost but also in keeping with one of the many honourable principles of Freemasonry: “Never forgetting the allegiance you owe to your native land whence you derived your birth and infant nurture.” I was born in Uganda and I will die in Uganda. This is where the family roots are and this is where the family tree will flourish.