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The good, the bad and the NRI

Who is Raj Loomba and why is he being viciously attacked by allegations that 'the most disagreeable species of NRI are people like Raj Loomba'

The complex relationship between India, the mother country, and some 25 million Indians scattered across the globe ' two or three million in the United States, a million in the UK and another million in South Africa ' is worth examining because today, the President will be honouring 15 'outstanding' personalities with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman awards as part of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

Among them are the film director Manoj Night Shyamalan, academics Lord Bhikhu Parekh and Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, and suitable boy Vikram Seth.

Strictly speaking, some of these worthies are not Non-Resident Indians but British or American nationals of Indian origin settled abroad but, for the moment, perhaps one shouldn't get too distracted by that distinction.

Ex-Prime Minister Vajpayee rendered valuable service by setting up the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, conceding the principle of dual nationality and giving a multiple entry visa to Salman Rushdie. It is also encouraging that Manmohan Singh's government has decided to carry on with Vajpayee's work.

Thanks to such factors as the Internet, SMS, Bollywood, cricket and frequent travel (by overseas Indians to India and also by Indians in India to countries abroad), there are reasons for believing that a Greater India is taking shape, which extends beyond the 'geographical' India. There are also reasons for thinking that the capital of Greater India is London.

Such UK-based personalities as Lord Swraj Paul, Lord Meghnad Desai, Baroness Shreela Flather, MP Keith Vaz, Lord Raj Bagri, Sir Gulam Noon, film director Gurinder Chadha, actress Parminder Nagra, former cricket captain Nasser Hussain, S.P. and Gopi Hinduja and Lakshmi Mittal make the news beyond Britain. In the Who's Who of Asians in Britain, published by Jasbir Singh Sachar, there are now well over 2,000 entries, a tenfold increase from the 200 in the first issue in 1975.

Among these entries is businessman Raj Loomba, who, mainly with the support of Dr L.M. Singhvi, then Indian high commissioner in London, was named 'Asian of the Year' in 1997 ' the year when India celebrated 50 years of Independence. Loomba does not like to acknowledge that until 1997, he was not a mover and shaker in the British Indian community. However, his rise since then has been so remarkable that there is speculation that it may not be long before he becomes Lord Loomba or Sir Raj Loomba at the very least (though he denies he is after a title).

Loomba, whose company imports knitwear into Britain, was the central figure in organising the British Indian Golden Jubilee Banquet in 1997 at Grosvenor House in Park Lane. Prince Charles was guest of honour and the net profit of '240,000 was given to five universities to help Indian scholars to come to Britain for research. Cambridge got the lion's share of '140,000, Hull and Oxford shared '50,000, while Edinburgh and Wales received '25,000 each.

Loomba is fortunate to have a powerful supporter in Cherie Blair who this year became president of the charity he set up in memory of his late mother to help widows and their children in India. He met her at the Grosvenor House banquet and since widows, children and education are close to her heart, she immediately became a patron of the Shreemati Pushppati Memorial Trust.

Another strong backer is Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic, whom Loomba met at an India House party. When he heard of Loomba's charity, Branson said he would donate loose change collected on his flights.

The charity educates 1,100 children in India and to raise more funds, Loomba invited Cherie to come to Delhi in November, which she did, accompanied by Branson and 40 other assorted dignitaries from Britain.

A critic of Loomba in India insisted that 'he came to flaunt his wealth'. 'What is objectionable is Loomba using poor Indian widows for self-aggrandisement,' the criticism went.

A published article went on to say that Loomba 'swaggered around Delhi like a man whose charitable works were the wonder of the world', whereas educating 1,100 children, given the money he had raised, was 'a seriously paltry figure'.

It was also claimed that a dozen widows and their children were bussed in to Loomba's Prithviraj Road apartment for a photo-op, after which 'the widows left the flat, without being given lunch' ' Loomba 'had no further use for them now that the photo-op was over' and 'his lack of personal interest in the widows was striking'. Meanwhile, Loomba's 'English dignitaries began to arrive for lunch with his wife Veena'.

While some of the allegations are a matter of opinion, others are questions of fact. When I went to see Loomba at his office in west London ' a plaque marks the building was opened by Cherie Blair ' he handed me a sheet of paper on which he had listed all the alleged errors in the article. He also gave me an invoice for Rs 13,218 from Dolphin Travels Private Ltd for travel, snacks and lunch given to 30 widows and their children.

'I don't know why they are trying to assassinate me,' he said, with his son, Rinku, 34, after whom his company is named, sitting beside him.

On the face of it, Loomba, it has to be said, put up a plausible defence. He produced audited accounts for the British Indian Golden Jubilee Banquet Fund, showing how the money had been properly disbursed.

In Delhi in November, his fund raised another '560,000 in one evening', which would be used to look after an additional 1,500 children for five years. He pointed out his wife and one of his two daughters had taken three suitcases full of gifts and home-baked biscuits from London for the children.

Leaving aside the question of the treatment of the widows and children, we discussed the wider issue of why overseas Indians set up charities to help the poor and needy in India.

Are they genuinely concerned' Or do they want to use the charity as a cover to promote themselves and perhaps seek honours'

The hunt for honours undoubtedly poisons Indian life but peerages and knighthoods also give their holders a much-needed platform from which to defend Indians and India.

Remembering something I had read a long time back, most probably in Albert Camus' The Stranger, I told Loomba of the Frenchman who one day helped a blind woman to cross the road and, having done so, touched his hat as he turned away. The man suddenly wondered why he had done so because the blind woman couldn't appreciate his gesture. Was it because he wanted others to be impressed with his courtesy or, just as bad, he wanted to feel noble within himself'

Loomba, the earthy son of the soil who was born in Dhilwan in Punjab on March 15, 1942, slaved in an asbestos factory on first arriving in London in 1962, then drove an ice cream van on the streets of Wigan in the north of England, ran a market stall in nearby Widnes and even slept rough in his van in freezing December so that he was first in the queue for a good sales spot in the morning, fixed me with an amused smile: 'That's too sophisticated. By the way, are you related to Satyajit Roy'

Having lived for 18 years in the north of England, where his son and his daughters, Reeta and Roma, now 38 and 35, were born, he moved to London in 1980. What drives him, he said, was the memory of his mother, who had to bring up three sons and three daughters when she was widowed at 37. Although still a mild-mannered man, today he expects to sit at top table at Asian functions and hobnob on equal terms with Lord this and Sir that. He likes to attract the rich and the powerful to his annual Diwali parties, rather in the manner the Hindujas once did.

He explained his homely philosophy behind his classic rags-to-riches NRI story: 'I have said in life, there are four factors ' your vision, your resources, your effort and the fourth one is a bit of luck.'

He has certainly been lucky with his friends among whom, apart from Cherie Blair and Dr Singhvi, he can also count Lord Navneet Dholakia, former president of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Indians abroad say they have to be high-profile to raise funds, but once they become high- profile, the Oscar Wildish first law of Indian public life takes over: 'There is one thing worse than being a failure ' and that is being successful.'

This is a point worth considering as the President distributes prizes today to the big names from the Indian diaspora.

As for Loomba, he admitted that the attack on his character had left him 'on the floor'.

'NRIs are in a no-win situation,' he said. 'If they imitate the British, they lose their identity, whilst if they don't they are impervious to the best things about the British. If they try to help India, it is for their own glorification. If they don't, they are just moaning traitors.'

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