Gone but not forgotten

Ajit Sat-Bhambra bids farewell to a dedicated educator, political activist, community leader and lifelong friend

The American surgeon and writer Atul Gawande once saidit is not death that the old fear, but the losses that happen short of death– faculties such as hearing and memory, and friendships. I recalled his words when I learned that my longtime friend Dilbagh Chana had passed away on the morning of September 7 at his home in Southall, London. The news was not entirely unexpected – Dilbagh was, after all, in his 87th year and had a heart condition – but the sense of loss still hit me hard.

I could give a potted history of Dilbagh Chana’s accomplished careers in education, insurance and local politics, but it is the personal memories that resonate most. Hewas part of my life for many years. I first met him in Kenya at Nairobi’s Racecourse Primary School, where I was employed as a teacher and Dilbagh was the principal. His generous, supportive nature stood out from the startand when, a year later, I was transferred to teach older children at another primary school, he helped steer me through the Kenyan education system, so different from the one I had known in India. This encouragement, at a time when I was finding my feet in a new job and country, is something I will never forget.

Soon it was time for me to leave Nairobi for another teaching post in Nakuru. By now Dilbagh was headmaster of a city primary school in the Kenyan capital, with a large network of connections and friends. Yet this challenging role did not prevent him from enjoying outside activities, most notably amateur dramatics. He was a keen and talented actor who appeared in many plays and was much in demand as a performer and speaker.

Eventually Britain beckoned. When I arrived in London in 1969, Dilbagh was already well settled there, having established a successful insurance business in Southall. We became neighbours in the area’s Burns Avenue and, although we had separate social circles and our approach to life was often different, we met frequently and always exchanged warm words.

Dilbagh’s commitment to his community, both here and in Kenya, was evident in so many things he did.He set up a Citizens’ Advice Bureau to help Asian immigrants in London facing challenges in employment or education; he became president of the Ramgarhia Sabha in Southall, and of the Voice of Kenya; and played an active role in political life with both the Liberal and Labour parties, as well as serving on the Ealing Racial Equality Council.

I could write at greater length about all Dilbagh’s achievements – he was, for example, awarded an MBE in recognition of his community work – but it is his personal qualities that remain foremost in my mind: his warmth, humanity and gentleness, his wonderful eloquence and strongly disciplined nature that would not tolerate unnecessary words or argument, the support he extended to me in my work with Asian Affairs and The Democracy Forum.

Dilbagh Chana was many things to many people, not least a family man who leaves behind his wife Surjit Kaur Chana, daughter Urminder Kaur, sons Iqbal and Jai, and his grandchildren. For me he was, above all, a compassionate, caring friend and I will miss him.

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