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Voices: Our Untold Stories »Asian Stories
Avatar Nath Duggal

Avatar Nath Duggal

Born in Punjab, Avatar Nath Duggal lived through the trauma of the partition of India. He trained as a doctor in Calcutta and was at one time Gloucester's only black GP.

Avatar Nath Duggal faced many obstacles in his ambition to become a doctor in the UK

My life was very primitive to start with. On 28th November 1926 I was born in Gujarat in Punjab India, which is now in Pakistan.

My early schooling up to secondary school, was in a small town. Electricity was not available at that time so we used kerosene lamps.

I was an average student, very timid and always bullied at school. Resources were very limited. I had very few interests in life at that stage, except going to school, walking a couple of miles each way, every day with non-existent extra-curricular activities.

My mother was illiterate and my father was an insurance agent with a strict disciplinarian attitude.

quote
We boarded a frontier mail train from Rawalpindi to New Delhi. On the way, at each railway station, a bloodbath was visible with dead bodies scattered all over the place.
We reached Delhi as refugees - devoid of all our possessions and personal belongings.
quote
Avatar Nath Duggal

After my O Levels, we moved to Rawalpindi where I graduated with a science degree. In four years I studied English, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Urdu and Persian.

1947 was a very turbulent and traumatic time in my life - physically, academically, socially, emotionally, psychologically and above all financially.

It was 14th August when Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, broadcast on the radio from New Delhi and announced the partition of India.

The dividing line cut Punjab into two halves. In four-and-a-half hours time, Rawalpindi, where I was with my parents, brothers and two sisters, was to be included in Pakistan.

The announcement triggered communal riots everywhere. Hindus were killed by Muslims and vice versa. Men were tortured. Property was looted and gutted. Women were abducted and raped.

At 8.15pm, we boarded a frontier mail train from Rawalpindi to New Delhi. On the way, at each railway station, a bloodbath was visible with dead bodies scattered all over the place.

We reached Delhi as refugees - devoid of all our possessions and personal belongings.

During these dark days I managed to graduate in medicine from Calcutta in absolute poverty.

Avatar Nath Duggal with his wife and son in 1961
Avatar with his wife and son Kush at Southampton General Hospital in 1961

I settled in Allalabad U.P. - the home and birth place of Pandit Johawar Lal Nehri, first Prime Minister of India - and started my medical career as a doctor.

The only affordable transport to visit my patients was a bicycle and I was married to Shakuntala on 17th January 1958. It was an arranged marriage. We had not met or even seen each other before the ceremony.

I came to England in April 1960 on my own. Our first son Kush, was only three months old, so Shakuntala agreed to stay at home with him.

I would not have come but for the help of Shakuntala's brother, his wife and mother. They were kind and courteous and gave me a place to stay when I came.

Difficulties

My sole purpose and only aim in coming to England was to pass my F.R.C.S exam and become a good, caring surgeon. To do this I had to have a job first and thankfully within a week I got a position in Nelson Hospital in Wimbledon, as a junior house surgeon.

My pay was seven pounds and eleven shillings a week. I had to surmount many difficulties.

The environments were very difficult but by no means hostile. There was no flavour of hatred but they always looked down upon me.

The language barrier was a real problem. I had English Essay and Literature as one of my main degree subjects and I considered myself literate.

I thought I could speak fluently and write grammatically correct English. But when I arrived, communicating in English was a real headache.

I remember one embarrassing occasion when a bus driver could not understand my pronunciation of 'Twickenham' to get a ticket. Despite repeating it several times he could not understand my pronunciation and I had to spell it out.

The conductor, as well as the people in the queue, all gave me a dirty look, but I had to accept it.

I found English people were soft spoken. I always spoke loudly and people thought I was rude and ill-mannered.

I did not eat beef, being Hindu, but in the hospital on three out of five nights, beef was served with meals. I had to live on boiled vegetables.

Embarrassing

As a next step I was admitted for a six-month course to study for my FRCS exam at the Royal College of Surgeons.

There, I used to ask for omelette as a substitute dish instead of beef for the dinner. It took ages before my dinner was served.

Fellow students, who came after me, had finished their whole meal and I was still waiting for my omelette to arrive. It was quite embarrassing but no fault of mine.

Also I found I could never mix with other friends, even Indians, because I did not drink any alcohol. I never attended any bar or pub and so missed out on any social gathering.

Nurses were at dance evenings but I could not and did not approach any one for a dance, simply because I did not believe it was the right step to take or right road to travel.

Because I was introverted and shy and above all being short of money, I used to leave functions early, feeling miserable and lonely in my room in cold winter.

quote
I remember many instances when I arranged to rent bed-sit accommodation on the phone but as soon as I knocked at the door and the landlady saw my face, she would say: "I am sorry it is gone" and slam the door on me.quote
Avatar Nath Duggal

Another great difficulty was to find affordable accommodation. Colour bar and cultural differences did exist in the 1960s.

I remember many instances when I arranged to rent bed-sit accommodation on the phone but as soon as I knocked at the door and the landlady saw my face, she would say: "I am sorry it is gone" and slam the door on me.

Shakuntala and Kush joined me in England six months later. At first we stayed with her mother and father before we went to Edinburgh.

I had got a place in Edinburgh University with the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians for a post-graduate course in surgery. This would increase my knowledge and academic qualities to enable me to pass my FRCS exam - the one goal I came to England to achieve.

For the first week in Edinburgh we had to change accommodation four times because the landlords complained about our culture and about Kush's crying disturbing them in the night.

In the morning I used to leave at about 6am, in the cold and dark, and would return at 7pm ready to move again.

One of the neighbours, an old Scottish lady, took pity on us and gave us a room in her house for three months. We had one room with a sink, with a one-bar electric heater.

It was ice and snow throughout this time. We used to boil hot water in an aluminium kettle and that was the only source of hot water for us there to wash ourselves, our utensils and even to wash dirty linen.

The source of the electric supply was a coined electric meter in our room.

Successful

Getting a job was difficult and reaching the top was extremely difficult. Black consultant surgeons were a rarity. Colour bar was apparent in day-to-day working life in hospital at each step.

I wasn't very intelligent but worked hard. I could always influence my path like a hard-working donkey. One of my consultants said: "Avatar, forget trying to become a surgeon. Black is black and white is white." This was after four years of staying in England.

That was quite a blow, as I wanted to become a consultant surgeon. On 13th February 1964 our daughter Poonam was born at Chester Royal Infirmary.

I came back from the operating theatre at 5.40pm and Shakuntala was in labour pain. I took her to hospital and she delivered 40 minutes later.

The next morning I left at 8am with Kush on the front seat (four years old) because I had to go for an interview for my surgical registrarship.

I could not stay in the hospital with Shakuntala to look after her. She was all alone with a new born baby and I was travelling 200 miles from Chester to Leeds.

Poor Kush was vomiting in the car but I had to carry on. Fortunately I got the job.

Avatar Nath Duggal plays Santa at Dewsbury General Hospital
Avatar Nath Duggal plays Santa at Dewsbury General Hospital, where he worked from 1964 to 1967

On 11th January 1965 Luv was born. Again work got in the way. I admitted Shakuntala to Dewsbury General Hospital and went to Edinburgh where I had to take my final FRCS exam the next day.

Shakuntala was again alone - such was the misfortune of circumstances and miseries of our hectic life.

I passed my FRCS exam and started my early surgical career working in different hospitals: London, Southampton, Batley Yorks, Dewsbury, Chester, Edinburgh, Sedgefield, and Lincoln.

I never considered myself to be very intelligent and talented but I was very favourite of my consultants simply because I worked very hard day and night.

My arranged marriage was successful. It was celebrated with full Hindu rites and arranged between Shakuntala's elder brother and my parents.

We have since lived as one unit, husband and wife, through thick and thin.

It was very hard bringing up a second generation. Kush did not settle in any nursery school. My pay was seven pounds and eleven shillings a week to start with and we did not have much to support the family.

Shakuntala could not work even though she was a fully qualified doctor. I could not keep her and Kush in the hospital as it was only single accommodation, so they lived in a separate bed-sit in Southampton at a rent of 1 a week.

She had to walk miles to visit me because we could not afford public transport. We could not eat together as I had no cooking facilities and in the hospital canteen they only served meat - she is vegetarian.

Our children had to change schools regularly because I was moving from hospital to hospital to get different experiences in surgery as a requirement for the exam.

I eventually decided to go into general practice and started at Rhondda Valley in Wales, later moving to Swansea.

I really tried to serve my patients. They were all happy, pleased and grateful.

quote
We couldn't get planning permission for a surgery as some people were determined to stop us from settling in Quedgeley. I met against all sorts of obstacles - from all my English GP colleagues, from the planning department and in particular the parish council.quote
Avatar Nath Duggal

In 1969 we came to Gloucester. I was quite successful in Swansea but with Shakuntala working full-time as a medical officer in community health in Gloucester, I had to travel every week to see my family.

Finally, she created a job for me here as a GP in Quedgeley. Coming to Gloucester was a great help in uniting the family but I didn't like the village to start with.

We couldn't get planning permission for a surgery as some people were determined to stop us from settling in Quedgeley.

We made one appointment to see a lady about a property suitable for conversion into a surgery. It was adjacent to another surgery, but on seeing our faces after opening the door she said that the property was sold. In fact the property was not sold for 10 or 12 months later.

I met against all sorts of obstacles from every source - from top to bottom - from all my English GP colleagues, from the planning department and in particular the parish council. I was the only black GP in Gloucester.

However with moral support from Shakuntala and my will to succeed, I eventually overcame all the hurdles and built my own base and created a flourishing practice as a caring doctor.

Patients thanked me in various ways. I was very popular. We managed to open a branch surgery in Ryecroft Street, Gloucester to serve the ethnic community.

Some ethnic patients were very demanding and did try to exploit me but I accepted this as a small price to pay for eventual success.

Avatar Nath Duggal with his wife after the opening of the surgery in Quedgeley in 1986
Avatar Nath Duggal with his wife Shakuntala after the opening of the surgery in Quedgeley in 1986

Religion plays a big part in my life. I am a Hindu and pray every day. I read holy books which are scarce and difficult to find locally as most of them are in the Gujrati language which I cannot read.

We had no problem whatsoever in bringing up our children, even as teenagers.

'We have to live within our means' was the motto engraved in their brains from the very beginning.

There are many good things in life that we wish to have, but if we cannot afford it, we simply cannot have it, however good that toy may be.

With this in mind, I remember a Christmas shopping trip when Kush was only young. He wanted to show me something in a superstore and pointed to a colourful, mobile band playing electronic toys and said: "These are very nice, but Daddy, we can't afford it".

I was not hurt, I didn't feel guilty, but I was touched and appreciated that he did not ask for it. Kush, the eldest, the most intelligent of the lot.

Proud

Born in 1960, he got a scholarship to The King's School in Gloucester, the only private education institution in the city. He was the head boy, always first in his class and secured nine O Levels and 3 A Levels in Biology, Physics and Chemistry.

He was offered a place at three medical schools and opted for Cardiff. He eventually went abroad for research in Canada and at present he is a postgraduate tutor of the Royal College of Anaesthetists as well as a consultant anaesthetist at Salisbury General Hospital.

Luv the youngest was also educated at The King's School and eventually settled as computer consultant with IBM.

Poonam was educated at Ribston Hall Girls' Grammar School and is now married to a tax consultant at the Shell Oil Company. We are very proud of them.

We occasionally now go to India to visit our relatives and friends but we could never afford holidays in the UK or abroad during our working life.

Neither did we ever have any entertainment in our working life - we have never visited any cinema or theatre and I have never had any hobbies.

The only social occasions we enjoyed were entertaining our friends at home.

Enthusiastic

I will not go back to India to settle for my own personal reasons. I'd love to stay in India because the climate suits me but India has dirty politics and having lived in this country for 40 years the standards of food, health and living is much better.

People can die in India like animals. I have no home there and haven't got much family there.

I want to stay here where I am suited and just go on holidays to warmer countries.

I started late in life and have retired very late in life at the ripe old age of 70 - by law a GP cannot work after 70 years of age.

I have never smoked in my life and I hate the company of smokers. I never touched any spirit or beer between 1960 to 1978.

I do drink now, very, very moderately and only red wine, and only in my house with Shakuntala.

I never indulged in any physical exercise due to the lack of time during my working life. More accurately, I did not appreciate the value and significance of exercise and the harmful effects on the body of not doing enough exercise.

I have learnt my lesson and now I am retired I walk every day and we both do the treadmill at home daily.

I came to England in 1960 as a young, budding, enthusiastic doctor, saturated with ambition to reach the top and to look after the sick. I have achieved that.

I am very satisfied and happy that the mission is successful. I have very high living standards and have everything in life that God would have given me.

quote

I have paid a very high price. I have used my all 50 of the younger years of my life in serving others and not my own country. I have grown old. I am alone. I have no relatives here.
My children live in English fashion, style and tradition. They do not know their own traditions and culture. My identity and family heritage will be soon buried forever.

quote
Avatar Nath Duggal

I have a very well settled family and I am very proud. I live with my wife in a five-bedroomed house, with nine colour televisions, five videos and all the possible modern electric gadgets one needs.

We couldn't afford a car for many years but now we own two Mercedes and all three children drive their own Mercedes. I could not have asked for more.

But there is a price to pay for this all materialistic wealth and believe me I have paid a very high price.

I have used my all 50 of the younger years of my life in serving others and not my own country. I have grown old. I am alone. I have no relatives here.

I have very little regular contract with my blood relatives. I have lost my culture and above all my tradition. My children have married locally.They live in English fashion, style and tradition.

They do not know their own traditions and culture and their children (my second generation) would never know anything about India. My identity and family heritage will be soon buried forever.

How my father and grandfather used to live in India and how I was brought up is an extinct part of history for them. What religion my grandchildren follow is not known to me.

This is the price I have paid. But on balance, I feel that my 50 years in this country has been gainful. I am victorious. I have achieved what I aimed for.

I would not and could not have lived the life I have now in India. I could not and would not have been able to educate my children to the standard they have now.

I believe my children's future is better here. Fifty years ago I took a brave decision and it has paid off. I have no regrets.

See 'The Sikh Punjabi Community'

 

This article is user-generated content (ie external contribution) expressing a personal opinion, not the views of BBC Gloucestershire.
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Gymnation
Parmjit Dhanda MP
The first Asian doctors
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» Umara Hussain
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