Gurnam Singh Bedi: An appreciation

ON the face of it, Gurnam Singh Bedi was an unremarkable man. He was simply a shopkeeper and

an immigrant.

Born on October 17, 1931, in Akhara, in the Punjab region of India, Gurnam was the third of 10 siblings. Feeding such a large family from what they grew themselves was becoming difficult, especially as the region was still suffering the after-effects of Partition, so Gurnam’s father selected him to go seek out other opportunities, and to send back much-needed cash.

He reluctantly left his village, and his relatively new wife, in the spring of 1951 and travelled to Bombay (Mumbai) where he joined many other economic migrants on their way to help meet post-war labour shortages in the UK.

Gurnam boarded the RMS Strathnaver, a P&O liner en route to the UK from Brisbane, took up his third-class accommodation and, following a 21-day journey via the Suez canal and a short stop at Marseilles, he docked at Tilbury, on the Thames, on May 29, 1951. From there he travelled onto Glasgow to live with his aunt, who had sponsored his voyage.

The next few years saw him working on the Glasgow Underground as a conductor and selling cloth

door-to-door around Glasgow (he would later tell stories of Reo Stakis being on the same route, selling lace) then worked as a spinner in a Halifax woollen mill.

Within a few years he was able to buy his first two-bedroom tenement flat and, later, a small grocers’ concern in Finnieston. He travelled back to India often and was eventually joined by his wife, Harbhajan, and his three daughters in 1966, and they had two further children in Scotland.

Gurnam was part of a small but growing Indian community in Glasgow, and while they faced more than their fair share of adversity he spoke fondly of how he enjoyed the trappings of his new life in Scotland. He had arrived wearing a turban but that had to go in favour of slicked-back hair and a comb in his pocket. His English became peppered with “aye” and “yes, dear” and “sonny”, and he always wore a shirt and tie, because that’s what gentlemen did.

He enjoyed his local, The Two Ways in Finnieston (Rab C Nesbitt’s popular haunt). He would go to the Locarno nightclub to unwind with friends, and he was particularly partial to a Chinese carry-out on

a Friday night.

He was a founder member of the Indian Association of Strathclyde, an organisation that organised performance shows and cinema screenings for the Indian community in Glasgow, mostly on a Sunday evening while everyone else was at church. He was also instrumental in helping to establishing the first Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Scotland, in a ground-floor flat in the Gorbals. He often went to Canada to collect donations to build a new one.

Like many of his fellow immigrants, Gurnam spent his life owning and running shops around Glasgow and Lanarkshire and he became a pillar of the communities he served. If you had no cash Mr Singh would put it in the tick book; and if he was closing up you would be told to take it away and settle up in the morning. Whether it was supplying working men with their Woodbines and their football coupons, or bingo ladies with their “dabbers” (ink markers) and Imperial mints of an evening, Gurnam touched the lives of everyone he met.

He was a purveyor of the old Kensitas and Embassy coupons,

for which many a housewife was thankful prior to pay day. He was an Arkwright-style grocer, and long before it was popular he was a master of customer service. He retired from shopkeeping in 1988.

In his later years he became carer for his sick wife, and her death in 2006 was a bitter blow. He found comfort, however, in attending the Mel Milaap and Woodside day centres, where he would play cards with his friends and reminisce about times past. Gurnam maintained a special place in his heart for the town in India that he had left, and would continue to visit up until two years before his death.

Gurnam’s is the story of how immigration enriches a society, of how it actually does work. Like many of that generation, he was never educated beyond school and he had no discernible skills to speak of; but both he and his wife had a drive to ensure a better life for their family and their community. His children are deeply embedded into Scotland’s story: a teacher, a social worker, a nurse, an employer; and almost all of his grandchildren work in the public sector, each of them supporting their communities – it’s what their grandfather taught them.

More than that. In his time Gurnam also made it possible for others to follow, the result of which is that Scotland has more doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, academics, business men and women and a variety of other professions across the arts, sciences, civic life and more. If the measure of Scotland’s immigrants is the contribution they make to our society over generations, then Gurnam is to be commended for climbing aboard the Strathnaver.

In his community, Gurnam Singh Bedi had been in Glasgow longest. He was a “seana” (an elder) and

a gentleman in the truest sense. It was at his home in Kelvingrove on October 29, having not long turned 89, that he slipped away.

He is survived by his four daughters – Parm, Arvinder, Pinky and Simu, and his son, Dav.

It turns out Gurnam was indeed a truly remarkable man. His generation is dwindling and their stories must be heard and not lost.