A long road to Lincolnshire

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
December 2021

Matt Limb OBE meets a Lincolnshire man whose family have been forced to flee their homeland twice in recent decades.

I was once told travelling can leave you speechless, then turn you into a storyteller. But when that travel is forced upon you, when you must flee your home, the story can be even more remarkable – as one Lincolnshire gent told me recently.

Like me I am sure, you were horrified at the media coverage this summer during the evacuation of Kabul airport in Afghanistan, as masses of people were desperate to leave. It is not the first time we have witnessed a mass exodus due to religious beliefs, conflict, or even natural disasters. Sadly, given that history has a habit of repeating itself, I fear such shocking scenes will be witnessed again. It was against this backdrop that I met with a local Lincolnshire gent, Rob, whose family know the pain of having to flee from their homeland, as they have done it twice in recent decades.

But to hear the full story I had to travel to the Scottish Highlands, where I sat in the heather on a damp morning listening to the roar of Red Stags. While it might have felt a long way from his home in Lincolnshire, it is a place where Rob feels at home and spends much of his spare time.

Rob’s family originate from Rawalpindi (now in the Punjab province of Pakistan), his family trade for many generations being builders, stonemasons, then later bricklayers – which is not surprising given that Sikhism is associated with artisan skills and trades.

In recent years Rob has looked up his family tree, which is readily accessible at several religious sites; here a scroll is stored which can be viewed and new family members are added, allowing the scroll to be continually updated and maintained. It would be on such a scroll that Rob’s grandfather would be listed. His grandfather is well known for leaving India in the early 1900s aboard an Arab Dhow, no doubt working his passage, as he sailed the Indian Ocean then down the east coast of Africa to Mombasa in Kenya. As Rob said, this would have been part of the regular fleet of small sailing ships taking goods to Africa. His grandfather settled in Kenya and with time other members of the family joined him.

Back in Rawalpindi, Rob’s father, Chetan, had married Santokh amid the rising unrest due to the Partition of India. The partition was brought about following the 1947 Indian Independence Act, which in the simplest terms brought an end to the British Raj and the Crown Rule of India. This resulted in two separate and self-governing independent Dominions, India and Pakistan, which came into existence at midnight on 15th August 1947.

Sadly, the partition displaced as many as 20 million people, often along religious lines, resulting in a massive refugee crisis and large-scale violence, along with loss of life. Amongst the many displaced were Rob’s parents, who followed other members of the family as they moved to Kenya. Once settled, Chetan continued his apprenticeship, training as an electrical engineer; then after qualifying, his work took him to Uganda and a new home in Kampala, where Rob was born.

Maybe here I should explain that Rob’s real name is Sarbjit Marwaha, but by his admission, it does not easily roll off the tongue for the average Englishman. That said, Rob is very comfortable with his adopted name. When we chatted about his name, along with special meanings in Sikhism, he explained that in his faith the same name can be used for both a son and a daughter. But it is the addition of a middle name, with Singh for a son or Kaur for a daughter, that differentiates between the male or female.

Life was comfortable for Rob, his four brothers and three sisters, growing up in Uganda; it was here, as a young boy, that he had his first taste of hunting and shooting – plus a sense of adventure, for exploring remote places. In so doing he followed closely in his father footsteps. One story involved his father, after a day’s hunting, when they were travelling back home and stopped at a family friend’s lodge which was full of shooting trophies. The lodge had many species and Rob remembers being fascinated by them. But as night fell, he was less impressed with the sound of howling hyenas echoing around the lodge as they appeared to get closer and closer, which he admits even today puts a shiver down his spine.

Rob attended both primary and secondary school in Kampala, but in the early 1970s while preparing for his final year of school and his pending O Level examinations the family were again forced to move. This time it was at the hands of Idi Amin, the self-declared president of Uganda following his military coup in 1971. Following his rise to power, along with reports of human rights abuse and ethnic persecution, an expulsion order for Asians, who like Rob and his family were British passport holders, was announced. Soon some 30,000 Ugandan Asians were forced to evacuate to the UK. Amongst them was Rob, along with his mother and father and five siblings; his eldest two brothers already being in Britain to finish their studies.

High above a Scottish glen, listening to the gentle rain falling and the babbling of the burn as it flowed past the rocks we were sitting on, the disruption and life in Uganda coming to an end felt a distant memory, admitted Rob. I asked him what the days were like back in the early 1970s as they were forced to leave Kampala. He admitted he was a little too young to fully understand what was happening but clearly remembers his mother being very upset and worried. His father on the other hand appeared less bothered, taking it very much in his stride. Looking back Rob could see his father was simply concerned for the safety of his family, making every effort to leave quickly, no doubt with echoes of a similar situation, little more than two decades earlier.

Rob did add that living in Kampala had its advantage, as they were closer to the airport; Rob knows of other Asian families that had to travel some distance to the airport and suffered theft at the many military checkpoints. A favourite target of the soldiers’ pilfering was gold jewellery. He even remembers bangles being painted grey to look like cheap metal to help hide them.

Thankfully the family arrived safely at Heathrow where they were met by a close cousin and stayed with him overnight in London. But it was soon a journey north to Leeds as they took up lodging with an uncle for a few weeks before moving to their own house. For Rob, there was little hanging about as it was back to college to finish his schooling – first his O Levels and then A Levels. Soon after this, it was further north – and an early taste of Scotland – to Edinburgh, to study Pharmacy at Heriot-Watt University.

Rob qualified in 1978 and was soon working as a pharmacist in the NHS; just a year later he arrived at Lincoln Hospital and for the past 40 years, Lincolnshire has been Rob’s home. After initially working in hospitals, and latterly in retail pharmacies across many towns in the county, today in semi-retirement he still works a few days a week as a locum pharmacist throughout the county and keeps his qualifications valid with regular training courses. Recently he renewed his qualification for giving vaccines, in preparation for the winter.

Sitting in the quiet of the Scottish Highlands, as Rob told me his family story from India to Uganda then Lincolnshire, felt slightly surreal; the Scottish hillside felt so far from the violence and threats he faced during his early life. But as Rob explained, it is just that – the peace and especially remoteness, plus serenity and calm – that brings him back several times a year.

His interest in the Scottish Highlands started over 30 years ago when a work colleague asked Rob if he would like to join him for a weekend’s deer stalking, knowing that Rob had a wider interest in shooting. Soon Rob was bitten by the beauty of the Highlands and found himself returning.

But his deer stalking and work as a ghillie are not just limited to Scotland; at home on the Lincolnshire Wolds he is also active with deer control, helping to maintain the county’s ever-growing deer population. In addition to this, he is a member of UK Deer Track & Recovery as a volunteer on-call, to help when a deer is involved in a road traffic accident and injured at the roadside – or worse, injured and in fear, escapes into nearby woods or farmland. UK Deer Track & Recovery offers a free service throughout the country, normally initiated by local deer stalkers; the aim is to find and dispatch the poor injured animal as fast and humanely as possible to prevent further suffering.

A regular companion on Rob’s travels is Thor, his 16-month-old dog. I have been around dogs all my life, in the main working dogs, but Thor was a first for me: he is an Alpine Dachsbracke, not a popular breed in this country but widespread across Europe as a dog trained to track. Rob is training Thor to track deer, especially injured deer; in the coming months, he should be fully trained and qualified to help with his work in Lincolnshire for UK Deer Track & Recovery.

If Rob looks at Lincolnshire in terms of deer control, then the Highlands are very much about deer stalking. Rob has travelled for so long and so often to the Highlands, that he is now regarded as a regular ghillie on several estates.

After a day on the hill with Rob, in a local hotel enjoying the company of local stalkers and ghillies, it soon became clear that, despite living some distance away, he is one of the team and held in high regard.

Today, on his many journeys north, Rob will act as a ghillie taking a guest on the hill, which is a great responsibility – to the guest, the estate and the stag or hind being stalked. Rob admits it took many years of simply helping and assisting before he won the trust and confidence of the stalkers. In that time, he had to learn the lie of the land which, given the mountainous terrain, can be life-threatening; plus it is an environment where the weather can change quickly. Add to this the fact that the estate is very selective about the deer taken, which forms part of the wider conservation planning.

Despite this, Rob confesses to now having a remarkable friendship with the estate, its stalkers and the estate staff.

In the late afternoon, with the light fading, we walked off the hill; as we did Rob pointed out an especially large Red Stag high on the hill above us, bellowing out to the hinds as the rut was in progress. After a few seconds of searching with my binoculars, I found the stag surrounded by his hinds. Rob explained that if you want to hear the rut at its loudest you need some colder weather conditions, as the roar is always louder on a crisp, frosty day as it echoes along the glens.

Later that evening, as I looked out of my hotel window towards the Isle of Skye, just visible in the murky sea mist, I mulled over Rob’s family story.

From India to Africa, then as a teenager thrown out of Uganda and the only home he knew at short notice with little more than he could carry. Then a new life as he arrived in Great Britain, as Rob’s parents worked tirelessly to ensure all their children qualified professionally. Then, in turn, Rob dedicating his working life to pharmacy. It all fascinated me.

For many, the peace of the Lincolnshire Wolds would have been the essential sanctuary. But I can understand Rob’s love for the Scottish Highlands and its wild remoteness. It is a journey I suspect he started as a young boy in Uganda, following his father, building on a lifelong passion for travel, and exploring the more remote spots of our country.

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