Farewell to a pioneer who put India on the map in New Zealand
Viraj (Raj) Thomson
Wellington, June 9, 2023
Bhadrabala Bell Thomson (nee Barot) – QSM: Access Radio broadcaster, JP, author, cooking tutor, community volunteer and mother
Born: 2 May 1934 (Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania); Died: 30 May 2023 (Kurrajong, NSW, Australia)
Editor’s Standfirst: When Bala Thomson, completed 25 years of broadcasting on May 17, 2006, we congratulated her, saying that she had simultaneously marked a silver in teaching and cooking demos in Wellington and that is a woman with a mission.
“She was the first woman to be appointed Justice of the Peace, the first woman marriage celebrant and broadcaster of Indian ethnicity and probably the first to promote Indian culinary art in middle earth. Such distinctions do not affect the woman who has been a trailblazer in community service, refreshingly self-effacing amidst a volley of depressingly self-servers. She goes about her tasks with such fervour and commitment that it is almost contagious but inimitable.” It is hard to believe that a great woman who brought joy and solace to hundreds of people is no more. While we bow and pray, we feature here a long and a highly interesting memoir from her son Viraj (Raj) Thomson who lives in Wellington. If you have known Bala and would like to write a condolence note, please visit Bala Bell Thomson (murial.life).
When Bhadrabala (Bala) Thomson moved to New Zealand in late 1969 with her Kiwi-born husband and three young children, she left the warmth of Tanzania and her large Gujarati family and felt the biting chill of autumn in Central Otago.
The change in climate, culture and cuisine could not have been more challenging for the young mother, but rather than insist that the family move to a warmer and more cosmopolitan city, Bala set forth to create her own network of cross-cultural understanding, centring on food – one of her great passions.
Her love of curries came from her mother, who between raising eight children, found time to encourage Bala to emulate her tried and tested family recipes, a challenge to which the young “apprentice” ably rose.
The illustrious Barot family
Bala’s parents, originally from rural Gujarat in India, emigrated to East Africa in the late 1920s. They eventually set down roots in what was then the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam on the coast. Her father, a former police officer, traded his revolver for a fountain pen and became an accountant, while her mother managed the household and growing family.
The Barots were noticeable among other ex-pat Indians in Tanzania and as the siblings grew, their interests widened. One of Bala’s sisters became a respected cinematic vocalist and their younger brother (Chandra Barot) went on to direct an early hit film for revered Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. Other siblings chose more traditional professions including law and commerce and the Barots eventually spread their wings all over the globe.
After her schooling ended, Bala delighted in participating in local dances and dramatic performances. She had a keen interest in broadcasting and spent a little time behind the microphone. She also loved attending movies and concerts.
She once saw Louis Armstrong perform in Tanzania and her interests in music and the world beyond Africa were further kindled.
Engaging with celebrities
Over the years Bala met several personalities and always remembered the encounters. During an early career in nursing, she was once asked to attend to an injured American visitor who was recovering after a light plane crash. She did not recognise the patient, but the matron told her later that she had been nursing none other than novelist Ernest Hemmingway.
In 1959 Bala made her first solo visit to India by sea and on the way befriended an aspiring politician named Kenneth Kaunda, who later went on to become the President of Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia).
She also met two Indian Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and once attended a fundraising reception with former Hollywood starlet and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn. A royal encounter with the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) was another highlight for her.
The New Zealand connection
Bala’s connection with New Zealand first began in 1961 when she met a tall, thin and freckled journalist named John Thomson. The Dunedin-born newsman had recently arrived from England to work at the Tanzanian newspaper, The Standard, and he barely knew anyone in the country.
From an outsider’s perspective, the prospect of marrying into such a traditional Hindu family in the 1960s seemed unlikely. However, the Barots were raised in what Bala called a more worldly way, and after her older brother married an Italian woman, she knew that nothing was set in stone.
Bala also worked on the paper in an administrative role and one day John took the initiative and introduced himself. He complimented her traditional attire, the sari, explaining that he had visited India and greatly admired the country and its people.
Over time, the couple got to know each other over a cup of coffee at a nearby cafe. Bala and her Italian sister-in-law often chatted about the Kiwi and decided between them that it might be nice to invite him to a family dinner.
John happened to love Indian food and had no problem consuming the fiery goat curry prepared for his introduction to the Barots. His genuine interest in India was also apparent and appreciated by Bala’s family, who welcomed him at subsequent meals and gatherings.
Their courtship became quite a talking point amongst the expat community in Dar Es Salaam and though it was clear that others disapproved strongly of their relationship, the Barot family embraced the Kiwi with great affection.
Bala and John eventually married in October 1962 and the groom insisted on a traditional although somewhat shortened Hindu ceremony. It was understood to be the first local mixed-race union achieved with the blessings of both families.
John continued working at The Standard and in 1964 the Thomsons’ first child, Meera, was born. Two years later, Bala gave birth to their second daughter, Priya, and in 1968 their son Viraj joined the family. Bala’s wish for the children to have Indian forenames was something John was happy to support.
Upheavals and new beginnings
Life in Tanzania (previously Tanganyika) was not without its risks, and the challenges of post-colonial politics came to a boiling point in 1964, just when Bala was arriving at the hospital delivery room.
In 1961 British rule ended, but within a few years the young republic’s key armed forces, two battalions of soldiers, mutinied. This action, in the third week of January 1964, plunged the nation into political turmoil.
The British officers commanding the soldiers were deposed and sent to neighbouring Kenya, leaving then-President Julius Nyerere with no choice but to request urgent military assistance from the United Kingdom.
British forces were eventually dispatched from Aden to quell the mutiny and they landed on January 25, the morning after Bala gave birth to Meera. The mutineers surrendered and peace was restored. The People’s Defence Force was created later that year when Tanganyika and neighbouring Zanzibar merged to become Tanzania.
After the arrival of their son in 1968, Bala and John discussed the possibility of leaving Tanzania, but by the following year, the decision was abruptly made for them. Nyerere took exception to a news report, filed under the editorial watch of one of John’s colleagues, which named the President’s younger brother in a property dispute with a local builder.
Fearful that the paper could be forcibly closed, the Standard’s foreign owners sought to quell Nyerere’s rage by serving up John as the sacrificial lamb.
As his contract at the paper had just ended, John was technically jobless and without a valid work permit, he could be detained and possibly deported. Nyerere, who heard about Bala and the children, allowed the family to make their farewells in a dignified exit from the country.
The couple decided to move to New Zealand and after a brief time in Arrowtown, where the Thomson’s had deep roots, they moved to Dunedin. The older children started primary school soon after.
John had a job at the Otago Daily Times (ODT) and in March 1971 Bala gave birth to their fourth child, Kiran. Between looking after her younger children during the day, Bala also sought opportunities to overcome the cultural obstacles she felt in her new community.
Bala and her cuisines
After being profiled in the ODT, her life changed forever. The article paved the way for a regular stream of requests for her to speak and demonstrate her cooking skills and Indian wardrobe to several local organisations. After just one cooking demonstration at the DIC store in the Octagon, the aroma of her curries ensured a constant flow of store patrons eager to sample the exotic flavours.
Such shows were not without their challenges though and Bala became all too familiar with the seasonal limitations of available ingredients for her cuisine. Somehow, she made it still work and her energy never wavered.
Bala estimated that she spoke to at least 120 school groups, clubs and community organisations just in Dunedin and said that her regular appearances were always welcomed. She also helped other newly arrived Indian families settle.
In late 1971 John was appointed Chief Sub-Editor at New Zealand Truth and the family moved north to Wellington. They settled in the Lower Hutt suburb of Maungaraki, their home for more than 30 years.
Bala’s momentum to help foster cross-cultural understanding barely paused and she could often be found conducting Indian food demonstrations in Wellington supermarkets for companies such as Tegal Chicken.
In subsequent years she graduated to teaching and further shared her passion for food (Indian and other cuisines) at community college cooking classes throughout Wellington and as far north as Kapiti and the Wairarapa. Indian fashion shows, often involving her own children, were also common.
The 1980s and onwards was a particularly involved period for Bala, who in the early part of the decade was already President of the Mahila Samaj (the women’s division of the Wellington Indian Association) and the Secretary of the New Zealand India Society. She also volunteered at the Save the Children Fund and several other community groups.
On the airwaves
For several years Bala had championed the cause for public access radio broadcasting for the country’s growing Indian population and, to her delight, in May 1981 that dream finally became a reality.
From a small recording studio in the old Broadcasting House building, Bala pre-recorded her very first Indian music programme. Three other community groups were also represented as the fledgling Wellington Access Radio network, the first of its type in New Zealand, took to the airwaves.
Bala’s show went from strength to strength and at one stage she produced two Indian programmes on Access that ran on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Bakthi Prabha (Morning Prayers) programme on Saturdays was just as popular as her original Indian Community show and she continued to broadcast on Access for 34 years, finally hanging up her headphones in 2015.
Also in 1981, the first print run of Bala’s recipes, understood to be New Zealand’s first domestically produced Indian cookbook, Curries for Kiwis, was released and it rapidly sold out. A few years later it was reprinted with sponsorship from a local food emporium and, again, sold out in record fashion.
Awards and Citations
In 1983, with Access and her extensive community networks in full swing, Bala took on even more responsibilities as a Justice of the Peace and Marriage Celebrant – the first Indian woman in the country to be appointed to the roles. She could always be relied upon for her signature and stamp.
In 1990 Bala’s dedication to her Indian roots and her extensive community achievements were recognised with the awarding of the Queen’s Service Medal. Visiting Government House to receive the award from former Governor General Sir Paul Reeves was a highlight for her.
In 1993 Bala visited India as a representative of the Global Organisation for People of Indian Origin and was delighted to receive the Mother India Award for her extensive community achievements in New Zealand.
Throughout the rest of the decade and into the new millennium, Bala continued to produce her Access Radio shows, teach cooking and volunteer on various local committees for organisations such as Save the Children Fund and Grey Power. She also loved playing Bridge, watching Cricket and catching up on the latest Bollywood movies. Pupils from several classes at Waterloo School also enjoyed Bala’s Indian immersion lessons.
She also made regular cooking appearances on the Good Morning Show when it was based at the Avalon television studios. The hosts and crew relished her visits, for obvious reasons.
During her decades of community work and projects, Bala still found time for her family and regularly visited her siblings spread around the world. In 2018, she made a final visit to India, accompanied by her son. On this trip, she was able to farewell her own mother and make a special visit to Khambhalia, Gujarat, where her parents first lived before eventually moving to Africa.
After retiring from Access Radio, Bala stepped away from public life and enjoyed time at home, cooking less frequently for others.
In March 2021, she and John relocated across Tasman to live with and be cared for by their eldest daughter and her family in Kurrajong.
John died in June last year and Bala greatly felt his absence. She passed away peacefully at home just a few weeks after her 89th birthday. She believed that nothing in life was impossible and through sheer determination undeniably proved that point.
Bala is survived by her four children, six grandchildren and three step-grandchildren, who live in New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
Viraj Thomson is a Communication Advisor at the Department of Internal Affairs based in Wellington. He is the third child and first son of the late John and Bala Thomson.