By Steve Zwick
What do you call those retail beehives Indian merchants like to open along Devon Avenue?
Take the one Nilam Patel’s family has spent 25 years piecing together. When you see it from the bus, the store, at 2658 W. Devon, looks like a kitchenware outlet. You walk in, and just as you begin marveling at the variety of stainless steel plates and spoons, your eyes come to rest on a grumbly man renting videos from behind a card table. He stares suspiciously as you wait for Nilam’s wife, Jayshree, who swirls out of nowhere a half hour later and wonders why you’re late. “What are you doing in the video store?” she asks, hurling you into a chair, where a waitress piles gobs of spicy carbohydrates onto your plate. “There used to be a jewelry store here,” she says, pointing to the wall. You ask if she means before the restaurant came. “No,” she says. “I mean here.”
After a while it all makes sense.
You’ve just entered the Patel Zone.
And you’re not alone. “Patel,” mutters a salesman in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. “They keep coming up….They got a grapevine.”
Do they ever.
“People always ask me, ‘Where do you guys come from?'” Jayshree says. “What’s with all these Patels?” Anthropologists have been trying to figure that out for decades. So have the Patels.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Jayshree says. “My mother and father were both named Patel, and so were my grandparents.” She pauses briefly and counts on her fingers, then holds up seven of them. “It goes back seven generations! I guess it does seem funny, but it never struck me as odd. I like to think my daughter will marry a Patel, but I won’t force her to do anything she doesn’t want to.”
Three thousand people named Patel recently descended on Miami for a convention weekend that surely would have perplexed every hotel clerk in the city if not for the fact that many of those clerks and their bosses are also named Patel. So are nearly 30 percent of all hotel owners in America, as well as at least half of all the convenience store owners in England and a growing number of Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees.
“It’s a common last name,” says Bobby Patel, a former hotel manager in Chicago. “It’s like Smith.”
Except people named Smith don’t go out of their way to marry other people named Smith, and the name Patel isn’t nearly as common as you’d think.
The simple answer is that they’re members of an Indian caste that emigrated here en masse. The complicated question is where do they come from originally, and how did they get all these hotels?
All Patels trace their ancestry to the Kansas-sized Indian state of Gujarat, but their declared homeland is the southern district of Kheda, which is smaller in area than the city of Chicago. Although one of the largest castes in Gujarat, they’re far from being the largest caste in India. Still, just try finding a more common Indian last name in American telephone books. Not only are they plentiful here, they’re prosperous. “Most Indians are lazy,” says Nilam’s grandfather, Somabhai Patel, whose Indian grocery store on North Kedzie was one of the first in Chicago back in 1977. “You go to India, and you see people sitting on the ground making little piles of stones when they should be building houses.” He’s only half joking.
Jayshree came here ten years ago to marry Nilam, a quietly self-assured engineer whose mellow disposition perfectly complements her exuberance. Somabhai had followed his own son Vallabh, Nilam’s father. On the advice of Manoj Patel, a family friend and convenience store owner turned insurance salesman, Nilam and Jayshree got out of the Indian food business and started selling insurance. “Manoj sort of became our godfather,” says Jayshree, a born wheeler-dealer who’s been shattering quotas almost from the day she started. The only month she hasn’t been the top rookie was when she went back to India for vacation. That month, another Patel slipped temporarily into the top spot. “It helps that so many of my customers are also Patels,” Jayshree says with a wink. “The caste is seen as a source of sustenance,” Nilam says. “Our minds are oriented from birth toward helping others. We’re raised to believe that God gave us this position.”
Their kids should have it easier here. “We have to work for money,” Jayshree says. “They can work with money.” But she worries the children aren’t getting the education they need to properly overachieve. “We’ll have to get a private tutor for Riddhi,” she says as her unsuspecting daughter bounds out of the Catholic school she attends on the northwest side. “This school is a year behind the ones in India.”
Still, education has historically been a weakness among Patels–at least compared to other high-caste Indian emigres, who create the impression that India is a nation of doctors and engineers. “I came on a student visa,” Manoj says, waving his hand dismissively. “But the key word is visa, not student. I took a few semesters at Northwestern and then quit to start a business. Patels don’t study. Patels just do.” That may be changing, at least among the women. Pragna Patel, a hotel executive in California, says the Patel women are completing college at twice the rate of the men. “At least in families that have hotels, the men are given a job from birth. The women have to work for it.”
“Patels are raised from birth to go do something and to build a legacy for your children,” says Mike Amin, a hotel developer. “Hotels are tangible things that can be passed on.” They also can be run by one family. “You rarely find Patels in a corporate environment,” says Mukesh Mowji, a San Francisco Patel who studied electrical engineering and then became a salesman. “When I got my degree, the old men told me people of our birth can’t work for big companies, and it’s true. Patels are always small businessmen. We need to be independent, but we’re not trained to think big. So if three or four of us get really good at something that gives you the opportunity to work independently, pretty soon there will be hundreds doing the same thing.” In Chicago, a directory listing engineers in the construction trade is jokingly called the Patelephone book.
Both Jayshree and Nilam are Leva Patels, the most successful stratum of a community that has many layers. “Some Leva Patels consider themselves superior to the others,” Jayshree says, deftly avoiding the question of who she considers the top Patel. One of the big issues Patel scholars debate is whether the Leva Patels, Kanbi Patels, Anjana Patels, and others really are one caste with several names or several castes trying to act as one. Most Patels say they are one caste with two main subcastes: the wealthy and well-educated Leva Patels from southern Gujarat who dominate the U.S. hotel industry, and the somewhat poorer and less educated Kadwa Patels from the north, who have discovered franchising and taken a liking to Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins.
Some say the long trek to America began way back around 680 AD, when marauding Huns plundered their way across the northern state of Punjab. Children of that invasion are said to have coalesced into a Hindu farming tribe that spread the science of agriculture across northern India. When the last Hindu king of Delhi fell to the Muslims in 1139, this farming tribe was allegedly invited to Gujarat, the fertile state that juts into the Arabian Sea just below the point where Pakistan meets India. Some say these migrants weren’t really Huns but Persians, and others say they were the Gujars themselves, the tribe for whom Gujarat is named. Still others say they were little more than figments of the imagination for people in search of a glorious past. No matter which version you believe, the story ends with the tribe establishing a homeland in Kheda and nurturing it into the present-day “Garden of India.” From there they continued to launch mass migrations over the centuries. After India secured independence from England in 1947, they started coming to the U.S. “We all hear some version of that story growing up,” Nilam says. “I don’t know if it’s true, but I have heard there are some language and cultural similarities between the Punjabis and the Leva Patels.”
Dhiraj Patel, a Devon Avenue amateur historian, shakes his head angrily when he hears the tale. He says he’s traced his own lineage back through 197 generations of Patels and is in the process of translating a caste history his father, Gokoldas Patel, spent 45 years researching back in the old country. He wants to publish the book here in the U.S. He’s also gathering money to build a history museum in Gujarat and acts as an adviser to Rotary Club members who visit there. “Myths can be passed on faster than history, just as rumors move faster than truth, and anything other than the truth is a lie and therefore counterproductive,” he says as clusters of people shuffle through his cluttered photography studio. The little shop’s walls are lined with portraits of Catholic nuns, Brahman holy men, and the Dalai Lama. Most of the customers this day are coming for passport photos, and only a few seem startled by the sign warning of a five-dollar penalty if they blink. “This Hun-Punjabi myth is popping up everywhere,” Dhiraj continues, picking up a book published by a Kadwa Patel group and waving it just out of reach. “Look, it’s right here in print–but the Huns had nothing to do with the Patels. It’s a made-up history designed to make people feel good. I can’t let you read it, because then I would be spreading a lie.” He claims that everything published in English has been a distortion. “All we’ve seen so far are mistruths, mistakes, and myths,” he says, adding that scholarly anthropological studies are no better.
Most of the academic literature available in English says the Patels didn’t really come together as a caste until the last 200 years. Some scholars even claim the Leva Patels owe their success to centuries of kissing up to invading powers. “Preposterous,” Dhiraj says. “The Patels had nothing to do with the British except for fighting them in the revolution. That story is just as ridiculous as the ones the Patels themselves have made up. For one thing, the British wouldn’t waste their time with a simple farming caste.” He says the misunderstanding comes from outsiders trying to grasp a culture they’re not a part of. “I’ve been here 20 years, and I still don’t know how America works,” he says calmly. “How can a British anthropologist spend five years in India and claim to understand the people?” An Indian sociologist named Jayprakash Trivedi has also studied the Patels, and he says a strong caste feeling has existed among them for centuries, even if they didn’t follow all the codes of conduct that have historically defined a caste–rules for courtship, marriage, diet, and other behaviors designed to keep the bloodlines pure. Even the non-Indians who’ve tried to figure them out agree the Patels have exhibited their characteristic diligence, independence, and stubbornness for centuries, even though their formal caste laws are relatively new.
Technically, the caste is called “Patidar,” and Patel is the most common last name among its members. “For all intents and purposes, Patel and Patidar are the same,” says Nilam. They weren’t officially recognized as a caste until the British-run government declared them one in the 1930s. Before then, most Patels were listed as belonging to a caste called Kanbi, a name derived from a word meaning householder and implying agriculturist. The Kanbi, according to most anthropologists, were a diverse group that had been farming Gujarat for at least 800 years. Their alleged diversity is a sticking point with the Patels today, for a true caste is anything but diverse. Castes are supposed to be pure gene pools thousands of years old. Until this century members of a caste usually weren’t even allowed to share meals with members of most other castes, and members of dominant castes were known to throw keys to members of a servant caste rather than risk brushing hands with them and violating the sacred caste purity. All caste members were supposed to follow strict rules about what to eat, how to dress, and especially whom to marry. The various Patel groups, however, were not only sitting down to eat with members of lower castes but also following different marriage and religious customs among themselves. These were only standardized in the last 100 years, and Trivedi dug up a saying he claims was common in the 19th century: “Kanbi Nyat bahar nahi,” which he translates as “A Kanbi can never be out-casted.” But he also writes that their marriage customs had “splited them into many strata and broken their former spirit of brotherhood and equality,” implying they had once been more unified. Journal entries by British soldiers stationed in Gujarat in the 1700s reveal an admiration of the Kanbi work ethic and farming skills, as well as their ability to deal simply and directly with foreigners. Various observers over the last two centuries have described the Patels as strong willed, hardworking, blunt in speech, honest, and education minded, but also confident and standoffish when dealing with non-Patels and subservient and loyal when dealing with their own. Most concluded a two-way process was at work, with large groups breaking into smaller ones and smaller ones amalgamating into larger ones, but always with some stubborn Patelness showing through.
Regardless of where they came from, it’s clear someone was farming cotton and edible crops in Gujarat when tobacco arrived from the New World at the end of the 1500s. The plant took well in the fertile soil, and the farmers thrived. The farmland was eventually divvied into strips of land called pati, which were assigned to various farmers, who became known as strip-holders, or pati-dar. Dhiraj says that the Patidar are an ancient caste that once spread its influence evenly across united Hindu India and that a leader named Virt Vasanji brought them together in Gujarat in the late 1700s. There they earned the right to own freehold land rather than just farm it and took the title Patel. One thing no one disputes is that the Patels practically own Gujarat. In Kheda, they are the major landholders in 130 out of roughly 200 villages. Anthropologists say certain Patidar became responsible for collecting the pati taxes, and these lucky landowners became known as Matadar. The word patel crept into the vernacular as a general administrative title that was never meant to be hereditary. Some historians translate “Patel” as “village headman,” and others say it meant “keeper of law and order.”
“A lot of families were given the name Patel very recently,” says Kiran Ghodasara, a Kadwa Patel living in New Jersey who has legally changed his last name. “I think it sometimes happened because you’d be in school and a teacher knew you were Patidar and would just call you Patel, and the name stuck. You sometimes ended up with two brothers with different last names, and those names got passed on.” As to why he changed his name he says, laughing, “There are too many Patels here.”
Ghodasara says he believes the anthropologists are right when they say the Patels started coming into their own under the Islamic Mughal Empire, which established a base in Kheda city in the 1600s. The Mughal presence helped maintain relative stability as the surrounding areas slid into chaos under advancing British and Hindu armies. In many ways, the encroaching turmoil turned parts of Gujarat into an investor’s wet dream–Kheda had long been home to many major trading centers, and now they had good management in the form of Muslim overlords and Kanbi administrators. For a half century, they also had no real competition.
But things went into decline for most residents after Hindu Marathas from the north “liberated” Gujarat in 1705. They instituted a feudal system with themselves as lords, and some of these lords seemed to view the locals as little more than pawns in a series of petty war games. Soon the liberators were waging battles among themselves, and later against the British. Criminal castes were able to plunder the region almost at will, and the ensuing chaos prevented even the benevolent lords from thinking much beyond tax collection and security. These priorities placed a premium on the tax-collecting functions of the Matadar and radically transformed the Kanbi caste. Trivedi cites a historian named Bhailalbhai Patel as saying most Matadar were Leva Patels and that they split their tax booty first with the Mughals, then with the Marathas, and eventually with the British. “[He] attributed the Leva Patidar’s success partly to their qualities of hard work, intelligence, and enterprising nature and partly to their occupancy of powerful positions as village heads and revenue collectors under the Mughal and Maratha regime,” Trivedi wrote. Most Western anthropologists agree, and many Patels themselves say there’s some truth to the story. “Some Patels even got a promotion,” jokes Mike Patel, owner of the Diplomat Hotel chain and head of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association in Atlanta. “If you were a good administrator, the British promoted you to Desai or Amin. People joke about it now–saying if your name is Desai, you’re one of ‘them’–but in the old days it was taken seriously.”
Dhiraj shakes his head angrily. “Rubbish,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a Matadar, and the Kanbi are laborers who worked on Patidar land.” He points out that all the anthropologists publishing in English have built their histories on the same English-language sources. “My father’s research goes deeper than anything yet published,” he says. “The Patels are not the Kanbi. The Patels are not Huns. The Patels are an ancient caste. Their history goes back thousands of years.”
The anthropologists answer that it is just like a Patel to deny his true Kanbi heritage. They say the differences between the leading Kanbi and the other Kanbi were relatively small until the mid-1800s, when the British cut the leading Kanbi out of the revenue-collecting power structure. By then, however, all those years at the top had given them the money and skills they needed to make investments their brethren couldn’t. Their wealth soared with the economy, and the rich became richer. An upper echelon was born. “The superior Patidars, who were prosperous landowners and held a high position within their caste, were very conscious of their status,” wrote anthropologist David Pocock in 1972. “They tried to exclude those caste members of lower rank by calling them Kanbis, and they married only within lineages of equivalent rank.” If you weren’t of that rank, your children were out of luck–unless you decided to buy their way into it. Middle-class Kanbi families began pouring fortunes into dowries so their daughters could marry into the top Patidar echelons, and competition became so fierce that many were bankrupting themselves to buy rich husbands for their daughters. “The whole dowry thing was all over India and not just among the Patels,” Dhiraj says. “It’s something like corruption. You put some money in someone’s hands to get something done. That’s how dowry began.” So many middle-class families became poor families in the process of marrying their daughters into rich families that both the British and the Patels worried their society would crumble. To prevent that, they came up with marriage circles, which essentially bound each Patel to marry within his or her rank. Gradually, strict codes of caste conduct regarding courtship, diet, and other behaviors were introduced, and the dowry practice was reeled in but never really squashed. Even Dhiraj admits that many Kanbi managed to sneak in the back door of Patelhood simply by changing their names and waiting a generation or two for the neighbors to forget. “A lot of people upgraded themselves to Patel that way,” he says. “Today you’ve got Muslim Patels, Christian Patels, and others who aren’t really Patidar.” Another Patel scholar, C.B. Patel of London, says these diverse Patels are all descended from Hindus who converted to other religions.
Dhiraj and C.B. both point out that nearly every non-Indian anthropologist who has studied the Patels has focused on one or two small towns and extrapolated an image of the caste as a whole. Trivedi is one of the few who took a broader view, and he also has had the advantage of publishing most of his research in the 1990s, making him one of the freshest sources available. Plus, his Indian heritage gives him credibility the others don’t have. He interviewed members of 280 Leva Patidar families who migrated en masse from farms to cities after the 1947 independence, and his findings also shed light on why Patels began trickling into the U.S. in the 1950s.
Trivedi begins more than a century ago, when the number of farmers began to increase more rapidly than the number of farms. By the 1850s there were already more Patidar than there were patis to dar, so Patels grudgingly began to diversify. Those who went into business shunned corporate employment and became small rural industrialists, and those who went into politics shunned civil service jobs and instead became leaders of their communities. To balance their naivete in these new areas, they formed partnerships with Patels who had gone before them, which allowed them to keep some semblance of classic Patel independence while preserving and even deepening their trust in the caste itself. Some sociologists say an agricultural recession in the early 1900s shuffled the caste pecking order. The wealthy Patels at the time owned land but no longer farmed it themselves, and the very poor farmed but didn’t own–although Dhiraj says anyone who didn’t own land wasn’t a Patidar. The wealthier had been among the first to diversify out of farming, and many pulled out completely. The landless ones–or at least the poorer ones–left because they had no choice. Members of both groups went to Africa to help build railroads, and rich and poor alike bought into the coffee and sugar refineries.
The middle-class Patels thrived on farms and in politics, and Trivedi says the break from Britain infused people with a feeling of optimism. They brought their risk capital to the cities, and their success brought other Patels. An urban Patel community quickly developed, and a lack of good countryside schools and the continuing lack of land for sale pushed more of them off their farms, while increasingly wealthy urban Patels pulled them to the cities with offers of opportunity and promises of a social network. Particularly ambitious migrants rode the wave of optimism all the way to America.
The fact that farmers kept their caste traditions relatively intact after moving to Indian cities surprised Trivedi, who says members of rural landless castes tended to withdraw into their nuclear families once urbanized. The better-heeled Patels, however, volunteered even more time for caste activities in the cities than they had in the towns, and the fledgling caste became stronger than tradition-laden castes that had been around for millennia. The camaraderie of belonging to a close-knit group kept their newly formed marriage circles and other caste practices intact, but families got smaller, and the hard-etched roles softened. Wives gained more freedom and respect, as did children, and fathers carried less burden. Trivedi says urban Patels interacted less frequently with other caste members than they did out in the country, but the caste remained their dominant social group in Indian cities, as it has in England and in the United States.
He also points out that the ancient migration myth, regardless of its factual accuracy, played a defining role in the self-image of the Patels. While other castes have been migrating with the seasons seemingly forever, they always came back to their homelands at the end of the year. The Patels, however, have set up permanent settlements in West Bengal, Orissa, and other Indian states, as well as Bombay and most Indian cities. Some say they followed the British on these treks–especially to Bombay, a city the British built almost from scratch to house their capital–while others, like Dhiraj, say they had been present for millennia and were only reclaiming their past. Gujarat, however, remained their heartland, as it did for the Patels who moved to the Fiji Islands and, later, to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in eastern Africa.
Then came the bloody early 1970s, when Idi Amin started brutally expelling Asians from Uganda and the worldwide network of Patels became a refugee support system. Swarms of penniless and often parentless refugees were stripped of their belongings and shipped out of the country. Some managed to find refuge in Gujarat, while others traveled to London, Scandinavia, and the United States.
Mike Patel’s route to the U.S. was classic Patel. His family was one of those expelled from Uganda. They landed in England, where his father got a job on a London double-decker bus and within three years had saved enough money to buy a convenience store. Mike began stocking shelves there when he was 13, and in 1980 he finished college and hopped a plane to the U.S., where, after a brief stint as a professional soccer player, he decided to tap into the Patel network and start up a business. “Any Patel who comes here and earns a little respect can get $200,000 or so in low-interest loans from the network,” he says. The hotel phenomenon began in the 1940s, with the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. To get around laws forbidding Asians from owning land, a Japanese woman had leased a flophouse in Sacramento. When the authorities took her away, she sold her lease to two tenants, who were Patel laborers. Within a few years, word had spread throughout Gujarat that there was a place to stay in California, if you could get there. Patels living at the hotel also learned the business, and by the time Mike arrived, they had become so adept at buying hotels that many small-town Americans thought the name meant “hotel” in Hindi.
“They became accidental hoteliers,” says Mike Leven, who was head of Days Inn Corporation in the mid-1980s. “A few of them had bought hotels early on because you could get into them cheaply and house your family in them. I understand it grew slowly at first, but took off in the 70s.” By 1985, when Leven took the helm at Days Inn, their success was starting to work against them.
“The insurers didn’t realize how many hotels were owned by Patels, but they knew the name kept popping up on insurance claims,” Mike Patel recalls. “They thought we were buying hotels just to burn them for the insurance money.” He says members of the caste started getting turned down for insurance, and then investigators from the departments of Justice and Immigration began to ask questions. “A lot of us were new to this country, and we’d been through some rough times. There were misunderstandings on both sides.”
“They were being treated like second-class citizens,” Leven recalls. “It wouldn’t have affected my life one way or the other, except that in 1985 Days Inn had 100 hotels and Patels owned about 15 of them. Most came from an agrarian background and weren’t really trained to handle food and beverage operations, which can be complex. On top of that, they had these insurance troubles. It was a mess.” A group of Patels headed by a man named Shankar “Big Sam” Patel organized the Mid-South Indemnity Association in Tennessee to help them buy insurance, and Leven helped them set up the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, which gave them a framework within which to organize training and purchasing. He says today Patel-run hotels are as good as any. They’ve been buying Marriotts and Hiltons across the country and they now own half of all 1,800 Days Inns as well as 15 spots on the company’s franchisee advisory committee.
Mike Patel says it’s all due to a combination of work ethic and community. “I can give you an example from my wedding,” he says. “My wife is also Patel, but we’re from different villages in Gujarat, and the wedding was in England. So you had people from everywhere at this wedding, but you’d find that her father knows one of my distant uncles and he in turn knows one of her cousins. There are all these interlocking branches. It’s always like that with Patels.”
To keep the tradition alive in the U.S., the Patels have evolved a kind of arranged marriage with right of refusal, almost a formalized version of what many blue-blooded Americans have done for generations. Parents sort through stacks of marriage directories delivered via one caste organization or another. These list a potential mate’s accomplishments, town of origin, and parents’ names. Because of all those interlocking branches, background checks can be pulled off with a few phone calls. If everything adds up, the candidates are put in contact with each other, and if the phone conversation clicks they meet unchaperoned at a convention like the recent one in Miami. If the chemistry is there, they can be married in a matter of months. “It’s an arranged marriage, but also a love marriage,” says Jayshree. “After last year’s convention, we had 170 weddings.”
But she wonders how long the tradition will continue, or even if it should. “I really like being a Patel,” she says. “I have very fond memories of Gujarat and my life there, but I’m Americanized now. I’ve started doing little things like eating chicken. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but my mother wouldn’t believe it until I did it in front of her! We had to sit her down and do this big ritual, and she said, ‘Noooo, noooo,’ as kind of a joke. We all laughed, but symbolically it means I’ve changed.” Nilam says he’d like to send his son and daughter to the same Christian Brothers Catholic school he attended in Gujarat, “just so they can have the experience.”
Manoj says there are advantages to keeping everything in the caste. “If your son or daughter is getting married, you look at the education and social status of the family they come from, whether you are German or Chinese or Indian. Five or ten percent of the Patels here in America are already mixing it up, and diversity is definitely an advantage you have here. India is an ethnically diverse nation, but the idea of multiculturalism hasn’t taken hold there.”
A girl walks into Dhiraj’s shop to order wedding photos. On the list of participants, only half are Patels. “It’s a mixed wedding,” he says. “In the future, I’d guess only half of the American Patels will marry in the caste. Twenty years ago, when I married my wife, people thought I was a radical because I was Leva Patel and she was Kadwa Patel. The Patels who grew up in London are very British. We’ll see what happens to this first American generation.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs/Jon Randolph.