All sections of the Asian community came together last Wednesday (28) for the funeral of Lord Gulam Noon, who had died, aged 79, the previous day at the Cromwell Hospital in London after a protracted illness.
He was laid to rest in Hendon Cemetery in north London on a glorious autumn afternoon with the sun slanting in through the trees. First, however, prayers were offered at Mohammedi Park Masjid, a Bohra mosque in Northolt.
People of all faiths and perhaps none crowded into the mosque and some of them later attended the interment.
Especially touching was the presence of workers who had once been employed by Noon Products. Back in 1994 when his factory was destroyed by fire, Lord Noon rejected advice that he ought to formally dismiss his employees as a way of reducing his financial liabilities. He insisted on keeping them, paying their weekly wages and, with the support of the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain, was able to restart and indeed expand his business.
Last week the workers hired a couple of mini-buses and turned up to pay their respects to a caring employer and someone they considered to be, above all, “a good man”.
Though in life Britain’s “curry king” was a millionaire many times over and had the latest limousine and always with the personalised number plate GKN1 (after Gulam Kaderbhoy Noon), the one-time ordinary ‘boy from Bombay’ was buried in a simple shroud.
As Lord Noon’s wife, Mohini, and his daughters, Zeenat and Zarmin, and other family members and friends crowded round by the grave site, his sons-in-law, Arun Harnal and Manraj Sekhon, took off their shoes and performed the last rites.
Then all present, men and women, were invited to toss “three scoopfuls of earth as per custom” into the grave.
And as though Lord Noon was at one of his favoured cricket grounds, the shadows lengthened and an imam led the final prayers.
Cherie Blair, wife of the former prime minister, Tony Blair, could be seen consoling Lady Noon.
In contrast to Christian funerals, which tend to be intensely private affairs only for close family, Noon’s appeared to be a collective act which unified the entire Asian community. He would have approved of that. The chances are he left detailed instructions. “We Asians are emotional people,” was a comment which explained it all.
Even back in February, after doctors had told Lord Noon he was clear of lung cancer, he had a premonition that the remaining time left to him would coincide with the end of an Indian summer. He gave a startled friend a CV before producing an invoice for a burial plot he had bought in Hendon Cemetery. It was his wish, it seems, to select a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious resting place and he wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise. This was, he felt, like contemporary Britain as well as the old Bombay, where he was born and which was then one of the most cosmopolitan and relaxed cities in the world (in all likelihood there will be a meeting held in memory of Lord Noon in Mumbai early next year).
“I think this is the biggest funeral I have attended,” said one of those attending.
There were several hundred, possibly 1,000 people, at the mosque.
It was a similar story at the cemetery, where a line of people filed past his casket lying in a chapel, with his family and close friends such as Lord Kamlesh Patel and Nat Puri, in attendance.
The Indian high commissioner, Ranjan Mathai, who is due to return to India next month after his two-year stint in London, joined the queue, as did Lord Noon’s fellow members of the Lords – Raj Bagri, Bhikhu Parekh and Raj Loomba. There were several senior businessmen – Dr Kartar Lalvani, Dr Rami Ranger, members of the Suterwalla family, a representative of the Hindujas. The Labour MP Keith Vaz, who had called Noon “a giant”, was there, too.
“We have had calls from all over the world – the King and prime minister of Bahrain called,” Arun Harnal said later.
Last Sunday (1), there was a prayer meeting in Southall gurdwara and on Monday (2), a “celebration of his life” organised in parliament by Leicester East MP Vaz.
At the event, Tony Blair, who occupied his old prime minister’s chair in a packed Committee Room 14 in the House of Commons, said Lord Gulam Noon “will continue to be an inspiration even after his passing”.
Another former prime minister, Sir John Major, sent a message stressing “Gulam was a value friend for many years”, while from New York, David Miliband, former foreign secretary, said that “the media called him a ‘Curry King’ but he was a humble king”.
East London University mourned the passing of its chancellor, with its chairman of governors, Mark Stephens, pointing out that Lord Noon was “one of the most respected individuals in Britain”.
The gathering included members of both Houses, speaker John Bercow, Lady Noon, his daughters and sons-in-law, and “adored” Natania, who promised to take her grandfather’s values “to the next generation”.
Many, among them Lord Kamlesh Patel, spoke of warm friendships they shared with the peer.
Lady Noon read an extract from her husband’s maiden speech from May 12, 2011: “It is inevitable that there will be friction at times, difficulties of adjustment, but we are all the same under the skin.”
She recalled her husband had helped her stage a play on the great Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, whose poem had struck a chord with Noon: “When you leave me/ In the grave/ Don’t say goodbye…It seems like a sunset/ But in reality it is a dawn/ When the grave locks you up/ That is when your soul is freed.”