The prime minister of India Narendra Modi led the tributes to “curry king” Gulam Noon, who died on Tuesday (27), aged 79, at the Cromwell Hospital in London after a brave battle with cancer.
“I warmly recall my conversations with Lord Noon,” tweeted Modi. “I had promised to meet him during my UK visit. He worked a lot to enhance India-UK ties.”
“Lord Gulam Noon was a hardworking individual and distinguished industrialist,” added Modi. “His affection for India was immense. I am saddened by his demise.”
Noon probably did more than anyone to make Indian cuisine, and especially chicken tikka masala, popular in Britain through his long association with the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain.
The Labour MP and chairman of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, summed up: “Our community has lost one of its greatest stars”.
“Today we have lost a giant, not only of the British Asian community, but also of British entrepreneurship,” said Vaz. “A decent, honourable and generous man, who was dedicated to his family, but also to his country, the United Kingdom.”
“Thousands of people in Britain, India and throughout the world have benefited from his enterprise, the jobs he created, and his big heart. The world of cricket will also miss one of its most devoted followers.
“He was the epitome of everything a first generation immigrant can achieve; someone who literally came with nothing, but was also grateful to Britain for giving him the life chances to prove what an extraordinary man he was, while never forgetting his roots in India.”
Gulam Kaderbhoy Noon was born in Bombay on January 24, 1936. He father died when he was nine and he was brought up by his mother. He first came to London in 1966 and eventually set up Noon Products in 1988.
Noon’s funeral was due to take place on Wednesday (28) at Mohammedi Park Masjid, a Bohra Muslim mosque in Northolt, followed by burial in Hendon Cemetery.
Although he was Baron Noon of St John’s Wood in the London Borough of Camden, having been elevated to the House of Lords in 2011, he was almost universally known as just “Noon” – indeed, he called his autobiography Noon With a View.
He liked telling the anecdote of one occasion when he was sitting next to the Queen and told her affably: “Oh, you can call me Noon”. To which she replied dryly: “When one goes to the trouble of giving out a title, one feels it should be used.”
He was an entrepreneur who built a multi-million food business; cricket lover – he had a personal collection of well over 100 autographed bats and helped fund the establishment of the “India Room” at the Oval cricket ground (Sachin Tendulkar inaugurated its opening); and philanthropist who, among his many acts of generosity, built a hospital in Rajasthan.
The Noon Foundation has given away more than £5 million. Those who have benefited include the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, the Prince’s Trust, the British Library and the University of East London, where Noon was appointed chancellor in 2013.
He was honoured with an MBE for services to the food industry in 1994 and knighted in 2002. His peerage became the subject of controversy when it was alleged he had not declared a loan to the Labour Party. Then it emerged he had – in writing – but had been advised by Downing Street to remove it in a fresh document. This injustice was eventually righted.
He also did not mince his words in attacking Islamist extremism. When he visited Mumbai, more often than not he stayed at the Taj and was in the hotel in November 2008. When friends rang him on his mobile phone, he whispered terrorists were running around in the corridor outside his room. He was rescued from a window by the fire service.
As tributes poured in for Noon, the former Labour prime minister Tony Blair said: “Gulam was a great character, brilliant businessman, and above all someone dedicated to our country and its future. He was devoted to getting those of different religious faiths working together and was a wonderful role model in the Muslim community. He will be deeply mourned.”
Perhaps his greatest contribution was that he lit up the lives of all those he touched. Diwali never passed without Noon sending out hundreds of boxes of mithai from Royal Sweets, the brand owned by Bombay Halwa where he was a director.
Politicians of all parties remembered the man and his qualities. “A great British entrepreneur and kind, compassionate man,” said business secretary Sajid Javid.
Lord Kamlesh Patel mourned the loss of “my closest and dearest friend. Truly a gracious and dignified man, a good human being, who lived up to his motto – Honesty and Integrity. Lord Noon touched the lives of millions through his entrepreneurial spirit, philanthropic nature and thirst for education; most of all for standing up for equality and justice anywhere and everywhere”.
Labour MP Chuka Umunna spoke of “the great Lord Noon. A good friend and hugely impressive man”.
Tory minister Lord (Tariq) Ahmad called Noon “a decent and passionate humanitarian – an honour to have known him as a friend. To God we belong, to God we return”. Labour MP Barry Gardiner described Noon as “one of the most decent men in UK politics and business”.
From among businessmen came this comment from Dr Rami Ranger: “Curry king Lord Noon has left us on his heavenly abode. It was Lord Noon who made Indian food number one in Britain. He will be deeply missed.”
The Los Angeles-based film producer Ashok Amritraj said: “Lord Noon was a wonderful human being whose great accomplishments were only matched by his warmth and personality. A great loss to all of us who are proud to call him our friend.”
Sainsbury’s stood by him when his factory in Southall was destroyed in a fire on November 14, 1994. Noon, for his part, refused to get rid of his staff although insurance refused to help him out. All were paid although none could work. “From adversity I created opportunity,” he said at the time. “Failure will visit you many times; never accept it, throw it out.”
His loyalty was repaid as he rebuilt and indeed expanded his business. He sold his firm to WT Foods, bought it back and finally sold to its current owners, Kerry Foods, who asked him to stay on as a non-executive director, such was the value of his name. His factories were churning out 500,000 chilled meals a day.
He is survived by his wife, Mohini, an author, and his daughters, Zeenat and Zarmin, their husbands Arun Harnal and Manraj Sekhon, respectively, and grandchildren.
Although one of the wealthiest men in Britain, he did not believe in hoarding his money. On being appointed chancellor of East London University, he told the students of his view of life and hopes for the Noon Centre set up to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit. He emphasised the value of education – and of generosity.
“My students, I want to tell you that when you educate yourself, yes, it’s fantastic,” he declared. “But don’t forget the people who are disadvantaged, those who are not as bright as you are; encourage them to get their education. It’s education, education, education.”
The ascetic life was not for him, he remarked. “I made up my mind that, yes, I will buy the best car, the best houses, send my children to the best schools, but I will carve out some of my wealth to give back to society. That is the footprint you are going to leave.”
He observed: “When you die, no rich man has been able to do business from the graveyard.” He called the Noon Centre “my footprint, not my houses, (and) not my factories – lots of kids can benefit (from it)”.
He foresaw a time in the future when “my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren will come here, and they will remember me”.