THE story has all the ingredients for a Bollywood script, complete with the dramatic opening of a little girl watching helplessly as her parents are gunned down.
She is left in a convent and ends up as a teen bride to a poor man. She manages to overcome the odds but fate deals two cruel blows: the death of her daughter and, a year later, her son. But in the end, she manages to crawl out of her despair to achieve fortune and fame and the support of her family.
Such is the story of Harvinder Kaur – a.k.a. Mrs Balbir – Thailand's most recognised “Spice Girl” who is, by the way, “100% Malaysian.”
Besides running a popular Indian restaurant and a thriving takeaway business, she conducts a weekly cooking school, hosts two television shows, does charity work and has ventured into writing about food.
And if the sky's the limit, she’ll be on cloud nine next month. Vinder, as she prefers to be called, has just signed a lucrative deal with Thai Airways International for its Indian food promotion on all flights to destinations in South Asia and the Middle East.
She will design the menus, mix the spices and curry powders to be used, train the chefs and even be on board as guest chef on selected flights.
Vinder has certainly come a long way from the 10-year-old girl cowering before the shot bodies of her parents somewhere along Jalan Thambusamy off Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur on May 14, 1969.
Her father Pritam Singh Sachdev, then 34, had gone out of the house to help an injured neighbour who was shot during curfew hours.
“My mother pleaded with him not to go but the neighbour was his best friend. She followed him out and tried to pull him back but it was too late. I remember one of my mother’s arms being cut off by the bullets. My father was hit in the chest,” she said, recalling that fateful day.
She was hit too. A bullet went into the side of her body just above the hips. Fortunately, it missed vital organs.
“When I regained consciousness, my father was still alive. There was blood everywhere. He was taking my hand into the hole in his chest asking me to take the bullet out. I fainted again when he finally died. I awoke in hospital to see bodies everywhere. I stayed huddled in a corner where the nurses told me to keep quiet,” she said.
When the curfew was called off days later, her grandfather Jagat Singh, then a wealthy landlord in the area, came to see her. She found out that her two brothers and a younger sister were also alive.
Her brothers were sent away to India while she and her sister Simran were sent to the Sacred Heart Convent in Malacca.
The boarding school in the convent turned out to be a blessing for Vinder. In addition to getting a sound education, she learned to cook Italian food, bake cakes and pastries and picked up sewing skills.
“The nuns – Sister Stella, Sister Josephine, Sister Theresa Yong, there were so many of them – instilled in me a sense of determination,” said Vinder.
She became so religious that the sisters thought that she would make a good nun herself. So when Vinder finished secondary education in 1975, they made preparations to send her to Rome to take her final vows.
Just then, her grandfather and an uncle turned up at the convent. They sent her to Bangkok where four of her aunts lived.
“They wanted to marry me off although I wasn’t even 17. My aunts said it was very dangerous to have an unmarried girl in the house, so every night they would try to match-make me to one of the tailors in Sukhumvit,” she said.
Finally, her exasperated aunts gave her an ultimatum: Choose a man or we will pick one for you.
That was how she met Balbir Singh, also being pressured by his family to settle down although he did not have a regular job.
“He told me: I don’t have money but I can give you love. I didn’t have that then, so I agreed. We got married within three days and I soon found out that he only had Bt100 (US$2.60) in his bank account.”
Life was miserable when they moved into a room in Thonburi. It had a toilet and a bed but no window. But she learnt something vital during her hungry years – how to cook Indian food.
Armed with her new knowledge, she started cooking classes for the community, charging as low as Bt10 for lessons in making pizzas, pastries and a range of delicious curries.
Soon she had a daughter and had saved enough for Balbir to open his own tailor shop. With folks calling her “pizza walli” (pizza woman), she was confident enough to set up her own restaurant.
Her husband wasn’t keen because the community frowned upon women in business.
“I told him I’ll name it Mrs Balbir. If I don’t behave, then you can take out the “s”. He agreed,” she said.
The restaurant quickly carved a niche clientele among expatriates and locals. But just when things were going fine, tragedy struck the family. Her daughter, then 11, became ill with kidney failure.
Her death devastated Vinder. She was also in serious financial trouble as most of the money was spent on medical bills. The restaurant was closed for months but eventually Vinder gathered the strength to reopen.
A year later, she became pregnant again and gave birth to a son. But two days later, the baby died in hospital, sending Vinder into another emotional tail spin. It took years for her to recover from the second blow.
Her husband’s tailoring business, however, thrived during the period.
“On our 17th wedding anniversary, he handed me a set of keys. He said: It’s time for a new Mrs Balbir to reopen,” she said, remembering the moment when she decided to get back into her life.
Vinder, who eventually gave birth to another son, now aged 18, hasn’t looked back since. The cosy eatery is hugely popular and so are her cooking classes which includes trips to the wet market and teaching sessions on board a rice barge along the Chao Praya River.
For the past seven years, she has been a bubbly TV celebrity, hosting two shows – Bangkok Spice with Mrs Balbir and the Destination Thailand segment of Travel Asia.
She may be a tourism ambassador for Thailand but Malaysia is very much in her heart.
“I’ll never give up my citizenship,” she said, adding that she is happiest when she meets Malaysians, those who are based here and the tourists who eat at her restaurant.
They may have to wait a while for the food, but she might throw in a teh tarik. “Good curry, no hurry,” is one of her favourite phrases.
She and her sister, who also settled down in Bangkok, hope to rekindle ties with friends, particularly schoolmates from the Sacred Heart Convent in Malacca.
(Vinder can be contacted at 662-651-0498 or via e-mail at email@example.com).
M. Veera Pandiyan is Editor, Asia News Portal, based in Bangkok (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Did you find this article insightful?