Friends Forever: Brought to Houston by College, These Friends Have Stuck Together Ever Since


Four of the friends who started their adult life in Houston in 1968. From left, Shailesh Shah, Nalin Shah, Deepak Patel and Jawahar Malhotra in a meeting in Mumbai in March 2015.

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: It is a tale mostly of two cities – Bombay and Houston – but with a twist of Jaipur, Delhi and Bern, Switzerland added to it.

In the fall of 1968, three teenage friends left their comfortable homes in then-Bombay (now-Mumbai) and made their way to the small city of Houston where perhaps 400,000 people lived. The three – Nalin Shah, Shailesh Shah (no relation) and Deepak Patel – had come for a college education and picked this Bayou City because Deepak’s older brother (Ramesh Patel) lived here. It helped that, at that time, Texas was one of the cheapest places for a foreign student to go to college.
About the same time, Dilip Sethi also came to Houston at the behest of his older brother Virendra who was a close friend of Ramesh’s, to finish off the mechanical engineering degree he had started in K.J. Somaiya Polytechnic in Bombay, at Texas A&M University.

From a different trajectory altogether, this reporter left his German language studies in Bern and applications to universities in West Germany to come to Houston at the urging of his uncle, Shyam Talwar who was also friends with Ramesh and Virendra. He arrived at the only airport then, Hobby Airport via a connecting flight from New York and immediately started to peel off layers of woolen clothes on a warm January 26, 1969.

The five young adults, ranging from 16 to 23 became inseparable as they stuck together and took the bus from their Montrose apartments to South Texas Junior College, since acquired by the University of Houston to become its Downtown College. They had many escapades that were normal for newly arrived foreigners trying to get a handle on American culture and lifestyle.

Like confusing a 12 noon bus schedule with 12 midnight (am or pm?); visiting Busch Gardens by taxi like rich millionaires; ordering a grilled cheese sandwich but holding the meat; packing in 10 people in one car to go to the drive-in for one ticket; and all chipping in with money so that one could order a cup of coffee in a fancy Indian restaurant.

And they were not alone. Others from Bombay, Gujarat and Uganda joined the same college: Piyush Desai and Kaushik, his younger brother; Jayanti Patel and his younger brother Vasudev, Sharad Kothari, Nilesh Choksey and Ashwini Munjal and they formed a strong bond based on strength in numbers in a foreign land.

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The fifth friend, Dilip Sethi on a trip to Australia in January 2014.

Born in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, Dilip was the sixth of eight children of Baboolalji Sethi (who owned a textile mill) and his wife Rajkumari Devi. He went to high school in Bombay, then to St. Xaviers College and Somaiya Polytechnic. Deepak and Nalin had met in 8th grade in Fellowship School in Gowalia Tank, Bombay. Across the maidan was Shailesh’s school, New Era and when they met two years later, Deepak discovered he lived across the street from him. This reporter never studied in India, though he was born in New Delhi, and traveled the world with his parents as his father Jagdish Chander Malhotra (with wife Shakuntla) was a Foreign Service Diplomat. After finishing high school in Teheran, he studied in Switzerland before coming to Houston.

As their studies ended, the five friends went their separate ways. Dilip worked for Brown & Root, went back to India to get married and then moved to New York City in 1972 to start Rekha Gem Imports, wholesaling in diamond and precious stones and at 70 is still working everyday. Deepak got his electrical engineering degree and worked for Bechtel till 1982 when he returned to Bombay and take over the business his father Purshottam Mangalbhai Patel (with wife Vimalben) started in 1949, Paper Process Works in Mazagaon, with his expatriate German partner Felix Eric Heinecke. Now 65, Deepak has sold the business but still dabbles in trading.

Nalin went back to join the firm that his grandfather Popatlal Shah joined as a Director and shareholder in 1942,  Biddle Sawyer Ltd., which had offices in London, Paris, New York, Osaka and Rio de Janeiro. In 1947 he bought 100 per cent equity and Nalin’s father Pravin Shah joined while his mother Sharda raised three boys. Nalin, now 63, sold the pharmaceutical division of the company to Glaxo Welcome in 1997, but continues to work in financial markets and in specialty chemicals with Japanese and Taiwanese firms.

Shailesh received his BA in Finance and managed a Quality Inn franchise in Bordentown, New Jersey before moving to Dubai to manage his family’s firm, Bhaktawar Construction. He moved to Bombay in 1980 and now is a manufacturer of sanitary napkins for Johnson & Johnson for the 17 northern states. Shailesh, 63, is also a Director in Kalpataru, a prominent land development firm in which his father Kanubhai Shah was once a partner. His mother Urvashi was a homemaker who raised three children.

This reporter, the youngest of the five, received his Master’s in Biomedical Engineering and apart from being a consulting engineer in Houston found his true calling in the media business, co-founding Indo American News, which has spun into television programming and online media. His father was the paper’s New Delhi correspondent after his retirement and his mother Shakuntla is popular for her weekly Punjabi cuisine recipes.

Still, despite the distances that separate them, and also the differences in mother tongues, lifestyles and family dynamics, these five friends still manage to get together often – and at least once a year – to reconnect. Time seems to have stood still as they reminisce and giggle over each other’s antics when they meet at their favorite restaurants or hangouts in Mumbai. They can complete each other’s sentences, often chiding each other “Tu abhi bhi nahin sudera!” (You still haven’t shaped up!). “Tu pehle bhi chalu tha aur abhi bhi chalu hai!!” (You were a smooth operator before and sure as heck still are!!).