Raj Syal Dies: A Pioneering, Tireless Pillar of Houston’s Hindu Community

By Jawahar Malhotra

The Woodlands: In the early years of the Indian community in the Bayou City, in 1968, when there were perhaps only 50 young families and a handful of foreign students at the University of Houston, there was a natural yearning to bond and find ways to gather for camaraderie and satisfy the yearning to reconnect with one’s roots. There weren’t many choices in a city that had yet to see an influx of diversity that is taken for granted today.

Realizing there were no other outlets, Raj Syal discussed an idea with a small group of friends and decided to bring in Indian films from New York to show once a month at the Agnes Arnold Hall Auditorium at UH. They chipped in some money, and he would pick up (and afterwards deliver) the four 12-inch round tin-cased reels from Hobby Airport, learnt how to run the projector, sell $1 tickets and even cajoled his wife Krishna and other women to make samosas and mint chutney and sell them 2 for a buck during the intermission. It went on for a couple of years and formed the heart and soul of the community’s efforts to define itself.

Encouraged by the response, Syal convinced others to join in and celebrate Indian events like Independence Day and Diwali with outdoor gatherings with food and music spun off vinyl LPs under the stars at UH in the grove by Shasta’s (the UH cougar mascot) cage.

These were the beginnings of Raj Syal’s experiments with social service, which eventually led to the creation of the India Culture Center and in subsequent years, as the community began to grow rapidly, to other events to bring those who yearned for the old country together. His spirit never diminished, even as he grew older, to rejoice in the luster of Indian culture, his Punjabi roots and Hindu religion, as he went on to jump-start other institutions that outlast him.

After several years of declining health, Raj Syal finally breathed his last on Thursday, October 1, at his home, surrounded by his family. He was 86. He is survived by his wife Krishna, children Anju, Rajinder (wife Georgiana), Rupinder and grandsons Krishan (wife Chandler) and Daniel.

Krishna and Ray Syal at the wedding of their elder grandson Krishan James with Chandler. They also have a younger grandson Daniel Kumar.

“My grandfather was a lot of things to the Houston community,” reflected his eldest grandson Krishan James Syal, “ – a leader, role model and mentor – but to me he was just Baba, a caring grandfather, my biggest supporter and the center of our family.”

His brother Daniel Kumar Syal, who, like his grandfather, graduated from Tulane in 2018, echoed the sentiment. “Baba never allowed his education or fierce intelligence to corrupt his natural humbleness,” he said.  “He forged a vibrant community in a strange country through the strength of his character and his commitment to preserving his heritage. He was a rare man and should serve as an example for future immigrants who wish to become Americans while also preserving their distinct traditions.”

Raj Kumar Syal was born on May 7, 1934 in village Bilga, District Jullunder in the Punjab, India and lost his parents at an early age and was, with his older brother, raised by his grandparents. He received an associate degree in engineering in 1958 and then came to Tulane University in 1963 but earned his civil engineering degree at Texas A&M University.

Two years later, his wife Krishna and two kids Anju and Rajinder followed and the family moved to the Houston area in Lamarque in February 1965 after Syal began working for the Texas Highway Department. Ever conscious of self-improvement, Syal received his masters in civil engineering from the University of Houston in 1970. Syal worked at the THD for 45 years till his retirement in 2011. After his moved to The Woodlands, the Syals followed suit and shifted there in 1999.

Syal was a man burning with a desire to hold true to his faith, culture and humble beginnings and sought out like-minded people to knit what he perceived would be a growing Indian community in a dominant Anglo-Saxon culture. At first, he helped start a Sikh Gurdwara in the Southeast side of the metropolitan area.

In 2014, Raj Syal received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Consul General of India, Harish Parvathneni (left), Dr. Sen Pathak, Distinguished Research Professor at University of Texas M D Anderson Cancer Center (right) and the actor Saurabh Raj Jain who played Lord Krishna in the Indian television series Mahabharat in 2013.

Then he invested both time and money in the India Culture Center, eventually buying a small house on Cypress Street near Beechnut and Hillcroft (across from the Vedanta Society formed by Dr. K. L. Sindwani, the founder of Indo American News) to serve as its headquarters. He would often go there and cut the grass and do other landscaping (and at times this reporter would help).

No task for the community was ever too small or menial or time consuming, whatever the time of day, a fact that his wife Krishna and kids (who now included the youngest son Rupinder) had to learn to live with. She would tag along to Houston, 35 miles away from home, and sometimes the kids would have to bring their homework with them to finish while Raj Syal finished his tasks.

It was a sense of commitment and being true to his word that made Raj Syal such a dependable commodity when the community needed someone to shoulder the weight.

Along with others like Shyam Talwar and his wife Tara and Gopal Rana (another tireless worker) and his wife Kumud, Syal realized that the Hindu identity needed a place to reflect and helped found the regions first temple, the Hindu Worship Society on Wirtcrest Road on the near westside.

Some years later, recognizing that the Hindu community was fragmented across the metroplex, Syal pushed for holding the area’s first Janamashtami program at the George R. Brown Convention Center and subsequently, after it was deemed a success, forming the Hindus of Greater Houston, a non-profit that endures and speaks for the area’s Hindus and continues to hold the festival each year. He even organized the city’s first fireworks display downtown for Janamashtami.

For all his efforts, the HGH awarded Ray Syal a lifetime achievement award on the 25th anniversary of the Janamashtami event in 2014. But Syal, who had a naturally charming and innocent manner and a ready smile on his cherubic face, was not one who sought out honors.

In fact, he would often run from the limelight, and was never given to long speeches. His congenial manner of sublimating and cajoling made the strength of his convictions had to resist.

As he would often say at the tail end of a meeting, with a slight wave and bow, “chalo, wekhi jaiyigi. Let’s see!” and if all else failed, you’d see him personally taking care to make events work.