1937-2023: Inderjit Handa’s “epic” story

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After moving to Ottawa to teach high school mathematics in the late 1960s, Inderjit Handa, a vegetarian, was thoroughly appalled by the city’s selection of natural food.

Handa had been born and raised in India, and taught school in London, England, where at least he could find some decent muesli. Ottawa was a health food wasteland. So, in 1974 while still a teacher at Canterbury High School, he founded Handa Natural Foods at the Billings Bridge Shopping Centre.

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It was one of Ottawa’s first health food stores.

“My idea was really to provide people with an alternative to supermarket pre-packaged foods,” Handa once told an interviewer.

The store flourished and, within two years, he launched a second location on Bank Street in the Glebe, alongside a travel business, Handa Travel. He quit his teaching job the following year to devote himself to entrepreneurship. By 2000, Handa Travel had more than 30 locations in Ontario and Quebec, and 150 employees, many of them new immigrants.

Inderjit Handa, founder of Handa Natural Foods and Handa Travel, with his son, Alex.
Inderjit Handa, founder of Handa Natural Foods and Handa Travel, with his son, Alex. Photo by Photo supplied

A pioneering member of Ottawa’s Indo-Canadian business community, Handa died suddenly from cardiac arrest earlier this year while visiting India. He was 85.

“He was curious and interested, and he listened to everyone,” said Handa’s son, Alex. “He was infinitely looking to connect to people, understand them, and know their stories.”

His own story had an epic quality.

Inderjit Handa was born into a large, prosperous Hindu family in Mandiala Tega, a predominantly Muslim village about 100 kilometres north of Lahore, in January 1937. His father and grandfather worked as grain and cotton merchants in a village where Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs lived side-by-side.

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But Handa’s life was forever changed in 1947 by the end of the British Raj, and the partition of the sub continent into two states: Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Inderjit Handa with his family (l-r) Alex, Tanja, Nina, and wife, Erna, in 1982.
Inderjit Handa with his family (left to right) Alex, Tanja, Nina and his wife, Erna, in 1982. Photo by Photo supplied

British civil servant Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had never been to India, drew up borders between the two countries, and about 15 million people travelled, sometimes hundreds of kilometres, to resettle among their fellow religious adherents. Many were driven out with violence.

Handa and his family were among the legions of refugees. The family abandoned their villa and most of their possessions, left behind some gold with a trusted Muslim barber (they would reclaim some of it many years later), and walked for 10 days towards India. They evaded mobs along the way that attacked the refugees and their encampments.

Historians estimate one million people were killed during partition.

Handa would later tell his children he knew the smell of burning flesh. “He only in the later part of his life started talking about that period,” said Alex Handa. “I think he bottled up a lot of trauma.”

Inderjit Handa and his wife, Erna, met at a dance at the British Council in London in the 1960s.
Inderjit Handa and his wife, Erna, met at a dance at the British Council in London in the 1960s. Photo by Photo supplied

Living with relatives in India, Handa resumed his schooling and eventually graduated university with degrees in mathematics and history. He went to work at the Punjab National Bank in Delhi, but another tragedy soon set his life on a new course.

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His older brother, Kewal, 27, died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage as he prepared to study in England. Struggling to move past his grief, Handa decided to use his brother’s visa and plane ticket, and travel in his place.

It was the middle of the “Swingin’ Sixties,” and London was fast shedding its conservatism in favour of a more permissive, cosmopolitan style. Handa embraced the new freedoms, and took a job as a math teacher in Notting Hill, then an immigrant neighbourhood.

One evening, while attending a dance organized by the British Council, he met a Swiss woman, Erna Knutti, a Montessori teacher who was in the country working as an au pair. They would spend the next 60 years together and raise three children.

In 1969, Handa accepted a teaching position in the United States. En route, he stopped to visit some cousins in Ottawa, members of the Dilawri family, who owned a car dealership. At the dealership, Handa told one of the salesmen, Pat Butler, about his plan to move to Ohio.

Inderjit Handa and Erna Knutti married in Ottawa in 1973.
Inderjit Handa and Erna Knutti married in Ottawa in 1973. Photo by Photo supplied

Butler advised against it, and told him he could easily find a teaching job in Ottawa. He opened up the newspaper, found a classified ad for a position at Canterbury High School, dialled the principal, and set up an interview for Handa.

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He was hired the next day.

Handa taught at Canterbury for the next eight years — until his expanding business empire demanded his full attention.

His health food shop and vegetarian café in the Glebe had prospered, and the small travel desk he started at the back of the store was also doing steady business. The Handas travelled frequently, often trading notes and tips with other teachers, and wanted to take advantage of what they saw as a growing market.

When the 1980s recession hit, Handa decided to get out of the health food business and concentrate on the travel industry. He hired many new Canadians into his Handa Travel offices, and began to offer tours to India, many of which he led himself. His whole family often accompanied him.

The business grew to more than $100 million in annual revenues, but Handa was forced to retrench following the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent industry slowdown.

His father faced racism both as a businessman and because of his mixed-race marriage, Alex Handa said, but he always maintained it was vastly outweighed by the acceptance he enjoyed in Canada.

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“He never even stopped to say, ‘That’s racism,’ or ‘That’s not fair.’ He never slowed down because of it. He never took it personally,” Alex said. “He always told us, ‘It’s just ignorance: They don’t know the food of India; they don’t know the culture of India.’”

Handa was still working part-time at Handa Travel when he died. Alex and his sister, Tanja, now plan to get re-involved in the business.

“It feels the right thing to do,” Alex said.

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