How he became a Patel

The June issue of Khabar magazine has a touching first-person piece called "How I Became a Patel," in which Rick Beltz, a onetime alcoholic, describes how he transformed his life. The turning point, he writes, came a decade ago, when Vipul and Bharti Patel bought the motel in rural North Georgia where he worked as a handyman.

As a Native American who had lived all his life in Toccoa, Georgia, before meeting the Patels, I had very little experience with other cultures. Indeed, my only exposure to other cultures came from my interactions with Hispanics. Other than that, what I knew about worlds outside my North Georgia cocoon came from movies, where foreigners are often portrayed as evil, scheming, greedy characters. To me, people from India were turban-wearing dolts working at the local 7-Eleven. [Link]

That's the impression he had back then, as a non-turban-wearing dolt working at the local motel. The Patels, including Vipul's mother, Gulaben, helped bring him around, saving him from alcoholism, as well as ignorance.

The Patels … would completely demolish my preconceived notions about Indians and foreigners; but that is the least they would do. Over the years, I would come clean with myself, quit alcohol, start believing in myself, in people, and in life—all because this one family gave me unconditional acceptance and love almost from the time I first met them. [Link]

It was a big struggle, but he finally quit drinking seven years ago, thanks largely to the acceptance and trust of the Patels, who he says "nurtured me and most likely saved my life."

Somewhere along the way, we—the Patels and I—became a family. Before I knew it, I was calling Gulaben “mom”, and Vipul’s kids (they now had two) were calling me kaka (uncle). When she would have trouble talking to someone in English over the phone, Gulaben would tell the caller, “Hold on, let me give it to my son,” before handing me the phone.

The Patels have taught me the meaning of what a family is supposed to be. Vipul is more than a brother, Bharti is more than any sister could ever be. Gulaben, mom, is the very essence of motherhood. And the boys, 10-year-old Nikhil and five-year-old Aryan, are a combination of nephews and “my own children” (since I have none). Through all the ups and downs, they have taught me much, not the least of which is self-respect, self-reliance, self-worth, peace, harmony, and a greater understanding of life, as it’s supposed to be. [Link]

The Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), whose membership consists mainly of Indian-Americans, ought to give an award to the Patels, as well as Salinas, Calif., motel owner Siddiqi Hansoti, for showing that Indian-American motel owners aren't just about making money, aren't just about helping their families and people of their own kind.

Through this experience, how I wish more Americans would forget their cultural and religious differences and focus only on the people. I, for one, consider myself fortunate for having been taken in as a family member despite the vast differences in cultures and traditions. I am proud to say I am a Patel—in spirit and soul. [Link]

If you enjoyed this piece, you'll love Melvin's novel Bala Takes the Plunge, available in North America through and You can also find it at major bookstores in India and Sri Lanka or online at FlipKart, IndiaPlaza, FriendsofBooks or other sites. A number of readers have written reviews of the novel. An excerpt of the novel can be read here.


  1. Vaidy S says:

    Wow, Melvin!
    On a related note.. I have been in the US for almost 20 years and had never known Gujarati families before that. Having moved around Eastern US, I did notice that when a Gujarati – single or family – moved to a town, just through basic referrals from others, he/they would invariably be accomodated in another Gujarati’s apartment/home until they found their own place. I am not a reserved person, but have never done that or seen other non-Gujarati desis be so open. Amazing.

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