Jelal Kalyanji was born on 17 August 1899 at Surat, Gujarat, India, to Jagdamba Hansu Chauhan and her husband, Kalyanji Vanamali. Like many Hindus, he was married as a child but his wife died in 1910. Jelal’s father, a laundryman or dhobi by caste, emigrated with some of the children to Natal, South Africa, where the family adopted the surname Natali. Jelal remained in Surat with his mother. His education there gained him proficiency in spoken and written English in preparation for a promising career, initially as a clerk.
Emigration was common from this part of India, and by the First World War it included a growing trickle to New Zealand. This increased with news of impending immigration restrictions, and Natali was among the passengers on the Maheno when it docked at Auckland on 2 October 1920. He found employment as a kitchen worker and porter at the Empire Hotel in Rotorua. A fellow worker named him ‘Mick’ because of his sympathy for Irish home rule. Another employee was Kate May Besley, an English immigrant. Jelal married 20-year-old Kate at Auckland on 9 February 1922. They were to have four children.
In common with most Gujarati migrants, Natali’s goal had always been self-employment, and this became possible after working for an Indian storekeeper at Waimiha in the King Country during the 1920s. The Natalis purchased this general store, and over time began to invest in other businesses, such as a boarding house, cinema, school bus service and properties in the King Country and Auckland. Against opposition from the Crown, which argued that he was not a suitable person to aggregate land since he was not a farmer, he purchased a farm at Taumarunui in 1944. By 1949 the Natalis had settled in Browns Bay, Auckland, where Jelal continued to expand his property investments. During the 1950s he was director of several timber and farming companies.
As well as fulfilling the immigrant’s dream of rising from rags to riches, Jelal Natali achieved prominence through his leadership within New Zealand’s Indian community. When he arrived in Auckland he was immediately active in the Auckland Indian Association (AIA), which began in 1920. By 1921 he was editor of Aryodaya , a local Gujarati newspaper, and served as association president in 1923 and during the 1950s. Natali took a leading role in the New Zealand Indian Central Association (NZICA) founded in 1926, and was president during various years between the 1930s and 1950s. As its spokesman he was a skilled advocate of Indians’ rights in New Zealand, India and elsewhere, including South Africa and Fiji. He wrote letters to newspapers advocating India’s independence and highlighting the adverse effects of British rule.
Natali made a wide range of personal and official representations for the Indian Association on racial discrimination in New Zealand. He was a leading campaigner against the White New Zealand League, which fomented the anti-Asian hysteria that spread from Pukekohe to the rest of the country during the second half of the 1920s. Natali consistently criticised New Zealand’s pro-white and anti-Asian immigration policies and practices. He spoke out against employment and business discrimination based on ethnicity, as in 1937, when the compulsory registration of Indian fruiterers’ thumbprints was proposed. In evidence given to the Royal Commission on Licensing in 1945 he opposed Indians being made scapegoats for sly-grogging (selling prohibited alcohol) to Maori. Although fiercely patriotic about his adopted country, Natali objected to compulsory military conscription after the Second World War. He also attacked discriminatory aspects of Indian culture, including caste. This attitude was influenced by his birth into a low caste, combined with an English education and marriage to a non-Indian. In later years he urged greater modernisation and adaptability among New Zealand’s Indian community.
Natali’s outgoing personality found him in great demand as a public speaker and writer in the popular media. He communicated between the Indian settlers in New Zealand and the wider society, and humour softened his opinions about his experiences as an Indian and Indian politics and culture.
Natali also gained a reputation as a public benefactor. He extended credit to farmers and sawmillers during the depression, donated generously to collections during the war, and urged the Indian community to contribute to charities. In 1986 he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for service to the Indian community and for assistance to Maori and Pakeha. The NZICA and the AIA conferred life membership upon him.
Natali summed up his outlook on life: ‘with ambition, incentive, thriftiness and by giving service to the public everyone has an opportunity to make a success of life in this wonderful country’. As one of New Zealand’s first Asian millionaires, he displayed these qualities, mixing business practice with civic service. Natali exhibited tremendous pride in being a New Zealander but unlike many members of immigrant minorities, he remained publicly critical of discriminatory features within New Zealand culture.
On 28 March 1993, at Takapuna, Natali died aged 93, survived by three daughters and a son. He was farewelled by around 400 people at a Hindu–Christian funeral. His ashes were combined with those of Kate Natali, who had died in 1989, and scattered in India and the King Country.