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Leo Varadkar, The PM Who Likes Jalebis

April 05, 2024 12:04 IST
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'When my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to become its leader.'

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/ profiles Dr Leo Varadkar who will step down as Ireland's taoiseach (prime minister) next week.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar, then 38, with his parents, Dr Ashok Varadkar and Miriam Varadkar on that day in June 2017 when he won the Fine Gael election to become Ireland's then youngest taoiseach, as well as the first gay and first part-Asian head of government. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

As Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar steps down, I am reminded of a beautiful spring day in Dublin in late February 2021, during the height of COVID-19.

I had come to Ireland to visit my university-going daughter, who lived in the northern attractive Phoenix Park neighborhood of the city, near the Royal Canal, and help her move, which was a pretty uphill task during the pandemic.

All offices, schools, colleges, creches, gyms, shops, restaurants, bars were shut during those severe lockdown days; hotels had limited occupancy; and only grocery stores were open. The Garda (police) allowed you to roam within a 2 km radius of your home and no more. If you were in a car, you were stopped and your destination checked.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar who at 6' 4" tall is almost a head taller than former US president Bill Clinton, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Akshata Murty at an event at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 19, 2023 marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

We did sneak a few trips to the lovely but pin-drop-silent city centre by bus, where we always had cones of gelato, and extravagantly and leisurely shopped till we dropped for enough groceries to feed us for a year, because that was the only thing you could browse for -- the difficult choice of wondering whether to buy chunky chocolate cookies or quadruple chocolate cookies or half-coated milk chocolate cookies etc that required at least five minutes of serious deliberation.

It was a time of great cooking; every day brought a more exotic meal of soup or pasta or sandwiches than the next and therefore lots of food supplies were needed. Grocery shopping was timepass basically, so too was hitting the liquor sections of these supermarkets.

I must have tried every kind of white wine or sherry that nearby Loundis stocked or we could order for delivery from Tesco and SuperValu. And out of boredom we decorated the flat with sumptuous bouquets of the prettiest Irish flowers -- tulips, daffodils, lilies, hybrid multicoloured roses, also gotten from the grocers.

IMAGE: A shot of Castleknock/Blanchardstown, the neighbourhood where Dr Leo Varadkar grew up. His twin nephews, now 14, attended the same national school he attended in this locality. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/

We took to venturing on long walks and wanderings around the neighborhood, discovering every green nook and cranny of north Dublin.

Phoenix Park was a locality of upmarket-ish shiny new apartments and row houses. But it adjoined the rambling Phoenix Park racecourse that was full of grassy meadows, thick copses and herds of deer.

It also was close to the older, classier neighbourhood of Castleknock and next-door Blanchardstown.

IMAGE: Leo Varadkar's parents Dr Ashok Varadkar and Miriam Varadkar with Indian Ambassador Akhilesh Mishra. His parents frequently visited India and keep in touch with relatives there. Photograph: Kind courtesy Indian Embassy's India_in_Ireland/Instagram

At the time, striking-looking half-Irish, half-Indian Leo Varadkar was heading Ireland by rotation in the coalition government, first as the youngest-ever prime minister or taoiseach (Irish for leader pronounced tee-shuk) and then the deputy or Tánaiste, with arrangements to become the PM again the following year.

The pandemic threw up all kinds of heroes worldwide and Dr Varadkar was considered one for a time, as he bravely steered the republic through the pandemic, gaining a bit of a hero status for his steady approach and for rejoining the medical roster, ready to don scrubs to become a much-in-demand frontline worker.

It gave you a sort of warming and friendly feeling to be staying in a country headed by a part desi (a first then).

I read a lot about him, fascinated. I learned that Dr Varadkar grew up in Castleknock-Blanchardstown and his GP father had his surgery around there too and Google kicked up the geographical coordinates.

IMAGE: Leo Varadkar with his mother Miriam Varadkar after winning the Fine Gael election in June 2017. He calls his mom, Mammy. Photograph: Kind courtesy Leo Varadkar/Instagram

So, on that February weekend morning in Dublin, when the banks of ever-present snowy white clouds parted to reveal bright blue skies and warm sunshine, I told my daughter that we should take advantage of the great weather and have a look at Leo Varadkar's old neighbourhood.

We sauntered through the cosy streets where Ireland's first part-Indian prime minister modestly spent his childhood. It was a pin-neat, picturesque upper middle class community of winding avenues, cherry trees, patches of daffodils bravely pushing up from the frozen winter ground, semi-detached homes, churches, a few taxis parked in driveways, dogs and dog owners out walking, masked.

We came to the simple, non-descript house, that shared a wall with the next house, and had a glassed-in porch and tiled roof, that had to have been Leo's old boyhood home.

I was taking pictures from across the street, to my daughter's utter mortification, when a car pulled into its driveway and an elderly, balding, Indian man got out carrying a few things that looked like groceries. The gentleman noticed us.

I thought to myself, could Leo's parents still be living, 30-40 years later in the house he grew up in?

I mustered the courage to cross the road (my daughter quickly ducked behind a bush, or maybe it was a tree, out of acute embarrassment) and asked the gentlemen, "Are you Dr Ashok Varadkar?"

He looked a bit taken aback, but politely and amiably acknowledged he was.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar's parents Dr Ashok Varadkar and Miriam Varadkar at an Indian embassy dinner. Bombay-born Dr Ashok Varadkar migrated to England in 1966 and eventually settled in Dublin, Ireland. Photograph: Kind courtesy Miriam Varadkar/Facebook

Explaining what I was doing in his neighbourhood, I added, "I had even written to your son when he took over as taoiseach requesting an interview."

I gingerly asked whether I could interview him instead. He guardedly and reluctantly considered the request, thought about it for a few looooong minutes -- even as my hopes were building and my daughter was cautiously peeking from around her bush, quite flabbergasted that I was getting somewhere -- and finally acquiesced, saying he was busy now but we could do the interview a little later.

I quickly took his number and promised to phone him later that day (before he changed his mind!).

IMAGE: Villagers and family at Varad, Maharashtra, where Dr Ashok Varadkar hails from, celebrate Dr Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael election victory in June 2017.
Dholaks came out and everybody waved pictures of Leo as they trooped to the family's temple. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shubhada Varadkar/Facebook

When I called him a few hours later, Dr Varadkar, then 81, was friendly and forthcoming and clarified that the house he was living in was not where Leo grew up but that former home was very close by.

Bombay-born, he earned a degree in medicine from the Grant Medical College, just a few years before India's first Miss World Dr Reita Faria Powell, as per what Reita told me later; they sometimes met at Indian embassy events.

His family originally hailed from Varad, coastal Konkan Maharashtra, and Ashok was one of nine siblings. The eldest two brothers had been freedom fighters, who were imprisoned by the British, which he told me about with special satisfaction ("We have a background of fighting for the country" -- the perfect family pedigree for his Irish leader son, given that resistance to the British is considered a sterling virtue in Ireland).

In the late 1960s Dr Ashok Varadkar migrated to England for work and further studies.

He met his wife, Dungervan, County Waterford-born Miriam Howell while they were both working in Slough, she as a student nurse.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar with his parents Dr Ashok Varadkar and Miriam Varadkar and sisters Dr Sophia Varadkar and Sonia Varadkar.
Sophia told the Irish Independent that she remembered her brother to be a 'a very gentle, thoughtful child' and she and he would have long conversations when he was just a youngster. Photograph: Kind courtesy Miriam Varadkar/Facebook

After marriage -- she was 21 and he probably closer to 30 -- they lived for a time first in England, had a stint in India, and then eventually settled in Ireland, where Leo was born on January 18, 1979, in Dr Varadkar's presence, in Dublin's Rotunda Hospital, the youngest of three -- he has two older sisters, Sonia and Sophia.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar with his elder sister Sonia Varadkar and her twin boys Alex and Eric in his office. Leo and Sonia shared a room growing up and Leo would read to her at night, mostly Enid Blyton. Leo was a Trekkie and a fan of Star Wars. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sonia Varadkar/Facebook

Leo, a quiet, dutiful boy (till 'he went into Fine Gael!'), according to his parents, schooled in nearby Blanchardstown and then Palmerstown, at St Francis Xavier and The King's Hospital School.

He went on to study medicine at prestigious Trinity College, switching from law, where he got involved in politics, becoming a student member of Young Fine Gael. But he continued to pursue medicine, doing even one month of his internship at the KEM Hospital in Parel, north central Mumbai, specialising as a GP and practicing at Dublin's St James and Connolly Hospitals, while parallelly building a political career, undeterred that he was not the scion of any political clan or fully Irish or straight.

Politics had always enthralled him, as a young boy too, when he would watch the election news on television and debate politics with his dad, his father had said earlier.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar and his family -- his parents Dr Ashok Varadkar and Miriam Varadkar, sister Sonia Varadkar, brother-in-law John O Loughlin and nephews Eric and Alex -- at a Father's Day meal at an Indian restaurant in Dublin, Spice India. Photograph: Kind courtesy Leo Varadkar/Instagram

Explained Dr Varadkar, "We have a family of all doctors."

Sophia is a consultant paediatric neurologist, specialising in epilepsy, at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, her husband Cainan is a gerontologist; her elder sister Sonia is a midwife in Dublin and Leo's partner Matt Barrett is a cardiologist.

"Leo qualified as a doctor, qualified as a GP, but he went into politics and never did the medicine. So, he's out of medicine now," Dr Ashok Varadkar added.

He got off the phone, momentarily, to check with his wife, which he did faithfully many times during the conversation, 'Miriam, how many years ago?' and came back on, "A good six. I thought he will walk into my practice (and take it over). But I am very proud that whatever he wanted to do he excelled in it."

For Dr Varadkar it was, of course, a matter of immeasurable and immense pride that he arrived in Ireland decades ago as an immigrant doctor and an outsider, travelling halfway across the world to get there, and brought up children, one of whom went on to occupy the highest office in the land.

"I am very proud that he was the prime minister of this country. I am proud of the whole family and that my children did well here, after me coming as an immigrant here and establishing myself."

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar's parents Dr Ashok Varadkar and Miriam Varadkar. Leo was the baby of the family and adored by his sisters. Sonia recalled him to be a perfect baby. And his mother told the Irish Independent, 'When he cried, his two sisters would cry.' Photograph: Kind courtesy Miriam Varadkar/Facebook

His son, he portrayed, as more Irish than Indian. "My wife is Irish. Irish-born, she's all Irish. He was never treated as non-Irish.

"Have you looked at him? He doesn't look very Indian. There is very little Indian about him in his looks, size -- he's 6'3 or 4". He was always accepted as Irish and still is. But when he became the prime minister, that's the time they realised he had an Indian father."

Being only part Irish brought Leo no problems while growing up, averred Dr Varadkar, "He was) half-Indian but had an Irish background. He was brought up by his mother.

"I was born a Hindu. My wife is Christian Catholic. I believe that only the women can teach religion to their children.

"I left it to her to decide how to bring him up. So, she brought him up a Christian.

"He doesn't go to the church or temple or anything. If there is something special he will go. I was not a strict Hindu."

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar and his partner cardiologist Dr Matt Barrett. Matt has journeyed to India with Leo. They are seen here welcoming the then duke and duchess of Cambridge to Ireland in March 2020. Photograph: Arthur Edwards/Pool/Reuters

Even if Leo was more Irish than Indian, there had to be inescapable smidges of Indianness in him. Maybe certain mannerisms... "I need to ask my wife. 'Miriam! Can you come here?' I think more European than Indian. 'Miriam, how would you say Leo's mannerisms are? Indian or European?'"

"Oh, he's European," Miriam commented with certitude in the background.

"She says, 'European'. I ask her all these things because she brought him up. Not me. I never had time to bring him up. I only taught him about cricket which he didn't like."

Dr Varadkar was big on cricket, he confessed -- a member on the Irish board of cricket, he travelled to Birmingham in 2023 to see the Indian team play. Leo once remarked that cricket was almost his dad's religion.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar's Indian relatives glued to the television in Mumbai waiting for Ireland's Fine Gael election results in June 2017 hoping he will win.
Leo's first cousin is Odissi dancer Shubhada Varadkar. She is the daughter of Dr Ashok Varadkar's elder freedom fighter brother, Manohar Varadkar. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shubhada Varadkar/Facebook

About his Indian background, Leo had in the past said that he was very proud of it because it shaped his worldview and taught him awareness of other countries, other nationalities, other religions and that the fact that it did not figure as an issue while be elected showed Ireland's admirable lack of bigotry and bias -- 'I think if my election as leader of Fine Gael today has shown anything, it is that prejudice has no hold in this Republic. When my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to become its leader'.

And what was Leo like? How would the Indian father describe the son who had fulfilled so many of his fondest hopes?

Given what Leo had showed of himself while handling the pandemic (actor Matt Damon, staying in Ireland during the lockdown, had called him a 'badass'), I asked Dr Varadkar, "Is Leo a cool, calm person who can take stress and handle things in a cool fashion?"

"You hit the nail on the head. He is a cool person, not like me. Very cool. He's a good listener. But he will only speak when he knows the ins and outs of anything. He is a good orator.

"It seems that the people understand when he speaks and it seems that the people trust him in this country more than some other politicians, because he is a good politician. He is honest. He has always done the right thing for the country."

Leo's half-Hindustani heritage surfaces a wee bit when it comes to food!

"Years and years ago, when he was a child, he did not (like Indian food). The only thing he liked then was jalebis. As he grew and started mixing with other hospital people, he started eating Indian food.

"Now he eats, but he is very selective about what he eats Indian. He won't eat rice and dal. He will eat Tandoori Chicken. Still he loves jalebis. I will have to ask my wife what he eats... But he certainly loves Shish Kebabs. But we don't make it. He has to buy it outside. He eats meat products rather than vegetarian products. He doesn't not like dal and rice. But he won't go to a restaurant and ask for dal and rice, which I would!"

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar with his partner Dr Matt Barrett were welcomed traditionally on a visit to Varad on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. His father hails from this village and their surnames reflect their origins. Photograph: ANI Photo

Dr Varadkar and his son have made a few trips to India together -- Dr Varadkar would go every year to Goa.

The last was in 2019, a big family trip, when they even went to Varad, 525 km from Mumbai, in Malvan, on the Goa border, because the grandfather wanted to show his four grandchildren (Sophia and Sonia's kids) -- "before I pass away" -- his ancestral home/"native place," and visited the temple of the Varadkars' favoured deity, a church and partook of a pomfret-Chicken-Rassa-modak-packed Malvan feast.

SEE: In 2019, Dr Leo Varadkar made a private visit to India with his family and his partner Dr Matt Barrett. They went to Goa, Delhi, Agra and Varad. Dr Ashok Varadkar had turned 80 and wanted to show his grandchildren his "native place." Video: ANI


"Leo went to Delhi and saw Delhi, the Taj Mahal and all that. He wants go back again and again," added Dr Varadkar with great happiness.

IMAGE: Dr Leo Varadkar led Ireland during the grim COVID-19 days and earned initially much public support for his handling of the situation, especially when he re-registered as a physician and volunteered to don scrubs and join the frontlines. He is seen here at the Civil Defence HQ. Photograph: Kind courtesy Leo Varadkar/Instagram

While COVID-19 was gripping the country (when we spoke), Dr Varadkar had most of his family at the frontlines fighting the epidemic and would have liked to join the good fight, if it had not been for his age that prevented him from joining the vaccination drive that had mobilised GPs.

That gave him many more reasons to be delighted and pleased with his children, especially Leo who got back to medicine to make a contribution, "Absolutely very proud! I think he was trying to get me back by reregistering (laughs heartily). I am so happy they are all involved in (battling) the COVID pandemic. They are doing their bit for the country and for the people of the country."

But there were no reasons, he said emphatically, for him be anxious for them either, because they were all medical professionals and understood the realities. "No anxiety. None of us are anxious people by nature (with a small laugh). We know what to expect as doctors."

He again checked with his wife, "Miriam, how do you feel about your children (being on the frontline)?" and then announced, "No. She is not particularly anxious. She is herself a nurse. We are anxious for the country and the elderly people, those who are at risk of dying.

"I was more concerned for my son because he is not immunised. There is no preference in this country. In Ireland, the prime minister, deputy prime minister, politicians are treated just like everybody else, as ordinary individuals, and so he has to wait his turn, when they come to that age (group). And he's only just 40 plus (Leo was then 42), so he is going to be one of the last few to be immunised. Not like India where politicians rule the country (laughs again jovially)."

SEE: Dr Leo Varadkar spoke at the Indian embassy in Ireland about the unique connections and similarities between India and Ireland and about his Indian heritage. Video: Kind courtesy Indian Embassy, Dublin/Ireland India Council (IIC)/X


Dr Varadkar then talked about politics, "Life for politicians here is very, very difficult at all times. They love them when things are going right and don't like them when things are going wrong. But they are extremely happy right now with how his government dealt with the pandemic -- they did it very well and are still doing well."

Three years later, as I watched an emotional Leo announce he was stepping down as raoiseach for 'political and personal reasons' because he was no longer the 'best' person to lead Ireland and added, 'one part of leadership is knowing when the time has come to pass on the baton, and then having the courage to do it', I remembered his father's philosophical words, their import with respect to the inconstant nature of politics and his summing up of his son.

Dr Varadkar and 'Miriam' would be watching this broadcast too, brimming with pride and tears for their remarkable, trailblazing son, who always wanted to do the 'right thing for the country.'

And whose years as the country's first gay and first half-Indian-origin taoiseach reinforced the truth of the statement Leo Eric Varadkar made when he historically took office first in 2017, 'Every proud parent in Ireland today can dream big dreams for their children.'

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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