Sheffield woman whose tenacity helped put her father’s alleged killers on trial, reveals the person behind her business success

Pictured is Dr Sipra Deb of Totley Brook Road, Dore, holding a picture of her father Protul who is missing in India
Pictured is Dr Sipra Deb of Totley Brook Road, Dore, holding a picture of her father Protul who is missing in India
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A Sheffield mum of three is in the running for a host of top business awards. But nothing can ever be more rewarding than solving the mystery of her father’s death...

Children shriek with laughter, their faces lit with the joy of discovery.

A few feet away, couples treating their grandchildren to a trip to the Play Arena smile with pride.

Sipra Deb, owner of what she describes as Sheffield’s first true family entertainment centre, often catches herself watching them with a mixture of emotion.

There’s immense pride that her creation is fulfilling its aim of providing a hub for families from all walks of life.

But there’s also a huge sadness that her own father never got to experience the pleasures of being a grandparent.

“I look at my sons, Aaryan, Nayan and Rohan, and feel a huge sense of loss that my dad didn’t see them,” she says.

“They have so many of his traits. Their love of life and food; and they are very honest little things who say things as they are; my dad used to do that...”

She is speaking wistfully of the father whose loss she has never got over.

“I feel robbed. Dad was my mentor and my soulmate,” she says. “But he was robbed of so much more. When he died none of his three daughters had children. Now there are seven. He never got to see life through his grandchildren’s eyes.”

Hers is not the usual grief of a daughter in mourning, though.

Protul Deb’s life was brutally cut short in 2004. He was murdered on a visit to his Indian homeland at the age of 68 just days after kidnappers had demanded and received a £25,000 ransom from Sipra, her sisters and their mother. When he failed to return, Sipra, his eldest daughter, spear-headed a relentless bid to find out what had become of him. She forced British and Indian police to investigate together and led a media campaign which pressurised the Indian government to launch an inquiry. She even met with the Indian Prime Minister.

Her determination and bravery to speak out in a country where few do - especially women - earned her borderline celebrity status in India, something that she never set out to do. Huge crowds would greet her at media events.

“I just wanted my dad back,” she says, still over-awed by the adulation she received. “Millions die in India every day; finding a body is like looking for a needle in a haystack but it was my duty as a daughter to look for him.”

It was her own journals, painstakingly kept every day her father was missing, which enabled a special force to find Protul’s body in hills just six kilometres from his village, where it had lain for 20 months undetected.

He had been killed a week after his family had paid his ransom and was identified by his British heart pacemaker and a DNA match to Sipra’s.

Thanks to Sipra’s relentless efforts, his alleged murderers - 17 in total - are now on trial. The case has been rumbling on for two years and is not expected to end soon. “That’s the way it works in India,” she says, raising perfectly arched eyebrows in exasperation.

It is six years since the family scattered Protul’s ashes in the Holy Ganges River and Sipra thought she had buried her pain deep. But right now it’s rising to the surface; her thriving new ‘baby’ The Play Arena in Heeley has thrust her back into the spotlight. It could be about to bring her national and local acclaim in two prestigious business awards.

And her success only makes her think of him. She knows how delighted he would have been in her achievements - and her strength of character.

“His death taught me a lot - most importantly, no matter what you have planned out in your life, there’s no guarantee it will pan out,” she says.

“You must instead have the drive to be the best you can be every single day; as a wife, as a mother and a human being.”Protul himself had been so strong in spirit he survived being thrown out of his family to live on the streets at the age of eight and became an educated and successful man.

“He wanted an education instead of working on his parents’ farm and he was cast out,” says Sipra, proudly recanting her father’s life story.

“He was a street boy, dressed in rags. He slept under a lamp post and ate one meal a day - a mix of rice with chilli and oil, which acted as an appetite suppressant,

“He made money by selling safety pins and matches from a suitcase tied to his back and lived off the generosity of villagers.”

He managed to get the schooling he craved, won scholarships and eventually a place at the University of Assam, studying around his teaching job so he could send money back to his family and pay for the education of his brothers and sisters.

Sipra was born in Ethiopia and the family lived in Kenya and Nigeria before moving to the UK.

“We lived in a London council house and dad took any job he could at first. But by the time he retired, he was head of translating services in Tower Hamlets.”

Sipra, now 40, became a research scientist in Leeds, sisters Deepra and Protima became a lawyer and a paediatrician. After meeting Sheffield businessman Andrew Mills 11 years ago, Sipra moved to the city and retrained as a science teacher, working at High Storrs School.

She and Andrew had a lavish Indian wedding in London and Protul was the proud father, basking in the knowledge that his eldest daughter’s future was secure.

The irony was that his was not. “He returned to Assam, where his family has a bamboo business, to help his village develop and support his old school, which he had become a chairman of. But I believe his presence there was a threat. People who didn’t want the villagers to become more independent. I believe he died because of money and power.”