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Model citizen of Ambridge has a mission to cultivate equality: Geraldine Bedell meets the new head of the Equal Opportunites Commission

KAMLESH BAHL arrived at the Equal Opportunities Commission's London office late, breathless, and laughing. She had come from her consultancy job in Harrow - oh, and the traffic was terrible, and the police were carrying out spot checks on vehicles . . . hopeless]

She laughs a lot, this 36-year-old lawyer who takes over as head of the EOC on Tuesday. This is just as well, because she is so serious-minded, so sensibly dressed - in green silky dress with matching headband - and has had such a worthy career that she could be mistaken for dull if she were not so nice.

She almost failed to get a career at all: having come first out of 220 students in the first two years of her law degree at Birmingham University and third in her final exams, she, alone of her year, failed to secure articles to become a solicitor. 'It was a very painful experience, and led me to lose self-confidence,' she says. 'You start to question whether there is something wrong with you.

'I sent off 250 applications: some of the interviews were most unpleasant. One man was looking down when I came in, told me to take a seat, then looked up and saw me - evidently not what he had expected: he told me I'd made a mistake - my interview was the day before, and I'd missed it.'

It was her first experience of discrimination (she is still not sure how much was to do with her sex, and how much to do with being a Kenyan Asian), 'and it brought home to me what a tremendous waste of talent there is when people of obvious ability can't even get on the first rung'. Her father was a 'relatively high-ranking' civil servant in Kenya, who retired to Britain when she was nine, 'because he wanted all his children to have a good education, and particularly his daughters to be independent, especially financially independent. This was not at all a common view among Asian men, and I don't know where he got it from.'

The eldest of her five sisters is now a teacher, multicultural adviser, and author of bilingual storybooks; her second an adviser to the Secretary of State for Health; the third works in a bank; and the fourth a headmistress. Kamlesh is the fifth child; there is a younger brother, who is a systems analyst.

The family was not affluent, but she had 'an excellent education' at a newly comprehensive school in Southall, west London. After Birmingham University she was rescued from joblessness by the GLC, and moved subsequently to British Steel, Texaco and Data Logic, where she ended up on the board as company secretary (she will continue to spend two days a week there as a consultant). She has been a member of two health authorities and is on the council of the Law Society.

She is also the model for Usha Gupta, the Asian solicitor in The Archers, who is also supposed to have worked for the GLC and in industry (and has the same name as one of Kamlesh's older sisters). Ask her why she was chosen and she bursts into gales of giggly laughter: 'Because I'm an Asian . . . sorry, don't mean to be flippant, but that's why.'

There aren't many Asian women solicitors. The Archers team approached the Law Society, which directed them to her. She then spent quite a lot of time talking to the editor, and to scriptwriters about how they could handle the issues Usha might face in moving to Ambridge.

Kamlesh lives with her husband, a GP, in North London; they met at university, and have been married seven years. He, too, is a Hindu. She thinks of herself, she says, as 'a British Asian. I try very hard to integrate. However, my cultural roots are Asian, and Hindu, and that does influence the way I think. The theme of one of the Hindu religious books is that your life is governed by your own actions. I feel strongly that you shape your own life.'

Where does she stand on the tendency of some ethnic-minority communities to treat women not merely as different but as unequal? She acknowledges that 'it's a hugely vexed question', but points out that there are inequalities in every culture. She is not, it is clear, going to make the EOC any more radical, noisy, or surprising. She might, with a bit of luck, make some technical progress. 'What we need now is practical action to build equal opportunities into the culture of organisations.'

(Photograph omitted)