Readers in India, specially in Southern India would realise what it was for an young man of 25 from a rural family to venture on his own efforts to go to Oxford. Before me, may be some Brahmains must have gone to Oxford for I.C.S or on some research projects but not in the country community.My mother was always supportive of me with a blind faith in her son’s capacity to decide for kindly. This was again unusual in an Indian farming family in a remote village. Being the only and the most preciously protected son of the family, it was unthinkable even to allow me to go to Santhiniketan. But then Oxford was quite unimaginable! That’s why friends and acquaitances often wonder at my resolve to decide to travel to Oxford against so many odds.
In my community there were some big families,Zamindars and big land lords and some of them wielded great influence on the society. One Gounder family became big industrial family and the one and only son was educated only locally.The ones (I can’t name them here who owned I000 and odd acres as Zamindars and called themselves Rajas etc. didn’t go beyond high schools.The best they got was a place in the British-run Lawrence school in the Nilgiris.I was later to discover when I sent my son to this school ,this was in fact a school meant for British soldiers, drawn mostly from lower ranks and Anglo-Indians. The British upper class, the well educated British official class only sent their sons back to England to attend class schools.
Thus, what the Gounder community, in spite of being the dominant caste was quite backward when it came to educating their sons and daughters.I remember well when I came back from England and when there were marriage proposals for me from some of the well-off families, I found the girls were all invariably not educated! Nor, my education and culture jelled with the senior members of these families. Coming from such a social milie, it was a dare devil act, so to say, to aspire for entering Oxford.Thus, I will claim it was my innate desire plus my mother’s blind belie and unquestioned backing that led me to leave India at that young age.
I have written about my Oxford travel and my Oxford days previously in two of my books, besides numerous articles in some of our journals. The first book was in Tamil, a slim volume whch I wrote, when I was staying in Oxford itself, the book was published in India and well recieved by readers. A Tamil monthly magazine ran a book summary (edited by the legendary editor Thi Ja Ra) and even now I encounter friends and strangers who introduce them selves as readers of my Oxford book and many request me to reissue the same. May be I should do that considering the information and descriptions must have an immediacy of 25, that immedicay of the experience by a youth there of 25, that immediacy I can’t give here. The other book, Oxford Eassys, was published in the late Eighties and there is in a English fairly extensive account of Oxford as well as the Santiniketan days.
Here I would cofine myself some aspects I recall that have some wider perspective in a narration of my whole life span, where I started and how my education proceeded and more importantly what have I done in the last few years,in life and in my entrepreneurial ventures and my present,politics preoccupations.The travel from Cochin Port was by an Italian ship, lyod Triestino, at that time famous shipping service. It had regular service from bothMumbai and Cochin and I think I chose Cochin because it was nearer my home and I wanted to spend few days with my mother remains green in my mind. She was as unperturbed asshe always had been, specially when it came to my education. And what an education I planned to have?
There was this one important aspect.I for one never thought of an education about their lives and their career.I must have talked with my friends about it or ever I imagined myself working for others.My education plans too werenever given to me by anybody. After school, it was college,college in Chennai. After Chennai it was Santiniketan. Afterwards came Oxford. There was this idealism, this burning desire to go for the best education possible.Thus, when I told my mother and explained to her why I chose Oxford she didnt ask me any question.We had enough landed property and I never imagined that I had to search for a job. Anyway, that was the thought.
Why I say this today is the fact that times have changed and the old big farming families have all fallen on bad days, the Zamindars lost their wealth and economic standing and even the so-called big feudal families now educate standing their sons and daughters in a more middle class manner.Today any ordinary family, often the most deprived families get education and their sons and daughters work abroad, in the USA mostly.This social change puts enormous pressure on the old families to fall in line.I am appalled by the fact that some of the big Gounder families educate their sons and daughters too in specialised fields like computer engineering.
Oh, what a tragedy, I think. The girls could very well get a normal education and fit into some more pleasant roles, even for a carreer there are so many options. But the middle class mindset had robbed the aristocratic spirit, in the rural society. I made a conscious decision not to make my son stay back in UK and I called him back and got him interested in an entrepreneurial venture.The choice of the course of study at Oxford was influenced by what I read about Oxford history and what I heard from Amartya Sen, the Noble Prize man who was from a Santhiniketan family and whom I used to meet whenever he came home. He told me: Don’t go for any other course,P.hD is no Degree, it is what the undergraduate course teaches you, that is the best.This advice made a great impression.In fact, I was in correspondence with one Maurice Dobb, the Cambridge economist and a tutor to Sen himself in his undergraduate course!
Dobb wrote me: “I dont know whether you would benefit by studying under me, me being the kind of economist I am”. Dobb was a Marxist economist, not a complimentary term for an Oxbridge don. Finally I won a place to New College, Oxford, one of the big and best of Oxford Colleges.When I mentioned to Sen about this admission, he was astonished. I recollect his face and expression He was really suprised.”Oh, New College? How you got in?” into Oxbridge colleges. Sen himself got into Trinity College, Cambridge only in the second attempt!
What an irony for the man who rose up high in achievements to finally become Master of that famous institutions!Perhaps some of my best days were the ones I spent at Oxford. The town and the university gave me lots of insights and lots of feel for a new lifestyle.The process of my education got so much of impetus because of the place. Oxford town itself in my time was a quaint little town, the last visit I found Oxford town had changed a lot, it had become a busy commerical place, the old landmarks the roads and buildings changed out of recogination.Anyway, the time I spent at Oxford, 1959-61, two years, were the best in my imbibing not just new heights in my intellectual growth but also saw my mental sensitivities changing a lot. I met a new type of soceity, the class-stratised British soceity and people taking life in their stride.
In contrast to the India I was growing up. Political Leaders in my student days were taking so much of idealism, buliding a new India etc. In England I saw the society already well-settled, the old world habits of mind the social differentiation was well-taken. In fact I found myself into a particular social strata. I remember my first few English acquaintances, upper class, middle class, the working class and the Indian students. The upper class students had the refinements of education and family upbringing. I saw a good number of them, girls included.
The boys were very pleasant to talk with in this segment, most of them having a rural background I found it easy to establish a rapport with these country-house owning, well educated public school boys. I have forgotten the names but some of them from west minister public school, even one or two from Eton and Winchester fell into a recognisable pattern. The middle class too were pleasant to talk with but these came from a background from church, academic and other sundry professions and they were are all ernest-minded, studious and rather routine.