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War and Childhood

Syke’s self-representation of her life in the book begins with her everyday life as the eldest child of a Yorkshire schoolmaster, devoted to delivering a good education to the children in the desperately poor mining villages of the West Riding. The year 1914, when she was 9 years old, stands out in her memory as a turning point in her awareness for several reasons.

War held no glory for me. A beloved teacher disappeared from our school; she was German and had become an ‘enemy alien’ overnight. We heard talk of the cruel harassment she had suffered from the ‘patriotic’ hooligans of the town. We children were bewildered, our parents were grieved and angry.32

Her father had close friends in Germany from the year he had spent studying in Dresden. Photographs of them hung in the living room of their home and he would often speak of them with affection and wonder how they were and how the war affected them.33

These memories reveal an early cosmopolitan influence in her home, where both parents disdain the violent jingoism of the early war years and feel no need to hide their dislike of nationalism and war from their children. Compassion, empathy and sadness mark her familial memories of World War One. Her father returned from the war sad and frustrated with the Versailles Treaty that he correctly predicted would lead to another war. Her mother, exhausted by the strain of it all, became unwell and Sykes spent much of her 14th year at home:

For the next five months I took charge of the household, cooked and scrubbed, washed the family’s clothes, and mended them, got the younger ones off to school, nursed Mother, and in the odd moments tackled the neglected garden a wonderful experience of ‘learning through work’.34

She would later tell her Indian students that her training in Gandhi’s principle of ‘learning through living’ occurred ‘In my own home, by my father and mother’.35

In marked contrast to the gritty realism and anti-war sentiment of Sykes’ recollections, Patel, also 9 years old in 1914, begins his account of childhood with his memory of watching the Rajput cavalry embarking for France from the Bombay naval docks near his home in Colaba. It was a thrilling scene, as the turbaned soldiers shouted ‘British Sarkar Ki Jai’ (Victory to the British Raj). He related their cry to the Latin he learned at school ‘it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country’ (Dulce et decorum Est pro patria mori). For him, as for the Rajputs, Raj and country were the same. His family’s lifestyle was very European and English was the language of choice. ‘They exemplified, in fact, Macaulay’s ideal of an educated Indian as, to all intents and purposes, the “brown Englishman”’.36 His education at St. Xavier’s School, a Jesuit English medium school established in 1869 for sons of the wealthy, regardless of faith, was rigorous but contained little curriculum concerning India. The local languages, Marathi and Gujarati, were considered useful only for conversing with servants and shopkeepers. Cocooned by class and culture, he heard little and knew less of the momentous waves of nationalist fervour sweeping through Bombay and India throughout his childhood.

 
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