Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

India 1928-1937 Apprenticeship

Arriving in Madras at the height of public protests against the Simon Commission and its lack of Indian representation,46 Sykes could hardly avoid the anti-colonial struggle, even if she had been so minded. Through existing networks in the Madras Christian community, Marjorie was soon introduced to the International Fellowship in Chennai, an organisation inspired by Gandhi’s insistence on not treating the British as enemies: ‘Part we must, but as friends’.47 This was the core of his non-violence theory of anti-colonial struggle. The Fellowship

... tried to follow this principle and to demonstrate in practice that Indian and English people could be good friends, and learn to understand each other’s point of view, even though they might come to different conclusions. Many said this was impossible, but in fact Indians of a great variety of religious and political outlook were attracted into the fellowship, as well as British and other foreign residents.48

It was at a Fellowship meeting that Sykes met C. Rajagopalachariar49 (Rajaji), Gandhi’s chief worker in Tamil Nadu. Through Rajaji, she learned about Gandhi’s practical program to build a ‘new India’; learned to spin; and heard first-hand of the struggle against untouchability.

The Bentinck School was not unaffected by the anti-colonial movement. Other staff members shared her growing interest in the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. The school adopted practices designed to prepare their students for Swaraj, ‘responsible freedom’, by instituting a cooperative rather than competitive environment and actively resisting caste and other distinctions:

The children themselves swept and cleaned the buildings and compound, and cared for class gardens and libraries, learning the responsibilities of citizenship.50

Sykes also took seriously the problem of language, instituting a policy of ‘Tamil first, English second’ in the curriculum during her headship, which she assumed in 1930. It was a long-standing issue for Indian nationalists that English was considered the pre-eminent language of instruction, knowledge and civilised culture since at least Macaulay’s Minute on Education of 1835 which institutionalised the superiority of English and European culture in India. While female education was much slower to develop and to institutionalise English as the preferred language for instruction, by the late 1920s most elite girls’ schools were English medium. Even religious education was touched by Swaraj. Although the School’s spiritual core was a Christian one, Sykes

[E]njoyed teaching about biblical prophets who stood against public corruption and the oppression of the poor was related to India’s aspirations for social justice and national integrity.51

In contrast to Sykes’ recollections of streets full of waving black flags protesting against the Raj, Patel’s return to Bombay is couched in terms of loneliness and alienation. Gandhi was a name he heard occasionally, when passing the train station, as passengers on the local trains shouted slogans about boycotting British goods and victory for Gandhi. It was only when he discovered other Cambridge and Oxford educated men, many of whom were lawyers, that he felt more at home. Joining the Bar Gymkhana52 brought him directly into the sphere of Bombay’s nationalist leaders, including Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim League and the eventual founder of Pakistan; and the debates that were raging over what form a newly independent Indian nation should take. He became a close friend and admirer of M. C. Chagla, a Muslim and passionate advocate of a secular democracy who nevertheless agreed with Gandhi that a secular state could be rooted in religiosity.53 It was under Chagla’s guidance that ‘Jahangir began to think as an Indian, and no longer to look at India from a British point of view’, suggestive also of how he no longer saw himself perhaps in terms solely of his membership of the Parsi



The turning point for Patel in his commitment to the anti-colonial movement was 1929. Urged by his brother to find out more about the family’s cotton business, he embarked on a tour of cotton-growing districts in the various parts of India from which the business sourced its cotton. It was his first real experience of rural India and he was shocked at the level of poverty and the contempt with which the poor were treated, which he experienced first-hand when he tried to rescue a woman road worker suffering through the last stages of tuberculosis. To the astonished incomprehension of the foreman, Patel removed the woman to his car caring for her as well as he could until she died in his arms.

‘Why worry? If one dies, there are hundreds more waiting to take her place’

commented the bemused foreman.

‘What does the British Raj have to say about that? ’ retorted Patel.

‘The White Sahibs? Oh, they say the same: what does it matter? ’ came the



He ‘was expected, being a “monied” man, to share their callous attitude towards the poor’ despite the unapologetic racism of local British officials and civilians in the district towns who excluded him from their clubs.56 Reading Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth57 confirmed his allegiance but he was caught in a dilemma as to how best to serve the cause, especially as the death of his brother meant both family and business responsibilities would increase. He decided to seek out the man himself to ask his advice, to the bemusement of Gandhi’s staff when the young prosperous businessman turned up requesting an appointment; one went so far as to warn him that such a meeting might really upset his life.

Jahangir’s meeting with Gandhi, recounted in detail in the book, turned on the fact that he could not converse in Gandhi’s native tongue of Gujarati. He admitted he spoke it badly and was much more fluent in English. Somewhat defensively he explained that the English were good people and that he owed them a great deal.

‘I haven’t found anyone here yet with whom I can feel so much at home as I do with my English friends. We Parsees aren’t good Indians, you know. ’

‘Is that true?’ asked Gandhi. ‘What about Dadabhai Naoroji?.... Pherozeshah Mehta?58 Weren’t they good Indians? What about you?’

‘What do you mean by a good Indian?’... ‘Are you a good Indian??’ asked Jahangir.59

The conversation closed with Gandhi’s emphatic declaration that ‘India’s spine is bent double under this load of poverty. It makes her servile. I want to see her walk upright and free’.60

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics