Passage to India 29th November 2010

What better way to pass the time in New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport than by updating my blog.

These have been two weeks of intense contrast.  Weeks of preparation in my office and the Development Office have gone into a trip that has passed with breathtaking speed.  One week ago I was in my room in Somerville meeting first-year students and hearing about a wide range of aspirations fulfilled and ambitions developing.  By Wednesday morning Indian time, with colleagues Julie Hage, head of Somerville’s  Development Office and Dame Fiona Caldicott my predecessor as Principal, I was standing for a long, long hour in Indian passport control; not anyone’s choice of a way to spend the early hours of the morning after an eight-hour flight.  Help was at hand, eventually, in the shape of two gentlemen in resplendent red turbans who had been waiting with patient good humour to whisk us off to our hotel.  From that point onwards, Indian bureaucracy melted away and Indian hospitality took over.  Amazing, warm, gift-giving hospitality of a kind I have never found surpassed.

We came to India to explore what  support we might get for our plans to commemorate Somerville’s illustrious alumna Indira Gandhi  in our new building and in programmes that will support students and Fellows in the long term.   This was also a chance to connect with friends and alumni of Somerville in India.  And in the context of commemorating Mrs Gandhi’s contributions on the world scene, it gave me an impetus to sharpen our focus on the college’s  international and public service traditions.  Many Somerville students contribute to social welfare, volunteer teaching  and environmental  programmes both locally and abroad, and quite a few more are interested in applying their talents after graduating  by establishing programmes of microfinance, serving in hospitals in poor and emerging parts of the world, and much more. 

 Among the organisations that might be interested in  potential  partnerships and exchanges is a Delhi think tank, the Institute for Social Services Trust, whose research programmes include some important research on gender, and the social and cultural impediments to women’s education.   India’s burgeoning wealth (9% growth in the economy in the past year)has made it a magnet for international attention in new ways, and the commentary in the national press on President Obama’s recent visit made the country’s  self-confidence clear.   (“America needs India more than India needs America” was the tenor of much of it.)  And yet, the plight of India’s 600 million or so poor remains intractable, as the present government clearly is acutely aware.  Issues such as food safety, water supplies, and the provision of a basic education  preoccupy India’s leaders, now as much as they did during the lifetime of Indira Gandhi,  despite much progress,  and they are fundamental to electoral politics.

 My head is full of images and the memory of many kindnesses.  My luggage is filled with gifts from kind new friends.  One encounter I will remember with special delight was with an extraordinary, redoubtable Somervillian who graduated in 1960: Kaisar Zaman, daughter of the last Nawab of Kurwai.  She flew from Bhopal to meet us and stayed in our hotel, escorted by friends from the school she runs in Bhopal.   It was thanks to Kaisar and her friends that we visited the two World Monument sites in Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb and the Red Fort, somehow  bypassing the throngs lined up at the ticket counters and picking our way past crowds of other tourists and  uniformed school children in orderly crocodiles, to gaze at some of the most breathtaking monuments of Mughal civilisation.  Kaisar took us to lunch with an old friend she hadn’t seen for fifty years, the distinguished economist and journalist,  Magdalen graduate Preym Jha.  He and our fellow guests provided a crash course in the literary and political life of New Delhi, delivered at high speed over delicious Hyderabad style biryani.  In the spaces in between these visits she told us about the school she founded with the revered headmistress of her boarding school in Woking, whom she persuaded to settle in Bhopal after retirement, and the engineering college in Bhopal that she also supports.   Kaisar herself still works long days as the Principal of her school, which she set up after contesting and losing an election as a Congress Party candidate for the Madya Pradesh State Assembly in 1980.  She pays close attention to the social consciousness and subsequent careers of her pupils.  Her love of teaching and her concern for standards of ethics and learning strike a chord with so much that I hear from Somervillians in other parts of the world.  Like so many others, Kaisar remembers her tutors with a mixture of awe and affection.  She sees her tutorials with such formidable Fellows as Miss Mary Lascelles as the place where she learned to think for herself and stand up for what she thought.  She brought an album to show us, in which was preserved her certificate for winning the Coombs Prize for English, inscribed in the handwriting of then Principal Dame Janet Vaughan, to “Princess Kaisar Zaman”.    The image that sticks in my mind is of this generous, energetic lady, clad in an exquisite outfit in a  gold thread, steering the way with not just a touch of imperiousness past all the impediments of tourist Delhi on a warm day, and pausing at each turn to tell us more about the country she so clearly adores and the people she serves.

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