Cambridge Years 1923-1926
The next stage of their lives which both Sykes and Patel discuss in the book, is their time at university. Despite her interrupted education (she had also survived a bout of Spanish influenza), Sykes entered Newnham College,
Cambridge, in 1923 to major in English. Those 3 years were crucial in shaping her life path spiritually, politically and professionally. It was here, she records in the book, that she first heard about Gandhi from Indian students who had participated in the non-cooperation movement several years earlier.37 However, of more impact on her at the time was that it was here too she found Christianity and faith (her family were not practicing Christians). It was a version of Christianity shaped by a post-war generation of teachers and thinkers determined to link Christianity to the burning issues of their time: peace and social justice.
Cambridge led me to see that the way of Jesus was a way of ‘non-violence’ - a way to be followed in the details of daily living. Jesus, not Gandhiji, was my teacher of truth and non-violence; although what I learned in Cambridge was confirmed and much enriched by what I learned later from Gandhiji and others in India.38
Through the Student Christian Movement (SCM),39 she also encountered international Christian students from Europe, North America and elsewhere who were critiquing the negative attitudes to local cultures held by Christian missionaries (some of whom were their own parents). She ‘became aware that the message of Jesus must be given with respect for the various cultural traditions of the world and a readiness to learn from them’.40 Her decision to complete a postgraduate teaching diploma was informed by the young teachers from universities and schools around the world who visited Cambridge under the auspices of the SCM to invite Cambridge men and women to be equal partners with them in the education of their own people. This was not an invitation to colonise the mind, but to help ensure ‘their cultures were to be enriched and not destroyed by their contact with the west’.41 She quotes a phrase of Dr. Aggrey, founder of Achimota College, Accra, Ghana: ‘the piano needs both its black keys and its white ones to evoke the full music’.42 It was in this spirit that Sykes accepted the teaching position with the London Missionary Society at the Bentinck School in Madras.
In 1921 the 16-year-old Patel was sent to England to live with an Indian friend of the family in Cambridge while attending 2 years of preparatory school to ready himself for university entrance exams. He arrived at Downing College to read natural sciences at the same time Sykes entered Newnham College to read English, although their paths did not cross. For him, Cambridge was less a place of spiritual awakening or international awareness than a place of society and (mainly) acceptance. He felt quite at home in Downing. He liked the English students, while the numerous Indian students congregated mainly around sport, especially cricket and tennis. It was here he felt the first stirrings of national pride as an Indian, when ‘A great cricketer and an even greater gentleman’, Duleep Singh43 was refused membership to a university sporting club. Patel reacted angrily and, with his Indian associates, organised a counter-club and imposed a reverse colour bar.44 This was, however, the exception that proved the rule: to him England remained a second home and he describes himself as ‘... still in many ways a typical “brown Englishman“’ on his return to Bombay and the family business in 1926.45