When I last visited Delhi, nearly thirty years ago, the airport was a notorious challenge for the visitor: one had to confront a sea of people, an onslaught of humanity, pressing and prospecting. Today there are few people hanging around there. The airport is calm and clean. As one drives around Delhi, there are traffic jams, but one is not confronted by the crowds that used to overwhelm the foreign visitor. Where have all the people gone?

It is not only Delhi which has changed of course, it is also me. This time I have mostly travelled by air-conditioned car from one elite institution to another. Which leads me to Bhaskar Vira’s challenge to his audience of several hundred Cambridge alumni at the Global Cambridge India day in Delhi last week, in a session entitled “Society”. 

small Bhaskar Vira at Global Cambridge KUP_8353

Dr Bhaskar Vira speaking at the Global Cambridge event in Delhi

Bhaskar (Fitz geography Fellow since 1998 and currently Graduate Tutor) encouraged us to think of society as a collectivity where people thought beyond themselves and their families, to interpret social change through the eyes of the losers, as well as the more familiarly dominant winners. He discussed a recent article in the Indian Express by Bunker Roy, a renowned social worker and grassroots educationalist, where the author commended the new Government of India for the fact that all the ministers had been to “average government schools”. “Thankfully”, Bunker Roy says, “none of them has been brainwashed at Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, the World Bank or the IMF, subtly forcing expensive Western solutions on typically Indian problems at the cost of the poor.” Bhaskar challenged his audience of Cambridge alumni to disprove Bunker Roy’s characterisation of out-of-touch “high-powered, foreign-returned degree-wallahs”. Cambridge, Bhaskar argued, empowers people to think. He encouraged them to prove by their actions that a Cambridge education does not disqualify them from thinking with empathy for others.

crop P1010039

Master and Alumni in Mumbai

We, my patient husband and I, have just had the enormous pleasure of an exhausting trip to India – we don’t enjoy long flights one little bit and worry about the environmental cost of spewing part-burned hydrocarbons into the stratosphere, but what a reward it was! India is sizzling, or at least it is sizzling around our alumni! I may not quite understand what has happened to the waves of people around the airport, but Fitzwilliam alumni are thriving in all sorts of fascinating ways.

We had opted to join the event organised by Cambridge University Development and Alumni Relations (CUDAR), under the umbrella Global Cambridge, in Delhi on 19 September, and since we have welcoming alumni aplenty in Mumbai we decided to join the celebrations in that city too. In Mumbai the party for alumni in Bombay Yacht Club (a splendid place which would have been even more splendid but for a public row many, many decades ago between a graduate of Clare and a rival from Caius, which resulted in the superior accommodation being reallocated to a scientific research station). What a privilege it is being the Master of a Cambridge College: Christopher and I hugely enjoyed the opportunity to build on the strong relationship that Fitzwilliam has enjoyed with India and Indians since its foundation as a non-collegiate institution. (You can read more about this in the book ‘Fitzwilliam: the first 150 Years of a Cambridge College’.)

crop IMG_0486 (Medium)

The Master (centre) and Christopher Padfield (far left) with Fitzwilliam alumni.

The purpose of the Global Cambridge day was to explore and showcase the depth and breadth of Cambridge’s engagement with India. It focused on health, education and society. Many speakers stressed our duty to work on finding answers to many challenging questions. We heard from the Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz and from many others about how this was being addressed in practice, through a growing number of mutually beneficial partnerships with Indian institutions and the Government. We also heard many different accounts of how Cambridge can change the lives of those who have the potential to change the world. Lord Bilimoria was passionate both about Cambridge and also on why foreign students should not be faced with unreasonable immigration laws.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Michael Mascarenhas (Economics, 1964) in Mumbai and to Sidarth Luthra (MPhil in Criminology, 1990) in Delhi for facilitating many meetings and for hosting absolutely splendid dinners for us and the Fitzwilliam alumni. We have a wonderful picture of where the majority of our Indian alumni live, and how they thrive. In this case Bunker Roy is wrong: Fitzwilliam alumni in India show every sign of engagement with the reality of the world around them.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>