Two Queen’s College alumni meet. As Naomi Canton reveals, they may be 45 years apart in age but they discover a shared past: India.

It was close to midnight. The heady moment of sipping spirits and chatting in the SCR after The Queen’s College Old Members’ Dinner had arrived. Dr BS Chandrasekhar, a smartly dressed retired Indian professor who had matriculated at Oxford in 1949, bumped into me, a British journalist and more recent alumna of Queen’s. I had just come back to the UK after several years of working in Mumbai. I was stunned to meet someone from India who had been at the same college as me 41 years earlier; he was equally surprised to meet a British Queen’s alumnus who had worked so recently in his booming homeland. We stayed in touch after the dinner and met up a few months later to talk at greater length.

Indians have been studying at Oxford since 1871. But as Chandrasekhar informs me, “It was mostly the children of maharajahs and sons of wealthy families who went to Oxford from India before the Rhodes Scholarships were introduced in 1947.” He is the earliest surviving Indian Rhodes Scholar, since the four who came to Oxford in the two years before him (1947 and 1948) have passed away. In Chandrasekhar’s year, 1949, only one scholarship was awarded to an Indian out of a population in India of 350 million.

Aged 84, he is not from a wealthy family. He came from an intellectual, academically-oriented family in Bangalore who lived in a six-room house where they rolled out mattresses on the floor to sleep on at night. “Life was simple but comfortable,” he says. “I grew up appreciating European and classical Indian music and we would go to the cinema to see Charlie Chaplin movies. Slums, street children and beggars were there in India, but they were not as noticeable as they are today,” he adds. He arrived by boat in England in September 1949, two years after the partition of British India, aged 21, one of a class of 68 Rhodes Scholars. He came to research a DPhil in physics, specifically superfluid helium. Before arriving he had participated in the Quit India Movement, shaken hands with Jawaharlal Nehru (the first prime minister of independent India), been present at Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral and witnessed the horrors of partition. “I thought partition was a disaster and should not have happened,” he says.

While my experience of modern India has been largely positive, I came across a small number of older Indians who still resented the British because of the British Raj and partition.

The Rhodes Scholarship 63 years ago was an annual award of £300. Introduced in 1903, these awards were originally only given to men from certain countries such as the USA, Germany and various parts of what was then the British Empire. But in 1947, the year India acquired independence, India was allowed to participate for the first time and the first two Indian Rhodes Scholars took up residence in Oxford. “Some heads of colleges objected because they did not think the Indian Rhodes Scholars would fi t into college life,” Chandrasekhar says. “Some were against it because they were convinced that Indian Rhodes Scholars would be discriminated against by other Rhodes Scholars. But this was not the case.”

Since then nearly 200 Indians have been awarded the postgraduate scholarship, which is currently given to 83 graduates from 14 countries to study a variety of degrees at Oxford. For the first 38 years, India had one or two scholarships every year. Today there are five. Chandrasekhar later discovered that the Indian Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee had been at loggerheads over whether to award the 1949 scholarship to a Muslim as ‘a good gesture after partition to show that India was still secular.’ Sir Maurice Gwyer, the Chairman of the Committee later admitted this to him, he says. But Gwyer insisted they should not let that govern who they selected.

It took Chandrasekhar 22 days to reach Britain by boat in an 8,000–tonne vessel that held 100 passengers. It was his first trip overseas. He shared a cabin in economy class, while the British were in first class. “It was a very interesting crowd of student types and others,” he says. “There were a large number of Anglo Indians who had decided India could no longer be their home as they were afraid they would get discriminated against in the new independent India and so they were emigrating to the UK.”

Upon his arrival, “The people, their speech, the buildings, the names of places – I knew them already, it seemed.” He’d developed his impressions of Britain based on reading books by Dickens, Wodehouse and Thackeray and also some British missionaries that his family had befriended.

Fast forward to 2007 and I became the first non-Indian ever to be granted an employment visa to work on an Indian national newspaper. The India I landed in to take up a position at The Hindustan Times in Mumbai was quite different to the one Chandrasekhar had left almost 60 years earlier. By 2007 Mumbai had air-conditioned shopping malls, a variety of Western and Indian restaurants and dozens of bars and nightclubs. The Mumbaikars I mixed with generally had mobiles, laptops, trendy clothes; they drank alcohol and cappuccinos, went clubbing and were on Facebook and Twitter. India by then had a booming middle class, numbering 160 million, more than twice the population of Britain.

Chandrasekhar, who now resides in Germany, says he is also “astonished” when he goes back to India and compares it to 1949. “Bangalore today has changed considerably from when I was a boy. Now it has a population of eight to ten million, whereas then it was 250,000,” he says. “If I go back to the residential, tree-lined peaceful parts of the city, it’s almost the same as it was 60 years ago. But when I go downtown, it’s busy and crowded, there are about 100 times as many private cars and the streets are clogged with vehicles, motorbikes and rickshaws. When I was living there, there were no people living on the streets, there was little visible poverty. The total population of India now is about four times what it was then. The consequence of such growth can be seen everywhere. I used to cycle everywhere in Bangalore. Today that would be impossible.”

In my view, overpopulation is an excuse for the poverty that persists in India: I blame the poverty on a lack of investment in public infrastructure and services, and a poor tax collection system. Too many Indians evade income tax. Corruption at many levels of society is also a challenge. But despite that, even the Indians I encountered who slept on the pavement had a mobile phone. Whilst young Indians are enjoying the benefits of globalisation, Chandrasekhar is not so sure about the popular Western culture that has penetrated Indian life. He would rather see an appreciation of Western higher culture in India.

Chandrasekhar had the privilege of learning physics under Lord Cherwell, the scientific advisor to Churchill and head of the Clarendon Laboratory until 1956. He learnt low temperature physics from many refugees from Nazi Germany that Cherwell had helped bring to the UK. He recalls playing cricket in University Parks in a Clarendon Lab team called the Lindemann XI (an assortment of nationalities) against Cherwell XI (Brits). He also remembers leaving his bike outside the Clarendon Lab without locking it, going to the States for two years and finding it there when he came back. “That was Oxford then,” he says with a grin.

One of the best parts about Oxford in those days compared to now, he continues, is that postgraduates and undergraduates were not segregated in colleges.

We both feel that the most important lesson we learnt from living in each other’s respective countries was tolerance for different cultures and national characteristics. “Oxford broadened my view of what someone from another country could be like,” Chandrasekhar explains. “I also feel satisfied that by meeting me, some foreigner got to know that India is not a land of mystics where they see the rope trick or where people don’t recognise names like Beethoven as I clearly do.”

There were very few non-British students in 1949, apart from Rhodes Scholars, who were mainly from the US and the Dominions. Approximately 33 new Indian students matriculated at Oxford that year. That has now increased fivefold: in 2011, 180 new Indian students joined Oxford. “In 1949 an Indian was a rarity,” Chandrasekhar recalls. “At Queen’s everyone was normal, accepting and welcoming of me. I don’t remember any experience where I was made conscious of my Indianness. Nobody asked me if I wanted a curry or anything like that!

“If I came today, whether or not I would have the same experience, I don’t know. I certainly did not experience any intolerance or discrimination. Oxford accepted me and I accepted Oxford.” What Oxford taught me was to think out of the box and question everything. That is something young Indians could benefit from as I find there to be a culture in Indian society today of deferring to hierarchy and rote-learning, combined with a fear of challenging authority and expressing independent critical thinking, which I don’t think allows creativity to flourish, although that may be advantageous in other disciplines.

Chandrasekhar talks about how he would like to see more collaborative projects between different universities globally, so that minds could join together to undertake fruitful research. “Imagine if the Faculty of Music at Oxford was linked with the Department of Music at Delhi University! The students could take part in exchange programmes and go and study in India and Indian music students could come to Oxford,” he says.

Owing to its growing importance in the global economy, I would certainly like to see Britain put more effort into its relationship with India, Hindi taught at British schools and more courses on contemporary India taught at British universities. “I think it is a very good thing that so many non-resident Indians and expats want to move to India nowadays,” says Chandrasekhar. “I think that for a person who still has 30 to 40 years of active life and who is ambitious, India probably offers more opportunities than some of the more advanced countries of the world.”

I was there during the boom years; the Indian economy has taken a nosedive recently. The country is currently plagued by high inflation, high interest rates, a weak rupee, declining foreign investment and a political paralysis in the Government which is stalling badly-needed reforms and projects and undermining investor confidence. Moreover, in spite of India’s past decade of fast economic growth, almost one third of the population still live beneath the poverty line. But with its vast young population, growing middle class and huge domestic market, I believe this Asian tiger stands a good chance of overcoming its growing pains.

Naomi Canton read for a BA (Hons) degree in oriental studies (Japanese) at The Queen’s College between 1990 and 1995. In June 2007 she moved to India to take up a position as a special correspondent at The Hindustan Times, Mumbai. She stayed there for just over three years and then returned to the UK where she has set herself up as a freelance journalist in Somerset.

Dr BS Chandrasekhar completed a DPhil in physics at The Queen’s College in 1952. He is author of Why Things Are the Way They Are (Cambridge University Press, 1998), a book about the physics of matter. After a global career as a professor, including Professor Emeritus of Case Western Reserve University, USA, a consultant at various laboratories and a committee member of various physics societies, he now resides in Germany.