My best teacher

16th June 2000 at 01:00
If life were a text that could be formally dedicated, I would dedicate mine to my three teachers

I grew up in a small village in Gujarat and didn't go to primary school. In India in those days, people went to university when they were ready to, so I went when I was 15. My father was my first and only teacher until I started secondary school. He was a goldsmith and had only had a couple of years of schooling himself, but he was very ambitious and projected all his ambitions on to me. I was the first person in my caste and in my family to go to university.

My father was a dominant force and one of the major influences in my life. He was someone to emulate, because he was totally determined to succeed and had enormous will-power. His day would start at seven in the morning and he'd carry on working until eight at night. But he was also hot-tempered, violent and self-righteous.

He did make amends for some of his injustices, though. When he became more successful, he went into money lending and I remember some untouchables coming to him to mortgage their ornaments, the only possessions they had in the world. I argued with him about taking them but he was immovable. Then, in the Sixties, after his family had grown up, he began to reflect on his past and realised he'd been exploitative. So he repented and donated much of his money to setting up a school for untouchables.

The head of my secondary school, R D Desai, was my next memorable mentor. A distinguished scholar and linguist, he impressed me enormously. He took a personal interest in me and encouraged me to do a BA and an MA. I had always believed that my fate was to join the family business. Each qualification I've attained has been a surprise to me. If I hadn't achieved anything, it wouldn't have distressed me.

But because I came from an uneducated family and since education became my vocation, teachers had a huge influence on my life. R D Desai set an example for me of a life given over to scholarship, while at the same time being enormously accessible. Each time I was overwhelmed by doubts, he would be available for me, butalways keeping enough distance to show that he wasn't a friend but a guru, a teacher.

My third great teacher and mentor was Usha Mehta, who taught at the Bombay School of Economics. She was legendary for running an underground radio station in Bombay for two years during Gandhi's civil disobedience activities against the British in the struggle for independence. They called her "a pocketful of dynamite" because she was under five foot and very beautiful. She was captured and tortured by the British, did a PhD when she was released then became a professor.

Working on my MA with her was the turning point for me. She said to me, "I'm telling you your destiny - you won't become a bank clerk. You'll go on to become a scholar." And I did, thanks to her. When I applied to the LSE, she filled in all my forms and wrote a 500-word research proposal for me. She said she'd give me every penny I needed to carry on with my studies. At 81, she remains my closest friend.

There's a Sanskrit saying that reflects the way I was raised. It goes like this: I am walking on the street and see two people, my teacher and God. To whom shall I bow first? The answer is the teacher. Why? Because it was the teacher who gave me the eyes to see God and the sense to respect him.

If life were a text that could be formally dedicated, I would dedicate mine to my three teachers. Whatever I've been able to do with my intellectual life I owe to them.

Bhikhu Parekh was talking to Reva Klein

THE STORY SO FAR

1935 Born in Gujarat, India

1950 Begins BA at University of Bombay

1954 Begins MA

1959 Studies for PhD in politics at London School of Economics

1964-present Lecturer, senior lecturer, reader then professor of politics

at University of Hull

1967-present Visiting professorships in Canada, US and Spain

1985-90 Deputy chair, Commission for Racial Equality

1993-97 Chair, National Survey of the Ethnic Minorities in Britain advisory

committee

1998-present Chair, Government Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain

2000 Becomes life peer


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