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One thing one misses in England nowadays is the wit that seemed a national characteristic up to the ’90s...

Oxford Diary

All Rhodes Lead To...

To misquote Shakespeare, “the evil that men do is oft interred with their bones; the good lives after them”. And so it was with Cecil Rhodes, that ghastly imperialist, who endowed the Rhodes Scholarship—probably the world’s most prestigious, most coveted academic award—which has been won by a galaxy of people, from Bill Clinton to lateral thinking guru Edward de Bono, economist E.F. Schumacher and—yes!—country musician Kris Kristofferson.

Rhodes said he didn’t want “mere bookworms”, but rather people who had the character “to fight the world’s fight”. His vision was typically grand: to create an elite of future leaders who would work towards promoting world peace and improving the lot of mankind. And he chose to endow his scholarships at Oxford because he believed its environment was uniquely conducive to the kind of personal development he envisioned. Indians didn’t qualify for a Rhodes until 1947; today, of the 83 Rhodes scholarships awarded annually, five are earmarked for India (32 for the US, 11 for Canada, 10 for southern Africa and nine for Australia: there’s obviously a logic to this, but one wonders what it is).

So what do Rhodes scholars go on to do in life? The first Indian Rhodes scholar, Lovraj Kumar, was an executive with Shell, before becoming a distinguished civil servant and policymaker. Other prominent Indians include metallurgist T.R. Anantharaman, international bureaucrat Virendra Dayal, playwright Girish Karnad, economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia, diplomat Aftab Seth, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami, doctor/author Atul Gawande, doctor/author Siddhartha Mukherjee and academic/cricket scholar Boria Majumdar.

And what about the bit about “fighting the world’s fight”? Well, there have, of course, been various world leaders, thinkers and Nobel winners among all those Rhodes scholars. But the interesting thing is that Cecil Rhodes particularly wanted, back in 1903, that his scholarships should help the interaction of young leaders from three countries—the US, Germany and Britain—saying, “The object is that an understanding between the three Great Powers will render war impossible and educational relations make the strongest ties.” He may have had a point: of his German Rhodes scholars, at least two would later be executed for opposing Hitler, in the cause of humanity. Maybe the Rhodes Committee needs to relook at its allocations, in the light of the new, emerging world order. In any case, of last year’s 83 scholars, I’m told, 13 were of Indian origin—including about one-fifth of the US quota.

Mistress of Arts

It’s been alleged that Rhodes was a misogynist, as the first Rhodes scholarship was awarded to a woman only in 1977. But the world was like that: while women were first admitted to Oxford in 1878, they were, strangely, not granted degrees until 1920. Despite that early bias, Oxford has, obviously, produced numerous notable women through the years, including prime ministers Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. There’s an amusing legend about Benazir, whose indulgent papa had apparently presented her a flashy canary-yellow sports car: she once failed to produce an essay for her tutor, claiming, disingenuously, that she’d left it in her sports car and somebody had stolen it from there. Her tutor looked at her witheringly and said, “Ms Bhutto, do you seriously expect me to believe that someone stole your essay and left your sports car?”

Bathroom Wit

One thing one misses in England nowadays is the wit that seemed a national characteristic up to the ’90s, expressing itself in everything from the nation’s advertising to the graffiti on its walls. It’s part of the dumbing down of society, people sigh. But one place one still spots flashes of that wit, understandably, is in Oxford’s loos. In one, someone had written, “Anyone interested in time travel meet me here last Thursday.” In another, a long line was drawn along the entire length of the wall, ending with tiny lettering that said, “You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.”

Glittering Stiletto

In the countryside around Oxford you come upon villages with delightfully English names—Chipping Norton, Toot Baldon, Letcombe Bassett, Broughton Poggs and Nether Worton—places which sound like Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s little old lady detective, might have lived there. One of those villages is Sutton Courtney, the home not of Miss Marple but of Margot Asquith, author of probably the singlemost elegant insults in history: when Jean Harlow, the Hollywood sex symbol of the ’30s, persistently mispronounced her name as “Margott”, she apparently turned to her and said, “No, no, my dear, the T is silent. As in Harlow.” Her great-granddaughter, by the way (Asquith’s, not Harlow’s), is actress Helena Bonham Carter.

I Spotted The House...

Where Alice Liddell, the real-life Alice in Wonderland, lived. This was in Christchurch, where her father was dean. Lewis Carroll, of course, was actually Prof Dodson, a mathematics don.

Anvar Alikhan is an advertising professional and columnist

E-mail your diarist: anvaro AT hotmail.com


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