Recipient of the Old Sherwoodians' Millennium Award for Outstanding Achievement conferred during the Reunion on 14.10.2000.

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Founder's Day Speech - 4th June 2008

Bishop Cutting, Chief Guest Inderjeet Khanna, Principal Mr Amandeep Sandhu, the distinguished Staff and Teachers on the dias, parents, friends, ladies and gentlemen and the marvellous students of Sherwood -

Good Afternoon.

Here, where I stand today, is where I trod the boards some half a century ago. Here I felt the most awesome elation, winning the Kendall Cup, all those years ago. Same boards? Same tread? Same person? I hope so. For me, it remains one of my most glorious moments of personal victory and I still remember it so clearly, it could have been yesterday. The Cup I won for my part as the mayor in Gogol's The Government Inspector. The year before, it was The Happiest Days of Your Life, a British Comedy. I won nothing for that performance, my first at the school, but they were indeed the happiest of days for me, those of my time at Sherwood.

But time has moved swiftly apace since. Now, I revisit these very boards beneath my feet to speak in commemoration of Founder's Day. I come with a great sense of privilege and honour. The greater privilege and honour is that which Sherwood bestowed upon me fifty years ago: the privilege and honour of being one of its own. To my alma mater I take the opportunity today to pay reverent homage.

Founder's Day is an annual rite of passage. It is a moment of reflection upon the past. It is a moment to acknowledge the many achievements of excellence of its present students in the full assembly of its community. It is also a moment to look to the future.

The changes to the school that I see here now are exciting.

The strong emphasis on computer technology and its literacies is essential in a world of ever wider and transforming webs. Our own individual worlds expand; the world at large shrinks. As some of you may be aware, I've rather taken to that medium myself recently.

But even beyond this, it is the introduction of girls, the beginnings of a co-educational system, that is most wonderful to me. In my day, a lot of us would have been saved many a caning if it had been so in our time.

Then, the boundary perimeter of our sister school, All Saints, was known amongst us as "The Wall". It was a very prominent but highly secret institution in our lives, to put it mildly. When I contemplate the memory of the frustration of our most healthy curiosities, my response to this change is best captured in one word: it is humane.

Yet on a more serious note, the civilising nature of co-education extends beyond such innocent flights of youthful exploration: the equal and shared pursuit of knowledge by boys and girls together is good and just. It can only encourage mutual respect and understanding between the sexes, a circumstance much needed in our society where the value of women as equal in dignity is still persistently ignored.

But there are continuities as well that deserve mention: I was only here for three years, and yet the school left a profound impression on me.

The true impact that Sherwood College has had on my life resides in its ethos. This forms the core of continuity between my generation and the present one.

The education of the greatest value that I received here is how to be a human being of what we call, in shorthand, Character. And I don't mean the ones I play in films. Admittedly I had the benefit of inspirational parentage, but Sherwood taught me how to live in dignity with my peers, live in a community, and live well with myself in the world at large in consequence. Living together, working together, learning together, fighting and loving each other, competing fairly in noble rivalry and cooperating supportively, I learnt a sense of fellowship and comraderie. I learnt the true virtue of friendship as an individual, and the virtue of community as a collective. The strength of these bonds is demonstrated by the fact that, fifty years after, so many of my class of '58 have remained in touch and gather here today.

So what is Character? What is character-building?

First one must value the character by giving it dignity. Sherwood encouraged this. Dignity is gained through understanding that a human being is an integrated whole: the intellect, the body, the spirit, are equally important and interrelated.

Dignity is gained by understanding that this integrity of a human being, regardless of differences between one and another, has an ultimate value in itself. It has merit beyond any particular achievement, success or even failure. Giving a human being dignity is understanding that each one of us has our own distinct merits, talents, and value in the world.

Mereat quisque palmam. So well put by Sherwood's motto: let each one merit their own prize.

Secondly, one must harness the power of dignity through training, the training of the mind, the body, and the spirit. Another word for this training is discipline.

Yes, discipline! I didn't always like or agree with the routine of boarding school and the rules. But afterwards, I can tell you, I really appreciated the fact that had it not been for its initially imposed regimen, I could not have learned to harness the power of my own dignity for myself.

And this transition is the third element of building the character, which is truly a life-long enterprise, and despite support and encouragement, it is one that ultimately can only be conducted alone. Self-discipline gives measured thought and the patient judgment of maturity. It gives self-reliance. At its best and most noble, it is self-government. It brings true freedom.

The boxing ring at school here in my days - probably long abolished as a barbaric practice - to me it was a great tutor in this regard. You will have any amount of support from outside the ropes, but inside, you are on your own. Similarly, in the life beyond, you may have a die-hard corps of cheering fans - and also perhaps those that jeer at you in contempt - but at the end of the day you must engage life alone.

I speak from some measure of experience as you all may well appreciate. But I ask you to leave aside for a brief moment my public personas and those that I inhabit on the silver screen and hear me in my candour as I now stand before you. With the passing of the years a belief of mine sewn here in seed has grown to conviction. It is the belief that the greatest prize in life is not the recognition of worldly success. The prize that best crowns the human being is that of the possession of good character. It is a strenuous prize: daily it must be re-won. It is also a certainty of mine that there is many a day where I fail that prize myself, not for want of trying. But it is the most worthy prize of all, and without its effort, all material success and fame is sheer emptiness.

To discover the value of one's own dignity is also a discovery of the value in the dignity of others, and through that, the dignity of a community. Here again the ethos of Sherwood guided me.

I remember one such episode very well.

I do not know if that small hill above us is still known as Dorothy's Seat. For those of you in the audience unfamiliar with the name, it was christened thus on account of a young girl, a painter, who used to paint the landscape from its eyrie, until one day she fell to her death.

The poignant and ethereal beauty of Dorothy's Seat was where All Saints quite aptly held their annual picnic. We boys would surreptitiously steal up the hill to behold this glorious sight, hiding ourselves in the undergrowth to elude discovery. But on one occasion, we were spotted: we fled anonymous. At dinner that evening, the Principal entered the Hall, made the announcement of discovery, called upon the offending individuals to own up to their heinous deed immediately in front of the whole school. One by one, we twelve rose, dread-footed.

Invited to the Principal's office we were soundly caned.

But in acknowledgement of our honesty, we were spared the full six of the best. Like answered like. We got four instead, but still the best of them I can tell you! This is dignity.

'Fair play' might be considered a British tradition - a tradition most famous of course in their inconsistency in applying it - but such historical mythologies underpin a truth that really counts and that Sherwood's ethos wholly embraces. It is the ideal of fairness - the true spirit of Justice, not its letter.

On this point, I would like to speak further about the spirit of Justice beyond the realm of Sherwood, to speak of the larger community we all share, and how it relates to us as individuals.

The right to education is a fundamental human right, a fundamental dignity. It is enshrined in our Constitution, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Human Rights Covenants, which have the force of international law. To pursue the aim of education for all is therefore a duty for states. But it is not just a duty for states: it is a duty for every one of us to uphold fundamental human rights. Not just our own, but for all.

Yet here in India, basic literacy is still below the threshold level of 75%.

Literacy, being able to read and write, is always more than the sum of its parts, because of what it opens up for people. 'Literacy' ends up being a kind of metaphor: as soon as one can read and write, one becomes a member of a much larger community than would be otherwise possible, a community that also extends into the past and the future.

Literacy not only enriches our inner lives. It is also an indispensable means for effective social and economic participation, contributing to human development and poverty reduction.

Is meeting a 'threshold' enough? Is that what we want for India? How is it that sixty years after the birth of Independence in the fire of noble idealism, have we come to this? Is that fulfilling our duties as a community of citizens? No! It is not.

Not being able to read is a human poverty. Not being able to read is an inhuman poverty. Not being able to read deprives the human of the right to live in our collectivity. Not being able to read is a loss of freedom.

That a third of our population is deprived of this freedom deprives us all of our freedom.

I did not fully appreciate the reality of this unfreedom until during my brief venture into politics, when it was a real experience going out to the villages and rural areas in an official capacity and seeing the absolute deprivation of my fellow human beings. It was my first real exposure to it. I will never forget it.

When I started thinking about coming here for Founder's Day, and then thinking further upon the subject of education in general, I came at last to reflect upon what more I should be doing.

I had not previously really thought through that it was my duty to do so, not only as a citizen of India but as a human being. Quite simply, I am still a student and I hope that I always will be, for I have much yet to learn. I am grateful to Sherwood's continued stimulus, and will endeavour to consider this issue further.

The distinguished education that Sherwood College students receive by comparison with the large majority is the greatest of privileges, although it should not be so. In a just world, it would not be so. All of you deserve the finest of educations: it is your right and your duty, both to yourselves and to others. At Sherwood, you have the bountiful means to it. But so it should be for every child in this country. Democracy should not be the Great Leveller. It must be the Great Uplifter. It should not destroy distinction for the few but create it for the many. It should use such examples as Sherwood as a blue-print for the education of all.

I would like to argue that the focus of Equality should not be to aim for 'equality of outcome' - an impossible and dangerous ideal. Impossible because we all have our distinct and individual talents and merits; dangerous in the potential that it punishes difference, which in a pluralist society is wholly unacceptable. And it produces a stale homogeneity that makes a culture really boring. Equality should aim for 'equality of opportunity' - the aim to provide all individuals with a wealth of opportunity through good education to pursue their own distinct talents and hence their opportunity to flourish in their own distinctness.

A good education is the most valuable thing that a human being can possess. It is our greatest wealth, individually and collectively. In the world beyond these walls, fortune comes and goes, money comes and goes, but a good education can never be taken away once it has been possessed.

Academic achievement is not enough. The kind of knowledge gained through a good education is more than just the acquisition of information. Knowledge is learning what to do with all that information - that is the role of good character. And learning what to do with knowledge is the path to wisdom.

And knowledge is most valuable when it is shared. To all of my fellow students out there, may we take heed every day of our wealth: hunger for it, strive for it, nurture it, but above all, share in it, for then it multiplies manifold. We share it through reading, surfing, listening, talking, debating, exploring with each other about what is good and bad in what we do, say and believe.

This is how democracy and education are so deeply interlinked. Our democracy will only ever be as good as our system of education allows it to be. Our democratic literacy, along with our most basic literacies, must be ever expanded and strengthened.

There is one last recollection of my time here at Sherwood that I would like to share with you before we part. It was a lesson I learnt here with the help of my father. It is a lesson above any other that has helped me to do more than merely survive or endure life, but to better understand it.

I had won the Kendall Cup for my part in The Government Inspector. The next year, and my last one, I had heady hopes to win it again, this time with Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. What great glory it would be to win the Cup two years running, I thought. It would be a feat never achieved before!

Electric with anticipation, I could hardly sleep the preceding night what with thoughts of the next day, Founder's Day, this very day where we all gather now. The festive activities, the play in its final performance, the joy of seeing my parents after six months apart.

And then, as the morning broke out across the hills around us, so did a rash on my face. My roommate Ravi Dhavan dismissed my initial assumption that it was simply an allergic reaction to a brush with a wild plant during a bout of pastoral frolicking. He suspected worse. "It's measles", he said, and he was right. Spirited off to splendid isolation in the school infirmary, all I could think of was the Play. The Play that evening. The Play of my hopes.

"I hope they don't stop me from performing - I shall remain in the Hospital and just go out to the stage in time for the start - will just do my part and come back - please I will not touch or mix with anyone - it's merely a matter of two hours - how will they find a replacement, there has been no understudy - my parents are coming all the way from Delhi to see me act - you cannot do this to me."

But it was a foregone conclusion. The Principal, the late Reverend RC Llewelyn, made grave visitation and in somber tones pronounced judgement. I would have to miss the play. Mr Berry, our Drama teacher, would play my part.

My misery was inconsolable. Beneath my smile of defeat, I wept within. Numbed, broken in the grief of defeat, I watched the cruel passing of the day alone and wretched. The evening drew in tight around my throat like a manacle. From my incarceration, I watched the crowds gathering for the Play in this very Hall; their cheerful murmur echoing up the amphitheatre of the hill was an agony to my ears. The ringing of the three customary bells before the start, the voice of the Principal, applause, then silence. The din of my heart was deafening to me.

Then, softly, my father enters the room, sits down beside me, without a word. Neither of us speak. Gently he reaches for my hand, places his upon mine, then with the great strength of his spirit he grips me, without a word. Our eyes do not meet, we don't look at each other. Just stare out through the window beyond. So we remain for some time.

And then, even now, I hear his voice.

"Man ka ho to acchha. Man ka na ho to zyada acchha !"

If things happen according to what you wish. It is good.

If things do not happen according to what you wish, then it is even better.

For the entire duration of the Play there he sits, holding my hand, understanding the pain I suffer, and explaining his words of guidance, arguing them, insisting on them, giving examples, refuting my replies, persisting until I was won.

If things do not happen according to your wish then they happen according to the wish of the Almighty, and that is always for the Good. They are better, greater, wiser wishes than one's own.

It has been the greatest lesson of my life. One that has stayed with me in every situation. It has been my strength in adversity; my companion in pain and tribulation; my dearest friend in moments of glory and joy.

I leave these words with you before I take my final bow here today.

Humans perish, not their words. They are eternal.

Particularly the written ones, and particularly if they can be read.

"Man ka ho to acchha. Man ka na ho to zyada acchha !"

Today, may we remember on Founder's Day those eternal words of our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on another day of momentous foundation, that of the Independence of India. He speaks for us, for our collective pledge, for our tryst with destiny:

The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil our pledge.

May we all here today persevere to redeem that pledge as best we can, according to our own individual and invaluable and singular talents.

Mereat quisque palmam. This is dignity.

Amitabh Bachchan

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