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
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
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
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
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
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,
Invited to the Principal's office we were
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
'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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Particularly the written ones, and
particularly if they can be read.
"Man ka ho to acchha. Man ka na ho to zyada
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
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