MARJORIE SYKES: The Lady Who Inspired Binayak Sen

Dr Binayak Sen met the lady in the late 1970s at Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh and was highly influenced by Ms. Sykes, who was also the biographer of Mahatma Gandhi. Read Dr Sen’s last statement in the court here.

From The Hindu

Published on Sunday, July 24, 2005

A Gandhian life


Marjorie Sykes dedicated herself to the cause of new education in India. A tribute in the year of her birth centenary.

MARJORIE SYKES (1905-1995) came to Madras as a young woman of 23 in 1928 to take up a teacher’s job in a local school. She stayed on for nearly 70 years, dedicating her services to the cause of new education envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.

Born in Yorkshire, Marjorie was the daughter of a village schoolmaster. She entered Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1923 under a scholarship. She heard of Mahatma Gandhi from the many Indian students at Cambridge who had known the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1921..

In 1926, she studied for Cambridge teacher’s diploma, and was one of the very few students who opted for service overseas. Fascinated by an educational career in India, Marjorie readily accepted a teacher’s post at Bentinck School for Girls in Madras. She later became principal of the school.

Soon after she arrived in Madras in 1928, she was introduced to a vigorous group called International Fellowship founded in 1922 by A. A. Paul, who had been inspired by Gandhiji’s wonderful speech at his famous trial in March 1922 and the Mahatma’s persistent personal friendliness towards his political opponents.

New dimensions

Towards the end of 1928, the Madras International Fellowship held a special weekend conference at which C. Rajagopalachariar (Rajaji) was the main speaker. He spoke of the importance of Gandhiji’s constructive programme. His words carried conviction and authority, based as they were on the experiences of his ashram at Tiruchengode in Salem district of Madras Province. The meeting with Rajaji and his subsequent generous friendship opened new vistas for Marjorie. She often visited the Tiruchengodu ashram where they taught her to spin and told her of their struggle against untouchability and all that it had cost them.

In Madras, Marjorie discovered new dimensions of Gandhiji’s constructive programme, especially as it affected women. Her work as Principal in a girl’s school was shaped by these experiences. Bentinck school was compact enough to work as a real community. She challenged the prevalent school ethics of competitions. She abolished prizes for best students and the self-centred rivalry and disappointment they evoked among the students. The years in Bentinck School taught Marjorie to appreciate the importance of mastering the mother tongue. She learnt Tamil, Hindi and later Bengali and soon became fluent.

Marjorie read of Gandhiji’s vision of a new educated system in his articles published in Harijan weekly in 1937. His faith in the vast potential of basic education through active work captured her imagination and fired her enthusiasm.

In December 1938 she travelled to Santiniketan to arrange for her future work there on an invitation from Rabindranath Tagore to join his institution as a “Representative of English Culture”. But she went via Wardha in Maharashtra to see what was happening under Gandhiji’s guidance in the village school at Sevagram. Marjorie’s journey to Sevagram and Santinketan “was one of great inward excitement and discovery… Within a few crowded days I came face to face with two of the greatest men then living, Mahatma Gandhi and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore”, writes Marjorie in her book Gandhi: His Gift of the Fight, co-authored by Jehangir P. Patel and published in 1987.

Santiniketan years

In 1939, Marjorie joined Santiniketan where she worked closely with Tagore during the last years of his life. There she became acquainted with C.F. Andrews, the Anglican clergyman who had supported Gandhiji since his days in South Africa. After his death in 1940 she held the C.F. Andrews Memorial Chair in 1944-46 while working on his biography. During these years Marjorie taught English at the Women’s Christian College in Madras where she chose to live in the slum area starting a nursery school for the children of working mothers.

During one of her visits to Sevagram in 1945, Gandhiji invited Marjorie to join his Nai Talim (New Education) team. By the time she could go to Sevagram as Principal of Gandhiji’s Basic Education Programme, which involved training teachers to promote Gandhian social reforms and educational experiment, Gandhiji was no more.

One activity that demanded her attention in the 1960’s was the Nagaland Peace Mission formed on the initiative of Jayaprakash Narayan. She agreed to give the assignment a month’s trial but stayed for nearly three years. The work was mainly concerned with implementing the terms of the ceasefire between the Naga rebels and the Indian Government. Marjorie and her colleagues in the mission seem to have been largely successful in removing friction through making personal contacts with the parties involved.

Active life

Thereafter, she became increasingly active among Quakers in India and elsewhere — often at Rasulia in Madhya Pradesh. Around this time, she also built a cottage in Kotagiri in the Nilgiris Hills of Tamil Nadu and conducted family-sized training groups in non-violence, receiving visitors from all over the world.

After illness in India late in her life, Marjorie decided in January 1991 to settle at Swarthmore, a Quaker residential home in Buckinghamshire, to concentrate on her writings. She remained there until her death in August 1995 at the ripe old age of 90.

Charming, full of fun, always a delightful companion, Marjorie nevertheless quietly and unobtrusively lived what she believed in — a Gandhian life of simplicity and self-discipline, outwardly genial and inwardly austere.

La. Su. Rengarajan is a writer, researcher and Gandhian scholar.


2 thoughts on “MARJORIE SYKES: The Lady Who Inspired Binayak Sen

  1. Marjorie was a close friend and an executor of my Granny –Francis Mary Barr’s will. I also had the privilege of being her Drama student while I was training in Bangalore. My parents had a lot of contact with her as she was a very close friend of my Granny in Kotagiri Nilgiri Hills in South India

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