It was a very different experience from my schooling in India where, of course, I’d also been to a boarding school as well as being a day scholar, in missionary schools, in the north of India. I was surrounded by a large number of, what I would call, English public-school boys, who had a particular attitude. These were people, of course, of families who were rather well-off, some of whom had four or five children in the school at any one time, so you could imagine the fees that they would be paying […] So, it was kind of an artificial environment. I wasn’t to know that, of course, until I left public school and went out into the wider community, which was an altogether different experience.
Ranjit recalled how after leaving boarding school, he settled with a British family in Birmingham:
I had a family to look after me. A family that was connected to my own in India, over a period of a decade. My uncle had come from India to study medicine at the University of Birmingham. [He] had become very friendly with people in his year, who subsequently became my guardians when I came. And that’s the closeness of the connection. It happens of course that this family was very openminded, very liberal in its views, and, in some ways, allowed me to explore the length and breadth of British society in a way that I might not have got had I gone to another kind of family. It was an extraordinary, liberating experience. They were loving and kind and brought me up as one of their own sons. There were three other boys in the house, who were like my brothers, and who still are like my brothers, years later.
Ranjit’s Indian-ness begins to take shape:
When I first came England, I had no idea, no concept of the fact I was Indian. My overarching impression was that I was just a young missionary-school-educated boy who was coming to the ‘mother country’. That was it. The notion of Indian-ness strikes you when you know that you cannot be part of the wider society. Or that you have been excluded from it, either subtly or not so subtly. That’s when you fall back and say, “Well if they’re going to exclude me, I’m going to take on an identity.” So, I develop a notion of my identity. Inevitably, my culture, my language, my history, or my new-found history, comes to the fore, and allows me to fill out this notion of Indian-ness.
Arriving to Britain, the differences between him and the Punjabi workers came to the surface:
You know, when I first came, I did not speak the language of the emigrant workers in this country, who came from the Punjab. I did not speak Punjabi. I spoke a refined kind of lingua-franca of the elite classes, called Hindustani, which was partly Urdu, partly English, and partly Hindi. So, when I first came here, I couldn’t speak to my Indian colleagues. I looked like them, I wanted to be with them, but I couldn’t speak their language. And so, they said, “Listen young man, if you’re going to work with us, you’re going to have speak our language.” So, over the next year or two, they literally took me by the scruff my neck and taught me how to speak colloquial Punjabi. Now, we’re not talking about refined Punjabi. We’re talking about the Punjabi of the villages of the Doaba. The Doaba is a particular area of the Punjab, which is a characteristic form of Punjabi, as indeed has the Maja and Malva. So, over the years, I came to speak Punjabi like the villagers. I used to say afterwards, that I learned my English in the Punjab, and my Punjabi in England.
Ranjit recalled his student days fondly:
I remember going to pubs with them [Punjabi workers]. Delightful evenings when those people would come straight out of foundries and factories, have a shower and go straight into the pub before going home. There they would sit and start drinking. They would drink something sometimes called Mickey Mouse., which I think is half bitter and half mild, and various other combinations. And then they would recite poetry and entertain us. These are foundry workers. And my glass was never empty. I would start drinking it and before it got to the bottom, another glass would appear, and another, and another. We would be absolutely pie-eyed by the time we got home. We would have about five or six pints and after that we would go to one of the worker’s homes. I used to quite often go to Jagmohan Joshi’s house. Jagmohan Joshi was the General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association. And then the bottle of whisky would come out […] They were intense periods of my life where I learnt a lot about human beings.
Ranjit described his growing political consciousness and activism:
I came to university, which of course, was a hotbed of radicalism. In those days, all universities were extremely open-minded, liberal places to be. […] I joined the International Society because I felt that there were people of like mind, who had the same analysis, not only about what was going in Britain, but also what was going on abroad. Out of the International Society, we started to organise demonstrations, going on marches. And I remember very clearly, in my first year at university, we learned that a school […] had invited Enoch Powell to come and do a keynote speech. This was after Enoch Powell had made the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, which had sparked a massive national debate about the number of black people the country could tolerate […] I remember that when we learnt about Enoch Powell coming to the school, we organised a demonstration outside the school. We linked hands to form a chain to stop people from getting in, little realising that he would be brought in through the backdoor […] That incident occurred in 1969.
What I didn’t then realise was that one could form alliances and allegiances with people in that wider community who were uncomfortable with what was happening. That came later.