It was a fitting birthday gift for Rajni Kumar who just turned 90 – another accolade to add to her mounting trophy collection. This time the founder of the legendary Springdales Schools in India, was in Dubai to accept the Gr8! Women Award for her life’s work. She has also been awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, for her achievements in setting up quality schools in India, but despite public praise she remains incredibly modest.
“I was a tad apprehensive at first thinking the Gr8! awards were for young women celebrities. And being 90 years old I thought I would be a misfit,” she says. “But when I saw there were so many remarkable women of all ages being awarded for their amazing achievements in areas such as social and community service and health care I felt so proud to be honoured with them.’’
An ardent advocate of education, the school she set up in 1955 today boasts more than 6,000 students in its four branches in India. There is now one in Al Quoz, Dubai, which opened this academic year.
“My dream is to nurture and encourage children to be more loving and caring,’’ she says. She’s supposedly retired, but the sprightly grandmother can’t keep away from work for long. She’s always been a woman on the go.
Born Nancy Joyce Margaret Jones to an English mother and Welsh father, she went on to become one of the most famous education activists in India after falling in love with a student from Punjab.
At first the move to India was overwhelming for Rajni, who is is the youngest of seven children, but she quickly embraced Indian culture, wearing a sari, and even changing her name.
“Right from the start I ‘Indianised’ myself and have never regretted it. What I have received is far more than what I have given,’’ she says.
“I love India and when people say ‘she is more of an Indian than one born in India’ I feel very fulfilled.” In Dubai for the opening of the Al Quoz school, Rajni shares her life story and her passions with Friday:
I was born in London in March 1923. My hair and skin were quite dark and some people wondered if I was Indian, so I suppose my love for the country began back then. As I grew older I became actively interested in politics. I particularly loved discussions about India and Myanmar – places where Britain had business interests at the time. When I was 16, the Second World War broke out and I formed a youth club to help war victims. We would participate in community service and would often visit East London where a lot of poor people lived, distributing food, medicine and other supplies to them.
In 1941 while at the London School of Economics as an undergraduate in social science and education, I met a fellow student, Yudister Kumar, from Punjab, India. We took courses in political science and international law together. We shared a strong love for personal liberty and freedom, were strong
anti-fascists and anti-colonialists and supported the freedom of India. Initially we were just friends but I knew he was a kindred spirit and hoped we would be together.
After completing his studies, Yudister left for India in 1944 and joined the freedom struggle. Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis and was admitted into a sanatorium. The war meant I couldn’t travel and so I had to wait until March 1946 when, at the age of 23, I set sail on the British liner, Chusan.
I arrived in Mumbai three weeks later. At first I was overwhelmed by the crowds, the turmoil, the noise, the smells. Everything was so different, so strange. On the first evening in my drab hotel I felt lost and wondered why on earth I had decided to come.
I was also very anxious about Yudister because he was so ill, and about my future. Would I be able to marry him? I remember the sight from my hotel window of people sleeping on the roadside left me depressed and I cried myself to sleep. But in the morning when the sun came up my spirits also rose. I was confident and knew in my heart that the love Yudister and I had for each other would see us through any challenges.
He was recuperating at the Gulab Rai sanatorium in Lahore. Before going to see him, I took a train to Hoshiarpur where Yudister’s family lived. His family welcomed me with open arms and accepted me just as I was. I went to look after him and after a few months I decided to take him to the Jubar sanatorium, which was situated in the pine forests near Kasauli in the Shimla Hills. It appeared to have better facilities. For two years he was advised to remain there and I lived in the sanatorium taking care of him.
By early 1948 he had recovered and we drove to Delhi to get married. Our wedding was set for February 2, 1948. Yudister had spoken to Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian freedom struggle, about us and Gandhi-ji was to bless me on my wedding day. Then on January 30, 1948 Gandhi-ji was assassinated. The situation was tense and it was on the fourth day of mourning after the death of the great leader – on February 3 – that we got married according to traditional Vedic rites, at Rajpur Road in Delhi. My family couldn’t come as it was such a long way to travel.
I had no problems integrating into Indian life and culture. I wore Indian clothes and adopted an Indian lifestyle. I was comfortable in a saree or a salwar kameez. I found everyone friendly and hospitable. The only problem I had was with Indian food. I found it greasy and spicy. Fortunately, while I was at the sanatorium with Yudister in Shimla, my father-in-law taught me to make a few Indian dishes such as a pilaf, vegetable curries and carrot halwa. I used to eat one western meal a day.
There were times when I missed the beautiful countryside and thought about England. I missed my family and friends, the English theatre and the beautiful English land. For five years I had no opportunity or money to visit my family in the UK. Meanwhile, we also had a son, but he was sick and died in 1953. It was a shattering blow for both of us. When you lose a child you lose part of yourself. Then we had a daughter Jyoti in 1954 – a source of joy for both of us.
My vocation fell into my lap quite by accident. While in India to look after Yudister, we moved from Lahore where he was recuperating, to a sanatorium near Shimla, which also had a military cantonment. The British had left the cantonment – as the military headquarters in India are known – in 1945, and the school on the campus had been abandoned.
I realised that the children of the officers and the soldiers posted there needed a school. The staff station officer approached me and asked if I could run the school. I had absolutely no experience in this field but I was willing to take on the challenge. So cheerily I said, “OK, but give me a free hand.” I followed the Punjab education syllabus, which is in English, but pretty much did what I wanted. I ran that school successfully for two years after which we moved to Delhi, as Yudister felt strong enough to return and start his legal practice.
I was keen to resume teaching because I was in love with the profession. It was the time of Partition, 1947, when thousands of orphans from across the border with Pakistan and children of refugees were arriving at camps in Delhi. A charity called Salwan Education Trust was establishing a school for refugee girls and looking to recruit teachers. I applied and was chosen as principal. I was managing about 2,000 refugee girls. They were undergoing a lot of emotional trauma as most of them had lost everything. My job was to heal them and give them hope to begin a new life through education. It was a great learning experience for me as I had to instil confidence in these young girls and make them believe they had a future ahead of them.
After seven years of teaching I felt it was time to start my own school that supported my ideology of giving a well-rounded education to children. I asked my husband and father-in-law and they were supportive. They gave me the house and money to start it. That is how Springdales was born in 1955 at West Patel Nagar Delhi in the family’s living room.
Springdales was born at a time when education was very examination- and textbook-oriented. I developed an education system where children’s innate talents were given free rein to bloom. Free expression was the cornerstone and children were encouraged to imagine, create, discover and experiment. They were encouraged to participate in community initiatives. This was much appreciated by the public. We introduced different forms of learning – team teaching, peer learning and research. We abolished exams up to class 8, had no ranking or streaming systems, started teaching foreign languages and established a holiday home in the hills and a work experience farm, among other things. Our students also participated in adult literary programmes and assist special needs children as part of their community service programme.
I always stressed giving students a very broad progressive holistic curriculum and a strong value system that included the universal values of love, truth and goodness. We also initiated a programme called Adopt-a-Gran in association with HelpAge India. With this programme the children are encouraged to care for elderly women who are alone or abandoned.
For my contribution to education and children in India, I was made chair at the educational board of the Lady Irwin College, New Delhi, a post I held for 11 years in the mid-Seventies to early Eighties. I worked towards bringing in education reforms and building bridges between schools and universities.
At the same time I also accepted the vice-chairperson post of the national Bal Bhavan, a creative centre for children established by the former Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. During my five-year tenure there, we opened many chapters in different areas of the city to give the children from economically deprived sections of society an opportunity for their innate talents to blossom and grow.
In 1988, I formally retired as principal of the school and volunteered to offer my services to the National Literacy Mission Programme as coordinator of the Delhi Schools Literary Project to engage schools and students in the literacy campaign. I am still actively involved as the advisor to the project. My daughter Jyoti assumed the responsibilities of being the director of all our schools and my grandchildren Sonali and Aparajito have also chipped in.
Today we have more than 6,000 students with three schools in Delhi, one in Jaipur and this new one in Dubai.
One thing I’ve learnt is not to expect things to happen the way you want them to and not to expect things to change overnight. Usually nothing goes to plan but with patience and tolerance you can take everything in your stride. If it works out, good, but if not, accept what life offers you without remorse.
After 60 years of establishing and running schools in India one of my dreams was to open some Springdales Schools in other countries, and then out of the blue came this offer from my old student, Dr Navjit Anand, who had the dream and vision to give back to society. He wanted to give the children of Dubai the same kind of education he received from Springdales School in India.
My dream is to produce beautiful young people with enlightened minds and compassionate hearts who will bring about a better world of tomorrow – a world of peace and harmony. I want to see the children in Dubai rising to great heights of excellence and becoming the leaders of tomorrow.