There are many inspiring people in London. From flamboyant artists to known entrepreneurs, the capital is full of individuals working hard to provoke a change in today’s society. But amidst the clamour of protests and public declarations, London also has many silent heroes, people that try to make a difference in a personal and modest way.
Living in this beautiful and vibrant city I had the pleasure of meeting one of them, Harry Desai.
Harry has been living in London for half a century now. In the house where he lives, there are three bedrooms, and all of them have been rented out to students for the last 35 years. All the earnings he has made since have become part of a Cambridge PhD fund focused on teaching and education degrees.
Over 300 people have lived in Burlington Close, they consider the house a home of their own, the flatmates family, and throughout the years, have kept on writing, and celebrating Harry’s birthday and Christmas together.
An Indian by blood, Harry was born and grew up in Kenya. He soon started travelling to proceed further in his own education, but people he knew personally did not have this chance and had to face a very different future.
“I left Kenya almost 60 years ago. I have lived ten years in Tanzania and the last 50 years in the UK. This is my home now. London is going to be my home forever.”
Harry is now 84, and his name has been known among Cambridge donors for some time: “I’ve known suffering and poverty back in those days. I know now that the most important thing is education.”
Harry feels like the gap between the rich and the poor is only growing bigger, and that the only hope for change is represented by the new generations.
“I believe in fairness, equality and justice. That’s why I’ve opened a trust account in Cambridge University for people that have no means of studying.”
Harry says that after his death his house will be sold, and the capital will go to his Cambridge fund. The Research Awards of this fund will go to students who are registered as candidates for a PhD Degree with a preference for those engaged in research in teaching and education: “My goal is to reach one million pounds”.
Harry’s house is filled with an astonishing amount of photos of different people dining at his kitchen table. The room seems to ooze history, as he sips his Earl Grey tea sitting in front of a multitude of black African statuettes: “Do you like them?” he asked, “An artisan in Tanzania made them for me it was a long time ago.”
“I have over 300 children all over the world, you know,” he goes on with a tired but determined smile: “and none of them has my blood in their veins”. Harry’s Indian marriage did not work out, and he produced no children. So when he left Tanzania for London he had to reinvent himself from scratch.
Harry talks about his life in Africa, about poverty and responsibility, and being the 6th of 12 children: “We had a big family, but always very organised. My father was a lawyer, a political figure in the community, and my mother was a leader in the Women Association in Kenya. That’s how I have learnt discipline which I have been teaching to my children”.
He mentions stories of many of his “children”. Many of them were very young and they had just arrived in London. He trained them in his “school of life”, and directed them onto the “right path”.
“Some of them were very lazy but I would tell them: ‘if I can make it at sixty, seventy or eighty you’d better bloody do it as well!’”
The letters he received from his children and friends tell stories of life and death, determination and redemption; adventures of the most remarkable kind and drawings of seemingly very young children: “my grandchild did that, ” Harry said pointing to one of the drawings “he first started walking on this very carpet!”
He says of how things were different in the past. How diversity is now the main strength of society, when “back in [his] days” it was a source of conflict and serious racism. “People of every nationality have lived in my house without thinking of each other’s skin colour, sexual orientation and religion. Where there’s respect, anything is possible. Where there’s a will there is always a way.”
But it was not always easy for Harry. When he was 50 he was stabbed when walking home after a family dinner. “The thug asked me for money, but I am no coward. I told him to go to hell and he stabbed me”. More than 30 years after this episode, Harry still has a nasty scar on his abdomen, a memento of such an unfortunate encounter. “I have faced sickness in many forms, and I was lucky.
“When I was ill my children took good care of me. To this day I am very grateful. But I was very close to dying in those days and after that happened, I thought God was keeping me here for some reason. That is when I realised my project about the Cambridge fund.”
Harry has always been living his life to the fullest, but it was after that episode that he really decided he wanted to make a difference. To check on his children and grandchildren he has travelled several countries, and he has recently achieved one of his long-term dreams: “a couple of years ago I have been in Colombia for the first time. It was a great experience, my Colombian children and grandchildren were so caring, it was beautiful. But also, I have reached another of my goals.
“According to Hinduism, a person who has travelled all the continents and bathed in all the oceans is closer to the salvation of his soul.”
Harry’s House is now also a group on Facebook, where current and former flatmates, and members of the family, can chat and gather from all over the world for important occasions. The next one will probably be Harry’s 85th birthday, in March.