Harry's home — leaving a legacy that matters

Harry's home — leaving a legacy that matters

  • Harry Desai
    Harry Desai

Photography by Rachel Gardner

For decades, Harry Desai’s home has been haven for young people from all over the world. A bequest to Cambridge will ensure that his London flat will provide security for students for generations to come.

I was born in Kenya in 1934. My parents had moved there from India 20 years earlier. My father worked as a lawyer in Nairobi. He was part of the second generation of migrants to move to Kenya from India.

It was an idyllic and fascinating childhood. I had 11 brothers and sisters and our house was always full of other Indians, sometimes on their own, or entire families recently moved to Nairobi. My parents welcomed everyone, no matter what their background. I became friends with the boy next door and we remained friends throughout our lives.

At the outbreak of World War II, I was sent back to India to live with my grandparents for the duration of the War. It was there that I really discovered the effect of the caste system. I remember a Dalit boy whom I met and tried to take home to meet my family, and I was forbidden to do so by my grandfather. It was simply unacceptable for someone from my Brahmin caste to associate with those who were in those days considered untouchable. It has changed in India now, but it still exists, sadly.

I believe in living a life that matters. Every act of integrity, compassion, or sacrifice can enrich, empower or encourage others to emulate your example. Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident; it’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.

Harry Desai

I graduated as an accountant from university in 1954 and began my career in Kenya, before moving to Tanzania. I moved to London in 1967, taking up a position with British Telecom, where I worked for 20 years. I consider myself African by birth, Indian by blood, British by nationality, European through adoption, and a citizen of the world.

In the 1980s, I moved to West London, where I bought a place with three bedrooms. I expected my mother would come and live with me after the death of my father, and needed room for her to stay. She chose to remain in Nairobi and I started letting out my spare rooms to lodgers. I didn’t charge them much. I wanted them to have safe, affordable accommodation in an unfamiliar city, because most of them weren’t from London. Through the years I have had more than 300 young people sharing my flat with me, and they have come from all over the world, from the Maldives to Poland, and from Columbia to New Zealand. 

It was a wonderful experience for all of us. I had interesting company from a multitude of different cultures, and they learnt from me about London and the British way of life, and also from each other. I mentored them all through work and study, and they tell me I was a supportive father figure. I still am really; they are like family to me and I have been to their weddings—more than 40—and celebrated with them when their children were born. Sadly, I’ve spoken at more than one of their funerals. Between them, they cover six continents, and I have travelled and been welcomed into their families too.

When I was 50, I was mugged in the street. It was the defining moment of my life. I was robbed and stabbed in the abdomen, sustaining quite serious injuries. I was lucky not to be killed. While I was recovering, I took stock of my life. I didn’t want to die without doing something positive for the world. I didn’t know what it would be, but I felt sure I could create a legacy that would do good.

One student who stayed with me was accepted to study for a Master’s degree in education at Cambridge. Peter wanted to study, but wasn’t sure he could afford to do so. Once I found out he had the ability to succeed at Cambridge, I decided to pay his fees. He did well in his degree, and is still doing well. He invited me to his graduation ceremony—the first time I’d been to one in Cambridge. It was such a privilege to be a part of such an ancient rite, and to celebrate with him and his family. 

The moment I saw Cambridge, I knew it was a place where I could make a real difference. I have always believed in the power of education – it was something my parents taught me, right back when I was a child. I saw those denied the opportunity to be educated and the negative effects on their lives. By giving someone the chance to study, you first change that person’s life, but then they go on to have an impact on the world, and that has a ripple effect too. Educating just one person can change so many lives. I want to ensure that young people who could not otherwise study at Cambridge to be able to do so. 

I believe in living a life that matters. Every act of integrity, compassion, or sacrifice can enrich, empower or encourage others to emulate your example. Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident; it’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice.

So that’s why I decided to establish the Harry Desai Fund. When I die, my savings and the profit from the sale of my flat in London will be used to endow the fund in perpetuity. Through the Fund, my bequest to Cambridge will support PhD students in the Faculty of Education who would not otherwise be able to study at Cambridge. I am 84, and I am making sure now that all that I have goes to where it will be most useful. I am pleased that those postgraduate students will then go out into the world and educate others. And it’s wonderful to think that my humble flat, which was a place that changed my life and that of so many young people, will be a means to continue changing lives, long after I am gone.

Next steps

To find out more about leaving a legacy to the University, please email darlegacies@alumni.cam.ac.uk