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Karthy Nair, progressive educator who always made herself heard

Campaigner lived in the same Highbury house for 50 years after leaving Singapore

12 May, 2017 — By Emily Finch

Karthy Nair with her son Dhevdhas

KARTHY Nair, a respected anti-colonial activist, teacher and campaigner who worked to improve the lives of those around her, has died aged 90.

Along with her brother, Devan Nair, she was one of the founding members of Singapore’s People’s Action Party in 1954. The party helped overthrow British colonial rule in Singapore and remains the dominant political party to this day.

Her brother would eventually become the country’s president, following a long career in the trade union movement.

Born in Malacca, Malaysia, to Sridevi and Karunakaran Nair in 1926, Ms Nair sought to right injustices she witnessed from a young age. At 14, she stole the keys to her mother’s storeroom and distributed bananas and tinned milk to hungry labourers working on a rubber estate.

From Singapore, Ms Nair left for Britain in 1956, where she faced racial and sexist discrimination as a young unmarried mother to two boys. She moved homes many times because of the abuse but eventually settled in Highbury where she lived in the same house for 50 years.

Although she was a qualified teacher in Singapore, she had to retrain once in Britain. In schools across London, including Canonbury Junior School and Highbury Quadrant, she instilled in her students a love of literature.

Reading and writing was a life-long passion for Ms Nair and she loved the works of John Donne, TS Eliot, John Pilger and Terry Eagleton. She would even attend the same parties as TS Eliot and Kingsley Amis in 1960s London and her home would host various writers and musicians.

Not only was she a trusted, popular and inspiring educator but a campaigner for the rights of fellow teachers and students. She advocated new methods of teaching which included giving children more respect and the freedom to learn.

A younger Karthy Nair

She spread her progressive vision by working closely with the teachers at Islington’s William Tyndale School in the 1970s. Ms Nair was not afraid to criticise bad management in schools, or teaching unions when she felt they were failing their members.

Her son, the musician Dhevdhas Nair, said: “On any issue that came up that needed addressing, she was quite strong about it, she would go to union meetings and get her voice heard. They didn’t quite expect to get what they got, a very small Indian woman who told them where to get off.”

Ms Nair was fiercest in her campaign for nuclear disarmament and peace. Her interest in the anti-nuclear movement was kindled when she visited her teenage son at a peace camp near an American air base in Lakenheath, Suffolk. She joined in with protesters blocking the gates to the base on Hiroshima Day – a day to remember the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan and the devastating effects of nuclear weapons. A fierce confrontation between the police and protesters at the blockade led to Ms Nair proudly brandishing her torn sheep-skin coat.

“I would be dancing around, saying to the police, ‘careful, careful she’s 60 years old’,” said her son.

Although she was a lifelong member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament she refused to join a political party after leaving Singapore, until the last two years of her life.

She was a freethinker who didn’t want to be told what to do. She felt let down by the politics of Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore between 1959 and 1990, whom she regarded as an authoritarian leader and a British figurehead.

Ms Nair joined the Labour Party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election of 2015. She saw him as trustworthy and someone whose views and principles reflected her own.

She died on January 21, and a ceremony was held at a crematorium in East Finchley. She leaves behind her two sons, Sagar, 67, and Dhevdhas, 60.

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