For all my new friends who have recently started following this blog.....please start at the very is a good place to start to get the full impact of this fascinating tale.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Aches and Pains

View from the Lower Field
I remember with vivid clarity the sense of complete abandonment I felt at the age of six, when my hand was put into the firm grasp of a strange looking woman in an unfamiliar habit. Having no concept about nuns and boarding school, I watched my parents walk away, my mother in tears, and in my childish mind  was convinced they had given me up forever. I could barely stand the feeling of ecstasy, when I saw them a couple of months later in our summer sports break and appreciated that I had not been forgotten.
The first few days of school would pass in a haze of home sickness. This was something I chronically suffered from, and for someone who has not experienced the actual physical sense of emptiness and heaviness, it is a sensation that is hard to describe. I hated going back to school after holidays and wept and cried as if it were the end of the world. At the beginning of term we would be dropped off by our parents at different locations, from where the nuns would take over the group for the rest of the journey up to Nanital. These clusters were called school parties. My father would escort me from Gorakhpur to meet up with the Lucknow Party. I would sit in silent misery, huddled into a corner of the  compartment, sometimes even sticking my arm out of the window, in the hope it would be chopped off and I wouldn't have to go back to school - so desperate was I. This feeling of dreadful angst would last a week or so and was a nerve wracking and traumatic time. 
House Badges - I was in the Green House, St. Anne's
My husband often asks me how I am so emotionally self sufficient. When I am ill I prefer to be left alone and as a result  am not good at dealing with sick people either, because I expect the same from them. Physical pain does not bother me and I am calm in an emergency. I don't cry easily and am not overly emotional. My reactions to news, good or bad, is more often than not understated and controlled. Very little in life fazes me - scandals and idle gossip least of all.   
I attribute this reserved behaviour partly to genetics but also in part to starting boarding school at such a young age. I had to learn to deal with personal aches and pains on a day to day basis. Headaches and stomach gripes were dealt with arbitrarily without any fuss. Cuts and scrapes were unsympathetically daubed with Mercurochrome in the infirmary, and I wandered around with splotchy red knees and elbows most of the time. A runny nose was wiped into the sleeve of my sweater and a sore throat ensured a gagging swab of iodine throat paint. Periods came and went with the accompanying cramps and discomfort and I would sometimes walk with a strange gait because in those days the sanitary pads I used, badly chaffed  my inner thighs!
I remember being cruelly teased for my Pinocchio nose and because my father was from Hungary, which meant I was always HUN-GA-REEEE! I recall reducing someone to tears chanting 'Fatty Fatty Bum Bo Latty'. Some of us formed 'gangs' and would not talk to girls from another group. There were known 'tattle-tales', 'teacher's pets' and 'tuck friends' who were scorned and  avoided. In hindsight all this seems so innocuous and stupid, but at the time was cause for much tears and heartbreak.
I do realise though that in those early years we knew nothing about each other. Somehow we never spoke about family problems or confidential matters. I think boarding was a completely different life from the one we  left behind and there was absolutely no connection between the two. Intrinsic details about classmates are  only now being made known and I find myself so often exclaiming " I had no idea!"
All companions faded away in memory after leaving school and it was only when I got onto Facebook that many unremembered names from the past cropped up again. It has been wonderful to reconnect and we do chat over the phone sometimes, though have actually only met up with a few individuals who are in and around Delhi. This is entirely my fault as I have become a bit of a recluse and don't like to travel, so prefer to keep to myself unless absolutely necessary.
 A couple of years ago I was in Calgary, Canada and was stunned when Maryse Monteiro drove down to see me all the way from Seattle, just for a cup of coffee. When my daughter got married, dear Marie D'Souza, now the famous food critic Marryam Reshii, generously offered to help with the wedding cake. Loretta Furtado has been urging me to come to Goa and Kukki Mohindra's infectious laugh has not changed over the years. Gopa Vohra was passing through Delhi a couple of years ago and I went to pick her up at the airport, where we promptly fell into each other's arms, forgetting the nearly forty years since we had last met. The unexpected strength and depth of past friendships, made so many years ago in the environs of boarding school, never cease to surprise and amaze me.  


Sunday, 20 November 2011


Middle School Classrooms and Skating Rink (The frog dustbin was not there in my time)
The German nuns who managed Ramnee while I was there, were for the most part a rather strange lot of women. When I was young they could instill terror and fear that was like nothing else on earth. The sense of discipline drilled into us from a young age was harshly severe, and we would not dare to throw down a sweet wrapping, let alone deface school property, cheat in exams or throw attitude at the teachers - back chat we called it.
Sister Dominica was the only nun I really and truly loved. She was a close friend of Anna's, my grandmother, who had at the time taken up a job as matron in All Saints School. Granny would walk down every Sunday to visit me, and we would sit and chat in Sister Dominica's domain, the art room, in the Mary Ward building. Those Sunday mornings were always very special, as I listened in fascination to the comfortable conversations between two gentle soul mates who enjoyed each others company.
Sister Uta my second class teacher, was someone  I remember as being  warm and kind. Sister Cecelia the piano teacher and Sister Lucy who instructed us in needlework, were among the more likable nuns, for whom I  felt a certain affection in spite of  scoldings I often got from them. Sister Hermine was one of the first people who told me I had a talent with the written  word. She had an old register in which she made students write down essays that were particularly good, and I was one of the privileged few to be bestowed with that honor. Sister Josephine or Joss, was the Vice Principal and an institution in herself, who had been there for as long as any of us could remember. Sister Elygia was in charge of the infirmary and rumour had it that under her veil she had hair down to her derriere. I was not admitted sick very often, but  remember groaning loudly one night in the hope of making her come to see what was wrong with me, so I could catch her unveiled and confirm the reports. She never came to check on my pitiful moans so I could never confirm the hair-say.
There were other strange entities who prowled the corridors of St. Mary's, and  in one way or another left crazy impressions on me, some of which took me years to get over. There were those who were against any thing male and issued  instructions on how to behave appropriately if that evil genus ever crossed our paths.
 I was talking to my dear friend Kukki Raghuvanshi nee Mohindra the other day, since I could not remember the name of the nun who was in charge of the chemistry and biology labs. She reminded me that it was MaJo, Sister Mary Joseph, who had instructed her to pick up her skirts and run as fast as she could if she was in conversation with a boy and the clock struck six!
 MaJo was the one who told me about an incident that happened in her youth.She was getting off a bus with an armful of books when she stumbled and dropped the  pile into the mud. A young man leaped to her aid and helped her pick up the scattered volumes. She claimed she rushed back home to burn the offending tomes, since they had been tarnished by the touch of a boy!
 I was once asked if my father kissed me good night and when  I proudly said yes, was informed it was a sin and something that I should  forbid and never let happen.

Mary Ward Hall
We were on one of our usual Saturday walks, with one nun leading the line and another bringing up the rear. As we approached The Flats we observed a group of  boys practicing football on the field. Unfortunately the nuns had noticed them too and a bellowed command was immediately given " Girls, right about turn!". The excited 'caterpilar' had to quickly swivel around and wistfully head back in the opposite direction with only fleeting images of forbidden fruit dancing before our eyes.
We were told very firmly that touching ourselves in private places was a "shameless act" and  being good Catholic girls, would have to acknowledge these sins in weekly confession. I don't even want to imagine what the Italian priests must have thought about while patiently listening to adolescent females with raging hormones admitting to their 'shameless acts'.
Looking back at those days in Ramnee I feel it  would have been so interesting to know the stories of these solitary women who lived so far from home. Where were they from, what were their families about, what were their childhoods like, what made them become nuns - just a call from God or maybe a broken heart or some equally dire tragedy, how did they end up in India, what were their lives  all about. I think it would have been so much more enthralling to know them as human beings rather than the cold, distant, forbidding, alien species that they appeared to be.

Downstairs - Refectory. Study Hall and Tuck Shop
Upstairs - Dorms

Sunday, 13 November 2011


When I was growing up there were no good educational institutions around Saraya, so at the age of six I was sent off to St Mary's Convent in Nainital. 
Nainital was a hill station known for its elite boarding schools like Sherwood, St Joseph's, All Saint's and off course St Mary's, which in the latter half of the 19th century catered only to the children of British colonial officials or soldiers. In the 1920s and 30s, they began to admit more Indian students and by the time I joined we had girls who were predominantly Indian but also came from Nepal, Bhutan, Kuwait, Kenya, Nigeria and England .
St. Mary's was founded by Mother Mary Ward in the 17th century.The sisters of this congregation originally started working in Patna in 1853. The then superior, Mother Salesia Reiner, planned a foundation in Nainital to help the sisters whose health had suffered in the heat of the plains. She realized the necessity of buying an estate where a convent and school could be built, so approached Sir Henry Ramsay, the commissioner of Kumaon, who owned a large property called Ramsay Park. He agreed to the sale and in 1879 the sisters moved into the newly acquired estate. The name Ramnee is a corruption of Ramsay, as the servants working on the estate, unable to pronounce the name correctly, called Sir Ramsay, 'Ramnee Sahib'.
St Mary's was a beautiful school situated on the undulating slopes of a twenty six acre hillside amidst pine and fir trees.The first glimpse that one got of the sprawling complex were thick masses of lilac and pink Hydrangea bushes that lined the path leading up to the chapel and main office buildings The imposing edifices had old stone facades with lofty roofs and spires, some painted blue and others red.

The Chapel
The school chapel was an elegant structure, where for a few years I was motivated to pray, until the rigidity of the Catholic faith  made me ask too many questions. These were were not well received by the strict German nuns, who made sure I completely lost my faith. The rituals in those days were all conducted in Latin, and the beauty and awe of the ceremonies were amazingly soul stirring.The handsome Father Sebastian, with his one cauliflower ear, who would come down from St Joseph's  to conduct mass was quite a stirring sight as well! 
The dormitories were made up of rows upon rows of neatly made beds. We would wake every morning at five thirty and wash our faces in basins of freezing cold water which we had filled up the night before.In the months of November and December we would sometimes even have to break through a thin film of ice. Strangely enough, till today I am only comfortable when I wash my face with cold liquid! Baths were bi-weekly affairs - one 'body bath' and one 'head bath'. When it was really chilli, girls were known to slosh soapy water down the drain and not have a bath at all!
The refectory seated all one hundred and fifty of us boarders. The food we ate for nine months of the year was quite pathetic, but as we were always hungry nobody really objected. On special occasions we were served chicken curry, which we called 'crow curry' because of the scrawny servings of meat. We were allowed to get food parcels from home once in a while, and that was when "tuck friends" made themselves known. They were the ones who were only friendly with you as long as the home made goodies lasted and then wandered off to scrounge off someone else who had got an exciting package.
Beside all the usual classes we were also taught piano and needle work. Music was an optional subject and one my parents insisted I learn. Music pupils, as we were called, had to appear for the Trinity College exams once a year. I personally hated them because of the levels of perfection we were expected to perform at. I have been rapped on the knuckles, shaken like a rag doll and even once pushed off the stool by Sister Cecelia who impatiently groomed us to face the severe examiner from London. Needle work was another pain as I was clumsy and not particularly interested and was shrieked at on numerous occasion by Sister Lucy. "You naughty little scrap" was what she called us incompetent ones. Every October there would be an exhibition of the art and embroidery made during the year. It was shameful to have one's work put in the 'lazy corner', but thats exactly where most of my talent ended up being displayed!
Mary Ward Hall

The infirmary was a place I did not spend too much time in. Once every few months we were all given a shot of foul tasting, slimy Castor oil to clean out our systems and this ritual was called getting a 'dose'. We would then be seen clutching rolls of toilet paper. galloping up and down between classrooms and 'bogs' with severe 'loosies'.
The games fields were venues of much excitement where we practiced for hours for the annual Sports Day held in May, followed by ten days of summer holidays. The highlight of this event would be the Inter School Relay where we raced with the girls from All Saint's. Much to our envy they wore the shortest of shorts for the race, while we flapped along in our knee length skirts. I was a star runner and athlete for many years until Lily Rana joined school - she was someone I could never beat!
The Nun's Graveyard
We would be taken for an outing every Saturday and this was quite an exciting event. Skirts would be rolled up to make them shorter and hair would be styled with an extra clip.We would have to walk in threes, holding hands all the way, and were known as the Ramnee 'caterpillar' by the boys who were lurking around to catch a glimpse of us.
 Daily routine was rigorous and our lives were ruled by bells. A bell to wake us up in the morning, and a bell to summon us for meals. A bell to call us to class and another to announce the end of a period. A bell for play time and then again for bed time. The nun who was in charge of the dormitory often thumped us on the head with a hand bell when we were not ready in time!
 Unlike my peers, I was never particularly happy in boarding - not unhappy either, but just resigned that it was where I had to be at that point of my life. Being rebellious by nature, and never taking kindly to authority I  got into plenty of trouble and ended up badly but that is a story for another blog.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011



MURDER - you killed my pride with one swift blow, leaving me vulnerable and defenseless.

KIDNAPPING - you snatched my will and kept it chained to your side, claiming a ransom of my 

ARSON - you started a fire within me that is burning fiercly with no signs of dying down.

TRESSPASS - you invaded my brain, my body and my soul - places that are usually kept well barred.

THEFT - you broke and entered, stealing my heart and my mind.