Life in the Hills

 

 

St Mary's and Mount Abu

In March 1942 when I was eight, I went to St. Mary’s High School, an Irish Christian Brothers boarding school in Mount Abu.  Mount Abu is a little village about 5000 feet up in the Aravalli range of mountains in Rajasthan.  The Aravalli mountains run roughly northeast–southwest and separate the Thar desert from the Deccan plateau.  Ajmer is sort of at the foot of this range, on the north side where the Thar desert begins. 

The system of  “hill station” boarding schools was introduced to India by the British.  Before the hill station schools,  English kids of covenanted HEIC employees would be sent back to England at the age of five to seven to board at a school in England.  Rudyard Kipling is a typical example of that system.  Kipling was born in Bombay when his father was curator of the museum there.  He was raised by his parents and an ayah and was fluently bi-lingual as a young child.  When he was five he was sent to England to boarding school.  He spent holidays with relatives in England and did not return to India until he was in his late teens.  Thousands of British families and multiple generations of families had their children in India.  Ayahs raised them, they were sent home for an education and then brought  back to India as "covenanted" employees in the HEIC army or some commercial venture.  As the hill station schools developed, Anglo-Indian kids like me began to attend them, British kids became fewer and fewer in number and the schools became mainly institutions for educating "middle class" Anglo-Indian children and the children of wealthy professional Indians.  The wealthiest and most powerful Indian families like the Nehru's and the Jinnah's sent their kids to school in England.  Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Nehru went to the same prep school in England.

The hill school education system in India is based on the English "public" boarding school system.  In India, the children start boarding school at about the age of seven.  The school year starts about the 6th of March (my mother’s birthday), and ends about December 15th, in time for Christmas.  Children stay in school for the nine months between March and December.  This system had the practical effect of sheltering European kids from the horrible heat and diseases of the plains in the summer and avoiding very long journeys from home to school more than twice a year.  These schools were often weeklong journeys by train and cart from remote areas of the plains.  In the early days of these schools (second half of the 1800’s), many of the students were children of officers away on campaigns in the Northwest Frontier, and the children of officers who had perished in Britain’s never ending wars with surrounding Afghans, Sikhs, Mahrattas and others.  For these kids who may not have had much of a home to go to, the 9-month/3 month system was probably a good choice.   

While the system may have been designed for adult practicality, and for the care of the fatherless and parentless child, the needs of the more normal, younger children did not appear to be an influencing factor.  The youngest of us was about seven in the first year of boarding school, and we missed our parents and ayahs terribly.  My first year was horrible and I hated it.  I spent three years at St Mary’s with the Christian Brothers, and it is mostly an unpleasant blur. 

I really only have a vague recollection of day-to-day life in St Mary’s.  As I look back, the school’s organizational system was obviously based on the British army, and was very close to the system used by boarding schools in England. We slept in a large dormitory with probably about 50 or so students.  The dormitories were separated by age.  At the foot of the bed we had our trunk in which we kept our stuff.  We woke about 6 am, made our bed and went to Mass at the chapel about 7.  We then had breakfast and started classes about 8.  I suppose we must have had a break about 10 or so, then lunch about noon and finished school about 3.  We had organized games for a couple of hours; the particular game depended on the time of year.  In the winter we played football (soccer), in the spring we played field hockey and in the summer we played cricket.  We showered communally after games, then dinner about 6 or so, then study time for a couple of hours, and then bed. 

While the Irish Christian Brothers at St Mary’s were certainly Irish, they were neither Christian nor brotherly.  In the main I recollect them as being a sadistic bunch of sob's who enjoyed inflicting punishment for minor infractions. We used to get whacked on the hand with a leather strap quite hard for missing homework assignments and on the bottom for major infractions like fighting in the dorms or going “out of bounds”. Both the hand and bottom punishments hurt a lot.  There was no question about not being able to sit for a few hours -- you couldn’t! 

I was bright enough to avoid most of the physical punishments once I figured out the rules.  There was a strong rumor while I was at St Mary’s that a student or a teacher had been shot by one of the students.  I have since seen that this was probably true.  During the research for this memoir, I checked for St Mary’s on the web.  One of the sites has a reference to this item. 

Like all boarding schools in England and India we had a “tuck shop” where we would buy candy with “pocket money” sent by our parents. As I recall we would go for trips to interesting places.  One of the visits I remember was a visit to the Dilwara Jain caves.  We also used to get to the movies occasionally—I don’t know how often. 

 

Mount Abu is a town important to Jains who have the most exquisitely carved temples in Dilwara, close to Mount Abu.  Jains have a fanatical respect for all forms of life.   It was at the Dilwara temples that I first saw Jain priests with muslin cloth over their mouths to prevent killing insects by breathing them in.  They also brushed the floor in front of them with brooms as they walked so that they would not step on and kill any insects.  Mount Abu is now a popular holiday resort, and is particularly well known for catering to newlyweds.  St Mary’s in Mount Abu was started as a boarding school for railway children in 1887.  It ran into financial trouble soon and was closed.  The Christian Brothers took over in 1929.

I later spent two years at St. George’s College in Mussoorie in the Himalayas where I was much less miserable.  In fact I remember St Georges’ with some fondness.  My uncle Chappy on the other hand told me he still had nightmares about St Georges when he was 40 years old.  He probably started at St George’s when he was about 6 or 7 years old when his father died.  I was of course much older (11), toughened by three years at St. Mary’s, and was now being taught by a more enlightened group of Irish Catholic religious called the Irish Patrician Brothers. 

 

India is a very old country settled long before communication was easy.  The slightest physical barrier led to dramatic differences between the people on each side of the barrier.  Hill people in particular seldom mixed with the lowland folk and tended to develop their own culture and language.  Mount Abu is in Rajasthan (then called Rajputana) the home of the Rajputs.  The Rajputs are an advanced and cultured people whose civilization goes back hundreds of years.  They pride themselves on their military prowess and have held their land against most conquerors for as long as there are records of them.  Rajputana was a strong recruiting ground for the British Army during the Raj.  The Moghuls eventually made allies of them by intermarriage.  Fighting them was not worth the trouble.  Rajasthan (the country of kings -- the land of the Rajputs) is the state which houses today’s best known old towns and castles like Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and so on.   The area around Mt Abu, however is inhabited by a people called “Bhils”.  The Bhils are a small, very dark primitive people.  They live in the jungle in small dwellings and were not particularly friendly.  We children used to see them during our excursions into town—they were probably gentle folk, but to us they were pretty scary. 

It was in Mount Abu that I saw a tiger skinned.  I remember the event quite well, but I am a little vague on the location.  Various of the Rajahs—many of them very well known, like the Maharajah of Bikaner would go tiger hunting in the area.  When they “bagged” a tiger, the dead animal would be carried out of the jungle hanging upside down by its legs on a pole strung across the shoulders of a couple of servants.  The tiger shoot consisted of the “shikari” sitting up in a tree in a “machan” under a mosquito net, usually with a selection of alcohol.  A young goat on the ground would be tied to the tree. When the tiger approached the bait, the shikari would shoot the animal.  Sometimes these were man-eating tigers so I guess the hunt technique was appropriate.  

I became a voracious reader at Saint Mary's and started the journey to becoming a passionate Catholic.  I know it is where I became extreme in my intolerance of injustice.  One of the few incidents I still remember vividly (accurately I think!) happened in my first week at school.  We were in the dormitory or refectory and for some reason I was attacked by another kid.  He had been at St Mary’s the previous year at least.  I tried not to fight back but there was no adult around and I had to defend myself—which I was not very good at.  I had just come from a convent!  Anyway I ended up hurt and in tears and was hauled off to the teacher in charge.  I was made to strip while he strapped my bottom.  It was incidents like this that convinced me that I would never lose again and I would not cry again in a fight.  I learned that even the worst bullies would leave you alone if you bit and scratched and that a reputation for being almost crazy in a fight was a good thing to have.

I consumed historical novels (G A Henty was one of my favorites) and all the usual children’s stories like Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and so on.  It was at St Mary’s I began my love affair with Latin, plain chant, the Latin Mass and the English language.   I was a good student who found getting good grades relatively easy and I was also a reasonable athlete so I was in the mainstream of society—in today’s jargon I wasn’t a geek and I wasn’t a jock. 

I started piano lessons at St Mary’s and continued for three years.  I got to the stage where I could play moderately complex pieces in public.  However the music teacher (DeSouza I think) was one of those music teachers who may have been a good musician but he was a lousy teacher.  His primary teaching method was to stand over the student and rap him on the knuckles with a ruler if he struck a wrong note.  In my third year I dropped piano much to my Dad’s disgust. 

It was at St Mary’s I picked up malaria that recurred every year until I left India.  The chief nurse at the school clinic where I recovered from malaria was the same French nun, Sister Edith, who had nursed me earlier when I had typhoid in Ajmer.   She had become the nurse in charge of the clinic at St. Mary's.  Again this is another example of the very small world in which we lived.  In this teeming country of 400 million people, we confined our social contacts to the same few hundreds of people whose skills met most of our needs. 

After three years at St. Mary’s in Mount Abu, I was sent to St. George’s College in Mussoorie in March 1945.  I was 11.  St George’s was a better school in every way than St. Mary’s, and St George’s was where Dad had gone to school and supposedly loved it.  I suspect that Dad was doing better in his job, there was more money around and that was why my parents decided on St George’s.  I don’t remember much discussion about the school change.

 

Mussoorie and St George’s College

By the time I arrived at St.George’s, I knew the rules of the road, and could fend for myself.  I had learned that there were really nasty kids around and that no one was going to help you out if a bully picked on you.  I learned that even much larger kids would leave you alone if you did not give up in a fight.  There was nothing like a “fair” fight.  You did whatever it took from biting to scratching to eye gouging to make sure you won or that you inflicted enough damage on bigger kids so that they would pick easier targets in future.  I think it was this attitude and the fact that supervision was better at St. George’s that made my two years at St. George’s not nearly as unpleasant as my years at St. Mary’s.  I don’t remember having to do any of this “tough guy” stuff when I was home in the plains during the school holidays.

St. George’s was run by the Irish Patrician Brothers, a smaller and apparently more selective organization than the Irish Christian brothers.  In general I remember the teachers at St. George’s being a reasonable bunch who tried to do a good job. I remember I was not nearly as miserable there as I was at St. Mary’s.

St George's was founded in 1853 as a Catholic school for boys by the Bishop of Agra.  It was taken over by the Irish Patrician Brothers in 1894 and has been run by them since.  Janice and I visited the school in 1997; we were very impressed by the school and the principal.  Here is a photo of St George's clock tower on the left  in 1998.  The little figure in the shade is me.

Mussoorie is some 250 miles north of Delhi.  It was established as a British hill station in 1823 by one of the British ICS officers so it does not have a long history like Mount Abu.  Mussoorie overlooks the Doon valley and the city of Dehra Dun and is really quite beautiful.  At a height of around 7000 ft above sea level, it straddles a 12 mile ridge in the Garhwal Himalayas.  From one end of the ridge you can see the Ganges river and from the other you can see the Jumna river. (Take a look at a couple of “Garhwalis” here if you want a smile.)  The Mussoorie area is now the center for Tibetan refugees in India.  The Dalai Lama has his home there.

Dehra Dun, at the foot of the Himalayas is quite well known.  It was where the  British built their main geological department which was responsible for mapping much of the Himalayas.  In fact Sir George Everest -- guess what he discovered -- was the first head of the Indian Geologic Survey.  Janice and I visited the old headquarters in Dehra Dun. Dehra Dun also houses the Doon school; which is where Pandit Nehru went to school before he went to Harrow in England.  .   

When I was at St Georges, it was a school designed to cater to Anglo Indian kids.  In addition to us Anglo Indians, there was also a small group of Indian boys from wealthy families who had their own living quarters and refectories and who attended class with us.  After independence in 1947 the school retained its Catholic focus, but is now a school designed to educate an integrated Asian community.  In addition to Indian kids, the school also draws students from countries like Thailand.

One of the annual ceremonies of an Indian boarders life was the trip to school.  The routine was developed because many kids would be living out in the jungle with no easy transport to school.  It was generally simpler to have an adult teacher meet the child(ren) at some designated railway station and take responsibility for them from that point on.  

To get to Mussoorie, your parents took you and one very large trunk to a designated town with a railway station.  There you met other boys who would be going to school, together with the teachers who would accompany you on the train to Dehra Dun.  Your parents then left.  The journey to Dehra Dun could take anywhere from a week to a couple of days depending on where you were in India.  In my case from Mhow it took a couple of days.  The boys would sleep four to a railway carriage, and food would be cooked on the train by a cook who accompanied the teacher.  When you reached Dehra Dun you got on a bus together with the other boys and started up a very steep hill on a very wheezy bus.  The journey took about an hour and a half and about 20 minutes into the ride the first signs of motion sickness would appear.  After about 45 minutes, almost everyone including me was vomiting out the window.  Thus would we proceed to Mussoorie.

When we got to Mussoorie we would get off the bus and our massive trunks would be unloaded.  Each trunk would then be lifted onto the back of a small (~5 ft or so) gurkha-looking man who would be bent over with the trunk balanced on his back.  The trunk would be retained on his back with a sling like contraption which contained the trunk, and went round his forehead.  We would then all walk the mile or so up the hill to the school.   

The trunk would then be taken by a porter, and child and porter and trunk would proceed to the dormitory.  The trunk would be unpacked, the clothes and other necessities distributed between a locker and a box at the foot of the bed and the trunk would be stored away until it was needed nine months later.

St George’s was run very much on British “public school” lines.  Those of you who have read Harry Potter will recognize much of what I describe.  Everyone belonged to a “house”.  I recall there being four houses.  When the various age boys would compete with each other in organized games they would represent their houses.  Once a year we would have a sports day organized remarkably like the modern day Olympics.  Sports day was a very big thing for which we would prepare for several months.  Sports day as I recall took place late in the school year typically about October, and lasted more than one day.  Parents and the community were invited, and some of the parents who lived near (just a day or two!) would show up.  I don’t recall Mum and Dad ever visiting St George’s; Ajmer was a long way away. There was usually quite a big crowd of students and spectators.  The event would start with the athletes representing the four houses marching with the banner of the house held high.  We marched to a brass band playing “Colonel Bogey”.  It was a big honor to be chosen to carry the banner.  There would be many field and track events including hammer throwing, discus, pole vaulting, long jump etc.  I suspect we had most of the Olympic field and track events that would fit on a single large field.  We did not have luge, skiing, horse jumping and so on!   I was never a fast runner, but I was a reasonably strong kid so I would take part in shot putting, weight lifting and boxing.  I don’t remember winning any medals!

The school routine was much the same as I described for St Mary’s—morning mass, breakfast, class, mid morning break, class, lunch, class, mid afternoon break, organized games, dinner, study hall bed.

The academic curriculum we followed was determined by Cambridge University since our goal was passing the exams set by Cambridge.  We studied British Empire history, English history, English and world geography, English Literature and English Composition, Arithmetic, Geometry and (I think) some Algebra.  The emphasis was very much on a classical European education.  We did a lot of Latin, and some Roman history.  We did some Science, but my recollection is that it was relatively simple stuff compared with what is done in the better schools now.  All in all, judging by my academic performance when I went to England, I got an excellent education in my Indian schools.   

From the time of the Moghuls, courtly Persian Arabic had been the official language of India.  Even after it was replaced by English in 1835, its Indian form, Urdu, remained as the language of the educated and elite of India.  Whereas St Mary’s taught Hindi as the Indian “foreign language”, St George's taught Urdu as the Indian foreign language.  So for two years I learned the Arabic script and Urdu which I really enjoyed learning.  There is a politeness and formalism in Urdu that I have not found in any of the many languages whose surface I have scraped. 

There is a lot of confusion about the language spoken in Northern India.  The lingua franca is generally called Hindustani.  There are also several local languages like Punjabi, Gujerati, Pushtu, (in the far west near Afghanistan), Bengali (in the far east near Bengal), and so on, spoken by various ethnic groups.  However Hindustani is the most widely known.  Hindustani, the spoken language, is written either in “Hindi”, a modern version of a Sanskrit script, or in “Urdu” which is an Arabic script.  My guess is that Hindustani evolved as a common spoken language for communication between the invading Muslims from Afghanistan and Persia, and the indigenous Hindus.  When each society came to record the sounds of Hindustani, the literate Muslims rendered the sounds in Arabic, and the literate Hindus rendered the sounds in Sanskrit.   The farther west one goes. the more this language is referred to as Urdu and is spoken in a more Arabic manner.   The farther east one goes the more it is referred to as Hindi and spoken in the Sanskrit manner.  At home we always spoke to the servants in Hindi.  Communication with well educated Indians (which was very rare) took place in English.  The Hindustani spoken by most Anglo Indians was a very simple “servants” language and was kind of insulting to use with educated people.  It might be likened to using crude baby talk with an educated adult.

At St George's I continued with my commitment to Catholicism and continued my voracious reading.  I was happier however and became more involved in sports and non academic activities.  I loved field hockey, and I started boxing quite seriously.  I thought I became quite good at it.  .   

We actually knew very little of our immediate surroundings in boarding school.  In both England and the US it is customary for children to learn about their immediate environment and local history—Vikings and Bonnie Prince Charlie in England, Ohlone Indians in California, the Alamo in Texas and so on.  It is also quite common to go on field trips in both countries.  Almost nothing of the kind happened in any of the schools I ever went to in India.  I hope it has changed now, but at the time I went to school there was no interest in anything local.  The teachers were all foreigners, the Anglo Indians though resident in the country did not think of themselves as being part of the country.  There was no sense of pride in being “Indian”, with the result we did not identify with our surroundings.  Our “field trips” consisted of going into town and going to the movies, or going for a “ramble” on a track in the jungle, or spending our pocket money buying candy and trinkets in the market.  Occasionally we would visit an outstanding site like the Jain temples.

Talking about movies my favorite actor at the time was Errol Flynn and my friend's favorite actor was, Heaven forgive him, Ronald Reagan.  His favorite movie was 'Coming home on a Wing and a Prayer", and I think mine was something like Captain Blood.  Mussoorie was a much more popular holiday resort for Europeans than Mount Abu and so had better movie theatres and shops.  On to Genealogy or Colonialism