Thursday, 13 December 2012

Those were the Best Days of My Life


Some years ago, when these alumni networks on the Net were gaining popularity, one guy from San Francisco contacted me. Apparently, he was my class mate in kindergarten in St Joseph’s Convent, Coonoor and quite overjoyed to connect. He remembered Shirley, Jhansi and Mypal Reddy too.
The Convent, those days, ran a smaller primary section called the Private School, just below the main school.  This section was tucked away from the rest of the school.  So it was only after the third standard, I joined the regular school.



St Joseph’s Convent was and still is run by the Sisters of St Joseph of Tarbes; a French order of hospitallers and teachers with their mother house in Cantaous in the Tarbes diocese, in France. The school was established in 1900 in a building called Dublin Castle, rented to the good sisters by a rich Irish planter called Sir Lawrence O’Reilly. The story goes that the need for a Catholic school for girls in Coonoor had become a critical issue, especially since, “the Protestants were already well established in the Nilgiris, and Mr. Stanes had opened the 'Stanes School'. The Catholic Church was refusing the sacraments to Catholic parents who were sending their children to that school.”*
The six Sisters who founded the Convent came to Coonoor via Bangalore all the way from France. The journey up the hills from the northern side (Mysore ) of the mountain range in those early days must have been very strenuous and must have taken days. These young French girls would have had to face not just the danger of the journey through dense forests and wild animals but also bandits.    
Of course, I did not know all this on that first day in the big school. All I could take in was the imposing buildings, the paved drive and all those fashionable looking girls with their bouffant hair-dos and blue serge uniforms. 
My parents and grandfather had accompanied me on this momentous day. Before I was sent away to class, my grandfather had a small chat with Mother Marie Therese, the Mother Superior. I was suitably impressed by the tall, elegant French nun in her black habit, starched wimple and bonnet. She patted me kindly on my head while she reassured my parents and grandfather that I would come to no harm!
The junior school was in the same building as the St Gabriel dorms. Though it was with trepidation that I entered the new classroom, my fears were soon set to rest. The classroom smelled familiar; of flowers, ferns and chalk. All my friends from the Private School were already ensconced in the class.
Lunch time found us exploring the new surroundings: and there was quite a lot to explore.  The Convent, like most hill schools was built into the hill side and on many levels. A steep, long paved drive led one to a square which had the low roofed Dublin Castle (where the nuns lived)on one side and the chapel on the other; these building were totally dwarfed by the white washed double storied building with arched doorways and St Joseph’s statue in the foreground.
There were steps leading down to the chapel which was built over the assembly hall with a steep staircase on the outside.  The next big find was the grotto - the artificial cave which had a marble altar in the centre and was picturesquely covered with ivy.  In a nave at the top right hand was a statue of Our Lady. We quickly plugged into the school lore, which had it that there was a secret passage behind the altar which would take one into the bowels of the mountain and eventually into the foothills of the Nilgiris.  
Countless lunch hours were spent in searching for the secret passage, not just in the grotto but in the ghost passage at the side of the Hall. We pressed so many granite blocks, hoping one of them would open. I am sure many before us and many after us have done the same.      
Another lunch time ritual, though a rare one, was the walk through dark passage between the large, cavernous kitchen and the scullery to the tuck shop to buy stick-jaws, that amazing jaggery and peanut toffee. Sometimes as we darted across, we would get a glimpse of Appu the baker putting large trays of buns or was it bread, into a wood-fired oven.  At other times, we would smell the mouth-watering aroma of freshly-baked bread.
We quickly picked up all the new slang. You didn't go to the bathroom anymore. You went to the bogs. You didn't copy homework, you fudged.You asked people to "shut their gob" and "stop guffing"! 
You addressed your friends by their surnames.You called everyone ‘man’ or sometimes even ‘chile’. The latter was not tolerated at home. My father ragged me merciless till I stopped this usage.
We learnt new games like “Batch”, Seven Tiles and Four Corners and skipping rope songs such as “Ice cream soda, sugar on the top; tell me the name of your sweetheart”.  
St Joseph’s Convent in those days was a school straight out of June and Schoolfriend; with secret passages, hidden stairways, friendly ghosts and an orchard. Then there were all the eccentrics who are part and parcel of a hill school, like Halwa kaka, Rosie the fruit seller and Mrs. P’s lechie driver. Fatty man was a bogey, we day scholars, had to deal with. The rumour was that he would kiss you as you passed by. (And, of course, you would immediately get pregnant!!!) 
Ah! The innocence of those days!


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* http://sjtbangalore.org/COMMUNITY_COONOOR.pdf