Sunday, April 18, 2010

Memories of Sophia School Boarding ...
(Sophia Girls School, Meerut, India)

Sophia Girls School or Sophia Convent School or Sophia High School was part of the bigger picture of Sophia School in Ajmer (Rajasthan). I always regarded it as the best one from all the branches. On its one end was the Boarding House and on the other side of the Boarding was the Cathedral with its lovely incense and other aromas of flowers, perfume, smells of wood, and people. There were sounds of chanting and bells and Anglo Indians in their berets and scarves. I may still have a few holes in my knees from kneeling there for hours plus poking my hands through the rifle holes in the benches. Meerut was the starting point of the Mutiny. The priest heard all our confessions of cursing the nuns, peeking under their veils, fighting with friends, throwing unwanted food under the table, stealing pencils, and tales of other such transgressions. I may have imagined the priest telling the nuns and perhaps a smile or two being shared, but I couldn't be sure. We were told our confessions were safe with the priest; in return for saying a few Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and some other prayers, we were assured absolution. I suppose we thought we could go on doing whatever we were doing and get our souls cleansed every week.

In the Boarding, it wasn't long before we realized the difference between the rich girls and the regular ones. It was all made evident by the nuns hovering around the rich ones, overlooking their minor transgressions. I as a child, who noticed any discrepancy in treatment, saw this as gross injustice and not fair. But then who could ignore the delicious packets of fruits and nuts straight from the Gulf. Other parents brought sacks of rice or flour or daal as gifts for the nuns. Nonetheless, the focus was always school and studies. I too got busy with just that - worked hard at my studies, played all the sports I could, did all the dramatics to entertain the nuns, drew all the cards for the millions of feast days for the nuns (The nuns were named after particular saints and whenever that saint had his or her feast, the respective nun celebrated too.) Skits had to be organized, dances choreographed, songs practiced, and special cards drawn by hand. At the end of it all, everybody was happy including the saints and their namesakes.

Thus we Boarders ambled along in our ways - some straight and others crooked. Once the nuns locked up a whole bunch of us in the changing room. We called it the linjerie pronounced in the Indian way linjiree, otherwise known as Lingerie around the world. The nuns were as ignorant as us of the French and their language. Of course nobody gave a damn about the need for relieving. We however managed to devise ways of doing that. Bottles were used and urinals were made from cardboard. Even without the stars, the night was spent in total wonderment and abandon. For the Boarders, school Fetes were a good time for experiencing some freedom and of course looking at boys from St. Mary's. The nuns actually thought we would turn into alcoholics when one of us won a bottle of beer. In our minds we got perfectly drunk after consuming a few sips. Saturdays were days for walks and it didn't matter when we occasionally walked into some beehives. The bees died anyway after stinging us and the nuns took the whole puffy lot and threw us in the mosquito ridden sick room. There we got malaria along with the stings. But it didn't matter because that meant no school. What was a little shivering and chattering? We grew stronger with each attack and Dr Shome said so too. The Doctor was a fossil but was also a benign man. For us in school, anybody over the age of 15 was really old and fit to be a fossil. We must have been hardy kids because I don't remember any of us being diagnosed with any horrible diseases. Castor oil was free for all, whether we wanted it or not.

Sr Aloysia was perhaps the kindest of all nuns and when she left, I felt her absence acutely. She was truly my protector. There was another nun who felt a strange kinship with me and that was because we both shared a perennial sinus problem. A couple of them however loved to pinch us on the arms or whack us with their strings. Sr Yolanda was the horror of all horrors. She was as big as a mountain and the school thundered when she walked. She banned me from living or rather dramatics because I refused to go for the page boy role in the school play. It would have made sense because in school I did look like a little boy. After all the dramatics I was into, I thought I should have bagged one of Jane Austen's five sisters role in the play 'Sense and Sensibility'. What I didn't realize was that I neither had the bosom for required corsets to rest on nor the long hair and certainly not the pretty face of the Victorian ladies. Heck I probably could have made kites out of those corsets!

Despite all the regimen of the school and boarding, we came out alive and kicking and I in fact got kicked out of the boarding house itself. If there were any self made people, it was us the Sophian Boarders. We plodded on without any parental help with learning how to tie shoe laces, taking baths the right way or even brushing our teeth. We had no shoulders to cry on nor even a single chance of throwing tantrums. We had no colored pictures for our projects nor the choices for choosing fancy pens and pencils. I learnt to hold my pee as well as the tears. We fought with each other but also learnt to get along. We kept our passion for reading even though our novels were routinely confiscated by the nuns. In short we learnt things the hard way because that was the only one available to us. We probably will not know how much we all depended on each other for simple pleasures and succor. We heard the best music, danced to our hearts' content and sang happily even the sad songs just because we didn't understand the lyrics. Sophia School and the Boarding did what it was supposed to do - moulded us wherever it could and the rest we found what we wanted to find. Above all, I was glad to be a part of it. It was indeed a big part of my education, my growing up, and in making me who I am. And I of course remain what I am.

Choir Photo: Sangeeta, Manpreet, Monica, Brenda, Joyce.