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.


  1. One thing (amongst the trillions, she’d say,) I keep saying to my daughter is that the Life Force will not be stilled. All living beings will not give it up without a fierce struggle. They will adapt, improvise, fight, even kill, but will still not abandon their right to exist. Now how we would qualify that existence is individual. Some beings have no options but to go on just breathing, while some have varying degrees of a ‘better life’.
    Your narration of life at the Sophia hostel is pretty much as I had thought it would be. And though I’m sure you’ve edited out a lot of the horrors, keeping in mind the sensibilities of your readers, I had imagined it to be much worse. Because at that time ‘Hostel’ was the dreaded word for those of us who were ensconced comfortably in their cocoons with their families. So if we dared to demand, or hinted at tantrums, we were threatened with the dire consequences of being sent to the hostel. Mostly the Bad, or the Rebels were sentenced to Life with Rigorous Imprisonment.
    And that is why I instinctively, silently sympathized with you. Please don’t ever think it was pity. It was , in fact, admiration. I could guess at the treatment meted out to you, and so I admired the spunk with which you bore up with it. We saw no signs of the trauma, heard no complaints. In fact you were this vibrant force participating in everything with vigour, and yes, the humour.
    Basically with all that was inflicted on us, we managed not to be so messed up. We all have our issues, but we survived. I hope that the spirit perseveres, as survival today is getting tougher, and the flesh weaker. Emotions take hold of the mind and soul, body ages. But still the spirit is indomitable.
    Keep up the good work, its bringing out the creativity and the sense of belonging somewhere in all of us. Takes us back to the moorings, which seem to be based at Sophia, and for us, at IP too. 
    love, chhabi.

    1. Chhabi, I didn't have to read till the end and see your name to know that you are the author of the above piece. you have your own distinctive style and really should put it to good use. Don'y waste your talent. :)

  2. Chhabi this is excellent 'rambling'. You seriously need to get your own forum for writing. Yes, things were tough but a lot of fun too. I barely managed to touch upon the experiences. The bottom line we did it and ironically it was the very same saga that helped do it. Thanks for checking it out. Joyce.

  3. Urmila Samson:
    I read the whole page, of school, college, the beautiful poem about Bapi - he came right before my eyes, just as I remembered him in the mid-80s...Your writing was so lively, so vivid! I love you!

  4. John Samson's comment on the blog:
    Really liked your article on sofia. well written, cohesive with the lighter tones blending in very harmoniously into the commentary of reality of that time in your life.
    also liked the composition and clarity and the resilience that comes when one is able to look at bleak moments with a sense of humour.

  5. Mohita Dutta's take on the Boarders' tale:

    Joyce....In our days at Sophia we thought that the hostelites were children of a bigger God, in a way quite envious of them getting the spotlight in basket-ball, gymnastics, music-band & like....u know more cozy with the nuns...we thought we the day-scholars were first-cousins "once-removed" in comparison....but how thrilling to know that grass is always greener on the other side.

  6. Saranjit Chadha said:
    I quite agree with Brenda, the boarders were always favoured by the sisters for sports or dramatics or any damn activity in d school.We day scholars were not treated as COUSINS but like STEP SISTERS. Boarders were available for practice in d evenings so thats it. Some of them thought they were Superior to us.

  7. Brenda Puech said:

    Joyce, what a moving account of your childhood in the Boarding school at Sophia! I remember Meerut as an idyllic place, where I was free to roam as far as my bicycle could take me and my favourite haunts in Abu Lane and JS library, and the Gandhi park when I was younger. We saw the boarders as exotic and different, and you were definitely favoured by the nuns!

    Really brings back old memories!

  8. Joyce, what an eye opening account of the other side of a boarder's life. I too found the boarders to be the privileged and the favoured ones, excelling in everything. They were in school sports teams and plays. Made house captains and class monitors. Anyway, you did excel in everything and were a good leader. I enjoyed reading your article. Brought back lots of memories. You are so right about sister Yolanda and Aloysia.


  9. Joyce, As written on FB: When I'm wrong, I am: I am wrong. Thank you for sharing this. But even more, thank you for putting words to emotions long forgotten,experiences nestled within,memories that got influenced with age. Could it be that I perhaps slept in the same corner where you once were, and somebody else sits where I did once...collective experiences that transcend time? I love your writings, and look forward to various installments of all manner...Nostalgia that overwhelms,a warm happy feeling holding together a whole experience. Many Thanks again! kat ;-)

  10. Kat, I couldn't leave such beautiful comments on FB. Had to get them here. Hope you are ok with that.

    Kat's Pause: Joyce- Just read your blog re Sophia. I laughed, I felt an odd feeling in my chest (corset aside) and I felt your experience as honest and as real as though you were reading my mind in every paragraph, your writing aside from the skill, subtle, gentle, echo. Hours later I returned to it, and I could swear I smelt the incense, I heard Bishop Patrick's voice, kindling quietly the suspicion of OMG yep...confessions "must have been shared" yes? ah well ... It deserves to be widely read, my cousins went to Sophia Ajmer, they have been sent the link. My husband walked in on me wistful, smiling, and was sent your link. He walked out saying - interesting, does she realise she has just written about exactly how it was in Dublin. Is she published? Many thanks Joyce. Beautifully written article, thank you! You have yourself an avid reader who is potty mouthed!

  11. Absolutely ok with it. Between you and me, you ought to be published! A lot of your articles, all of your writings in the right hands would receive a wide audience; and a thoroughly pleased publishing house. Oh think of all the fame, acclaim, loot that awaits you... your own Royal wedding :-) to borrow your analogy. Amen.

  12. Sangita Singh:
    Dear Di...really nice article....I literally had lump in my throat at few lines. I could re-collect my days in Sophia Boarding.....n I agree with moulded us wherever it would always remain a major part of my growing n nurturing days!!!
    May 23 at 12:08pm

  13. Mukta Poonia:
    Hi Joyce di......lovely article. It definately brings back so many memories (good and bad). In short....I would never regret my stay in the hostel as it definately made me tough towards life. Learnt so many things out there. I don't think so you remember me. You were probably in Pavan Di's batch when I joined Kindergarten. Ah!! yes, the potato sacks were given by my folks :) And every time the nuns got the potatoes we had to eat them in each & every meal till we got sick of them.
    Wednesday at 4:17pm

  14. Excellent narration of how life really was for us in the hostel. You have a flair for presenting everything with humourous undertones. I didn't know that people presnted stuff to the nuns. You could have clued me in and maybe I could have got my dad to present a sack of sugar and that could have saved me from some lashings! Interesting to note that all the "dayskies" thought that we were the privileged lot whereas there were times when we used to long for something as basic as home cooked food! I think you could write a whole book on our life there. I would love to read it; but yes through it all rests the fact that it shaped who we are today and gave us the fortitude to face anything in life.

  15. Thanks. You should have written your name here. Yes those sacks of sugar could have saved a lot of us :)