When my mother decided to pull me out of my exhilarating bliss as a student in South Point into Modern High School, a long and tedious sentence started in my life as the condemned Sisyphus. I joined MHS in Class III because it was from Class III onwards that the school was housed in the Amir Ali Avenue building, close enough to be a walking distance from my home, or a distance that my grandfather supposed my mother could manage with the old landmaster engine Mark 1 Ambassador car. I was neither sent to Loreto House, a school that the Dasgupta girls usually went to before my generation, nor to Lamartiniere where some cousins studied, nor to Gokhale Memorial where my mother and her sisters read; for these schools did my grandfather decide were too far for me to travel to. So to MHS I went with the over sized uniform that my aunt who just passed out from the school had been wearing. To Dadu’s constant complaint of how expensive the school was, how expensive the books were and to my mother’s tears that quality and classy education was the girl’s best weapon against a world that in every which way was to be eventually cruel to her, I resentfully, ruefully stepped inside the swing door of Class III B waiting for my class teacher to arrive.
I realized that I was there with two other girls smaller than I, all of us looking out of sorts and out of place. Neither was in their uniforms because they did not have the time to get one stitched and neither had a legacy of over sized clothes as I had. I felt a class of four rows and eight desks scrutinizing us minutely with the same wonderment in their eyes as we had in ours till the door swung in and a lady walked in wearing high heel shoes and a tight skirt while the class cried out in a concert, Miss, Miss, new girls, three new girls. The teacher scolded the class, first say good morning Miss Payne, she demanded. The class sung out, Good Morning Miss Spain.. Then this lady turned to face us. I saw her desperately trying to smother a guffaw as she tried to find me from inside the many metres of large sized garments. Such a small girl, with such large clothes, she said and the class broke into peals of laughter. I felt a bit more comforted at what I sensed as a hostility turn into some kind of amusement among those who sat facing me.
The two other girls, I learnt were Madhuchhanda Kar, who now heads Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital and Sangeeta Roy Deewanji who now teaches in MHS, were shorter than I and were given seats in front. I got an isle seat in the third row. In South Point, I was the first student among all the sections, legendary for my marks, my hand writing, my needle work, my origami. In MHS, I sensed I had to stand among the ranks. It was death for me, or a new life, disconnected with my past. People feel a sense of loss when they move from school to college or from college to office. For me, I already had this feeling in my journey from South Point to Modern High, and that feeling was so done for me that never ever had any rites de passage been able to shake me up as this huge journey from Hindustan Park to Amir Ali Avenue.
MHS appeared to me like the Woodlands Nursing Home with its long corridors, laminated doors to classrooms on either side that were painted in pastel shades and had the same square glass covered holes in them for people to peep in. Two sweepers with broad mops on sticks seemed to be forever cleaning the corridors. None of the airy, breezy, hap hazard, free and chaotic atmosphere of South Point School prevailed here. Everything was sanitized and removed from the soul. We were made to stand in queues where not even a finger could jut out, we had to walk straight to the watchful eyes of senior girls who mechanically repeated Stop Stocking.. (stop talking) to even smother a loud breath. Everyone spoke in English, a language that I never conversed in and besides, it was a different society with all girls bearing unfamiliar names and unfamiliar surnames of many non-Bengalis to whom Kolkata was a home. I realized that I was hurtled in a different world, a wider world as my mother had told me.
This was not my problem; my problem lay more in the classroom, where every minute my pride of a first student of record holding full marks in every subject was beaten down into failures. The teacher wrote too fast on the board and rubbed it off even faster, I could not follow her accent and so got almost a zero in dictation, something in which I never in my life made a mistake. Only mathematics and Bengali seemed to be fine, because South Point had better standards in these subjects. My life was made worse by a thin, dark girl with two long and wriggly plaits hanging from her well oiled black curly hair, the monitress of our class, T.R.Girija who was so impatient with my slow responses that she never stopped calling me silly. Strangely, I did not resent her because it was of no use. I was in a new territory, without a past, without an identity and my voice and opinions had no value. Besides I was too stoned to respond.
In this terrible world of Class III B, there were a few faces that reached out to me as saviours in the whirlpool. There was a girl with a very kind face, Anita Ray who looked at me often across the desks and kept smiling assuredly at me. Today I know that the smile meant All Is Well. The other girl was the second monitress, Gurleen Grewal, who resembled Girija in many ways, thin, wriggly plaits on oiled curly hair, except that she was fairer and her hair little browner. She was kind and she made it a point to shuffle around my desk pretending to collect my copy as I went through some revisions and I could see that she edged Girija out of my way.
In the tiffin break I had to make some friends. In South Point I went to a half day school and there was no tiffin break. Hence I had no need to make any friends. While I was quite contended to eat out of my lunch box alone because I am used to being all by myself, I could see two girls, very self assured and confident walking up to me. They introduced themselves as Sumita Warrier and Saloni Pandey, my first friends in MHS. These girls became my tiffin companions and they were also the two who came home to my birthday party that year. Sumi left Kolkata for a while and when she returned she joined back in Section C. I greeted her once, but she seemed to have forgotten me. But Saloni Pandey and I remained friends, a relationship that was wholly Saloni’s making and not mine.
I returned home after the first day at MHS diminutive and demeaned. I cried so much that Dadu and Baba really scolded Ma for being so self willed in impairing and mutilating the image of the first girl among all sections, morning and afternoon sessions included, of South Point. I learnt that evening that the Birlas and Dadu were on inimical terms over Rani Birla College and that Dadu never considered Birlas as anything else but profiteers who sold education just as they did for tea and jute. Baba pleaded to Dadu that he would take up driving again, a passion that he had to forego after Dadu tore up Baba’s driving license after his near fatal car accident at the Theatre Road Crossing, so that he could drop me to Loreto House. But costs of petrol were calculated and the idea of my shifting out to Loreto House was dropped. Ma promised me that if I still felt so castigated and attacked after a month at MHS, she would pull me out of it without a second thought. With this assurance I was calmed enough to give MHS a try before I called quits. I pulled out my secret weapon to deal with such issues, a weapon that I still have and use and which is I got out a notebook and a pencil and started copying my text books word by word, punctuation by punctuation. At the end of the first week, I found Saloni Pandey copying the questions on the board from me and when Girija came she found that mine was the first copy to be handed to her along the isle. I slowly integrated into MHS.
With much despair I realized that I had no future of excellence in MHS. The girls seemed to be ahead of me in everything. Payal Narain was unbeatable in art, Girijia unsurpassable in maths, Anita Ray, terrific at English, Anusree Mitra and Sanjukta Dutta Gupta amazing in handwriting, Gurleen Grewal too smart and fast, Nandini Kapoor could write copiously, Madhu Kedia, a confident strutting know all and Sunita Chaocharia ran like a deer on the tracks; the girls were in a different league altogether. My performances in my earlier life and in my earlier avatar as first girl meant nothing. In a way I was freed of all pressures to perform and realized that learning could be exciting and absorbing. I dug deep into my books and soon I realized that my dictation and spelling were impeccable and what really surprised me the most was that my comprehension and reading seemed to please Miss “Spain” no end. I knew that I made my niche and even though I never stood first in MHS I started to enjoy learning. The seat reserved for me in south Point High School was given up forever.
In the days of middle class values, I was often reminded at home that I went to the most expensive girls’ school in Kolkata. This meant that the family budget that I could lay claim on was wholly taken up by the school fees and bus charges. This meant that I had to do without a private tutor, without taking expensive extra-curricular classes and refrain from buying story books. Hence I used the resources available in the school to the hilt. I participated in debates, quizzes; wrote for Lotus Buds, did the copy work for charts, edited wall magazines as extracurricular activities. I loved nothing more than doing my geography homework of colouring and shading maps to show mountains, ground elevations, sources and destination of rivers, mineral deposits and crops. I have carried my geography lessons out of school and I feel privileged to note that my idea of the world as a space is indeed an advantage in my profession.
I was devoted to the Library and helping Supriya Roy in arranging the Library was one of my most favourite occupations. The Library used to be on the ground floor of the west wing just across Class IIIB and that was a space that grew so sunny in the winter afternoon and so cool in the summer morning that attracted me the most. The Library also became my most free space. I had no ability to read when I joined MHS but within a month I was gulping down Enid Blytons so much that my grandfather decided to write to the UK government to put the authoress under check so that she stops writing books so distract me from my studies. A few years later, in class VI or VII, Madhuchhanda Kar introduced me to the magic of Bengali novels and immediately I finished Leela Majumdar, Bibhuti Bandopadhyay, Saradindu, Bankimchandra, Saratchandra, again in a wide sweep, with grandfather deciding that he was against the novel as a genre.
The literary rather than the aesthetic was more within my command and in those days of egoistic adolescence I stuck only to what I was good at and feigned indifference at skills those I had still to acquire. Hence I stayed clear of dance and music. Alka Yagnik was a year senior to us and her in Hindi songs and Sarmila Bose in Bengali, both in Champak house set the bar so high that there was no point for anyone else to score a point there. I was mediocre in sports, though I did play basket ball quite a bit and did some yoga and excelled in dodge ball; rounders, throw ball, athletics and drill display were never my strengths. Anusree and Sanjukta (Dutti) almost pleaded me to join the Girl Guide but it was one of those desires that I had to suppress because grandfather could never dream of allowing me to stay overnight out of home in a camp ! Dutti taught me that if one went for the “big job” and had no access to soap, one could rub some sand or mud or even wall plaster to substitute for detergent in washing one’s hands. It was a very liberating thought though all through school I lived in a nightmare of my knicker draw strings getting into a knot while the need to relieve myself was getting very urgent. In the break, friends could help untie the knot especially those who surreptitiously kept long nails which they filed with emory boards below their desks, but if one needed to go to the washroom during a class, one was always insecure about not finding a help should the necessity arise. Our school was miserly in keeping ayahs who it had to pay, though we were stuffed unnecessarily with teachers and prefects at every nook and corner like in a Soviet surveillance. I think that my invigilation skills arise from my unconscious registering of the panopticism of Modern High School and as I say that nothing escapes my notice whether it is the office corridor, or the parking lot, or the home kitchen.
I resented MHS while I was there. I got a distinct feeling that it was more like a finishing school rather than a school. There was a kind of dilettantism that we were being helped to acquire; some sports, some studies, some music, some dance, some acting, some writing, jacks of trades but without being a clear master in any one of them. These were, I suspected, only to prepare us for being wives of very successful men and not being a successful person on one’s own. Decidedly then most of us spent all our free time thinking and worrying more about boys than about our careers. This was fanned by our principal, “Willy”’s abhorrence towards boys. The more Willy struggled to keep the male sex beyond the range of our vision, more like the Miranda of Tempest we were tempted by them. MHS surely and steadily “feminized” us. I revolted so much against the strong culture of the feminine that I decided against anything that would ever make me even resemble a girl. In Sudarshana Bagchi’s plays I was always in male roles and in the life after school, in my mind, I am very much a man, a clear resistance to the “lady like” behavior that was always expected out of us.
But because of its finishing school approach, MHS taught me a few apparently trivial things that I believe that every school should follow. One is to silently walk in a line where even the end of the pleated skirt should not be seen sticking out; to have properly ironed uniformed, drawn up socks and polished shoes, to have hair tied back neatly, to have no decoration on the face, or body, to have covers and labels on exercise books, to have neatly packed pencil boxes, needlework boxes and games bags and right or wrong, never to defy authority. I realized much later in my life that such military discipline always helps one to climb up the social ladder and improve one’s professional position. I realized that the academic skills were developed rather broadly so that we easily found our way into career options like medicine, economics, law, teaching, music, dance, fashion designing, jewellery designing, cosmetics and among the braver hearts, social work and social activism. Perhaps because of a lady like approach, our girls were less confident about harder professions of being in the bureaucracy or the judiciary or as merchant bankers or in films, those that claimed more wholesome dedication, but in the balancing act that women seem to be always in, I think that we have managed remarkably well. At least from our facebook statuses, we all seem to be in awe of a normal and balanced life of some career, some cooking, some colleagues, some family, some interest and some duty towards our homes.