In a far off hill station, hidden behind majestic pines, was a deceptively beautiful chalet. The cars had to be parked below and a long walk led to the office of the Mother Superior.
A coolie carried my newly painted black trunk on his back. My father, holding my brother’s hand strode ahead while I clutched Ma’s, my heart pounding so loud that I could hear it in my ears.
Oh yes, I had wanted to be here.
A boarding school had sounded so exciting. Fed on Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and St. Claire’s, I was looking forward to midnight feasts and tuck shops.
Ma too had chipped in with wonderful stories of her stint at Nainital. But by the time we walked past large pots filled with geraniums, an exquisite stone grotto and into a well-appointed ‘Parlour’ where we met a very cheerful Mother Superior. I just wanted to go home.
We had been but three months in our new home, a little hamlet of a Cantonment, only two hours away from school.
It was breathtakingly beautiful, with apple blossoms lining crazy little paths. Larkspur and candytuft grew wild and purple pink hydrangea filled bed after bed. Pretty cottages dotted the hillsides and larger bungalows sat on hilltops.
Ours even boasted of a chapel and an orchard.
We were woken every morning, without fail, by Chippy, a wildly enthusiastic yellow Labrador pup. In the clear mountain sunshine, warmly clad in our jumpers and jeans we would run down to the stables, for our eggs.
“Horses for the white Colonel Sahib and chickens for the brown Colonel Sahib!” my father had chuckled when he decided to house the stables used by the British, with hens.
We would find the smoothest golden brown eggs for our breakfast and hand them over to Prabhu, the cook.
Overlooking the valley below, in our Sunroom, where Lord Dalhousie, the Viceroy of India, once breakfasted, we too enjoyed toasts, omelettes and homemade guava jelly.
We always had plans for the day.
Trekking to some hill or a splash in the sparkling stream. Sometimes we spent the entire morning simply rolling and sliding down the slope to the orchard, where we would help the malis pluck apples or better still, catch the yellow butterflies.
On a quieter day, Parminder carried my easel and I followed with my paint box, stool and Chippy.
Vikram, Sujata, Sanjay, my brother and I were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
There were only two rules: Breakfast with my father at eight and home as soon as the streetlights came on. In between it was absolute freedom and complete joy.
But now I was in the Parlour.
“Say farewell to your Mummy and Daddy,” said the Mother Superior in a rather quaint way.
For a moment, Ma had looked unusually uncertain but my father just shook my hand very formally, and gave me a little punch. “Go on, girl. See you soon.”
An Ayah led me to my dormitory through a large room with a shining stone floor. Dark wood cabinets with marble counters ran along the dazzling white-tiled walls and shining chrome taps. Numbered white-and-blue enamel basins were placed in a perfect line on the counters. In the middle of the room was a highly polished brass towel rail with neat triple-folded towels, each an inch apart from the next. The dormitory itself was a long room with beds, which carried on forever.
Large windows on one side overlooked a green, shrub-strewn hillside while on the other was the rest of the school.
The ticktackticktack on the rich wood floor unnerved me and I tried walking soundlessly on my toes, but it was impossible.
The Ayah put my small case on my bed, which thankfully overlooked the hillside as I was already beginning to feel claustrophobic.
“Sister is coming. Wait.”
“Where is my trunk?” I suddenly had this desire to have all my things around me.
“Don’t worry. It will be soon put next to your bed.”
I felt myself choking, thinking about the whole term ahead of me.
“Oh God, how would I last here? Would I die before I saw my parents again? Would someone remember that I was here in this God-forsaken convent?”
I waited endlessly, very close to tears, when a bell jangled me out of my reverie. A stream of girls in grey skirts and sweaters trooped in. The empty dormitory was now full.
I felt my breath returning. Would I ever be able to sleep with so many girls in one room? They gathered around my bed and questioned me curiously, just like all the girls in all my other schools.
“What is your name? Where have you come from? Which class are you in?”
This didn’t look so bad. Maybe it will be like St. Claire’s after all!
My trunk was soon next to my bed.
The Ayah opened it and took me to wardrobe number 24 where she laid out my things in neat piles.
Underwear, warm vests, socks, all labelled with my name by Ma. My towel was triple folded on rack 24 and my night suit was put under my pillow on bed 24. I was to use basin 24 with my toiletries in the drawer of the same number. Basically, I was now number 24.
“Girls! Girls! Girls!” strode in a small bespectacled nun, in a spotless white habit.
Without a glance at me she clapped her hands and everyone scuttled away. “Change and go for Study. Come on, come on. Haven’t you seen a new girl before?”
A set of my clothes had been put on my bed. “It doesn’t match,” I complained to Ayah. “I don’t wear this trouser with this blouse.”
“Just wear it,” she replied, so menacingly that I quietly took them.
While I was removing my clothes and standing in my underwear and vest, I realised all eyes were on me. For the first time Sister Christine looked directly at me and said, with some disdain, to the girl next to me
“Teach her to be modest. Explain to her what it means to be a modest Indian girl.”
With great pride my little instructor put my dressing gown over my head and then, inside that makeshift tent, I was told to remove my clothing and put on my new set without revealing any skin. All around me, each girl was in her own tent, sitting on her haunches on the side of her bed, shielded from the eyes of the other girls, all of our own age.
We emerged all sweaty from our warm dressing gowns fully clothed and not one inch of our precious Indian skin revealed, wearing completely mismatched clothes.
Frocks with churidars! A combination of jeans and dresses! Long-sleeved jumpers poking underneath from short-sleeved blouses! The Ayah, who only wore saris, had had a field day selecting our clothes and seeing that every bit of us was covered!
Then we moved to the Washroom.
Here, three splashes of water, two wipes of the towel, a dot and a half of Charmis all purpose cream and a comb in hand, we stood in a line to get our hair done by two Ayahs and Sister.
Yank, brush, yank, brush, brush. A deft bow of the ribbon and we were ready to escape for Study.
The hairbrush, however, made a mean weapon. All scores were settled with it.
“So Geetanjali? Talktalktalk last night?”
“What do you think? I don’t know anything. Baby Jesus has given me eyes and ears in the back of my head, you know.” Yankyank.
“Ouch! Sister, that hurts.”
“That hurts, does it?” A harder yank.
“Next time I hear you talking…Catechism at five in the morning. Understood?”
When it was my turn, Sister was gentler. It was the first day after all and the account book was clean.
“Where have you come from?” Brushbrush.
“You speak good English.” Brushbrush.
“Thank you, Sister.”
“What does your father do?”
“He’s in the Army, Sister.”
“Oh ho! Army!” Brushbrush.
Then turning to the Ayahs she said in Punjabi.
“My sister’s brother in-law is in the Military. A real Sahib, that brother in-law. All tan tan, toon toon in English. Gentleman, you know. Now after the British, these are the only gentlemen left.”
“See,” she said to the other girls, pushing me away gently. “Learn to speak English like she does. You are in a Convent, not some vernacular school. No Punjabi and Hindi. Understand?” And the next girl got a hard yank. “Understand?”
This beautiful convent with its large classes and sparkling corridors with potted flowers; pretty rockeries and fountains in manicured lawns could have been in Switzerland.
Not that I had been there. But I imagined it so.
Life in school got divided into two neat compartments. Classes, games and meal times being the happy hours and the time to retire to bed became a time to be dreaded and feared. Once in bed, the lights would be turned off but we were not allowed to sleep. Cane in hand, Sister Christine walked between the beds imparting Moral Science.
“Amrita, you did not turn the tap off properly. Do you how many people don’t have water to bathe? My dear Lord! People don’t have drinking water and a sinful creature like you leaves the tap on.”
And on and on she would continue. How God would punish us. How we would burn in hell and there we would beg for water. No one would come to help us. We would die of thirst. Oh yes! We would die a miserable death.
Tapping the cane on the bed of the child who made the mistake of going to sleep she would rant and rave till she was exhausted and ready for bed.
Every night she found some girl to pick on and every night it was the same story. “I asked you to sow a button, Deepika. I gave you 18 inches of thread. What did you do with the rest? You only need 15 inches for a button. You threw it, didn’t you? You spendthrift! When you go to hell the Devil will tie you up with all the thread you have wasted. You can say all the ‘sorries’ you want but he will tie you up and you will die a miserable death.”
To shut her out, my mind would wander… to the orchard, catching butterflies, Chippy in our apple blossom scattered drive, pretending to be a lion waiting for his prey, the squirrels, absolutely unaware that his tail was swishing madly behind him.
How Prabhu once tried making naans for us. He swirled the dough with such flourish that we had to scrape it off the fan! NanaNani.
Even that terrible fruit market. My brother, my old friends Rajan, Ketaki; my new ones, Vikram, Sujata…
We cringed with every tap of the cane. And we waited with horror for our name to be mentioned.
However, every morning we got ready, left the dormitory and never spoke of what happened there.
“What do I hear? You were playing piggyback. Throwing pillows and fighting on the beds. You dirty girls. Touching each other like this. Wrestling is it? Have your parents sent you here to wrestle? Anyway, as if they care. Your rich parents! Do they want responsibility? No, they’ve dumped you here and I have to look after you. The cheek! In front of my Baby Jesus you were wrestling.
Catechism at five for all those wrestling. Stand up. Come on. Get out of bed you bold pieces. Tell me your names.”
The poor things would then have to own up, as others would be encouraged to tattle on them.
Wasn’t standing up for your friends a big thing in Mallory Towers, St Claire’s, and The Famous Five? One was respected for not ratting.
Once I got home I would check my beloved collection of books and tell them that this is not what it was suppose to be like.
But these unfortunate ones would stand on one leg or on their knees on the hard wooden floor till much after we were all asleep. Baby Jesus would finally forgive them and they would be allowed to get into their warm beds.
On every alternative weekend I would go home, only two hours away. It was a rough ride through the treacherous, crumbling limestone mountains and the landslides but nothing would keep me away. In the safety of my house,
I would beg not to be sent back.
“You are doing so well!” my parents would say. “Mother was telling us all about your essays and the prize you won for the drawing competition.”
Looking around at the warmth and familiarity at home,
Sister Christine seemed a world away. My father, sitting in his shorts, nimbu pani in hand, on our wide veranda after a game of squash. Ma on the carpet with her recipes scattered all around. Cuttings of Woman & Home, Home & Garden, and Femina.
“What should I make?”
She would ask. And we would point to the most tantalising picture. Chocolate doughnuts, soufflés, barbequed chicken, baked fish, mutton biryani…
My brother polishing shoes with great flourish alongside Parminder Singh.
How could I explain Sister Christine?
How could I explain the physical sensation of having my chest constrict when I was near her. How could I tell them that those magnified eyes behind soda bottle glasses left me shivering? There were no words to explain the fear at hearing her cane rub noisily against the steel beds.
“She goes on and on about Hell and Sin, Ma. Where is this Hell?”
I could see Ma struggle with her answer, “We believe that one’s deeds make a Hell or Heaven right here on earth.”
“Well, Sister Christine’s Hell is a hot burning place where one is perpetually thirsty. And you know something, life is very, very sad because Baby Jesus dies everyday, every time when we do naughty things.”
“Poor Sister! She is so new to it,” Ma tried to explain. “She hasn’t understood anything.”
I did tell them about the new classmates.
Ma had nearly fallen off her chair laughing when she heard how we were to protect our modesty by not revealing even a tiny bit of skin.
It was not the reaction a friend got from her parents. They were very grateful, she told me, to have found a school, which was so attuned to Indian culture.
With all these foreign nuns they feared their daughter might just want to start celebrating Christmas.
Worse things had happened to these convent-educated types.
On my last weekend home, only Ma had come to fetch me.
My father and his Regiment had moved to the Front. There was a fear of War.
We knew all about the refugees who had flooded across the border in millions because we had to put a pink refugee stamp on our letters home.
Sister Christine had also told us that if we sinned we would also have to carry a little bundle and become refugees like those Bengalis.
As the ranting about refugees, the bloodshed, and our sins, became more frequent I slowly came to the conclusion that War was my only escape from Sister Christine.
Every night, I said a dozen Hail Mary’s. Every night, I prayed to Baby Jesus.
No Gayatri Mantra.
Only Sister Christine’s prayers to Sister Christine’s God. If this was the hot line, I was going to grab it with both hands.
It was a prayer for the War to begin, but with the condition that my father is kept safe.
I made a deal with Baby Jesus : I was willing to eat, ugh! An egg yolk! I
While Sister walked between the beds, tapping her cane on some unfortunate’s bed, I prayed and prayed for the Pakistanis to attack if the Indians didn’t have the sense to do so.
Finally! One morning, a hurried Assembly was called and we were informed that School was going to close, as War was imminent.
All around me, girls started sobbing and spoke in hushed tones. I alone whooped in my heart with a pious look on my face.
The very next day, Parminder came to fetch me and I was ready and waiting.
With my black steel trunk. I went into the Parlour and got a hug from Mother.
I went on to tell the Ayah that I was leaving and was on my way to Sister Christine when I suddenly stopped.
I turned around and with a delicious shudder of rebellious pleasure I just walked away.
I…. was….not…. going ….to….. inform….. her…………. that I was off.
No doubt I was an ungrateful wretch, No doubt. No doubt.
I was willing to take my chance in her Hell.