Of Bagpipes, Horses and Golden Orioles (2008)

NB: I first posted this remembrance of my schooldays in 2018 (it was written in 2008). I dedicate it to my late parents as well as to all my schoolmates, especially those, like my friend Umang, who are no more. Salute! Dilip

From Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays Palash Mehrotra (ed); New Delhi, 2008

This is a very personal story about a public school. There will undoubtedly be names that I’ve left out, but I trust I’ll be pardoned my lapses. What I’m sure about is that all of us who joined it in its foundational years share a powerful affinity with a Haryana village named Kunjpura. (Dist., as they say, Karnal). Thinking about schooldays at a point in life when middle-age is edging towards elderly-ness, can be a strange encounter with oneself. I recall a time five decades past, peel away the filtering effect of more recent experiences and come face to face with things at once familiar and novel; innocence viewed backwards through the lens of worldly wisdom. The exercise is akin to seeing scenery flash past the windows of a train on a spectacular journey, a blur of images, colours and feelings, some stable, some fleeting, but all of them vivid. Nostalgia is too weak a word.

Three young teenagers riding horses at full gallop through frost-encrusted fields in the winter’s mist. I was one of them. The other two were Trilochan (Tilly), who also played the Last Post on the bugle to perfection, and Prahlad (Kakroo), the joker with the hat whom everyone seems to know these days. Tears streamed from my eyes, my heart raced at the thrill of danger mixed with confidence in the animal beneath me. Sometimes, on Sundays, the dafadaar would let us come out with him on one of these rides. He knew we loved riding horses, and that he didn’t need to keep an eye on us. We were between thirteen and fourteen years old. What a feeling!

Nine boys playing the bagpipes marching down Rajpath on Republic Day. Our majestic bandmaster Ruliya Singh, six feet tall, had retired from the Sikh Light Infantry, and was a man who could play every instrument and read music. We couldn’t of course. He used to drill the notes into us by hitting our knuckles with the wooden chanter with which he instructed us every morning. We learnt Scottish lilts such as The Skyeboat Song and The Green Hills of Tyne, Indian ones such as Deshon ka Sartaj and Naini Taalo. The pipers were the mainstay of the school band. On the morning of January 26, 1964, we were shaken awake at 5 am in the NCC camp in the cantonment, to get dressed in our shiny fresh uniforms. We shivered as Ruliya helped tie our white turbans. Four hours later we were on the march, bagpipes wailing and our drummers snapping out their beat behind us. We swelled with pride at the thought that thousands were looking on, that we were the only Sainik School on parade. 

There was deep anxiety too. Would Ajit Singh, our fourteen year-old and very tall band leader actually throw his mace in the air in front of President Radhakrishnan’s podium? More importantly, would he catch it on its way down? There was only one other band leader who had the balls (excuse my French) to do that, and he was a wizened old veteran of dozens of parades. But Ajit! We would have murdered him on the spot if – oh, it was unthinkable. Ruliya marched by our side, exhorting us from the side of his mouth, but we were terrified as we approached ground zero. Ajit swaggered as band leaders are meant to swagger, three foot mace bobbing proudly up and down, clasped in his left hand. Our teachers were watching. He balanced the bottom of the mace with its shiny silver head on the fingers of his right hand. Looking up without a tremor, he sent it swinging high into the air just a few yards away from the VIP stand. It glittered as it twirled in the sunshine. Sure enough, he caught it smartly, judging the angles and distance to mathematical perfection. The crowd cheered, and we played with even more gusto. It was a terrifying and proud moment for the Pipes and Drums of the Sainik School Kunjpura.

How did I get there? On account of an utterly whimsical fate. Early in 1961, I was eleven, and my father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Corps of Signals. He returned from work one afternoon to tell my mother he’d been ordered to the Defence Minister’s office, via the office of Mr Soundararajan, Deputy Secretary in the Defence Ministry. (Mr Soundararajan helped establish the school. In 1963 he was succeeded as Secretary of the Sainik Schools Society by Mr. K Subrahmanyam). To cut a long story short (as father would say), he was ushered into the legendary Krishna Menon’s presence, and ordered to start a school from scratch in two months. Maybe three. When he demurred slightly and asked for time to think about it, the great man glared at him. “You can have till Monday,” he said. “I shall be unhappy if you refuse.” As they left the room, Mr. Soundararajan told him it was not wise for Lieutenant Colonels to make the Defence Minister unhappy. And that was that.

Through the dim memories of childhood, I remember that the next few months were a whirl, with father barely visible. When he was, he and my mother talked incessantly about the great unknown into which they were headed. My father drove to the site every week, the first time with Krishna Menon. The car did the eighty-mile journey in less than two hours. News advertisements were issued for staff, for applications from students ranging from age nine to thirteen. Thakurma wrote my father a letter, at the top of which were the words, “The Lord thy God shall bless thee in all that thou doest.” I found it in his Bible after he died.

Forty-seven years ago, the Defence Minister of India inaugurated the first Sainik School at Kunjpura on July 24, 1961. The Schools were the vision of a convinced socialist, who wanted to alter the social composition of the officer cadre of India’s Armed Forces by enlisting deserving students from strata other than the upper middle-class segment that had thus far filled its superior ranks. Entrance exams would be conducted and those who cleared them would be granted part or full scholarships. The only condition was that they appear in the National Defence Academy entrance exams. The school was situated two miles from Kunjpura village, and was named after the Grey Kunj, the Indian name of the bird that flew in from Siberia every winter and nested in a lake adjacent to the campus. The four houses: Panipat, Chillianwala, Thaneshwar and Kurukshetra, represented Punjab’s major battlefields. (I was in Panipat House. At first we used to lose most inter-house competitions, but our detractors don’t know where to look now. One of us is the first-ever Sainik School alumnus to make it to Army Chief).

The main building was a large haveli surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees that once belonged to the Nawab of Kunjpura. (Karnal was the hometown of Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan). Its long corridors with rooms symmetrically arranged on either side were ideally suited to a school. It became the centre of a 275 acre campus with playing fields, stables, a swimming pool and a gymnasium. Every evening we would assemble in front of the main building for the day’s roll-call. Then the flag would be lowered with the school’s buglers playing the plaintive notes of the Last Post. Schooldays were a kaleidoscope of starkly novel experiences. And because it was a new school, this was true for everyone.

Our teachers were eccentric and memorable. Well, most of them were! Matrons such as Mrs Preston, in charge of the infirmary, who used to call Prahlad ‘Paalak’, and knew when boys were shamming. They were promptly sent for a saneema, which as we all know, is the name of a procedure that requires the ingestion of warm water into the lower intestines via the rectum. Few dared feign a stomach-ache to bunk morning PT once this became known. Miss Ellen Vania was the first mess matron. The mess would be raided once in a while for ice cream. After she left her job was taken by Mrs Sally Grant, now in her 90’s, who retired in Dehra Dun. Mr Chitravanshi the art master had a chicken coop, which was the object of marauding expeditions. Miss Ila Bagchi took us through A Tale of Two Cities. Mr Michael Vijay Rao taught us history and geography. His thundering delineation of equatorial vegetation: “Mahogany, ebony, bobAboo and IMMENSE SIZE OF BAMBOOO!”, still rings in our ears. Whatever else we may forget in life, the size of the bamboo in Equatorial Africa shall never leave us. Mr M.S. Menon was the office superintendent, whom my father brought in from the Signals Regiment of Army HQ. Kenneth ‘Kumar’ Smith, the 22 year old volunteer from England, taught physics, played tennis and was often heard muttering, “If Selena could see me now!” with his serves. 

The senior physics teacher was the redoubtable Mr Marar, who would pinch the fleshy part of our upper arms when we failed to recall the formulae which he took great pains to explain to us. I still don’t know what it means but I shall jolly well remember that S = U T plus half A T squared. Mr Kailash Budhwar taught Hindi to those of us who were ‘weak’ in the subject. His passion for the language was expressed in the disarming way in which he showed us the phonetic simplicity of the Devanagiri script. Years later he rose to be a senior executive in the BBC. Mr Syed Abbas taught us biology. Boys displayed extreme innocence when the subject turned to reproduction, and Abbas sahib would field all questions with an absolutely straight face. He also played hockey like an Olympian. Another biology teacher was Mr Salve, whom many students will remember for being in charge of our first Himalayan expedition to the Pindari glacier in May 1964. I still recollect hearing about Jawaharlal Nehru’s death while on that trek. My mother taught at the primary school (attended by children of the staff); took music classes and trained the choir. We sang Gandhiji’s favourite hymn, Lead Kindly Light, along with other compositions for Mrs Indira Gandhi when she visited the school in 1965 as Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Shastri government.

Every Saturday (almost), a dilapidated low-slung vehicle midway between a truck and a bus would roll in through the front gate. This roving cinema owned by an elderly Australian was eagerly awaited, because it brought us our entertainment in the form of old films. The prints were often damaged, the machines run down, but the worst punishment anyone could get was to be excluded from the Saturday film! All I can remember were Me and the Colonel with Danny Kaye, numerous westerns, and Haqeeqat, about the 1962 war. As with most treats, it was the expectation rather than the reality that provided the pleasure. But I shared a social life with my parents’ too. Close friends and family would visit, and sometimes I’d take them horse-riding.

Rahul Chatterjee was the best schoolboy fast bowler we knew. But when it came to batsmanship, I don’t think anyone who was present that day in the early 60’s will ever forget Harbans Singh and Joginder Ahlawat running six in a match against the redoubtable Sanawar team – most of the runs taken amidst demoralisation and confusion in ranks of the opposition. This was on account of Joginder’s habit of taking off from his crease before the ball had left the bowler’s hand. This time he was more than halfway down the pitch by the time Harbans completed his stroke and began running. As a result, both batsmen found themselves moving in the same direction, taking more and more runs as the exasperated Sanawar fielders repeatedly missed the stumps. Finally Harbans saw that it was time to cease tempting fate and remained at his crease, thus permitting the excitement to die down. This was by far the most exciting cricket I have ever seen!

Our first English play was The Invisible Duke. Umang Gupta was the Duke and Prahlad Kakar the wizard, who appeared with hands wringing, saying “M’yes M’lord!” Umang and Ranjan Goswami were indeed wizards at science and maths. Today the first is a highly accomplished software entrepreneur in California; and the second Engineer in Chief of the Indian Army. Back then, both were sought after as the chaps to sit behind during exams.

There were boxing tournaments and long-distance races in the surrounding countryside. And there were raids on nearby fields for sugar cane. Late in 1962, in the hedge behind our house, I witnessed a mongoose fighting a king cobra – something I’d never even imagined. My father led bird-watching expeditions. Most of the eager ornithologists had an eye on the breakfast that followed in our home. My mother’s table was famed. The experience that I couldn’t share was that of being the principal’s son. Some say I was mischievous. I had the honour of being the second recipient of a Blue Card, which was a Very Bad Thing, though not as bad as getting a Red or Yellow card. I had to do extra drill and missed the Saturday film. The first recipient had been Vijay Sawani, the only boy apart from Harbans who represented the school in every competitive sport. From my point of view it was painful to be told by all and sundry that they didn’t give a damn that my father was the principal, that I’d better behave, etc. My friends were all in boarding, but I stayed with my parents. That part of school life was something I would never experience. The funniest story related to how some nasty boys tied a frog to Bansi Kaul’s pyjama strings, and the mayhem that ensued. Yes, teenage boys can be very cruel.

The Cuban missile crisis and Indo-China war of 1962 took place while we were at school, as did the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. The first happened when the school had barely started. Everyone was shaken by the events in NEFA – the North East Frontier Agency now known as Arunachal Pradesh. There was bitter talk about Chinese betrayal. My father’s pride as an Army officer was wounded. We were ill-trained and ill-equipped, he would say, just let us get them on the plains… The war with Pakistan was the second we lived through as schoolboys. We heard about the raid on Ambala, when Pakistani Sabre jets attacked an Indian Air Force officers mess. There was much excitement about the Keelor brothers who flew Gnats and shot down dozens (or so we thought) of Pakistani aircraft. 

I overheard my parents relate heart-rending stories of trains from the Punjab carrying wounded soldiers to distant military hospitals. We did our bit for the nation by pasting newspaper on window panes as part of air-raid defence. In October 1962, my father who took our General Knowledge class, told us the world had been on the brink of a nuclear war. That was when I first thought it unfair for the Americans to place missiles in Turkey, but object when the Russians did the same in Cuba. On other occasions, father covered everything ranging from the discovery of vitamin A to the meaning of democratic socialism. It was his way of getting to know the senior students and teaching them something beyond the syllabus. There was something more. He loved to tell stories to children. Maybe that’s why they all loved him.

There have been tragedies. My classmates Navneet Swaraj and Vijay Pratap died in the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Many of our teachers have passed away, after having steered us through the formative years of our lives. Memories of childhood tend to be vivid, and when they’re peopled with scores of people of different ages and from little-known corners of newly independent India, they get close to surreal. My chaotic recounting takes place – inevitably – in the shadow of my parents. I have no siblings. I lost my mother in December 2004 and father in May 2007. Both had devoted themselves utterly to Kunjpura and its students. This was something the ‘old boys’ remembered, especially when the old man was fading away. 

That’s why remembering my schooldays evokes images of my parents – one is impossible without the other. Years ago I had resented the fact that my parents devoted so much of their time to children other than me. My father’s career in education began with this school. From the Sainik School he went on to become Principal of La Martiniere Calcutta, the first Indian Headmaster of the Doon School; and Principal of Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay. A year ago (at time of writing) as his old students rallied round to make father’s passage easier, I realised that my parents had left me an army of siblings. And not all of them were from Kunjpura. Prahlad described my father’s funeral as “a tribal gathering”. This is not the place to describe it in detail, but the drama was apparent as a long line of old students, many resplendent in military uniforms, marched up to salute a humble Lieutenant Colonel for the last time.

At the most recent function (November 2007) of the Old Boys’ Association presided over by Mandeep Bains, the oldest of our friendships went back 46 years. The camaraderie was palpable. Our school was designed as a feeder to the NDA. Nearly half a century later, Krishna Menon would be proud to see it. Twenty-four Kunjpura students from the batches that studied there between 1961 to 1967 have attained general’s rank or its equivalent in the Air Force and Navy. Four of them had four stars and above. Panipat house-captain Deepak Kapoor had just taken over as Chief of the Army Staff. Of the sixteen generals present, the senior-most was Devinder Sandhu, Director-General of Military Ordnance. There were tanks and parachute drops laid on for the event. One of the paratroopers was also an old boy. 

Before the gathering assembled in the auditorium, everyone stood in line and walked up to throw a few petals upon two small trees standing side by side in front of the building. They had been planted as memorials to my parents, whose ashes lay beneath. Once inside, the tough guys in their full regalia stood in line in front of the new generation and sang the school song. The tears rose in my eyes. My mother had composed it and they had all been snotty little boys when they’d first learned to sing it. That was a long time ago. All of a sudden it felt as if we had lived in a truly magical time and place. Kunjpura, the nesting home of the Demoiselle Crane. And the place I first heard the warble of the Golden Oriole. Whenever I hear it nowadays (which would be rare), the music takes me back to a raw and wonderful life. There’ll never be another school like it. We know.

Lt Col Eric Simeon’s hundredth birthday – October 29, 2018

Geeta Anand: Life lessons for a prefect – in remembrance of Colonel Eric Simeon

Georgina Pinto Lobo (Jean Simeon)