Like most of us I have also wondered what it would be like to go back into the past ? I actually did a post on it early this year Journey in a time machine Ever since , I have had this longing to see myself as I was then.
Sounds silly? Well, then so be it!
One of the places that I have wanted to go back to has been my school. My mind has often wandered through those corridors, relived those moments and those relationships. This is more so because I no longer live in Kolkata where I did my schooling. I live in Chennai- a city that is as different from the city of my childhood as chalk is from cheese!
So when I found that our school was holding a reunion on the 18th of December it did not take me more than a moment to decide that I would go. Actually, this was the first reunion ever in the two hundred year odd history of the school Our seniors from the 1977 batch got this together and suddenly, I found that face book was buzzing with activity around the school page.
People in Chennai asked me if I was mad to spend Rs 11000 plus on a plane ticket just for this( interestingly no one in Kolkata ever mentioned this- tells you about the fundamental difference between the two cities!). I had no second thoughts. I mean, I could have spent it on a sari, jewelery or something else. I did not see this as an expenditure – more an investment in those relationships.
I have not been in touch with many friends – just about 2-3. But again thanks to face book atleast in the virtual world, we had made contact with more . So, this was the moment to make the virtual image a real one. My friend Maitreyee, the most efficient organizer that she is started to contact “girls” from our batch. She collected numbers, addresses and through what is called the “ghost to ghost hook up” got in touch with every one that she could. Of course I helped out. I contacted Sushma while she was probably being chased by a rhino during her holiday at Kaziranga, sent a text message to a number on my phone that did not have a name and asked "Are you Chaitali!!!"
I wanted initially to just do a day trip- land in the morning – go to school and return at night. But ofcourse, Maitreyee our own “ Ma Durga” would hear none of it! She convinced me to at least consider arriving the previous day and leave the day later.
The excitement around the event was too much! When the plane touched down at the Netaji Subhash airport, I got up even before the seat belt sign was switched off. After being reprimanded by a severe looking Air India stewardess I tried to contain my excitement by holding on to the handles of my seat. I could not wait for the baggage to arrive and once I had my suitcase I went out straight into the arms of Shampa and Maitreyee. I was so touched that both of them had come personally to pick me up.
After a brief visit to Shampa’s house where she collected her things for the “sleepover” we were at Maitreyee’s. I think we would have gossiped till 1 AM ör more! There is a beautiful Bangla word to describe his - "Golpo Korchi" - literally meaning "exchanging stories". It seems to have a more serious tone when compared to the word "Adda"
The event was to start at 10.00AM. Maitreyee who had collected all our passes wanted to be early so as not to keep anyone waiting. But of course we did not see it that way- we teased her about trying to be the “good ” girl from the 1980s – “Are you going to sweep the compound?” Shampa wanted to know!
But arguing with a taurean is not easy. They usually get their way. We finally started out at 8.45AM.
The city of Kolkata has changed so much.. I kept looking out for trams and the familiar run down private buses. I almost gave out a shout at my first sight of a mini bus – “Alipore to BBD bag”. A fly over has been constructed in front of the Victoria Memorial. But down that I could see the race course on one side and the Rabindra Sadan on the opposite end…We passed the zoo, the national library and suddenly I found that we were turning in at Mominpur into Diamond Harbour road! The last time I was on this road was in 1985!
The entrance into school was most emotional with shouts of “ Oh my god” ‘’ EEEEE”! We hugged our teachers and friends who we could recognize. Some of us had become fat, others had lost a lot of weight while yet others had gone gray..It was a very emotional moment when our Hindi teacher Mrs Goela entered the gates. As I ran to her she hugged me with tears in her eyes. She is over seventy now but still had the same hairstyle and neatly tied sari. Geography teacher Miss Gupta was driven in and helped out of a car. She too had aged a lot and was very frail. Mrs Ghosh our English teacher still sported her huge bindi though she had become almost unrecognizably thin. With Miss Mazumdar who taught us history and English in classes six and seven it was as though time had stood still. She looked exactly the same! Mrs Hariharan our Maths teacher in 9th and 10th looked younger than she had when she was in school ( God bless her!). Mrs Chatterjee our class teacher in class 7B was her same gentle self. All of them had retired from the school!
It was very funny but someone rang a bell for assembly and we gathered outside the assembly hall ( the hall was taken over by the caterers who had arranged tables and chairs for the meals). There was so much of commotion that Alpana who was announcing had to keep shouting “Girls! Girls! Please be quiet” –almost like what it was during those days.
We sang a very old hymn. I never realized that I even remembered it. But the tune clicked in my mind and I could ,manage the main lines “I have come to thee.. to take thy touch before I begin my day” Somehow this hymn always made me feel very spiritual. When we sang the school song there was not need to look at the words. Everyone knew it from memory. There was a prayer by the current principal Sr. Lucy followed by a message from one of the older principals who was not in India. We missed Sr. Rose who had passed away a few months ago- she had been the principal when we had passed out!
The teachers sang too – a lovely Rabindra Sangeet ‘ Purano Shei diner kotha”. Reminisces were shared, teachers were honored and then we sat down in the auditorium to have breakfast. I felt very strange eating breakfast there. The last time I had been there was during my public exam in class X.
We had a tour of the school- what used to be classes, 1, 2 , 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, the library, the forbidden wooden carpeted staircase that led from the principal’s officer to the first floor- only teachers could use it during our days. The bird cage below the stair case was missing. But I did not realize it until Sushma pointed it out to me a couple of days later…
It was so crazy to look at the desks to see if we could find any of the names that we had engraved there with our compasses. We even went to the toilet and drank water from the water taps below the staircase. We found that there was a smart water dispenser there now. Students probably drank mineral water from that instead of the taps through which we used to. I must say that I drank water from those taps every day of the six years that I was there but never ever fell sick!
There were new buildings and tiles installed on the walls where there used to oil paint. Probably more easy to clean but somehow the walls without that maroon paint upto 3 feet before the white wash began seemed strange. We also found that the old pictures of saints that were reprints of the works of renaissance painters housed in wooden frames and suspended by strings from the nails on the walls had given way on some walls to garish pictures mounted on wooden boards! The wide verandahs with their ornate railings, the windows with shutters were now covered with grills giving the place a jail like appearance. Somehow it did not fit with what I had stored in my memory.
“The nuns do not seem so ferocious now” said one of my friends. Well certainly not – because we had grown up and some were probably older than the current principal! But the school had obviously kept up with its academic performance. We applauded as one of the teachers announced the name of a girl who had passed out last year getting 98.3% in her ISC exam with 100% in Economics!!!
More gossip, some discussion about formation of a formal alumni association and then lunch! Friends teased each other threatening to tell the teachers about how some of us used to sleep in their classes. The old nicknames of the teachers were being freely used – the wonderful souls did not seem to mind! The ice cream man had come in and many of us rushed in to have ice cream sticks! “No cones or cups” screamed someone. Those days a stick ice cream from Kwality costed anything between 30 Paise to 60 paisa. Ofcourse there were special ones like choco bar which was Rs 1.10. We never had the resources to buy cup ice creams! The phuchka man and the jhalmuri man outside were obviously not there. We remembered how we used to eat these forbidden stuff- groups of girls taking turns to watch out for sister or the teachers while their friends ate. My friend Maitreyee almost got caught red handed once – but she had the presence of mind to drop her leaf and rush out on to the road pretending to stop a bus – only it was a lorry that she found herself face to face with! The trams outside school were missing. There were green colour autos plying instead. I missed the No 35 tram that used to take us to school and back. We used to pay 20 p to ride first class and 15 p to ride second! Some enterprising girls used to ride second class for a week using the 5 p saved each day to eat 25p worth of puchkas!
We discussed the film stars we had lost our hearts to – Kumar Gaurav being the most popular! “Love story” had just been releasedin 1980. After years of watching a middle aged Amitabh Bacchan, KG was a sight for sore eyes! There used to be a group that rooted for Sanjay Dutt. They told us gleefully how thirty years ago we had backed a loser- “Where is this Kumar Gaurav now”!
Time seems to run when we have good times. It seemed like 5 PM so soon.. and it was time to head home.
It is very strange but we had actually not discussed anything much about our present. That happened after we got back when we started calling each other up wanting to know what we were doing, what our husbands were doing!! I think that is the magic of a childhood friendship- it does not judge you by your current status. It just accepts you for what you are because you are a friend ! It does not matter if you are CEO, housewife, married, divorced or a spinster
I cannot thank my alma mater enough for what it has instilled in me. My concepts in Science and Maths are so clear and my English pronunciation excellent! I was introduced to some of the best books in the school library and the poetry that was taught to us was par excellence! None of us ever went for a day of private tuition! We managed with what we had understood and each of us tried to help the other out where it was not possible. Teachers ofcourse drilled these concepts into our heads till they buried themselves deep inside! They saw our education as a sacred duty entrusted to them and not a job that they were paid to do!
And finally and most importantly were those values that remain with us today. When I see Maitreyee taking care of her ailing father like his own mother, when Shampa’s daughters touch my feet to take my blessings or when I hear of Sushma nursing a pet like a child, I know that these are some manifestations of those core values that we learnt – to love, to care to respect ! All of us carry it and they have seen us through life.
The words of the school song say ….
“ Life is a test where we must do our best
Whether in work or in play
Strengthen your efforts
Maintain your zeal\
Play up and play the game”
I am proud to say that we HAVE done our best!