Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Who Else am I not-Part Five: "The Bell(e)s of St. Mary's"

All eyes in the school refectory (dining hall) were on the tiny bell in Sister's hands.

The hands of the girls were busy too. It was bath day for Class twelve.

Boot camp drill would have been shamed at their crack readiness for bathing in a matter of minutes, between finishing lunch and running helter skelter towards a separate building reserved for the activity, the Bathhouse!

Unseen by Sister's eyes, hands were busy undoing what could be undone without any indecency involved--hair, shoes, etc., so that minimum time was wasted once in the bathrooms.

All conversation ceased as THE moment drew close. Slowly (many a times I felt  Sister deliberately slowed the entire motion for dramatic effect), the hand holding the bell started to rise.

It's tingle was lost in the clamour of chairs being pushed back, girls getting behind them in a trice and pushing them in again, the fast-forwarded-at-a-speed-of-12x recitation of the after-meals prayer, followed by the sound of screaming and running out of the refectory, past the library, dodging the huge stone pillars, towards the bathhouse.

In the two years that I spent there, no amount of admonishing by the nuns ever made us stop doing this, including the yelling.

The reason was simple. Hot water was switched off after around ten minutes, leaving us with as much icy cold water as we wanted. I wonder if you've ever tried washing your face with icy cold water in the hills, leave alone have a bath. For some minutes, the face falls off the mind's sensory map. It's the closest to 'rigor mortis'  a living being can get!

The older girls knew exactly which bathroom had a big fat spout, that gave double the amount of water in ten minutes. Many had favourite bathrooms, and they had a common understanding amongst themselves not to bag the other's.

 Joining a boarding school at an age when the survival skills of most of its older boarders were honed to perfection (there were many who had been there since class one) was tough.

I joined St. Mary's Convent, Nainital, also known as 'Ramnee'(established in the year 1879, on a piece of land owned by a Col Ramsay, from which the word 'Ramnee' came about) for two years, a couple of days before all the girls returned from their winter holidays. So I had the opportunity to check out its grounds, the field, the classrooms, the infirmary. I was already feeling quite settled by the time the first batch of the girls and their trunks and holdalls made their way up the wooden staircase and into the dormitories. I was ready with my welcoming "Hello, fellow boarders" smile.

I got a stare, and looks that said,  "Who's she?", or, when I persisted, some giggles and another look that said, , "What's wrong with her?"

The girls, some of them in their eleventh year there, must have felt like being welcomed by a stranger in their own home.

The two years of boarding school made me realise I had a lot to learn, as well as a lot to teach, in life. The 'belles' of St. Marys' came mostly from wealthier backgrounds than my fellow students in previous schools. Many had experienced a life of travel outside the country, but I found few that had traveled extensively within the country like me.

Friendships were difficult to form at that age. I was lucky to have two other new girls besides me that year. We stuck together, and had the most memorable two years ever. One of the girls' parents lived close-by, and I have many memories of us rushing off to their place, enjoying her mother's cooking, and roaming the countryside. Twenty eight years on, the bond has only grown, to include our husbands and children. That is something I shall always thank the school for.

Academics, to me, was an insignificant part of the whole experience of being in a boarding school, as I proceeded to drink it all up to the maximum in the meagre time I had.

I have never seen a hotel housekeeping staff as efficient or dedicated as the housekeeping nuns of the school. We girls were spoilt rotten, as we had our clothes washed, ironed, and neatly arranged in our cupboards by them. Twice a week we would get a fresh set of clothes, our shoes were polished by the smiling old Samson, our trunks were packed tidily.....I think I appreciated this effort only when I started looking after my own house

A few years ago I revisited the school with my husband, and was amazed to find how fully we had lived our lives in such a small area. Each minute of our lives was accounted for and organised, and we made the most of what we had, despite the outwardly stiff demeanour of the European nuns (they did let down their guard at times, and give us a glimpse into their softer sides, except a few like Sister Christine), and the sullen behaviour of most of the Indian nuns, barring just a couple (the unhappy mix of a small difference in our ages and a big difference culturally made for many explosive encounters, and what was often dismissed as  girls-will-be-girls behaviour by the old guard was considered gross misdemeanour by the latter lot).

More than a bunch of buildings and fields, the school was a storehouse of stories, traditions and customs that were carefully preserved and shared by the European nuns, especially by Sister Josephine. An ex Ramnee-ite herself, it was rumoured that she chose to become a nun  after the death of her fiance in World War Two.  Another nun, Sister Christine, whose father was in the British Indian Army, used to live in the house that is now the Municipal Hospital, on the hill facing our school.

An example of how a sense of connectedness with the past was woven into our lives at the school was the visit to St John's Church in town.

The year that I joined was the centenary of the massive land slip of September 18,1880, that had caused the demolition of an entire hill near what is known as Mallital (malli = high, tal = lake; higher end of the lake).

(Nainital before the landslip in 1880)

Sister Josephine spent an hour with the senior girls describing the entire horrific event, bringing it alive so realistically that I could almost see the helpless victims disappearing into the vortex of the muddy earth! It was after this description that we walked down to the church for a prayer service, in memory of the victims. I felt like the land slip had happened the day before, and not a hundred years ago...

(Nainital after the land slip in 1880)

As I grew older, I realised Ramnee and Sisters Josephine, Pia, Margaret and Dominica did have more of an effect on me than I had thought they would.

At the end of school when our character certificates were being written by Sister Josephine, she told us that she would never ever write anything negative for any girl, because, for the discerning person, it was not what she wrote, but what she didn't, that counted!

Ramnee and my other schools may not have made me a brilliant pupil, but they have given me a healthy, vocal conscience, and a sense of fair play that has made itself an integral part of my being . Subconsciously, I try even now, to live up to the values exhibited by these indomitable spirited women.

The buffet that life had spread out for me was soon to get more interesting, as college, and marriage awaited.....of course, I had no inkling, as usual!


  1. Sounds like a lovely place, and a change from Yangchenphug!

  2. It was a beautiful place Irene, though I personally felt at times, stuck in a time warp....

  3. Nice job, Smits. Um, do I recognize some folks... /; )
    It's evocative and you give it perspective. I still don't appreciate the laundry done twice a week. Guess I'm a grouch. I like the "am not" aspect of the story. Like Joss's recommendations that does paint a discerning picture.

  4. Thanks for your comments Joy. Knew you would spot the "alluded to's"! about the "am not", gathered this would be an interesting entry point to self discovery! Glad for your appreciation....

  5. Makes me want to rewind to those good ol' days....!

  6. I know, Rati...I remember feeling envious of the boarders when I visited last!

  7. Smita great blog this is. The description of landslide with photographs is amazing. Where could you get these photographs?

  8. Thanks blohani. Those times are still very vivid in my mind. The pics of the landslide are from wikipedia. There is even a pic of St. John's church there

  9. Gosh, Sister Josephine, Sister Dominique (I thought that was the name) -- it all came back to me so vividly in that post. My favorite teacher till today is Miss Miranda. Will never forget Ramnee, though it's been almost 40 years. Want to visit the campus again when I am in India next.

  10. Hi Sanjukta, glad you were able to revive old memories...:)I was there for just my last two years (11th and 12th), and I gained so much in that short time, so can imagine what a treasure trove of them you must be having from 40 years ago! Would love to hear your stories of Ramnee...I wouldn't know Miss Miranda, but maybe you ought to get in touch with old Ramnee-ites via Facebook..there is group in our school's name. You must visit school again, its almost the same....:)