My Childhood Home: Life as a Boarder at St. Joseph’s Convent, Chandannagar, West Bengal.
In the year 1978, on a Sunday in early January – as a boarder in Standard 2 – I joined the branch of the institutions run by the Sisters of Cluny, on the bank of the river Hooghly in the erstwhile French colony of West Bengal India, that proudly makes me who I am today – this was after a year’s schooling in St. Joseph’s Convent Kalimpong.
I distinctly remember my first day, our parents having bid us goodbye at the parlour flanking the boarders gate, by 5 pm, leaving my younger sister Joyshree and I to the care of Sister Pushpa.
The lush green field, beyond the pillars of the red floored Pandal, in view of the two swings by the chapel that we queued up at promptly, also sat on the two stone benches on either side of the Monkey Nut tree, took us promptly into its embrace – as a green blanket of supervision, holding us protectively along with the Sisters and Teachers, for the next nine to ten years. There were no classes 11 and 12 for a long time yet. Our lives as boarders, revolved around the precinct of this large field with a 100-metre sprint track that I have run on, either solo or in relay races for my Marian House – every year for sports and other events.
This welcome into its lush green hearth, by the Home in yellow and green that adopted me, was after an initial peep into the dressing room, where we found our toilet boxes neatly propped atop the freshly painted green wooden stands, the plastic wash basins and mugs in varied colours and mugs sitting gaily on the rung below – under which hung the bathing towels. Just behind our mostly steel toilet boxes on the wall were two metal pegs allocated to us, with our names pasted, where our night suits and kimonos hung when and as long as we lived in this Home, the shoes arranged under the stone seating below. The dressing rooms, and the dormitories with our personal wrought iron beds, two bedsheets, a blanket, a pillow, and counterpane, beside the wooden nightstands – however got upgraded, as we overgrew them, moving to the senior dorms.
Our parents had handed over all these personal items, each bearing cashiers marks of our names, along with our hold-all and black trunks – our names painted in white, ten days prior to the commencement of the school year, that comprised of everything we would need for the whole year ahead. These included six sets of daily school uniforms, yes six, also two Sunday uniforms in sky blue skirts and white shirts, and six sets of house-coloured games uniforms along with three pairs of black shoes, and a pair of Keds. You also had to hand over a dozen socks and handkerchiefs – all cashiers marked. If your trunk did not match the list handed over at the time of admission and each year at the close of school – your trunk was unceremoniously rejected, parents had to take it back home, to redo and return before you could be allowed back in school.
At the time that I was in school, we vocally criticised the fact that we boarders wore uniform day round and year around. Also, that every article, even food in our possession that was accounted for and our lives including the letters we wrote only on a Sunday only at a designated letter-writing hour on school letter head – or the letters we received that were always read by a Sister before handed over to us, were worse than it might be in prison or juvenile home. But today, almost 35 years later, I attribute all of this to my highly ingrained sense of duty, responsibility, discipline, resilience, and social equality, even feminism if I may add. As we were all equal, in every way – or so we grew up thinking, that only our talents and hard work stood us apart, making us unique and special in the world, not our appearance, beauty or dress sense, also not our parent’s success or social and financial standing.
After a few days of school and getting settled into our respective class sections, the first Saturday of the academic year in January was the Pilgrimage to Bandel Church, which always marked in our school calendars was a yearly ritual. All boarders were taken, several batches, in a public bus hired for the purpose, and the compulsory lunch of mutton curry and yellow pulao, also bread pudding came in later by the same bus. It was only after a Mass especially held for our school before we had lunch, then high tea and our personal prayers and candle lighting also wish making at the grotto or on the terrace overlooking the river in which Mary’s statue was found and retrieved, that the day was solemnly brought to a close and we returned to school and the academic year ahead that was thus blessed.
In junior school, we were taken for weekend morning walks that culminated at the Dupleix House on the strand for at least an hour, while we played in their lawns all around the museum. Later in senior school we went only for evening walks in files of 2 or 3, around the town of Chandan Nagar, sometimes just to the Laxmi Ganj market, and often after a walk were allowed to sit around on the strand while we gorged on puchkas, churmur, jhal muri and ice creams. There were a few stores that we were often taken to for stationery and other requirements – there I remember the ice cream soda and the Joker mouri sweets we consumed, after our pick of cellophane-chart-brown paper and felt pens or poster paint.
The daily compulsory games hour for boarders was a serious rendezvous that ensured we participated and excelled in all sports like Baseball, Basketball, Volleyball, Hockey, Free ball and Throwball. We played one class versus another – class 9 versus 10 and 7 versus 8 and so on. And Badminton was rarely allowed, except on a rainy day along with indoor games like Ludo, Chess, Chinese Checkers, or Cards. This was after a strictly timed bath at the 13 curtained bathing cubicles inside the dressing room with a common water tub running through all – only sometimes heated for senior school, even in winter. And I recall it was just 7 minutes for a regular bath or 10 minutes for a head bath allowed on a Tuesday and with shampoo only on a Saturday – before the curtains were pulled away by the supervising Sister. So, in fear of being exposed, even if to an all-female audience waiting to take over our cubicle – we rushed out in a frenzy when the bell us rung or hand clapped. We did not have any free time, and every hour was assigned for an activity and separated by the ringing of the bell.
Then after High tea of bread-butter-jam and an accompaniment, often of hot gram, or masala mango or cucumber, an hour of games drenched in perspiration, we had the hour-long study in the hall which had a stage with a large statue of mother Mary overlooking us over and above the teacher on duty, who had to supervise us all through like an examination invigilator. The other three meals were also minutely supervised events and you had to consume every morsel that was on your plate.
The yearly House Social for the entire school was more special for us boarders, as this was the only day in the whole year that we wore ‘Coloured Clothes.’ We planned weeks to months ahead, so that our parents brought this dress on the previous Visiting Sunday which was from 1-5 pm of the first Sunday of every month. It is a cherished memory for me of all those Sundays – that I have vividly illustrated in my debut novel Across Borders in the chapter titled ‘My Daughters.
Guiding Camps held in school and outside like for the state Camporee or the National Jamboree, enhanced our stamina, resilience, and socialising skills, also the cooking and varied activities including pitching and living in tents, honing so many skills that I could indulge in lifelong. Our school, by making all activities like sports, drama, music and a variety of the arts compulsory, also having House Competitions for each including essay writing, recitation and painting has given us opportunity to discover hidden or latent skills and talents.
The Jaggadhatri Puja was a very special time of year. On the days of the puja, we were taken for a long walk around town, to view the images that rose above the tallest trees. Then on the Dashami evening we were taken to the big Mela in front of the Church which culminated in our marathon glutting sessions. At the infirmary terrace, that I often sought refuge in from the onslaught of compulsive routine – facing the river and beside the middle school dormitory we called river-side dorm, we enthusiastically viewed the images and their accompanying lighting go by in a procession for the final immersion. All this was very liberally allowed by our otherwise strict catholic school which encouraged us to attend Mass in the chapel and the Sacred Heart Church but never imposed it on us, but rather we had a separate daily prayer meeting for all Hindus, Muslims and the rest called GCL – I think it stood for Gods Chosen Leaders.
The values, culture, and heritage of our dear school, also what I inculcated from my parents I tend to uphold in everything I write about today as an author, after applying them to the two decades of corporate services in some of the top companies of our country. This is in appreciating a lot of what I did not at the time that I lived here. But now in keeping me steady and on my track in life’s marathon race in which even as a child I focussed on the moment, much over the far goal, not looking at or competing with those in the race with me. Often in looking at far goal posts or the people running alongside, we tend to miss applying our best to each moment which propels us to the next and every next to what we make of our lives.
by Shuvashree Chowdhury
Excerpts from the chapter ‘My Daughters’
The new school is over an hour’s drive from Calcutta, in the former French colony of Chandannagar, on the banks of the river Hooghly. The headmistress, an Irish nun named Sister Helena, suggests I admit Dipanjana as well, even though she is underage..
During the years that our daughters are at boarding school, it is the first Sunday of every month that Nayan and I love the most. These Visiting Sundays are the only day in the month when boarders are allowed to meet and spend quality time with us parents and family. These Sundays will play a significant part of the memory of my daughters growing years, in spite of the rest of the days spent engagingly in the company of friends, schoolmates and nuns. Life has a way of straining the good times through a sieve, preserving it to conscious memory. Just as it has a way of disallowing one to reach out to the unpleasant memories as easily and frequently. Visiting Sundays, like every other day, is time bound for the boarders. The visiting hours, between 1pm and 5pm, never seem long enough.
Unlike other Sundays, these mornings pass like a breeze for the girls. Their routine jobs of changing bed-linen, giving clothes for washing, keeping uniforms and clothes ready for the coming week over, it is time for lunch. Anticipation sets wings to their feet, making them expedite otherwise mundane tasks. But their appetite takes a beating in excitement. Though Sunday lunches are out of a special menu, most girls barely eat on the visiting ones. The reason being that we parents bring their favourite dishes when we come to visit them. For me, these mornings are spent cooking, then setting all the dishes into a multi-layered tiffin carrier. I also pack into a basket two portions each of tucks —
biscuits, hot-grams, chips, powder-milk, marmalades and pickles for the month ahead, bought the day before.
The hot-case and basket, along with a mat for us all to sit on, I shove into the rear of our olive colour Ambassador car, before we set out. I never forget to take a water-carrier, plates, napkins and cutlery either. Every Visiting Sunday is for us, a picnic on the river strand, running alongside the school. We sit facing the quiet and majestic flow of the river that the girls see the sun rising over, from their dormitory on the first floor. As they step out of the formidable school gate, it is again this river that is first visible, through the large trees lining its banks. On reaching their school, Nayan and I wait in either of the two parlours flanking the school’s entrance after signing the visitor’s slip. The girls are waiting eagerly in the study hall for the ayahs they call Didi, to announce their names aloud from the visitor’s slips.
On hearing their names, the girls pick up their empty truck boxes, bringing them along for us parents to fill. When older, they fill the boxes themselves in the refectory, after we leave. Sanjana and Dipanjana usually walk into the parlour together. They briskly hug Nayan and me, after identifying us amongst other waiting and eager parents. Both girls, then pulling us by hand, urge us to step out of the gate immediately. The outside denotes freedom to them, even if only for a few hours. Now they can be themselves, away from the hourly bells and constant vigilance of the nuns that regulate their every waking minute. The girls skip alongside Nayan and me, rapidly trying to update us on their lives since our last meeting. Though they write letters to us every Sunday, they cannot be free, as the letters are read by the Sisters before dispatching. All letters they receive are also read by the Sisters.
Walking along the strand to the car, we pass groups of people sitting on either side of the road, in varied sized picnic groups The school’s Sunday uniform-aqua-blue pleated skirts and white shirts worn by one or more in each group, identify them as boarders. The children eat hungrily, as the parents look on, indulgently, listening to their simultaneous chatter.
“What have you brought for us, Ma?” the girls always ask en route to our car, to retrieve the basket in the rear, after greeting the driver.
We find a shady, vacant spot, under one of the several trees lining the river. I spread the straw mat on the moist green grass, before we take off our shoes, to sit facing the river. Tiny fishing boats are bobbing about, and steam-launches packed with commuters are spurting water, leaving a brief trail as they cross the river noisily. I love watching the boatmen sway back and forth rowing. It reminds me of the river in Mihirpur, East Pakistan, and my boating escapades as a schoolgirl. The images seem pretty remote now, like from another lifetime. I have not returned there since leaving in 1964, and will not till a long time yet, that too only on a brief visit. It must be this childhood association and yearning for the river that brings me to its banks repeatedly, even though to a different one. Those the boatmen are ferrying now are expectantly looking ahead at the approaching bank, to their destination. They are overlooking the vast expanse of water and sky, impatient with their present situation, not relishing the moment like I am. Close to the shore, in the water, little and large fish play. At times we can spot a snake or two, shooting up from the water.
My girls are terrified of snakes, unlike me, who has grown up with them almost as pets in my childhood home in Assam. But the presence of their Ma and Baba make them feel safe and secure now. They know with us around, no harm can come upon them. This is so disparate from my own childhood — when it was my parents who brought upon me the most damage. Those, on whom God bestowed the responsibility of my upkeep, ironically pushed me unprepared into the hightide of an abandoned adolescence. By now Sanjana and Dipanjana are relishing the mutton-curry and fried rice I have served them. They have put the cutlery aside, bored of its constant and compulsory usage at the refectory, preferring to eat with their hands.
On the opposite bank of the river is the industrial belt. There the paper, rayon and other factories’ huge chimneys sporadically emanate clouds of thick black smoke up in the sky. But they fail to take away the beauty and serenity of the place. Like the soot from my early life’s burns fail to take away the loveliness of my current life, as I sit contentedly in this picturesque location, with my husband and children. The river is lined by huge banyan, mango, guava, and other unidentifiable trees, some bending low to allow
their branches and leaves to kiss the water. Sitting under trees here, one has to be careful of bird-droppings. There are varied birds — parrots, mynahs, crows and pigeons in abundance. Their chirping merges harmoniously with the sound of the launches plying to and from the jetty. The well-built concrete strand, beyond which we are sitting close to the water glass edge, runs for quite a distance, maybe a mile or two.
Beside the school are other well-constructed buildings belonging to the French era – identifiable by the balustrades and French windows. After the girls have eaten their fill, finishing with sweetmeats Nayan brings them in abundance, as his share of treating his daughters, we go for boat or launch rides across the river. The girls enjoy these immensely, bending to touch and play with the clear water mid-stream. Nayan and I usually have a quick cup of tea each across the river, from a tea-stall. On our return, we all go to the local market on two cycle-rickshaws. The girls can supplement their month’s supplies we bring from Calcutta, with their personal choice of things.
We return from the market by 5pm, to wait outside the boarder’s side school-gate. If the girls miss going in on time, the gates will close. One has to then draw the attention of the nun on duty, and spoil a perfect afternoon with the ensuing reprimands for indiscipline. Since I am a stickler for discipline from my own school days, I do not make the slightest compromise when it comes to my daughters. The nuns at this school too have become fond of me. Perhaps it is due to my being a lecturer at a teacher’s training college now, and being on the same wavelength as them on discipline. I make it a point to follow all the rules unlike some parents, constantly urging my daughters to do the same. I always bring them back from home on the designated day and well before the due time, with all requisite supplies as per the lists.
A brass handbell will be rung outside the gate, to announce the end of our time with our children on Visiting Sunday. Till then, the girls gorge on street-fare including ice-creams along with their friends, from hawkers crowding the strand by now. It seems like they will never eat again.
Their stomachs are rather elastic considering they have already eaten two lunches. It will be a month before they experience the outside without a nun monitoring them.
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