Memories and Musings: Memoirs of Easaw Joseph John

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| Chapter 6

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Acres and acres of gently rolling hills dotted with tall firs and eucalyptuses meet your eyes in all directions when you enter the sprawling Lawrence School campus at Lovedale. The place is barely three or four miles from Ooty along the Dodabetta hill road that snakes past large expanses of landscaped tea gardens followed by the thickly wooded verge on your left broken here and there by noisy brooks and on your right, past raised banks that blend with the lay of the land. You pass the railway station and then wind your way up the road that runs through the campus until you come to a fork where the school Flagstaff is, at which point you take a sharp right. As you enter Lovedale, its faintly rustic charm is interrupted only by the largely red-brick structures that make up the school and its appurtenances scattered over a large area. Marking the northern (?) boundary of the campus is the Big Hill and until about the middle of the nineteen hundred’s it was not uncommon for wild beasts to stray into it from the thickets nearby. Wild boars would make their forays into the potato fields on the southern slopes of the school even as late as the late Sixties, as I recall.

In 1962 the school had to call in rangers to scare away two tigers that had descended on the campus uninvited. Their presence was too close for comfort. In the event, the marksmen played it safe and shot and killed the big cats. I have on my hard disk a rare photograph of a brace of felled felines flanked by a dozen or so of faintly smug-looking humans, mostly the female of the species, two of whom are seen posing nonchalantly holding in their well-groomed hands, of all things, deadly firearms- a double-barrel and a long-range single bore, no less! I was three years too late to have featured in that picture, if I was that way inclined. In the August of 1965, I joined the school as a teacher and left it a little over six years later. Except for a flying visit or two that lasted no more than a few hours each time to see our children, a little over thirty years were to pass after leaving school before we stepped into the campus for an extended visit.

Our ‘Wagon R’ had hardly been run in although we had had it for almost six months. The days when I used to tear around with my foot pressed down on the accelerator to see the speedometer needle swing right round are long gone. Those were days when, on an impulse, we would jump into the car and drive long distances to visit a friend or join a group of friends, wherever they were, for a game of cards, especially during weekends. I remember how it took me no more than a week to run my ‘Subaru’ in when we were working at St. Paul’s, Mulungushi, a boarding school in the middle of nowhere run by Marist Brothers. A sixteen-mile stretch of gravelled country road provided a lifeline to the nearest town of Kabwe in Zambia. That corrugated strip of road would test the road-holding skills of any driver and I made a habit of giving it a bash for the flimsiest of pretexts. But, age reins in exhilaration. Such drives have therefore become heady memories. These days, only when all other means fail would we venture even to drive long distances, and that at a sedate pace.

Ever since we returned to Kumbanad in 1994, Ammu and I have been planning a trip to Lawrence School, Lovedale, as a gesture of appreciation for what the school had offered us while we were there. We had left the campus twenty three years before that, after having spent the most memorable years of our life there. We were then in the prime of our lives. To me, as a teacher, they were the most rewarding, if rather cloistered, period of my professional life. When we received the invitation to the 143rd Founder’s Celebrations, in the first week of May 2001, it brought back to me a rush of memories. It called to mind images of the easy informality with which the teachers rubbed shoulders with their wards and of the camaraderie among the teaching fraternity, than whom one could hardly have found a more committed lot anywhere. If there were any who fell by the wayside, they did not stay down for too long. For, they usually picked themselves up by their bootstraps and fell in once again however stressful the task might have been. How can one forget the frenetic preparations for the Founder’s Celebrations every year and, through it all, the reassuring presence of K. I. Thomas, the headmaster, he of the measured stride and studied detachment, alas no longer with us! Nothing ever fazed him.

A word in passing about Kovoor Iype Thomas will not be out of place here. Everyone called him KIT. No one could overawe him. Anyone who tried to would be gently rapped over the knuckles as many a mandarin from the misty heights of officialdom had learned to his discomfiture. There was the time when a prince from somewhere in the North East -Manipur I believe it was- was enrolled in the school. His father the Raja, trying to pull rank, had insisted that the boy’s valet would keep him company at the school during term time. If allowed, that would fly in the face of the school tradition of treating everyone equally. KIT’s response was, “I’m the Raja of Lovedale and my writ runs here”. The boy was promptly withdrawn.

There are parents and parents. It takes all kinds to make up that lot. There are those who implicitly trust the school in the matter of their pastoral responsibilities. They are easy to relate to and are good friends of the school. Their children generally do well at school. Then there are those who think that every teacher has a price and can be bought so that their children would get preferential treatment at school. They cannot believe that there are those who will not succumb to such blandishments. As a rule their children are pampered and spoiled at home. Then there are those who, by virtue of their exalted station in life, think that the school can be pushed around. They are the ones who need to be told where to get off or be taken down a peg or two. And when that happens, their children promptly take their cue and toe the line. KIT knew exactly how to deal with each one. Different strokes for different folks!

No one was ever put down harshly. In spite of his position and experience, he never laid down the law arbitrarily. He was always willing to listen to other people’s views and defer to them if he was convinced of it, for he knew that long-held opinions were not necessarily self-evident truths. For that reason, I remember his telling me once never to offer gratuitous advice.

In dealing with errors of omission or commission on the part of his colleagues, he was not an unreasonable man. He would wait patiently for a convincing explanation and if none were forthcoming, he would tactfully admonish first. If the person did not measure up, he would not mince words anymore. As for dealing with his wards, in some ways he was ahead of his time. When many a headmaster would wink at the system of corporal punishment, he detested the very idea of it for he believed that it was a way of taking the line of least resistance. Rarely, if ever, does corporal punishment deter the others from wrongdoing or, for that matter, rehabilitate the wrongdoer, he would say. He believed that, often, punishment was meted out for an assumed affront to the teacher’s dignity rather than for the purpose of reforming the offender.

On the rare occasions he felt the symbolic need for using the birch, he would reluctantly invite Subedar-Major P.G. Menon, the military instructor, to ‘administer justice gently’ and that in his presence and in the privacy of his office. On one occasion, however, when some of the school prefects were found guilty of serious dereliction of duty, he had to wield the rod himself on the guilty, much to his distaste. I say ‘had to’ because the faculty to a man had been insistent that the prefects were made an example of. It was done in the Morning Assembly in the presence of the whole school. With every swing of his arm, he must have felt himself to be losing all dignity in the eyes of the school; for he threw away the cane, disgusted with himself for having gone through with it, and announced his resignation almost at the same instant. His face said it all. I can never forget his parting shot as he strode out of the Large Hall: ‘What you need is a sergeant major, not a headmaster’. It took all the powers of persuasion of the shamefaced teachers to make him change his mind! And the boys and girls felt sufficiently chastened to be on their best behaviour for a long time afterwards. Those who were there at that time would remember how ‘a thunderstorm’ helped ‘to clear the air’.

There are other enduring impressions, too. How can one forget the images of the grey skies and the cheerless drizzle in the bitter chill of winter and, of its counterpoise, the flower-beds filled with many-hued flowers that joyfully burst forth in the crisp summer sun, like frescoes that set each other off! And, the well-manicured lawns, the ornamental palms, the topiary, the sculptures, the Mahatma in bas-relief at the school porch and as you approach it, to the right of it, the sculpted bust of Sir Henry Lawrence, the Founder of the School, are all part of that broad canvas. Then there is that lone sentinel, the imposing tower whose gaze fell in all four directions on tall eucalyptuses and larches and firs. The top of the tower cradled a clock that struck on the hour every hour. And every quarter hour too was struck, as I recall.

To those congenital laggards who were given to dragging themselves much against their will to the playing fields all the while praying for the mandatory hour to end, watching the clock was a favourite pastime. Most of the boys, though, loved their games if only as a respite from the stifling classrooms and the dorms. And many of them went on to make their mark in one game or the other and win school colours. Our first son, Bobby, did excel in cricket as a wicket-keeper and in fact represented the Nilagiri Schools for the Inter-District tournament in his last two years at school. He won the school colours in cricket. He played soccer too, with verve if not with great skill. He did not exactly cover himself in glory in what mattered most in a school, though. But how he later, much later, strove to make amends is another story.

Just under the clock-tower, as you come out of the main school building, you would see in summer the Jacaranda trees in its glorious lilac bloom. The jacaranda brings to mind the daily ritual of the Senior School bearers Dorairaj and Joe, in their white uniforms complete with red waist bands and red and white turbans, dispensing tea during recess, to the teachers and the taught as they pleasantly jostled even as they held out their mugs to be filled with tea or more often with what was an apology for tea. The spacious lawns around the tea ring gave them enough elbowroom to stand around in small clusters sipping tea such as it was and ribbing each other, giving as good as they got and all taken in good part. The same could be said of the rough and tumble of the Kabadi games played on the lawns that sometimes the teachers too were dragged into for the sheer heck of it. At times such as those, the joie de vivre on the campus was unmistakable. And, between lessons, the turrets and towers and passages of the school resounded to the boisterous laughter of the battle-jacketed boys in khaki and the excited chatter of the cheerful girls in their maroon cardigans and grey skirts.

Now and again, the lawns would be a stage for the antics of the larger-than-life, celluloid hero on the Tamil Screen of the Sixties, M. G. Ramachandran, MGR for short, clad in black and on horseback like a swashbuckling Zorro, driving the villains into a tight corner and carrying all before him until he is reunited with his damsel in distress, mostly in the person of Jayalalitha the celluloid heroine of the time. And again predictably, the film would be a Thevar Films production. Incidentally, the producer’s son, Sreenivasa Raja was my ward in the Sumeru House of which I was first the house tutor and later housemaster. The Lawrence School, with its imposing, red-brick façade of turrets and towers not to speak of its extensive grounds, lent itself admirably for filming period pieces that called for a large cast of artistes and extras. Raj Kapoor, the doyen of the Bombay film fraternity, once visited Lovedale to do a recce for a film of his. It was a Sunday and he could not meet the headmaster. I remember, I ran into him at the school porch as he was leaving. He promised to come back the next day. I do not remember if he did.

As for teachers, there were many interesting characters, each with some quirk or the other that gave their inventive wards a chance to coin nicknames for most of them. There was the familiar figure of Ms.Hensman (her wards called her ‘Ma Hennie’ behind her back), often seen wandering the campus greens with her little ‘rat on a leash’ in tow, (no offence meant either to the canine or to its mistress). Another fixture in the Lovedale landscape was the suave McMahon- everyone called him Mac- the inevitable cigarette between his fingers, striding down the lawns, with his academic gown billowing behind him like Mandrake’s cape in the all-too-familiar eponymous cartoon. Apart from being excellent teachers of English and Platonic friends, Ma Hennie and Mac were also Thespians who promoted Drama in the school. Mac in particular had the uncanny knack of spotting histrionic talent in the most unpromising of boys and girls and licking them into shape for the School Play staged every year on Founder’s Day.

Who will ever forget a ‘four-eyes’ like the chain-smoking Harnam Singh Sisodia, with his risqué jokes, his thick glasses and his waxed moustache turned up at the ends like the Rajput that he was! He was known for his drollery when he was in his cups especially in the company of his like-minded friends, as he could shed all his inhibitions away from the prying eyes of the compulsively priggish. On the Eve of Christmas, 1966, just before midnight, there was a knock on our door followed by what sounded like a mule braying in agony. On opening the door, lo and behold, whom do I see but Sisodia, with his wife Sheila in tow, parodying the popular carol and singing, “Joy to the World, Harnam has come!” He was in his overcoat and Balaclava that covered his head, ears and neck but not his moustachioed face and, true to type, he was waving a bottle of Hercules XXX rum. They came in and we men had ‘fellowship’ together, but the ribaldry that went with it would not bear repetition here. Fortunately the ladies were not within earshot. Not surprisingly, on his desk at the Audio-visual Department, of which he was then in charge, was a wooden frame surrounding the legend, “Be brief, be blunt, begone!” When he later left for the United States his colleagues were sorry to see such a colourful character go. He passed away in 2000 and his wife in 2004. Incidentally, their son Sangram is Professor of Neurosciences at the University of Chicago.

And then there was the cricket-crazy Vaidyanathan (everyone called him Vaithy) whose unaffected charm shone through despite his bespectacled face and his sartorial indifference? I remember him fondly for his convincing performance as a banker in ‘The Dice’, one of the staff plays that I had produced. Then again we had the successive Senior Masters -the lanky Vyas also known as Woodie and the diminutive Hariharan- as to which of the two was the wilier was a constant conundrum for the rest of their colleagues. Nevertheless, as a sport loving, beef-eating Brahmin (whose unorthodox ways may have made him stick out like a sore thumb among the ‘thoroughbreds’), Hariharan was very well regarded by his more cosmopolitan colleagues. The former reminded me somewhat of the self-confessed ’umble Uriah Heap in ‘David Copperfield’. Wasn’t it John Kenneth Galbraith who said that humility was a highly over-rated virtue? Vyas might well have felt secure in the company of our bureaucrats to many of whom subservience, coupled with pettifogging, is bread-and-butter. Am I being unfair? Maybe I am, maybe not. To be fair to him, let me hasten to add that he was held in high regard as an educationist in the Public School Circuit throughout the country. Sadly, he too has passed on. Nil nisi bonum.

The faculty drew people from all parts of India. Although they were of different beliefs and cultures, they got along as one family, by and large. A congenial meeting point for them was the Staff Club. I remember going there whenever I could find time for a bout of billiards with the likes of the weaving master, Dhanagopal and the sculpture master, P. E. Thomas. I also enjoyed playing tennis with my colleagues, Mukherjee and Pet (an acronym for P. E. Thomas) and Vaidhyanathan and, last but not the least, the military instructor of the school, P.G. Menon. He was an ex-army man whose cocktail cabinet was always fully stocked. At a pinch, one could always touch him for a bottle or two. If his waistline, which was as generous as his nature, weighed him down somewhat in his exertions on the court, he never showed it except when his knee, I forget which one, played him up. Apart from tennis for the male of the species, the occasional Whist Drive that Engineer D’Cruz organized was very popular with the faculty and their wives. Although self-sufficient in many ways, Lovedale was by its very location cut off from the mainstream society. So, the community continually met and interacted socially and in large measure eased this sense of isolation by some activity or the other. For instance, we often made up a foursome during weekends for a game of Bridge. Pothri Nath Raina, the Kashmiri pandit who taught Sanskrit at Lovedale, was my Bridge guru. It took a long time before I could hold my own with the more seasoned players on the campus.

To me, as a rookie card player, these games hosted by Ganesh Gupta had provided for me a civilized way of mixing the tiresome certainty of losing a Rubber - thus inviting a glare from my partner of the day - with the wry compulsions of having to taste the ‘savouries’ that Nargis Gupta, the lady of the house, offered out of the goodness of her heart. She may not have been the greatest cook in the world, but I fondly remember her and, in no less measure, her husband Ganesh as friendly neighbours who went out of their way to help others. Again, Nargis would strike anyone who met her as being quite a striking personality. She was indulgent to a fault. Rather uncharitably, her wards at the girls’ school called her ‘Ma Goat’, although what goatish connection they might have made escapes me. In her own way, she was quite dignified. It was of her culinary skills, such as they were, that Thankam, KIT’s wife, once archly said, “I pity Ganesh. We taste Nargis’ offerings only once in a while, thank God, but the poor fellow has to eat it every day!” Thankam, incidentally, was an excellent cook and a gracious hostess. Needless to say, the headmaster and his wife customarily played host to his colleagues, having them over at his residence in small groups at a time.

The Malayalees (the people of Kerala who spoke Malayalam) in the faculty were a clannish lot who formed a group within a group. We often met socially. The irascible K. C. Jacob was the doyen of our clan. A Brown University alumnus, he proved himself to be a brilliant teacher. He also had a faintly puritanical streak in him. He could be witty, but his one-liners were always delivered deadpan. On the rare occasions that he laughed, he was careful that he was with close friends who would not let on that he could be amusing or warm-hearted. Upright to a fault, he would not brook anyone who strayed from the straight and the narrow. In spite of his bursts of ire at erring students, he was a kindly person whose bark was worse than his bite.

Sadly, Jacob has passed on. I remember him best for his avuncular strictures to his colleagues, delivered with a wry smile. He left Lovedale; miffed by a professional disagreement he had had with the headmaster. He had felt let down by him, one of his own kind; a Malayalee no less. Rumour had it that the so-called disagreement was engineered by the Senior Master who could not see eye to eye with Jacob on matters professional. Kunjanchenkutty- that was his pet name- and his family were very close to us while we were together at Lovedale. In fact, when the headship at the Cochin Refinery School was offered to him, it was at my insistence that he accepted it. Better by far to be your own master than brood in mortification.

Then there was the self-effacing K. N. Nambiar whose prodigious aesthetic sensibilities had been kept well under wraps until he left school to reveal himself as an artist of great talent. His paintings and sketches have since seen the light of day in many an art exhibition. With an expert cook for a wife, a strict vegetarian who could amazingly rustle up delicious meat dishes, it was but natural that he often played host to his omnivorous friends. Another friend, K. Krishnan left his mark on the school as a successful teacher of Malayalam and housemaster, but I remember him most of all as the organizer of the Onam (Malayali harvest festival) festivities at the school. He is no more. V. Mohanraj, the librarian and P. E. Thomas, the sculpture master, who also belonged to the Malayali clan, were as thick as thieves. They were permanent fixtures at Onam festivities. P. E. Thomas was a product of Shantiniketan Art School. His sculptures stand tall on the Lawrence campus, still. Mohanraj’s love of books was infectious and no boy or girl could have passed through the portals of Lawrence without being bitten by that bug. He has written several books on library science. Presently, he is in Seattle busy writing more books. All my Malayali colleagues had been good hosts and frequently entertained their friends. We had a Parsee too on the staff in the person of Major Mehta.

The bursar of the school, the dapper Major Mehta, with his elegant beret that was never out of place, come rain or sunshine, and never gave away the secret beneath it, unobtrusively held sway as second in command to the headmaster. Soft-spoken and gentle, I do not recall his ever having raised his voice even under the most trying circumstances. He was always nattily dressed. He nearly always sported a navy blue blazer and grey flannel trousers. He indulged in moderation and liked his whisky. I remember when his second son managed to secure a distinction in both English Language and Literature in the ‘O’ level exams, he gifted his son’s teacher a bottle of Black Label, which was a precious commodity and hard to come by in those days. I enjoyed it in small measures for a long time afterwards.

There were, too, the support staffs each with a vital role to play. One such was Engineer D’Cruz, nearly always turned out in a double-breasted suit. I can still picture him on the Middle Flat banks, standing aloof silhouetted against the sky, with his nose in the air and his cigarette, always in a holder between his fingers, raised in slow motion to his lips and back. He was the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ man who made sure the school infrastructure did not break down. And also to the staff in the administrative section, the school was forever beholden. And to Joe and Susairaj and Dorairaj and Kuppuswami, to name but a few, of the subordinate staff, as they were rather patronizingly labelled, each with his own role to play, the school owed much.

It was of the last named that the other Dorairaj, my erstwhile colleague and Physics Master, spoke these immortal words. On overhearing the students discussing in hushed tones the impending retirement of the headmaster, he was reputed to have said tersely, his tongue firmly in his cheek, that the end of the world was nigh, or words to that effect. After pausing dramatically, as the story goes, he added that for as long as Kuppuswami did not forget to ring the bell, whatever else may happen, the school would go on. And that reminds me. On another occasion, on spotting a student doodling in class, he said acerbically, ‘Time will pass, I say, but will you?’ And then, there was that unkind crack about the two girls in his class, one from a rich family and the other not so rich. They were thick as thieves, but not exactly academic high-flyers. To the latter he said in exasperation, ‘your friend with all that money can hope to get a husband when she leaves school, but what are your chances?’ He never pulled his punches to lighten the blow. One could go on and on anecdotally about this quirky pack, but regardless the place had its own special appeal. That says it all. Yes, the school might have had its flipside, too, as which school has not, but to dwell on it would be churlish in the extreme considering how its obverse was infinitely more interesting.

Let me now get back to our journey. We left Kumbanad on 30th April and broke our journey at Kalamassery. After staying overnight with my brother Johnny and his wife Sunu, we resumed our journey in the early hours of 1st May, the Labour Day. As it was a holiday, the highway was not as crowded as it would otherwise have been. We were also pleasantly surprised by the excellent state of roads until we crossed the border into Tamil Nadu. From the time we left Cochin in the morning, it took us only three hours to reach Thomachen’s place off Bharati Park Road in Coimbatore, a distance of nearly two hundred kilometres. We spent the rest of the day with Thomachen and his wife Lizziamma, our long-time friends, who were quite happy to see us and exchange news and views sometimes spiced with a bit of good old gossip. As I was tired after my exertions behind the wheel, I retired to bed early. So did Thomachen, but Ammu and Lizziamma had a lot of catching up to do and that for a considerable length of time. When two women get together for small talk, there is no knowing when they would stop, as they tend to lose all sense of time. At least that is what even gossipy men, who could give the female of the species a run for their money, would want them to believe. In the end, they too retired, reluctantly I suspect, for us to be able to make an early start the next day.

We wanted to leave our hosts’ place at cockcrow for the last leg of our journey, hoping to hit the hill road good and early. In the event, we tarried a little for yet more tittle-tattle before we could start. When at last we managed to leave, the city was already astir. The streets were crowded with the ‘early birds’, each one busying about to catch his particular kind of ‘worm’. And there were the ubiquitous cows and dogs, out and about, claiming their unhurried right of way as was their wont. Besides, what with the ‘catch-as-catch can’, ‘no-holds-barred’, free-for-all traffic that one had to contend with, short of turning round and heading back, there was nothing else to do but to ‘do as the Romans do’. I decided to take my chances and plough my way through with my hand pressed constantly on the horn, a habit I had long discarded as an expatriate elsewhere. Progress was not made any easier by the startling wayside shrines that popped up every now and then out of the blue, as it were, their squat towers carrying row upon row of deities, garishly painted in loud colours. Often illegally invading the sidewalk and ingesting it, a shrine would cock a snook at the road users and scare the unwary pedestrian off the pavement. And an unsuspecting driver who might happen to pass by at that precise moment would step on the brakes instinctively to prevent involuntary manslaughter. To compound my problems, a battery of sights and sounds, to say nothing of a groundswell of assorted street smells, constantly assaulted my senses.

Elections were only days away. Candidates were already at the hustings. There were the campaign vehicles fitted with loudspeakers that blared out their raucous appeals for votes, drowning out the reedy radio music that came from the roadside barbershops and tea stalls. How could one fail to notice the posters or life-size cut-outs displaying faces, some smiling beatifically and some balefully gazing at you, inviting you to vote for this symbol or that. Moon-faced or beetle-browed the vote-seekers might be, but the name of the game was the same. And what of the wall art, the graffiti and the flags, all, all of which drove you to distraction? As if that were not enough, the stench of stale urine occasionally assailed your nostrils as you drove by alleys that offered cover for the bashful to piddle in private. The not so self-conscious were not so particular where they might relieve themselves, though. And the smell was no less offenisve. That was mitigated somewhat by the whiff of the spices that rose from the grocers’ shops, and of the marigold and jasmine that the flower girls twisted into strands and peddled from the street-side stalls along the way. The sickly sweet smell of joss sticks (saambraani or agarbathi as we call them),burning slowly before framed pictures of gods or goddesses hung on shop walls, encompassed all other smells. Then, there were the bone-jarring potholes that caught you and your car unawares for the next twenty miles or so until you reached Mettupalayam, on the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

In the meanwhile, I had been growing increasingly testy. Since returning to this country, I have been progressively adding refinements to a certain brand of semiotic road rage, sometimes spiced with choice profanities flung at road hogs. I am only human. On that day too, from time to time, I let fly a mouthful of epithets to test its efficacy, but the passing lane-hoppers kept cockily ignoring it as they careered along for the sheer heck of it. If I thought that getting it off my chest would help me regain my equanimity, I was woefully mistaken. For, if you have a gratuitous navigator in the person of your wife, virtually breathing down your neck, yours is a lost cause. It took me more than an hour to cover that distance, what with having to summon up all my powers of concentration to take evasive action as oncoming vehicles bore down on me virtually head-on, while parrying the random broadsides from the passenger seat!

The drive up the winding hill road with its fourteen hairpin bends was not as daunting as the gauntlet that I had just run. In fact, compared to what we left behind us, to mix metaphors merrily, it was a cakewalk! The sheer scenic splendour of the luxuriant woods covering the steep hillsides that ran along ravines and of the wild streams cascading down the granite escarpments was soothing to one’s frayed nerves. I cast my mind back to the Sixties and the early Seventies when we used to do the Mettupalayam to Lovedale leg of our journey to school after the holidays by the quaint old Nilagiri Mettupalayam ‘toy train’ chugging along the mountain track at a stately pace, its pinion engaging a toothed rack rail in the middle of the track to claw its way up lest it slipped. After Kallar, the first stop, the track ascends into the mountains hugging the verdant slopes. The train journey is three hours long, but the breathtaking beauty of the Mountains, seen through the blue haze of a shimmering morning, more than makes up for the slow passage of time. The car ride took us only an hour and a bit to reach Ooty, despite the twists and the turns and the scenic ‘distractions’.

We checked into Montauban Rest Home. Kathy Macdonald, the manager who received us, proved to be a wonderful hostess. And the place itself, although rather basic in the comforts it offered, was a quiet retreat from the whirl of the constantly moving pedestrians and traffic at the Charing Cross Junction, barely two furlongs away. One could not venture out into Ooty in any direction without getting caught in that maelstrom! Anyway, we rested for a while before going out to try a purportedly South Indian vegetarian lunch, which turned out to be a Gujarati apology for South Indian fare, much to our disappointment. We made a mental note of Hotel Natraj as one that we would give a wide berth to in future. No sooner had we returned to our room than we fell on our beds and did not get up till late in the afternoon.

We hastily got ready and got out. Lovedale is usually only a ten-minute drive from Ooty, but that evening, the road being chock-a-block with cars, all heading in the same direction, it took us the best part of half an hour to reach the Lawrence School flagstaff. We were stopped there and asked to part with fifty Rupees. This was in exchange for a car sticker that would give us access to the parking lot. Although this ‘extortion’ came as a surprise to me, I complied but only after a moment’s hesitation. If my mite of fifty rupees would help offset in some small way the overhead expenses for the Founder’s, I would not grudge them that. As we walked towards the school, we could see a few boys and girls hanging about near the railings that enclosed the lawns below the Nilagiri House dorms and the Large Hall. There were more pupils sitting along the grass banks above the Middle Flats. They were not only not in their uniforms but appeared to be far too casually dressed for the occasion. Not a good first impression, I thought, for someone who was used to seeing one’s wards more smartly turned out for the Founder’s.

Headmaster’s Tea was already in progress. Ammu did not feel equal to testing the unevenly paved cobblestone path going down to the Headmaster’s lawn, so I decided to do it alone. Some of the Old Boys of the school, now parents, and other guests, presumably also parents, were standing around on the lawn in little knots, chin-wagging and sipping tea in between. Now and again, they would break off from the huddle, in ones and twos, and make a beeline for the table laden with goodies. Matthew Anthony, an old boy from before my time whose acquaintance I had made only a few weeks before, spotted me, came over and took me to the new Headmaster, Harsh Wal, to be introduced to him. I was introduced as ‘This is Mr. E. J. John, an old memory from the school’. He looked down from his not inconsiderable height, uttered a perfunctory ‘Hello’ and turned away without giving me a second look. He was in the company important looking guests. That cut me to the quick. Like Horne Tooke I was almost tempted to ask him, ‘Sir, are you someone in particular?’ but I reined in my wicked urge, for I had guessed that the man had more pressing pre-occupations on his mind than being civil to a perfect stranger, which was understandable. This was, after all, the first Founder’s under his stewardship.

A little later, without knowing what had transpired, Narayana Rao, Sumeru House Captain in 1969, now on the Board of Governors of the School, was keen to introduce me, his old House Master, to the new Headmaster. I politely declined the offer with the cryptic remark, ‘Who would bow to a king who does not care to look’ or words to that effect, which was totally unnecessary, provoking a quizzical glance from Rao in my direction. Incidentally, my crack was a spur-of-the-moment, free translation of a Malayalam adage that came to mind then; ‘Nokkaatha Raajaavine aaraa thozhunne’.

Notwithstanding this rather unpromising start to this eagerly-made pilgrimage by the ‘returning native’, I was happy to meet some of the old boys present there. Apart from Narayana Rao, I met Jasbir Singh Randhawa, now a top Tata Tea executive in Munnaar, Jojo Chandy, a planter in Mundakkayam, Dilip Chandy, an organic farmer in Bangalore, and a few others whose names have become casualties to my failing memory. I also met Nomita Chandy, an Old Lawrencian of an earlier vintage and the incumbent president of the Old Lawrencian Association, who graciously invited us to the OLA Dinner/Dance, which was to be held at the Sullivan Court Hotel later that evening. I had met her a few weeks earlier at a get-together of the Cochin Chapter of the OLA at the Thevara Yacht Club. As it happened, our daughter Bina had accompanied me on that occasion. Nomita did not forget to ask after her. Incidentally, Nomita is the daughter of the late General Dev, formerly of the Indian Army Medical Corps, a retiree resident of Lovedale in the Sixties. Then, there was old Col. Wright, the oldest Old Lawrencian around. He exuded an old-world charm that spoke of a bygone age. His clipped military moustache was still in place. For all his eighty years, he had not lost his zest for life or, for that matter, his ramrod-straight bearing. His wife, however, had a pronounced stoop that gave her years away.

The Variety Entertainment later in the evening was extremely enjoyable. The show started with the School Orchestra’s rendition of some popular Indian numbers. It was a brisk start to the evening. The classical dances that followed were particularly good. All the dancers, be it in Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam or Mohiniyattam, excelled in their different styles with their distinctive mudras, their abhinayam and their natanam. The footwork of the Bharatanatyam with its vigorous vitality coupled with the jerky, formulaic eye-hand body language was in sharp contrast to the slow, voluptuous gajagaamini or ‘elephantine’movements of the last of the dances, the Mohiniyattam, or the ‘dance of the temptresses.

Incidentally, Mohiniyattam was developed as a dance form in the 19th Century at the instance of Swathi Thirunal, the then Maharaja of Travancore. He was a patron of arts and was also famous for his musical compositions. In Malayalam poetic imagery, one of the attributes of feminine charm is expressed as the ‘voluptuous’ movement of the elephant. For instance, a poet addresses his beloved thus, ‘Matha mandhara gamane!’ (O, you who walk like an elephant!). The traditional Indian concept of beauty perhaps lay in the ample proportions of the female derriere. The not so discriminating or refined would call that gait Aananada (the rolling gait of the elephant). Poetic perceptions of beauty are in the eye of the beholder, as the cliché goes. Malayalam poets have also described Annanada, the minuet-like steps of the swan, just as sensuously.

To resume my account, the dances brought the house down as much for their virtuosity as for their colourful costumes and jewellery. The Tillaana, in particular, was well executed. I had a sneaking suspicion, though, that the musical accompanists for the dances were professionals who had been hired for the day. I wondered why the School Orchestra could not have been asked to do the job. The rendition of the Western Musical numbers was pleasing, especially the medley. The English play, based on the Midas story, amused us as much as the French play befuddled the uninitiated like me. Besides, I thought the Gallic propensity for body language was not sufficiently exploited by the cast to convey meaning to the likes of us. Regardless, the programme was compered well by the MC without causing undue delay between items. However, the continuous buzz in the Hall and the lack of common etiquette on the part of some, as they moved in and out of the Hall during the performance without waiting for the curtain to ring down, was disconcerting, to put it mildly. I do not remember such a thing ever happening in the old days.

Is this symptomatic of our times? Could it be that the perceived laxity in the larger society might have rubbed off on the school-going generation? If that is true, it is all the more reason why a school, which is an agent of socialization, instils a sense of discipline in their wards. The expectation is that this should eventually lead to self-imposed discipline on their part. To be able to inculcate that, the preceptors should themselves be role models that their wards can look up to. And, to be role models, they should project a presence that is reflected not only in their bearing but also in the way they are turned out. ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’ is generally not far off the mark.

However, mere style without substance will not stand the test of time, for children have always had the artless knack of paring away the outer skin to expose the hollowness under it. For a public school teacher to be in authority in the classroom and outside, he must not only be an authority in his subject and its pedagogy, which knowledge must needs be constantly updated, but also be above reproach in his conduct. Besides, he should be seen to be even-handed in administering sanctions against wrongdoers and in rewarding work well done, both curricular and extra-curricular. Only then will he enjoy, in the eyes of his wards, parity of esteem with others they hold in high regard.

Of the teachers I observed during this visit, I wondered how many would compare favourably with the team which, that great headmaster, K. I. Thomas had mustered around him. Like chalk and cheese? If this observation ruffles a few new feathers, it is a risk that any disinterested observer of his fellowmen is constantly willing to take. I should, however, hasten to add that, since appearances can be deceptive, it would be less than fair to make such a vast generalization about what I saw based on no more than a cursory appraisal. It is also possible that I am labouring under what might be called the ‘good-old-days’ syndrome that is so typical of the older generation. However, when I saw the entire staff march past the rostrum at the Parade, they did not, as a group, inspire a great deal of confidence in the detached observer. I was then reminded of a remark that Nomita Chandy had made at the Yacht Club I had mentioned in passing: ‘The present-day teachers of Lawrence are petrified by the students”. Could this have been another generalization? If a teacher lacks the moral authority to deal promptly with calculated mischief, then he fails in his role of being in loco parentis to his wards. And that might explain why the students I saw earlier were able to slouch about blithely, in their slovenly casuals. Admittedly, times have changed and we cannot put the clock back. My remarks may, therefore, be construed as passé, but, whatever yardstick you use, you cannot justify the sorry state in which I found Sumeru House dorms when I ‘furtively’ took a peek at it. I could not come to terms with the apparent lack of collective esteem that the members of the house seemed to have. I fear I may not be welcome in Lovedale any more!

My choice of Sumeru House was not accidental. I was the Housemaster of Sumeru for a little over two years from 1969. I had earlier been Sumeru House Tutor for three years. I would like to believe that I gave of my best to the boys, even if I say so myself. There were times, however, when I had to be quite severe, against my better professional judgement, in dealing with bullies. When you are up against hardened bullies, you are frequently flummoxed while looking for a psychological approach to deal with them tactfully. On the other hand, like a red rag to a bull, the instinctive response of ‘retributive punishment’ presents itself to your impulsive nature. Truth to tell, I had succumbed to this kind of knee-jerk reaction on more than one occasion. One such occasion refuses to leave my memory.

One of my wards was found in possession of a camera that did not belong to him. Let him remain nameless. The compulsive bullies in my house who came to know of this act of ‘borrowing’, promptly pronounced him guilty in a kangaroo court of their making, and then without ‘due process’ proceeded to thrash him virtually to within an inch of his life, short of lynching him that is. The news reached me through a school prefect who did not want to be named. And there I was, my head and heart both warring. First, it raised my hackles that my authority as housemaster had been challenged. The perceived hurt to my ego rankled. But on reflection, my training as a teacher cautioned me against a knee-jerk reaction.

I was later told that a school prefect, who happened to be one of my wards, was also involved in it, and that proved to be more than I could condone. It would seem he had aided and abetted the perpetrators of this act of cowardice instead of restraining them. I summoned him to my office straightaway and without waiting to hear his version of the incident and throwing caution to the winds whacked him with my bare hands so hard that I could easily have been charged for causing grievous bodily harm had he decided to complain in a court of law. He did not. The rest of that gang also received the same treatment. Initially I had only wanted them to have a taste of their own medicine, but I lost my head when once I had started. I realized that I had gone too far only after I had regained my composure. What is that about hindsight being a perfect science?

Fortuitously, KIT was out of station and it was to Major Mehta his deputy that I had to report what had transpired. Happenstance favours the remorseful. And he weighed up the provocation and my reaction and decided that the boys had it coming to them. For an old soldier, with a martial mindset, retributive justice would strike as the most immediate sanction against wrong-doing. For a few days after that incident I was persona non grata to the prefects, whose collective pride in being members of a select band of school leaders had been seriously hurt. How was I to impress upon them that privileges did not give them the licence to act on impulse with impunity? That would have been like the pot calling the kettle black. Notwithstanding such occasional un-preceptor-like hot-headedness, I believe I generally got along well with the rank and file for they knew that I was always even-handed in handing out sanctions against wrongdoers and that I meant well. They had a nickname for me. I was ‘Yaani’ to them behind my back -God knows why they pitched on that sobriquet- and I would like to believe that they called me that not out of resentment, but only to have a harmless laugh at my expense. Oh, but I digress.

We rushed back to Montauban to get into something more formal for the Dinner/Dance. When we reached the Ballroom of the hotel at a little after nine, the dance had already begun and there was hardly any elbowroom left for the late arrivals. The latest crop of Old Lawrencians who had not so long ago been chafing at the regimented school life, were letting their hair down and having the time of their lives. The Old Lawrencians of an earlier vintage were by and large blasé about the antics of the younger crowd and would take the floor only when a slower number was played. However, the fifty-something-old Old Lawrencians stood sedately aloof, indulging themselves, each with his own brand of ‘poison’. Of that lot, I had occasion to meet for the first time a certain Chatterjee from Washington State and a Commodore Thomas from Kunnamkulam and compare notes with them about their days and mine at the school. Lest I be seen as the odd one out, the sharp-eyed Johnny Paul of Popular Automobiles duly thrust into my hand a glass of whisky and soda, which I contrived to nurse all evening. And the older crop of wives, ‘bereft’ of their husbands who were in their cups, sat by the wall languorously and chatted for want of something else to do. Among them, those who felt more deprived for want of dance partners sulked but managed to tap their feet to the music as the next best thing to do.

Ammu found a chair to take her weight off her feet. And the lady who sat next to her was as distant as the space between them would permit in spite of Ammu’s best efforts to break the ice. And, Ammu is not the kind who would give up easily! She persisted. Yet, she could elicit only monosyllabic answers. Then quite out of the blue she asked Ammu what she thought of the school. Her answer was not exactly music to her ears, so the lady was curious to know who her interlocutor was. Ammu then revealed her identity, whereupon the lady had to divulge that she was the headmaster’s wife. The thaw congealed again! When the buffet eventually opened, we were the first to eat and, soon after, the first to leave after offering our excuses.

Next day, Thursday, the 3rd of May threatened to be a rainy day. The sky was overcast and it did rain briefly in the forenoon. When it tapered off, we sallied forth into the town, hoping to visit our old haunts; the lake, the botanical gardens, the Assembly Rooms, the Nazareth Convent, Race Course Road, you name it. That was a disappointing experience. The expansive lake that had once held its lovers close to its bosom was itself being slowly strangled by the ever-tightening grip of the ubiquitous water hyacinth. The brisk business in boat hiring that used to go on around the lake had since become as halting as the knackered ponies that hobbled along, carrying their unsolicited fare.

At the botanical gardens, we made heavy weather of breaching the phalanx of hawkers and vendors that virtually blocked the entrance. The streets in the shopping area were dirty beyond belief. This was not the Ooty we used to know. In place of the old laid-back town, the Queen of the Hill Stations, with its leisurely pace of life, we saw a restless town with streets full of pedestrians hurrying in all directions. There were the ubiquitous backpackers, slumming about to all appearances on a shoestring budget, or culture-vulturing as some might prefer to call it -take your pick- in their faded denims and well-worn trainers or, sometimes, even flip-flops. There were the older couples rubbing shoulders with the self-absorbed newly-weds, who could be spotted a mile away, in all their finery. There were the well-heeled regulars too. They travelled up to Ooty year after year in their gas-guzzlers to escape the heat of the plains. And try hard as one might, one could not shake off the street urchins begging for alms or the self-appointed touts pestering the visitors with offers to find them a place to stay or show them around the town for a bargain. And the detached denizens of Ooty watched it all with a feeling of deja vu.

The day was redeemed somewhat when Ammu was able to meet, after a lapse of thirty years, Indu Ananthachary, an old colleague of hers at the Nazareth Convent where they both at one time taught. We spent some time with her talking about old times. She was quite happy to receive us and play the perfect hostess. Our next stop was our old friend, V.M. Mohanraj’s place, perched on the top of a hill that offered a grandstand view of Ooty. The trouble was, the road leading to it was in such a state of disrepair that I almost did not want to test my shock absorbers. That was not all. The last two hundred yards was a steep climb that had to be assayed on foot. It is to Ammu’s eternal credit that she successfully attempted this assault on the summit.

Sulochana, our hostess, had prepared lunch for us. We reminisced about our old days in Lovedale as we partook of the crab curry and Saambaar and rice lunch on offer. To be honest, I was a little disappointed because I had earlier conjured up visions of a vegetarian meal that Sulochana would prepare for us. Now, why did I expect that? And thereby hangs a tale. We had earlier managed to find a good eating-place that offered tasty vegetarian dishes at moderate prices and we had agreed that we would eat only vegetarian fare for the rest of our stay in Ooty. Preethi Restaurant, a vegetarian eatery on Etienne’s Road off Charing Cross, was always crowded, but the service was prompt and the waiters, courteous. So, naturally, when it was time for us to eat, we homed in on Preethi like trained pigeons, if we were not otherwise engaged. That was my mindset at the time we visited the Mohanraj’s.

Later that afternoon, we went back to Lovedale to watch the P. T. Display on the Middle Flats. As I remember it, the children ‘across the board’ participated in the various drills, all of which were executed well. The flower drill was particularly good. The one item that I was looking forward to, the gymnastic display on parallel bars and vaulting horses, was missing from the programme. Instead, there was a display of yoga exercises. As a spectacle, the relatively tame yoga is no patch on gymnastics. Truth to tell, I watched the display only in patches, for I had earlier run into Selvapackiam, an old colleague of mine. A strapping six-footer, he was one of the physical instructors of the school in my time. Except for his greying hair and receding forehead, he had lost none of his youthful vigour.

We stood apart, happily chatting about the old days and, in particular, about the ‘thrills and spills’ we had had at the Outward-bound camps we had been to as team leaders. These camps were not intended for the faint-hearted. Often, the campers would reach their camp only after a long, hard trek. Sometimes they had to scale steep hills, their sides infested with blood-sucking leeches. A poke with a smouldering cigarette was a sure-fire way of getting those worm-like creatures gorging on you to loosen their tenacious grip. Times when trouble was deliberately beckoned were not unknown, either. We recalled the time we had to run for our lives when some of the more daring of our wards pelted stones at a family of wild elephants, placidly grazing near a thicket of bamboo shoots on the slopes of Dodabetta Peak.

Situated at the junction of the Eastern and the Western Ghats, Dodabetta with its Sholas or jungles, was always a favourite haunt of the elephants that frequently strayed back and forth across state borders for seasonal grazing. This herd was one such. The enraged mother elephant turned and charged and we ran helter-skelter down the slope between rows of tea bushes. Mercifully, the animal soon lost interest in the fleeing fugitives and gave up the chase. We learned later that elephants did not relish the prospect of running downhill for fear of upending themselves. It was a close shave, though. We were none the worse for the experience apart from a rush of adrenalin that had beaten a thudding tattoo on our breasts and a few cuts and bruises to show for our brush with danger. No other experience was as hair-raising as that!

And, at every such outing, the evening before we broke camp, the campers would prepare a grand dinner that they called the Badaa Khaana. On the occasion in question, we had camped near the Pykara Lake, where in a moment of madness we- I mean Selvapackiam and I- surreptitiously caught rainbow trout with an improvised rod and line and cooked our catch for the dinner! It was particularly exhilarating if only for the guilty thrill it gave us! In every man there is a boy longing to re-enact the past! Michael Mehta, one of the campers, was our lookout! Some role model, I! What would have happened if we had been caught poaching? Perish the thought.

The School Play, And Then There Were None, a whodunit in three acts by Agatha Christie was put on later that evening. The first act was innocuous to the point of tedium. At the end of it, Ammu and I decided to call it a day. Judging by what little we saw, however, we thought the direction was skilful, the lighting professional, and the props realistic. The cast acted convincingly and their diction was excellent. However, these alone could not sustain our interest. We were to learn later that we had indeed missed a good play. I must confess my attention span is getting shorter by the day. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

The next morning, we set out early to be able to find a vantage point at the Top Flats to watch the School Parade from. We almost made it in time. As we were going up the driveway to reach the school lawns, an ornate open carriage drawn by horses was going in the opposite direction. This aroused our curiosity. We learned later that it was on its way back to the stables after dropping off the Chief Guest at the Top Flats to take the Salute. This was an innovation introduced by Dev Lahiri, the previous headmaster.

It was heard on the grapevine that, in his attempts to improve the image of the school, he had come a cropper because of his penchant for horseflesh. I have also heard it said that he was persona-non-grata to some powerful Old Boys of the school. The Old Lawrencians who purportedly masterminded his premature exit from the school would have us believe that his love for horses rode in tandem with his weakness for unlicensed guns and game-meat! Offering excuses as an afterthought in order to justify what had been orchestrated earlier (?) is a pursuit unbecoming of gentlemen. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones! Then again, one might argue that those who forget their past mistakes might find their own past coming home to roost. You may work out the conundrum at your own leisure, but I shall get back to the parade.

Ammu managed to find a place to sit in the comparative comfort of the marquee where the distinguished guests sat. As I was saddled with my camcorder, I was constantly on the move looking for angles to take pictures from, what with the spectators, in places standing three or four deep and craning their necks, often coming unsolicited into my line of vision. That is an occupational hazard that a camera-bug, competing for space with others of his tribe, has to cope with. Unlike in our days, there was a girl in uniform mounted on a horse to form part of the guard of honour. One could see that she had her hands full keeping her horse from shying at all that din and bustle. By the time we arrived at the parade ground, the chief guest had already inspected the guard of honour. He was on the podium waiting to take the salute.

The march-past went like clockwork. The band in their resplendent uniforms, their burnished brass blazing in the sun, added to the ambience that the rousing martial music had lent to the occasion. My mind immediately went back to the days when Denzil Prince, the bandmaster of yesteryears, would polish the rough edges of the ‘blowers’ in his ‘hands-on’ style that would have been worthy of a jail warder, which his ‘victims’ would continue to testify to with a grimace for long afterwards. And the Old Lawrencians, some of them grown portly and some of them still in good trim, but most of them greying gracefully, brought up the rear. Amazingly, they never once broke step and never missed a single line of the School Song, ‘Never Give In’, which they sang with so much gusto. It was a moving experience that left a deep impression on everyone present there. I would like to wager that they had never sung that song so enthusiastically while they were still boys at school. The most astonishing thing about your old school is that it continues to grow on you, the longer you have been away from it.

The parade ended and the children in their ceremonial uniforms marched out of the ground, but the assembled guests lingered at the parade ground to meet old acquaintances and exchange pleasantries. Happily, we had several photo opportunities with the old boys. We also met a girl I had taught, a certain Elizabeth Tharakan of Thykattusseri, now a pretty woman in her prime and the mother of a Lawrencian who was in the parade just ended. Our grandchildren might well have been in that parade if our children had kept their timely faith with us. I confess, the thought did cross my mind then.

Slowly, the assembled guests made their way to the school lawns where tea and biscuits were being served. We met more old boys, some of them with their wives and their children. A few of the wives wanted to know how their husbands had measured up when they were students at the school. I tried as best I could to answer their query with a straight face. Sunilkumar, Kandaswamy, Sabesan, Mohammed Ali, Meenakshisundaram, Badrinarayanan, Inasu Jacob, and quite a few others were there. Then, all of a sudden, whom do we see but Major Mehta himself, the beret still in place and his aquiline nose still held up ever so slightly. We were somewhat saddened to see him lean heavily on an orthopaedic walking stick. We learned that he had to wear callipers to support his legs that had grown weak. His voice too had lost some of its crispness, but he was still unbowed. He was extremely happy to see us. We too, likewise.

We did not stay back for the Annual General Meeting with the chief guest’s speech, the headmaster’s report and the prize distribution. We drove back to Ooty, made a beeline for ‘Shinkow’, a popular Chinese restaurant in the old days, hoping to enjoy a Chinese lunch that Ammu had so eagerly been going on about. It was a culinary disaster that we could have lived with if it had not burnt a deep hole in our pockets. With that amount of money, we could have enjoyed the fare on offer at the Preethi Restaurant four times over with infinitely greater enjoyment! Our visit to Mohan Store, the handicraft emporium next door, was equally disappointing. We went in and came out just as quickly, shocked at the exponential mark-up of prices. It was not as if we could squeeze money out of our thumbs! And, even if we were in the clover, I could unfailingly trust my parsimony to pre-empt my wife’s yen for an impulsive splurge.

After our customary afternoon nap, we made our way back to Lovedale to watch the Beating of the Retreat, which brought the curtains down on the Founder’s Celebrations, 2001. On reaching Lovedale, Ammu and I met Anthoniamma, our erstwhile maid, who had worked for us for many years. Having heard of our visit, she had been waiting for us at the Top Flats. She was indeed overjoyed to meet us. She asked after each one in the family and promised to visit us at Kumbanad someday soon. Then we turned our attention to the ceremony itself. The boys and the girls, the band and the bagpipers, had lost none of the verve with which they had performed earlier in the day at the Parade. The only blot on the ceremony, if I can call it that, was when some of the student-onlookers strayed on to the ground and obstructed the view of the distinguished guests in the pavilion. It took some of the Old Lawrencians to get them to move back behind the chalk-line.

Towards the end, even as evening shadows lengthened and fell athwart the parade ground, the band played ‘Abide with me’ and the solemn strains of the trumpet floated across the Top Flats. As I listened to that, there was a nostalgic lump in my throat. The knowledge that our son, Bonny, was once privileged to blow his horn in this very venue added poignancy to the occasion. Then they all trooped out.

All in all, warts and all, we take our hats off to those who worked behind the scenes to make the Founder’s Celebrations as always a resounding success. My first impressions notwithstanding, I am sure the headmaster and his staff deserve unstinting praise for making all this possible once again and overseeing it so smoothly. That appearances can be deceptive was never made more apparent than at the end of the Founder’s!

We drove back to Ooty. Preethi Restaurant was more crowded than usual. We had to wait for a few minutes before we could find a table. We had a light meal and then returned to our room to retire to bed early. The next morning, we went downtown as Ammu had some shopping to be done. We first went to the Ooty vegetable market and there, to our surprise, we ran into Major Mehta again. He was hobbling along, but his customary dignity was still intact. Evidently, he had come shopping. A man who had once had a large army of helpers at his beck and call, to be left to his own devices in his twilight years! Yet, to commiserate with him was unthinkable! We chatted briefly before we cheerfully parted company. After our shopping, we left the market to hurry back and pack up for the return journey. The lunch that day was on the house. Kathy and her assistant Raja had prepared a grand farewell lunch for us. My cousin, Thomas Rajan, who was on an inspection visit to Montauban as its CEO, was the co-host. We were deeply touched by this wonderful gesture.

We bade goodbye to Kathy and her staff and left Ooty late in the afternoon to reach Coimbatore at 7 O’clock. We spent the night at Thomachen’s and left his place early next morning. Trichur was our next stop. My old colleague Krishnan and his wife, Kamala, were waiting for us. As soon as we went in, Krishnan rang up two of my old students, A. C. Chummar and Jose Francis, presently two well-known businessmen of the city. We all had breakfast together, enjoying the idlies and saambaar, sukhians and coconut chutney on offer. After an hour of talking about old times, we left our friends for a brief stopover at Chummar’s place. His folks were happy to meet us. Chummar showed me over his backyard higgledy-piggledy with vintage cars, worth a king’s ransom: a Rolls Royce, a Daimler, a Packard, a Model T, a BSA, a Jaguar, you name it, including one which, I was told, Gandhiji had once been driven in! While I stood there wide-eyed with wonder, Ammu did not even deign to show the least bit of interest! Well, what is sauce for gander is not necessarily sauce for goose, to turn the phrase on its head. Soon we resumed our homeward journey.

After lunch at Kochi with Johnny and Sunu and an afternoon nap, we hit the highway once again. At Six in the evening we reached home, tired but happy. All said and done, it was a trip well worth the effort. Would we go back another time? I do not know. Nothing is quite as intriguing as speculating about the future. There are many imponderables that would influence the decision, one way or the other. I would like to believe that the next visit, if it happens at all, would be in the company of our children and their families. A family reunion in a familiar setting! Note the use of the plural, ‘families’. Would they oblige?

Since that sentimental journey back to the school and to our familiar haunts in Ooty, we have had the privilege of being invited to the OL get-togethers of the Kerala Chapter more than once. And on each occasion the venue was the Maraari Beach Resort slap bang along a lovely stretch of private beach not far from the coastal town of Aleppey. The two-day long bash gave the OL’s and their spouses a time to let their hair down, away from the disconcerting stare of curious onlookers.

There is a reason for my saying that. If a prize were to be instituted for the most unashamed watching of other people’s private lives, eyes gawping and lips parted, the hoi polloi of Kerala would be the undisputed champions. One would have thought that our people with their long history of association with other cultures would have been weaned away from this fixation by now. But, no! Go to the Kovalam Beach and you will be convinced.

Protection from prying eyes was what the Maraari Resort offered. Although we could only stand apart and nostalgically watch the unself-conscious conviviality of the younger generation, we could and did enjoy the privacy and comfort of the well-appointed chalet at our disposal as also the wonderful cuisine on offer. What was more, you are reassured that the positive vibes that came from your old students you met from time to time has continued undiminished. Then, as now, there is no greater satisfaction than basking in the affection and respect of those whom you have had the good fortune to guide.

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By Hima Amperayani at

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