We drove up the hill and the thought struck me that this was an ideal location for a convent – secluded, and surrounded by natural beauty and pure air. But my chest was heavy and my breath uneven as we drove through first one, and then another, set of unguarded gates.
It was thirty-four years since I had last been here, but nothing had changed. We stood in the courtyard and the air was still, faintly scented with eucalyptus, interspersed with mild hints of sewage that wafted in on the fresh breeze – just the way I remembered. It was the same yellow building with brown window frames and balustrades. The odd bird chirped in the background.
Slowly, I climbed the wooden flight of stairs leading up to the flagstoned veranda that encircled the building. I clutched myself, reluctant to put a hand on the wooden rail which, I noticed, had been polished to a lighter, brighter brown than it used to be. There was nobody around.
Walking to the front end of the building I tried to look inside the small dormitory but the curtains were drawn. They were drawn in the big dormitory too. I would have liked to see whether the inside also looked the same – but really, all I had to do was close my eyes and I’d be back in there. One was a long, thin room with a row of cots placed next to each other from one end to the other, with a chair between each. The other was a hall with rows of beds. For two years these rooms were my home. The funny thing is, all the other girls, who were pretty much the same age as I, seemed to be happy and at peace. But I was not. I can remember lying in my cot at night, everyone fast asleep, utterly miserable and wanting nothing but to go home. The wind whined through the trees and rattled on the window panes. It was a ghost – of course. It was heart-liver-kidney, the famous heart-liver-kidney, and it had come to get me! Instead of risking a trip to the toilet, I would ease my bladder right where I lay. But in the cold Nilgiri night, the sheets would soon turn icy and I would be shivering for more than one reason. I remember trying to crawl into my neighbour Gopika’s bed for warmth and safety but there wasn’t room for two and she soon elbowed me out.
The ayahs hated me, the one who so often created a messy puddle under my bed and I can remember my relief on the days when it had dried by morning. But heart-liver-kidney was not something that would evaporate. For the next twenty years and more, I experienced terror in the darkness and never slept at night without a light on.
I can remember being a nuisance to the ayahs at bath time too.
Ooty was a water-shortage zone. So we could only have a bath twice, or sometimes once, a week. This was a simple and accepted fact of our lives; I can’t remember ever considering anything amiss or having an ‘I could use a bath!’ feeling. There were times when someone would be sent around the classrooms to ask all boarders to come out because the water was running in the taps. We would troop into a large, steamy area lined with white tiles, and line up. The bathtubs bore the legend ‘Shanks’ – perhaps a Victorian bathroom-fittings company which shipped commodes, basins, sinks, tubs and other such items out to the colonies; they were everywhere in the Nilgiris.
I think you had to be over a certain age to be entitled to bathe yourself. Water ran from the tap into a large aluminium bucket and an ayah would pour water with an aluminium cup over the child sitting down in front of it. It was an ordeal because the water was always too hot. When I begged them to make it cooler, they would sneer that it felt fine to them. Extra-hot water brings that desolate feeling over me even now.
Another important consequence of the water shortage was that we were often caught in the toilet when the taps ran dry. We were allowed to go to the ayahs to collect a daily quota of eight squares of toilet paper. But there were times when someone would need the loo urgently and rush in, begging a friend to go fetch the paper. And we’d run and look for an ayah but often enough no one would be there; sometimes we’d find one but she would say the cupboard was locked, or the toilet paper was over. When that happened, it was a practice to scour the grounds for ‘rubbish paper’ and go pass it under the toilet door to the desperate one waiting inside.
Another ritual was the weekly letter home – it was compulsory. There was a particular day and time set aside to write home to parents. In my first few weeks of boarding school, I suppose I was writing letters which expressed my desolation and begged my parents to come and take me away immediately. I suppose the school authorities frowned on such subversive communication. All through my life, until email weaned the writing habit, I had something in me which made me start every letter with, “How are you? I am well and happy.” But “I want to go home” became the theme of my life and pretty much every moment of time in those two years was focussed on it. It was to remain the motif of my life for endless years to come.
Years later, when it so happened that I was about to inherit two very sweet little children just a few weeks before they were to join a boarding school, I refused to send them away. Looking back down the years I wonder to myself whether that really was such a good decision. Maybe they would have gained from the experience – maybe it would have made them stronger, better people. I know my boarding school experience was filled with pain and loneliness – but looking back I can see how those days of spartan living and deprivation built me to be who I am. Many friends I made in later life spoke of similar traumatic boarding-school experiences; fine, balanced and perfectly sensible people they were when I knew them. However, when the time came to send my own kids off to be built in the same way – I didn’t have the heart to do it. I did not want any children, ever, to endure the pain I had.
Sitting in class, I often excused myself to go to the toilet and walked instead to the lawn on which I could stand and stare at the gate just in case my parents happened to be coming to visit me.
In those days, my father worked in the Annamalais, a six-hour drive on steep, winding roads that could make a sailor ill. This was the reason I was away at boarding school – there were no schools near us. No hospitals, either – my brother was born in the guest room of the manager’s bungalow at High Forest Estate (Mudis P O).
On one miraculous occasion our little red Herald did indeed drive up the hill and come through the gate as I stood and waited! I was so surprised, so ecstatic and disbelieving, so completely overcome with emotion and shyness that I ran away and hid. I suppose my parents were just as dismayed, confused, and unhappy. To my everlasting regret, they waited for a while for me to come back and then left.
Returning to school from vacations was the most desperate trauma of all. As we drove up that beautiful hill, my heart sinking deeper and deeper into the ground, we passed a house that had a scarecrow on its terrace. It was a lumpy creature, all stick and rope, wound round with an old banian and bony arms poking out at right angles. Whizzing past, my dad would point at it and jovially call out, “Look, Jesus Christ!”
This was part of our routine and though I knew it was funny, it never made me laugh. What I felt was a horrid stab of disloyalty, and guilty fear that the nuns (who hated me) would find out. It was beyond my emotional range in those days to have negative feelings towards my parents, rare and precious commodity that they were. Still, I couldn’t help wishing that my dad wouldn’t make jokes about someone as wise and wonderful as Jesus.
On one occasion, as my parents said goodbye and tried to get back into our little red Herald, I screamed and clung to my mother, imploring her not to leave me, and a nun prised us apart with words and a tone that live on in my memory: “Sacrifice, my child, sacrifice! You must learn to sacrifice! Remember our good Lord.” I was only five, but it struck me through the depths of my despair that this was a ridiculous thing for anyone to say.
The feeling of deep sadness never left me. I’ve been told that I would wail and scream loudly for my mother, father and brother; my brother, then three years old, would occasionally advise our parents that I must have become one of the big girls by now so they should probably go and bring me back home. I meanwhile was spending the large part of each day crying – sobbing silently, unable to find solace in any activity or person. A time came when I stopped protesting, realising that it was no use.
One day, sitting alone on the floor of an empty classroom, feeling as wretched as usual, I played with the screw of my earring. It was a link with my mother and rolling the screw back and forth consoled me a little. It was she who would carefully remove and clean my earrings every time I went home for the holidays. Replacing them was a ceremony of minor torture, slightly fraught with tension. My head in my mother’s lap, I would feel her bring the tip of the stud close to the slightly-stretched skin of my ear and, just as I started feeling relieved that this time it wasn’t going to hurt, there would be a sharp unpleasant moment before it slid in.
Other times I would lie like that and she would peer into my hair checking for lice, groaning in despair as she pulled each one out and killed it with a sharp “tick” between her thumb nails.
Head lice were a routine part of our lives and I always went home from school with a head full. One Christmas vacation I took them along with me to my grandparents’ home in Bombay and infected a baby cousin. How her mother hated me and my lice! How embarrassed my mother was that her daughter had caused this disgusting thing to happen!
Head lice were not the only infection I contracted. I spent pretty much all of my second year at Nazareth in the school infirmary – from where I was fortuitously sent home three times, first with measles, then chicken pox, then jaundice. One of the favourite items on the infirmary menu was boiled eggs, which were served with ketchup. Jaundice victims were administered boiling hot barley water to drink. The flavour of these items, spreading through my taste buds, still has the power to make me feel mighty sorry for myself.
The jaundice was only diagnosed after I had vomited three times, after three consecutive meals. On the third occasion, it was after a scrumptious dinner of fried eggs – a special treat. “But you never liked eggs!” my mother told me years later, unable to bear the thought of the wretched situation which had suddenly made me consider eggs, which I had always hated, to be delicious food. This third vomiting episode also gave me an image of myself at age six which would form a metaphor for my childhood: sobbing under the dining table, trying to clean my vomit with a fork. The ayahs had been insane with rage and insisted I clean my dirty mess myself.
Sitting on the classroom floor that day, I twirled the stud in one ear, and its two separate parts suddenly came loose and slid to the floor where they rolled giddily to a gap between two wooden planks and slid neatly through. The old Ooty buildings are built on pits dug in the ground and the wooden planks often creak when you walk. In the middle of darkest night, most likely it was old heart-liver-kidney foraging for its next meal!
Squinting between the floorboards I could see the two bits sparkling up at me. In a daze, I started rolling and playing with the stud in my other ear. Very soon it had fallen down and rolled into the gap too. I could see them there but for some reason believed that they were lost forever. It never struck me that I could tell someone to help me get them out. Even when my mother came to take me home next and saw with shock that my gold earrings had disappeared, and assumed them stolen by one of the villainous ayahs, I didn’t have it in me to explain.
Forty years old now, I walked around the building, wondering why there was no one around. Perhaps the old feelings that were rising in me now would have subsided if there had been children playing cards on these steps or swinging from these banisters the way we used to, but using the words of their generation, dressed differently, playing different games, their hair done up in different styles. Their perspective of me as an old, boring person from another world would have reminded me of whom and where I really was, and protected me from being swamped with these childhood feelings.
I walked around, looking for someone. The veranda ran the length of a large hall. By now, I was determined to get inside the classroom on the other side of the hall where I had dropped my earrings. But all the doors leading to the hall seemed to be locked shut. There were no curtains here and I could peer in through the small panes of glass on them and see the classes beyond. It was uncannily the same as I remembered. Walking around the side of the building I now came across a large room in which a number of teachers sat around a big wooden table. No one looked up or acknowledged me in any way. It occurred to me that Nazareth was really not a place where I had any experience of being cared for – truly, nothing had changed!
So I kept walking until I was right outside the classroom in which I had dropped my earrings. From the windows on this side I could look right in. What a surprise to see that it now had a shiny tiled floor! Perhaps someone had seen my earrings glinting through, and decided to pull up all the wooden boards, excavating for more gold. Perhaps they had never been found; swept away in the construction debris when the flooring was replaced. In any case, after thirty-four years I had to face the fact that my gold earrings were gone forever.
some parts of this first appeared in Outlook magazine on 19 November 2011