My Years at St Mary's High School, Mount Abu

At St Xavier’s, we addressed the priests as “Father.”  I knew that Irish Christian Brothers at St Joseph’s, Bow Bazar, Calcutta and St Vincent’s, Asansol were addressed as “Brother” by the students. When I joined St Mary’s High School, Mount Abu on June 1st, 1947, I was instructed to call the Brothers “Sir” and when I asked why, I was informed that “Brother” or “Bhai” was the form of address used in Rajputana for a person of the same social level and was not the form of address to anyone to whom respect was due.   This, I subsequently discovered, only applied to St Mary’s among Irish Christian Brothers’ schools in India. 

I was allotted a bed in the senior dormitory and a locker in which to store all my things, including shoes and toiletries.  I was surprised that even dirty clothes had to be stored in my locker until the dhobi took them for washing once a week.  We were also expected to get our underwear and socks washed by the dhobi.  We had to make our own beds — when we returned to the dormitory after breakfast and before going into classes.  Nothing was to be left on the floor, so that the servants could sweep and swab the floor without any obstacles.

At St Mary’s the school uniform was grey shorts and grey short-sleeved shirt with a webbing belt in the school colours of green and yellow, with long grey trousers to be used for Sunday Mass and when we went into town or to the movies at the Garrison Theatre.  On formal occasions we were expected to use a tie in the school colours and blazer with the school crest.  However due to wartime scarcity I was permitted to use whatever clothes I had — mostly khakhi and white. 

I continued in Standard V, the same as I had been in at St Xavier’s, Calcutta.  My teacher at St Xavier’s had been Mr. Whitehead, who had been an Irish Christian Brother and was known to the Brothers in Mount Abu.   Subjects taught were the same as at St Xavier’s, except that Hindi now replaced Latin — text books, however, were different.

My first evening on the play ground was a disaster — there was no grass, just earth. The monsoons had not really started but the field was already nice and muddy.  I went on to the playground wearing the same white clothes I had worn for class.  Playing football in white clothes would mean getting them dirty, so I hardly played.  After games Brother Bennett, a very good sportsman, in charge of our dormitory, told me to wear khakhi shorts and to get into the rough and tumble of the game.   We had games, football or hockey, on all evenings except Wednesdays and Saturdays, when each class with its class teacher went for a walk through the jungles surrounding our school and, at most, once a month went into town (Mount Abu bazaar) where we could spend some of our pocket money.  Usually on Sundays and holidays during clear weather, we had cricket matches — inter-class or inter-team tournaments.

Water for drinking, washing and bathing was brought up from the well in the valley behind the school by the bhisti, in a leather bag stitched from the entire skin of a cow and carried up two at a time like panniers on a huge bullock.  The amount of water that this one man and his bullock could carry was obviously limited and therefore usage of water was strictly rationed.  There was a wash room behind the dormitory with two cement platforms along the full length of the walls.  Aluminum basins were evenly spaced along these platforms.  Each of us got one basin of cold water for washing our faces in the morning and one basin of cold water for washing our feet (and the rest of us) after games in the evening.  At nights the servants would fill all the basins with water in preparation for our morning wash — in December we sometimes found a film of ice on the water.  We had baths once a week on Thursday afternoons.  Wearing only bathing shorts and slippers with our towel and soap we would go to the bath house behind the junior dormitory. Bath tubs were filled with warm water and four of us were allotted to each tub.  At the word “Go” from the dorm master we had to start bathing, pour water over ourselves, soap ourselves and then pour more water to wash off the soap.  If any one was slow, he found himself left with soap and no water to wash it off.  Then race back to the dormitory in our wet shorts, pleasant in summer, but cold during the rains and in October to December.  In December 1948, my trunk containing all my clothes and books was sent to Dohad and then Mum decided to take me to Goa for the holidays, so I came to Bombay and had to wait with Mum in the retiring room at Bombay Central till my trunk came from Dohad to Grant Road.  I soaked in the bath tub at the retiring room and after soaping myself discovered a thick black scum over the water and on the sides of the bath tub from the accumulated dirt of six months at school.  I had to soak in the bath twice more before I felt clean.  St Mary’s now has solar heated water on tap – which supplies water at very high temperatures even on the cloudiest day – and with water on tap, bathing is no longer an experience and the boys can bathe daily or more often. 

Toilets were at the far corner of the school grounds behind the dormitory.  There were ten cubicles each with its thunderbox.  As there were no flushing toilets, the pots were cleaned from time to time by the jemadar – but during the peak demand period, just after breakfast and before class time, it was not always possible to get a clean pot – and this was sickening.  You had to use your own toilet paper and when you ran out of stock you used newspaper or whatever else was handy.  After my first year, I discovered that if I awoke before the rest of the dorm, I could sneak out through the back door of the wash room to use the toilets which were then clean – but, if caught, I could have been punished since we were not supposed to leave the dorm at night primarily for our own safety — since we still had tigers and panthers at Mount Abu.   Some years later, when water on tap was made available, flushing toilets were installed and the number increased – with some Indian style and some western style – I personally find the Indian style toilets the most hygienic.

Meals were a new experience.  Breakfast at 07:30 consisted of a plate of very liquid porridge (made from broken wheat), two large thick slices of bread from which the butter had been scraped off, and a small cup of really watery tea.  Some of the boys had bottles of jam which they applied to their own slices of bread and offered some to their friends, who reciprocated when they in turn received tuck from home.  Mum arranged for me to get a cup of milk and two eggs as special fare for which I was charged extra in the monthly bill. Lunch at 12:30 was boiled rice with dhall in which there were some pieces of meat (mutton, no beef) and vegetables. Food was served to the senior-most first and then down the classes.  By the time our turn came, we had to plead with the man serving the dhall to dredge the bottom and give you some meat, but these pieces were mostly bone.  On Fridays there was no meat in the dhall, only vegetables. Extra helpings were available but you had to be able to eat what had already been served and rush for more before all the dekchis were emptied.  At the bottom of the rice dekhchi there was always a layer of burnt rice -- which some boys pleaded for, not as a delicacy but to satisfy their hunger.  At 15:30 after classes finished, we had tea -- a cup or two of weak tea with two slices of bread (with butter scraped off).  Dinner at 19:30 was a meat gravy dish with some vegetables and bread.  Occasionally we were served a sweet at dinner -- usually bread or sago pudding  —  we referred to the latter as “frog’s egg pudding”.

Sergeant Murphy was in-charge of the refectory and the food preparation.  He was a very jovial person and would tell us about his experiences during World War I and his postings in different parts of India.  His language, which he emphasized that we must never use, was typical British Army Sergeant’s language when talking to the servants — mostly the local tribals, who, fortunately for them, did not really understand his words. However, they loved him because even if he shouted and threatened to lambaste them, he was someone they would go to in any problem and he would help solve it for them.  We would regularly complain to him about the food and he would then make a big show of getting the quality improved, but I personally think that there was really nothing he could do with the restrictions then in force.  Every Thursday afternoon, when we had the afternoon off from classes, he would organize sale of “tuck” — the most affordable item being monkey-nut chikki (peanut brittle) made with peanuts and jaggery.  If any boy had less money than the minimum serving, he was sure to get at least one mouthful free for “tasting”.  He went back to Ireland after the school year ended in December 1950 and we later heard that he had died within a short time of reaching his home.  The gentleman who replaced him was not half the person he had been and his term with the school lasted for just about two years. 

Bro. Comber, a tall handsome man, was our class teacher and also the Principal of St Mary’s.  He was always dressed in an immaculate starched white cassock.  When Uncle John returned from tour, he and Aunty Mayrose with Philip and Celine came to school to meet Bro. Comber.  Celine, less then two years old, promptly forced herself into Bro. Comber’s arms and dirtied his cassock with her grubby hands, much to Aunty Mayrose’s embarrassment.

Bro. Bennett and Bro. Murray were the two Brothers who coached us in sports.  One of the fond hopes of every boy who at some time was punished by either of these two Brothers was that they could get even while these two Brothers joined us in football or hockey.  I often watched as either of these Brothers would take on this boy, round him with football or hockey ball and then clout him on the shins and move on before this guy could even get a chance of getting even. 

I was allowed to go to Aunty Mayrose’s home every Saturday, leaving at 15:30 as soon as classes were over, with my knap sack containing my books on my back, and returning on Monday morning before 09:00 in time for class.  Even though I would leave school only after having my tea, I would reach Aunty’s home ravenously hungry.  I entered by the back door, usually while Eugenie, their maid, was busy making chapattis for dinner.  She would say “Aao baba baito chapatti khao” (Come baba sit and eat chapattis) and I would immediately sit next to her and eat two, maybe three, chapattis, before going in to meet Aunty Mayrose and the family.  I would eat a normal dinner, in spite of already having put away three chapattis.  (In 1979, when I attended St Mary’s Golden Jubilee celebrations at Mount Abu, I visited Eugenie and her husband, George, who was Sacristan and Catechist of St Anne’s Church.  Eugenie had her back towards the door and was rolling and baking chapattis. When I called out to her, without turning around, she recognized my voice and immediately invited me “Aao baba baito chapatti khao”.  My wife, Hazel, and daughter, Deepika, were quite amazed at this.  When I next visited St Mary’s in 1992, Eugenie had passed away and George was old and blind.  Their children had done well for themselves and looked after him well).

Sunday morning all of us were up early and off to St Anne’s Church for Mass.  Aunty Mayrose played the organ and conducted the choir, mostly of girls from the convent.  Fr Mathew, an old and lovable Franciscan, was the Parish Priest.  Chubby Celine was everyone’s pet and she would decide to go up to the altar to meet Fr Mathew while he was saying Mass.  One Sunday Isa decided to dress up Celine, while Aunty Mayrose got Philip ready.  As usual Celine decided to wander off to the altar and there decided to investigate something on the floor and showed the whole congregation that Isa had indeed only dressed her “UP” and forgotten to dress her down  --  she had no pantees.  Isa went red in the face and immediately ran, picked up Celine and took her out of the church, amid smothered giggles from all the convent girls.  I am sure Isa must have been the butt end of a lot of teasing when she went to school the next morning. 

I was also learning to play the piano.  Mr. Flor was our music teacher.  I was supposed to practice for half an hour every day, during the time devoted to evening study.  With the pressure of trying to catch up with the rest of the class, I tended to dodge piano practice.  Mr. Flor brought this to Bro. Comber’s notice, who promptly stopped me from going to Aunty Mayrose’s place every Saturday-Sunday and restricted my trips to the last Saturday and Sunday of each month, when a number of boys, whose parents lived at Abu Road or other neighbouring places, went home for the week end.  During the Saturdays and Sundays that I was school-bound, I was expected to practice the piano.  In spite of this I did badly before the examiner from Trinity College of Music -- he discovered that I was tone deaf and could not distinguish one note from another close up or down the scale.  Consequently I gave up playing the piano and now love to listen to beautiful music both live and recorded. 

When I joined school on June 1st, the boys had just finished the first quarter’s exams.  I took the second quarter’s exams at the end of August and ranked among the top three in our class.  Immediately after the results were announced the first three students from each class were given special high tea in the refectory, at which delicacies were served -- in the hope that this would be an incentive for others to try for better results the next time – St Mary’s really believed that the way to a boy’s heart was through his stomach. 

For our class however this treat was not a happy occasion.  One of the first three was a boy called Hamilton (Hammie to us).  Hammie was a very good sportsman and though the smallest player, was in the school senior hockey and football teams which played against other schools and even against the army at the Polo Grounds.  Being a good sportsman and also good at studies, Hammie was quite the “Teacher’s Pet.”  He had an elder step-brother, Jacob, in the Senior Cambridge class of that year and a younger brother, Eddie, in our class.  Hammie and Eddie were fairer than most of us, but Jacob was dark skinned.  Bro. Comber had overheard Hamilton call his elder brother, “Nigger.”   That morning before coming into class, Bro Comber had called Hammie to the Parlour and administered “six of the best” -- possibly many more than six, as Hammie could not come back to class, but went straight into hospital and was lying on the bed face down.  Bro. Comber came into class late and very red in the face, a sure sign that he was really very very angry.  Eddie collected Hammie’s share of delicacies and took them to him in hospital.  Hammie and Eddie, like many other Anglo-Indian boys, left school that December and went “home” to England.

At St Mary’s, the final exams for V & VI Standards were common to all Irish Christian Brothers’ schools.  Our papers were set and examined by teachers from any of the Christian Brothers’ schools.  This gave us an idea of what to expect at our Junior and Senior Cambridge exams.  After the year’s final exams, school closed on December 6th – with a bonfire that evening at which many boys burnt up their old exercise books, hoping that they would be promoted next year.  The results were sent direct to our home addresses to reach after Christmas, so that our Christmas festivities were not spoiled if we had done badly at the exams.

In 1948, because of the injury to my eye I rejoined school on June 1st, three months late.  Bro. Comber had gone on holiday to Ireland and Bro. Morrow had taken over as Principal and our class teacher.  We did not change class rooms as it was convenient for the Principal to be on the ground floor.  Bro. Morrow gave me his own hand-written History notes to help me catch up with the rest of the class. I was able to cope with all the subjects except Hindi. 

I have a special regard for Mr. Sidney Brown (himself an ex-student of St Mary’s), who was responsible for teaching me Hindi.  As an Anglo-Indian, one would hardly expect him to be a good Hindi teacher.  But I think he understood the problems we, who only spoke English, had with a phonetic language.  I was a pretty bad student initially and just could not differentiate the various phonetics and consequently I did very badly at every Hindi dictation test.  He was so tired of me and my inability to spell Hindi words correctly that he would say “Dash you” and having repeated this often enough it became my school nick-name — finally ending up as “Datch” — which all boys (and now their families) from St Mary’s during the years 1951 to 1958 continue to call me.    During our final year when preparing for the Senior Cambridge exams, we requested that Sidney continue to take our class for Hindi, even though the school now had a highly qualified Hindi teacher.  Thanks to his teaching all eighteen boys in our class got a “C” in Hindi at the Senior Cambridge Exams.  (When I came to Bombay and joined St Xavier’s College, I was surprised that the students from Bombay schools had not taken Hindi as a subject for their SSC exams — Cambridge had made Hindi compulsory from 1948).

Not to take any chances with my eye injury, I was not permitted to play hockey and football.  Mike Callaghan was also debarred from sports for the time being. During the time when the rest of school was playing games, the two of us had to keep ourselves busy with observing the flora and fauna in the surrounding areas — particularly the streams in which there were small fish and over which dragon flies and other insects hovered.  There was an insect that skimmed the surface of a stream or pool and left a wake like a tiny motor boat. We found tortoises, which could disappear quite quickly by just merging with the surrounding rocks and earth and remaining completely still.  It really needed close study to pin point the tortoise.  I was only permitted to join in sports practice (athletics) after the monsoons in preparation for Sports Day in the first week of October.  I was not much of an athlete and did not get to the finals in any event.  When football was resumed, I persuaded Bro. Bennett to allow me to play since more than six months had elapsed since my injury.  In the very first match, I tried to head the ball and with vision from only one eye, I misjudged and got the ball straight into my face.  Immediately the game stopped and everyone came to assist – fortunately there was no damage and I continued to play, but did not try to head the ball again.  Playing football was comparatively ok, but when it came to playing hockey and cricket, with a smaller ball at higher speeds, the loss of vision in one eye was a real handicap.

Bro. Morrow, as Principal, was often too busy to take us for our walk in the surrounding jungles or having work in Mount Abu town, we would go with him.  During these walks he shared with us some of the problems he was facing.  At that time St Mary’s had few students — total strength was 85 boys in 1951—and having taken over Mount Abu Railway School (MARS) – the Brothers had a commitment to accept sons of all railway employees at concessional fees.  Finances were very tight.  In 1948, the new Indian administration was not very partial to St Mary’s considering it a sort of relic of the Raj.  One of the suggestions put forward by Government was that since St Mary’s only had young boys, the food ration (rice, wheat and lentils) could be substantially reduced.  Bro. Morrow had to frequently visit Palanpur, under whose jurisdiction Mount Abu fell, to persuade the authorities to release full rations.  At one stage Bro. Morrow actually told us that if the authorities did not release full rations, he would have to close the school and each of us would have to find admission in a school at our home town.  Meanwhile, the local Bhil villagers came to our rescue by giving us some of the maize grown by them for their own consumption — and we learnt to eat makii roti (maize chapattis).  Fortunately, Bro. Morrow’s efforts were fruitful and we did not have to leave St. Mary’s.  

There was also some problem with ownership of the school property — originally belonging to the BB&CI Railway and since 1951 Central Government property.  After much effort Bro Morrow was able convince Central Government to transfer the title to the school. 

In 1949, we appeared for the Junior Cambridge Exams.  These were conducted in the Lawrence School.  Our one worry was English dictation.  The Principal of Lawrence School, a thorough Englishman, complete with his Oxbridge accent, was to read the passage which we were to take down.  Fortunately, he agreed to give us a pre-test, so to say, so that we could tell him if we found his pronunciation difficult to decipher.  On the final day he slowed his rate of dictation and repeated each passage twice, so that we did not have any problem.  As per Cambridge University scheme, Junior Cambridge students (“O” level) would go for vocational training as apprentices (boys) and as stenographers (girls) — Senior Cambridge students (“A” level) were those who would go on to college.

I continued at St Mary’s till the Senior Cambridge Examinations in December 1951.

Plus I went back after completing my B.Sc. at St Xavier’s College, Bombay in 1956 and filled in as Science Master for Standards VI, VII, VIII and IX.  This spell of teaching was fun, since many of the boys knew me personally from when I was a student there.  These remembered that I was blind in one eye and “cannot see with the other”, since I now used spectacles. 

The Science class had been shifted during the holidays and since Bro O’Keefe, the science teacher, had gone to Ireland, all equipment had just been dumped in the new class room -- which was part class-room and part laboratory.  I arrived to take up this teaching post on a Wednesday evening and checked and was dismayed at the mess.  Knowing school routine, I requested for volunteers to help me clean and sort out the science room on Thursday afternoon, when the boys had to take a nap.  When I got to the science room, there was a line of volunteers, far too many to use.  I selected four from among these and sent the rest off to the dorm.  With these guys we dusted all the cupboard shelves, the lab counters and the desks and swept the entire class room.  I got the boys to polish each and every window pane, using damp newspapers, and the glass windows of the cupboards.  When we finished, I sent the four of them off to Bro. Brown, in charge of the tuck shop, with whom I had arranged to give them a basket full of peanut chikki -- enough for all those who had volunteered – these four guys did share out this booty.

Since I was to take only four classes each day I had a lot of spare time, which I devoted to putting in order the various equipment – for electrical, light and chemical experiments.

On Friday, the youngest guys of Standard VI arrived full of bounce and vigour to test out this new teacher.  I made them tell me what they knew of Physics and Chemistry with reference to their text books.  Then I set them some work.  I normally take off my spectacles when reading -- so these guys thought I could not see.  While explaining something on the blackboard, I could see reflected in one of the window panes, two guys at the back of the class not paying attention and doing something else.  I turned around and pitched the duster full of chalk powder aimed to land on the desk in front of them, but just at that moment one of the guys, Norman Philips, put his head forward and the duster landed on his head and his face was beautifully powdered.  He claimed when he met me in 2001 in Toronto that he still carried the lump on his head that the duster had given him.  But they could not understand how I had seen them with my back turned and my spectacles on the table.  Later when we got around to doing experiments in light, I showed them the benefit of having all those mirrors around the class room.

Another incident from time as science teacher, was when I joined the senior boys in a game of football.  I usually play back, and when running forward to kick the ball back to my team-mates, one of the really big seniors charged into me and bounced off and landed on his backside.  Highly embarrassing for him since the lady teachers were watching the game.  In class the next day he claimed that he was suffering from a lot of aches and I told them that after that impact I felt that my floating rib had started drifting. 

Over the years I have kept contact with four of my class-mates, and the guys whom I had taught in 1956 have continued to keep in touch with me and now we regularly exchange e-mail messages.  I kept up a fairly regular correspondence with occasional visits to my old class teacher, Bro B C Morrow. I also corresponded and visited Bro A G Bennett, who gave me knowledge of the forests and the environment around us.  Bro Bennett shifted to the home for old Brothers at Regina Mundi School, Dabolim, Goa in February 1994 and when I met him in April that year, he had identified fifty varieties of birds who visited the small garden around which the Brothers’ quarters are built.  He never wore glasses and claimed that regular washing of his eyes with water cupped in his hands whenever he came home from outdoors, was the secret of his good sight.  At the Platinum Jubilee (75 years) of the school in 2004, I was called upon to talk about Bro. Bennett.  I proposed as a memorial to him, he was honorary game warden for Mount Abu, the alumni of SMHS try to re-introduce some of the wild animals whose habitat Mount Abu had been, including tigers (the last was shot in 1948) and panthers.  Mount Abu has been declared a wild life sanctuary by Government of India and I hope we can bring back some of these animals.

—Aloysius “Datch” D'Souza (1951)