Kenneth “Jock” Staynor (1945)
1943 saw a significant change in my life. Before that year, I had been used to life in relative civilisation, living in places like Calcutta, Darjeeling, Delhi, Simla and several towns and cities served by the East Indian Railway. They all had mains electricity, running tap water and proper sanitary arrangements, including flush toilets and all! In April 1943, things took a change for the worse. My father was selected to set up the GHQ Communications Security School for Southeast Asia Command. This establishment was to be located at a place called Mhow, Central India, in the Holker State, where the chief Royal Corps of Signals Training Centre was based. I had heard of Mhow from a boy in school with me during my stay in Simla but, as he never spoke much about the place, the journey from Delhi was looked forward to with some excitement.
My excitement was soon dampened by my first impression of Mhow. When I arrived there at about seven thirty in the night I was filled by a mixture of shock and surprise! Gone were the brightly lit multi-platform stations I was used to in the north of India. Here was a single platform station lit by one bright gas light at the entrance while the rest of the platform was in semi-darkness, illuminated by oil lamps which cast sinister shadows. It was extremely difficult to sort out our heavy luggage which was being unloaded from the luggage van. The van was the last coach on the train and midway between two oil lamps. I soon learned that this was the norm for these places in the “gut” of India! The further one travelled away from what one might refer to as British India, then penetrated into the Princely States of Malwa and Rajputana, the more primitive and backward things got. For the first time, I began to realise that India was, certainly, a country of diversity. People dressed differently and although they all understood ‘Kitchen Hindi’ (the Hindi spoken by the Europeans) they spoke differently. I was in for a number of surprises and shocks within the next month by a life-style that took a great deal of getting accustomed to and summoned up every bit of moral fibre and strength of character I had!
My first days at Mhow were spent in what was known as the ‘Hutments.’ These were a series of hastily erected war time two- and three-bedroom military officers’ quarters on One Tree Hill, and on the outskirts of the Infantry School’s Mortar training grounds. This meant that from time to time pieces of shrapnel went whistling past the house! These were the quarters allocated to newly posted officers awaiting permanent military housing when it became available! As commandant of the Training Centre, my father was entitled to a house on what was locally referred to as Generals’ Road although, in fact, it was actually called something else, One Tree Hill Road I think. It was so named because the Area Commander and other Brigadiers, Colonels and the rest of the ‘Red Tape’ lived there. As this house was still occupied by the officer who was due to move to another Cantonment Town, we had to make do with a hutment till it became available. That was military life for you! In the next hutment to ours lived Major D’Silva and his family. Major D’Silva was in the Medical Corps, posted to the British Military Hospital, and like dad, was awaiting permanent quarters. They had a son who was away at boarding school in a place called Mount Abu in Rajputana. On their advice, it was decided that since I had been withdrawn from school in Darjeeling, some two thousand miles away from Mhow, but only a few hundred miles from an anticipated invasion of India by the Japanese, it would be a good idea to get admission for me at a school called St. Mary’s High School, at Mount Abu. St. Mary’s was run by the Irish Christian Brothers. I had experience with the Christian Brothers during a short stint at St. Edward’s School in Simla and a brief spell at St. Columba’s School at New Delhi as a day scholar, so I was familiar with their methods of education! At St. Columba’s, their usual methods of ‘Strap and corporal Punishment’ was tempered by the fact that it was a day school only. The proximity of likely parental inquiries into teaching methods was far too close for comfort, and kept them on their best behaviour. Yet, St Edward’s, being a boarding school, gave them the advantage over the poor suffering boys to indulge in their usual practice for education and discipline by the leather strap which every member of staff carried around in their pockets with pride. However, at St. Edward’s it was somewhat tempered in comparison to what I later experienced and witnessed at St Mary’s in Mt Abu.
At the end of April I made the first solo journey of my life. I had started studying for the Junior Cambridge Examination at St. Columba’s and was to continue in that class at St. Mary’s with a certain Brother Nugent as the class teacher—this I knew from the D’Silvas whose son Richard, was also in the Junior Cambridge and whose nickname I later learnt was ‘Tapey’ because of his diminutive stature which was ideal for Brother Nugent’s ‘Strapping Practice’ — so his reputation preceded him! My bags and baggage were all packed and with fifty rupees (about 8000 rupees in today’s money) in my pocket for expenses en route, I was put on the train for Ajmer which departed from Mhow at just after 8am. In those war days, there was only the one through train to Ajmer. At Ajmer, I had to change trains to what was known as the Delhi and Sind Mail for Abu Road, which was a through train between Delhi and Ahmedabad. The train to Ajmer stopped at every station and was due to arrive at Abu Road at about six in the morning the next day. I had already had my first experience with metre gauge trains when moving from Delhi to Mhow. For that journey, I changed trains at a place called Ratlam from the broad gauge of the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway, to a metre gauge train on the same railway which took four hours to do the 84 miles to Mhow! Beginning to feel homesick, yet proud of being semi-adult and unsupervised I began to wonder what the future held for me. At Ratlam, the guard came to the compartment and asked if I would be taking dinner at Neemuch. I had already studied the route in the Indian Bradshaw so I knew the train stopped there for twenty minutes. However, I was unaware that the train stopped there to allow passengers to alight and to partake of dinner. I had been wondering what I was going to do for a meal and was considering buying something off some ‘Parn Wallah’s trolley. I was glad to find out that this dinner service was available. Having scrutinised the rather limited menu, I decided on soup followed by lamb and potato cutlets with vegetables, though the menu did not say what soup and what vegetables!
If Mhow station was a shock, Neemuch was something out of this world! Mhow at least had a bright gas lamp at the station entrance. Neemuch was in almost total darkness and lit only by a few oil lamps. If my compartment had not stopped almost right opposite the ‘Refreshment Room’ I would have had trouble finding it in the dark. The dining room was about fifteen feet square with a large table in the middle which had an oil lamp in the centre of it. That was the sole piece of illumination. There were four of us for dinner. We sat ourselves down and made light conversation. One diner was an army captain travelling to Ajmer while the other two seemed to be travelling together and going to Udaipur. The soup arrived from an adjoining room which I took to be the kitchen. From the kitchen, a gentle breeze blew which made the flame in the oil lamp dance and cast weird ghost like shadows. At first, I was puzzled by this sudden cooling draught till I realised it was the ‘Punka’ which was a rather large carpet looking thing on a horizontal pole suspended from the ceiling. When pulled by some hidden person, it swung to and fro over the table and gave a rather pleasant gentle breeze keeping the dingy room quite cool. I had heard about these contraptions but had never seen one before. Things were certainly getting more and more like something out of a story by Rudyard Kipling! After twenty minutes or so, we were all back on the train and on our way. I had the whole compartment to myself so decided to settle down for the night as we rocked, rattled and bumped through the night at a very leisurely pace.
I have a kind of built-in alarm clock which allows me to set an alarm in my mind that awakens me more or less at any given time I want. This was working well as my eyes suddenly opened and I was aware that the train was slowing down. I looked at my watch which showed 05.15. When the train stopped I looked out of the window and in the semi-daylight saw that we had stopped at a place called Nasirabad which, from my study of the Bradshaw, I knew to be about forty minutes from Ajmer. I decided to have a good wash, roll up my hold-all and prepare for my change at Ajmer. Not long after six o’clock, we trundled into Ajmer and I was pleasantly surprised to find that here was a rather pleasant station with three platforms well illuminated by electricity. There were, also, a nice station building, bookstall and other amenities one would associate with a station for a large city like Ajmer.
Since I knew that the Delhi and Sind Mail had a dining car attached to the train at Ajmer I decided to treat myself to a cup of tea only, having in mind a breakfast on the train. The dining car shared a coach with a first class compartment with a connecting sliding door. Expertly, the coolie who had taken charge of my luggage got my luggage into this compartment and installed me in it. I had a fellow traveller who was a Major in the army and was on his way for a short break at Mount Abu. He was an excellent chap and immediately struck up a conversation with me and suggested that we should wait for the train to pull out before making our way through the adjoining door for breakfast. He had joined our train at Neemuch but somehow we had not seen each other. Like me, he had a compartment to himself. I found out from him that Neemuch was also a military station and he had been stationed there for over two years and long enough to accustom himself to the ‘Joys of the thunder box’ as he put it! When he found out who my father was, he made sure he had nothing derisory to say about the army even though he had been posted to a place like Neemuch which, I gathered, was even more backward than Mhow! Little did he know that, on several occasions, my father had been derisory about the army himself! Neither was my father keen on the Training School being located at Mhow. Father accepted it since Mhow was the main Signal Training Centre in India, and accepted it as a fait accompli!
After breakfast and before the train had made its first stop, we
were back in our compartment. The major locked the door behind us so
that no one could come in from the dining car. The difference between
the Delhi and Sind Mail and the stopping train from Mhow was
remarkable. This train was making good headway and for a metre
gauge train was quite fast. The Major complained that he had not
slept well and since there was another seven hours before we got to Abu
Road he was going to catch up with his sleep. He said, “If no one else
got into this compartment at Ajmer,
it is unlikely anyone else will between here and Marwar Junction or Abu
By now I was beginning to feel ‘Rajputana heat’ for the first time. It was not yet 09.30 but the ceiling fans, whirling around at full speed, were having no effect. I decided to follow the major’s example and stretched out on my bunk and fell asleep not noticing that one of the windows was not fully shut with about an inch open at the top. The major woke me up at about noon suggesting we should have lunch. I got up and could see where I had been lying; that was the only area of the bunk that was not covered in desert dust!
Lunch was taken in a half empty dining car. The Major and I were two of only five ‘whites’. The other half dozen looked like well-to-do Indian professional people all seated at separate tables. By the time we stopped at Marwar Junction, we had almost finished our meal and as we had left the connecting door open we were able to see that nobody had entered our compartment. After lunch we dozed and conversed alternately till about 3.30 in the afternoon. Meanwhile, the temperature had risen to well over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit which, with the amount of desert dust that had got under my collar, mixed with heavy perspiration was making things very uncomfortable. I made two more trips into the dining car via the sliding door for a drink of water which tasted very bland but helped to ease my rasping throat. I discovered that the water was being dispensed from bottles of distilled water hence the bland taste. As we neared Abu Road the Major asked what arrangements I had made for getting to the Mount from Abu Road. I told him that I had made a reservation, by telegram from Mhow, for a bus which was operated by, I think, Ganesh & Co.
“You will be lucky”, he said. “They take no notice of telegrams round here. They want cash upfront, for reservations. I have hired a taxi, same fellow every time I go to the Mount. I would offer you a ride but there is no way that all your luggage and mine will fit in the car.”
By this time we were almost at Abu Road and I was beginning to get that sinking feeling of despair one gets when one realises that all is a lost cause! Abu Road station, like all the stations we had stopped at with the exception of Marwar Junction, was, once again, of the single platform type. A coolie obligingly handled my luggage and showed me the way to the bus operator’s office. I introduced myself and told a rather harassed man that I had telegraphed from Mhow for a reservation.
“No telegram come”, he said. “You paid money for reservation”? he continued. “If you no send money we no make reservation”.
“I must get to Mount Abu,” I said.
“So also more than hundred people,” he said. “How I make room for you”?
“Have these people made and paid for reservations?” I asked.
“No, but they come before you. But you wait and I see what I can do. Where you go in Abu?”
“I have to get to St. Mary’s School,” I said, by now almost reduced to tears!
“Ok, you go in this bus, tell driver you get out at Toll Gate,” he said having softened his tone of voice by now.
“No, I said I want St. Mary’s School,” I said in my ignorance about anything to do with Mount Abu.
“Yes, yes, I know you want High School. That is stop by Toll Gate,” he said.
By this time, I began to think that Mount Abu was some great Metropolis!
Little did I know!
After rattling along a barren dusty plain and crossing a bridge over a dried up river we started the climb up the Mount. We twisted and turned around some hairpin bends not unlike the ones to Darjeeling. I was sitting directly behind the driver who was a very friendly chap.
“You have trouble with man at desk,” he said, then continued, “He always bad tempered.”
We talked continuously till we made a stop after almost an hour.
“This Cipperberry Chowki,” he said. “We stop little while.”
I asked if there was a toilet here to which he said laughing his head off. “You want piss you go back over there nobody see you have piss,” pointing to a rock by a tree. I obliged!
We arrived at the Toll Gate at Mount Abu and the driver said, “Here you get out for school.”
The bus came to a squealing halt and I was wondering where I was to go from here in the middle of a jungle. It was then I noticed a well built man and a servant. It was ‘Spud’ Murphy and a bearer from the school.
“You must be Kenneth Staynor,” the man asked. I agreed. Between the three of us we managed to get the luggage up to the school.
“There is no one at the school. At the moment everyone is at the pictures,” Spud said.
When we finally got to a deserted building he got the servant to leave my trunk and bedding roll by the locked door of the senior dormitory then ushered me to the dining room where he gave me a meal. He showed me where to sit, telling me that was to be my place for meals.
My first impression of the school was not very different to that of Mhow or Neemuch stations! With no one to initiate me to the school, I decided to explore. I eventually found the ‘Bogs’ and had my first shock and was filled with horror. It was a dingy place with no lighting and two rows of cubicles with ‘Thunder boxes’.
“Bloody Hell,” I said to myself. I started away from the bogs and noticed a lone figure walking towards me.
“Hello there. Are you Ken Staynor?” the man enquired.
“Yes,” I said.
“I am Carl McCann,” he said. “You are going to be in the same class as me. We heard you were coming.”
“What is this chap Nugent like?” I asked.
“Bloody bully” was his reply.
From that moment on Carl was one of my best friends for the rest of my time at St. Mary’s. He had come back to school before the rest of the boarders as he had recently had an appendix operation and did not feel like walking around town.
(I was saddened to hear recently, that Carl is now deceased. He was a great mate and never had a bad word to say about anyone except Brother Nugent!)
About half an hour later, the rest of the boys started to return to school in dribs and drabs and I was introduced to class mates.
As I was by now falling asleep on my nose I was allowed to go to bed while the rest of the senior school went for night study.
It was still dark when I was awakened by a series of loud explosions, which I later learnt, was the workmen blasting in the depression at the back of the school building, in an attempt to sink an artesian well. As time went by, I realised it was another one of Brother Roe’s stupid ideas! I think this scheme was eventually abandoned when it was discovered it was being sunk about sixty feet out of position! No one else seemed to notice the explosion and I lay there wide awake while the rest of the dorm slept soundly. As I was lying there wondering what life was going to be like, a door slammed at the end of the dormitory and a Christian Brother came marching down the dorm clapping his hands.
“What the heck is this idiot doing?” I asked myself! Seeing everyone jumping out of bed and making their way out of the dorm, I soon realised that this was the method of waking everyone up. At other boarding schools that I attended, there was a rising bell which, not only woke the whole school up, but the neighbourhood also! Like sheep, everyone filed into the washroom so I collected my toilet things and followed like a lamb to the slaughter!
After the shock of the bogs this was surprise number two. Everyone was collecting aluminium basins and filling them with cold water from a single tap fed from a large tank outside the washroom! I was not used to these sort of sanitary arrangements in any of the past schools, and I began to wonder what other surprises awaited me. What on Earth were my parents thinking of when they decided to send me here. I could have wept in despair on my first day!
Like in all Catholic Schools, after washing and dressing, the day started with Mass followed by breakfast, then bed making and morning prep. On this first morning, I was excused from prep but had my first meeting with the infamous Brother Nugent in his room. First impressions were not any thing special. This changed an hour later when I saw him in action in the classroom. The first period was going over the homework set the previous day and consisted of an alternating of strap swinging and threat! What was it with these people? The classroom was like a bullying jailer and cowering prisoners! By lunch time I had realised that life at St. Mary’s was going to call for tremendous strength of character and resilience to survive. I asked myself, in the very few moments I had on my own, why did people send their sons to a school so primitive with no proper sanitation, no running water and run by a bunch of ‘Sadists’ calling themselves Christian Brothers? But there were more surprises awaiting me. I had arrived at school on a Thursday still sweaty and grimy from the traversing of Rajputana by train and was longing for a shower.
“When do we have our showers?” I asked Carl on our way to games in the evening.
“Not till Wednesday,” he replied. “But we don’t have showers.”
I remained filthy till the following Wednesday and then, along came my next surprise! The ‘Bathing Room’ was in an out-building behind the junior dorm. It was about thirty feet square with a large tank in the centre filled with hot water by the ‘Bhisthi.’ The hot water was fed from some sort of boiler affair heated by a coal fire under it! Everyone put on their swimming trunks and with towel and soap trudged from the side door of the washroom across the back yard in slippers to the bathing arrangements and waited for ‘Snotty’ (Brother Sinnott) to clap his hands. This was the signal to pour water over yourself with large mugs, then, soap yourself, and then wait for the next clap to start washing off the soap, and then the final clap to start drying yourself. The next clap was to make your way back to the senior dorm and in case there was any skulduggery, Snotty usually beat everyone back to the dorm! He had the most suspicious mind I have ever known. After my first week in this ‘asylum’ I was getting the picture, which was that everything was done by ‘Strap, class and clap’ and in that order!
In 1943, the staff consisted of seven Brothers, two female teachers who lived in a cottage by the gym, a music master, a Hindi Master, a physics master and two French nuns who nursed the sick and ran the school hospital and who were perhaps, the only two real human beings in the running of this establishment! There was also ‘Spud’ Murphy in charge of the kitchen and feeding everyone. There was, also, Mr Abbas Ali, the clerk in the school office whose son was a day scholar and also one of Brother Nugent’s strapping boys! His name was Hyder and was our link between us and the outside world and also unofficial courier for posting uncensored letters home. There was also the school priest, a Franciscan who, except for Mass and Confessions, had next to no communication with the boys. I cannot remember seeing him anywhere in the precincts of the school except in the vicinity of the chapel.
Brother J. C. Roe was the principal. To me, the only redeeming feature about him was the fact that his Feast Day, which was a school holiday, was also my birthday. Though a rather quiet man he was arrogant and self-opinionated and in his own quiet way, had a warped sense of justice. During my first weeks in 1943, the school was being punished by ‘Gating’ everyone for ‘crimes’ committed by the previous year’s Senior Cambridge, who were no longer in the school! It appeared that someone of the class of 1942 had broken a series of coat hooks which had to be replaced! How his logic warranted him punishing innocent boys for the crimes committed by others in a year gone by, I never understood.
(The evening of the day before I sailed from Bombay for the United Kingdom in 1951, I met Brother Roe at a reception. I told him I was sailing from Ballard Pier the next morning and when I told him I was going to live at Newport in South Wales, he asked if I would like the address of the Christian Brothers’ Establishment at Bristol. I said, “No thank you. I have had enough of the Irish Christian Brothers to last me a life time.” He seemed surprised. By this time in my life, I was not going to pull any punches for anybody and spoke my mind and, most of all, to Brother Roe, who turned a blind eye to the bullying methods of education by his fellow brothers and who meted out punishment with so much relish which made one feel he was taking revenge over something).
The other Brothers were, Ryan, a stocky good natured fellow, an excellent sportsman, especially at football. He was one of the more fair-minded Christian Brother I knew. I cannot remember Brother Ryan ever being ‘Strap-Happy.’
Next there was ‘Snotty’ Sinnott. He was in charge of the senior dorm and spent most of his day blowing his nose, coughing and spitting the phlegm into his handkerchief, hence the name ‘Snotty’. He was a reasonable sort of chap but had the most suspicious and narrow mind of anybody I have known. He was obsessed by homosexuality which, for some reason, he suspected was rife in the school! This was never the case at St.Mary’. It was all in his mind. Other than that, he was quite a likeable man and not one of the strapping fraternity. I think, this was, mainly, because the venting energy spent in strapping would have brought on yet another coughing fit! The others were, Brother Costello, ‘Costy’, who treated me with respect because his brother was once an officer on my father’s staff. He was aware of this, but to others, he was an out and out heartless tyrant whose persistent bullying was responsible for a boy from his class, whose name I think was Noel White, running away from school and missing for almost forty-eight hours. Unluckily the poor chap got captured not far from Abu Road Station. He was brought back to school and later was ‘favoured’ with expulsion, but not before he had suffered the sarcasm of and public caning by the arrogant Brother Roe. Roe made it clear that this was the penalty for attempting to run away. I say ‘favoured’ because, at last, he was spared the unconventional system of education practiced by certain members of the Brotherhood!
There was Brother Barry, a man who did not look unlike Punch, and who was referred to by all the boys as ‘Punchy’. In my opinion the man was an absolute blunderer! He seemed to be, to use a modern phrase, ‘Not with it’. He was responsible for such ‘howlers’ as “Martin, come on out here the pair of you three’ and, in general, making a complete mess of his duties. He was the one who had the habit of confiscating sweets and chocolates which were at a premium in those war years, and devouring them himself. On one occasion he was tricked into eating a whole slab of Brooklax which was a chocolate look-a-like laxative and messed himself in the middle of an inter-class football match! This was the talk of the school for days.
Brother Placidus, ‘Plassey’, a complete ‘oddity’ whose duties in the school escapes me other than he took charge of some junior class. He had a violent temper. He would remove his strap from his pocket for the least provocation and used it with such vengeance that he used to go red in the face. He did this, usually, on the younger boys because the bigger boys seemed too threatening to him! My first impression of him was that he was not ‘All there’ and by my last year in 1945, my suspicions were confirmed. When, following constant ‘ribbing’, by Spud Murphy, that he was to become a cardinal, and, by special dispensation of the pope, he was to marry the Princess Royal (the present Queen Elizabeth II) he finally ‘flipped’ and was taken to an asylum for brothers and priests who were suffering the similar delusions! I met him several years later in Calcutta after his ‘cure’ but to me he was still not ‘All there’. As for poor old ‘Spud’, he was never the same after the incident and I believe he never forgave himself for causing Plassey’s loss of mind.
(After I left St. Mary’s, in 1945, I never met Spud. I liked him a lot, and made a special effort to wish him goodbye before boarding the bus for Abu Road the morning we left St. Mary’s for the last time after the Senior Cambridge Exams. His parting words were, “Yeare a good lad Jock (my nickname). Always polite and respectful. Yeare do well. Now look after yeareself.” Those words did mean a lot to me).
Finally, I come to Brother Nugent. In all my schooling years I never came across anyone who came anywhere near his special brand of imparting education. At St. Mary’s, in those days, everything was done by class. Even the last ‘pee’ at night before retiring to the dorm was done by class. The whole senior school queued by the bogs and made use of the ‘Facilities’ by class order starting with the Senior Cambridge and working down. If Punchy was on ‘Pee Duty’ you can bet he messed that up too, by forgetting what class he had last called. This, invariably, led to friction between classes and sometimes ended by some poor sod being laid out! You never left school for any event or reason without your class master, and needless to say, for some reason or the other, in 1943, the Junior Cambridge was always the last to leave the campus. Unfortunately, this which meant, that when there was a hockey or football match, unless you were in the team, you never arrived at the match till midway through the first half if you were lucky. It was Nugent’s way of showing who was boss. If any boy tried to get things moving by shuffling outside his room or called out that the match had already started, he got a strapping the next morning! The rumour that Nugent was not returning in 1944 as he was returning to Ireland to become a priest, and the fact that this rumour was no longer a rumour but true, was the reason that led to my agreement to return to Mount Abu in 1944. This, in spite of the lack of proper bathing facilities and thunder boxes and no running water and that many of the staff lacked the decorum befitting of a teacher. The boys were a splendid bunch of fellows. I was spared Nugent’s moods and tantrums at the end of November in 1943 when it was discovered that my registration for the Cambridge Examinations had not been transferred to Mount Abu but was still at St. Columba’s at New Delhi. This meant that I had to leave and make my way to Delhi, where I had to stay with an aunt to enable me to sit the examinations. I justified this decision and cost of the extra train fares, by passing with flying colours. It was no thanks to Nugent’s method of teaching but from the determination to keep my nose clean and concentrate on my studies. I was damned if I was going to allow someone with Nugent’s mentality get the better of me. I must admit that I never felt the sting of Nugent’s strap but my heart bled for the unfortunates who did. In all boarding schools, the staff, for no special reason, had their favourite whipping boys, simply because their faces did not fit!
1943 was the year when I got malaria for the first time in my life. At first I did not know what was wrong with me. I sweated and shivered violently and felt absolutely drained. I confided in Carl saying I couldn’t face Nugent the next morning. He insisted I go to the hospital as I had got malaria.
“I suppose I will have to get Nugent’s permission,” I said.
“Just go,” he said.
I did as he advised and was in hospital for more than ten days as I had to wait for three clear days free of fever. From then on, I was in and out of hospital with malaria attacks and suffered them every year after the Monsoons when there were a number of stagnant pools of water which were the happy breeding grounds for the mosquitoes.
1944 saw a number of changes. The Junior Cambridge had be abolished while there were changes in staff. Brothers Nugent, Costello and Ryan had gone and in their places had come three excellent brothers. Unfortunately, Brother Roe was still the Principal. Brother A.G.B. Bennett who had a lame leg, was known as ‘Gammy’ was our new master for the Pre-Cambridge Class. ‘Costy’ had gone and I don’t think any of the boys cared where to and Brother Meredith, ‘Merry’, to everyone, had arrived. I don’t think he ever carried a strap and, in general, was a good friend of the boys. He took over games and a fine job he made of it. Brother Roe took charge of the Senior Cambridge but was rarely seen in the classroom leaving the lads to get on with it. In my opinion this was a complete dereliction of duty. Fortunately, they were a bright set of lads and as far as I remember they all passed their examinations well.
Finally, Brother Dalahunty had joined the staff from St.Edward’s in Simla. He was my class master during my brief stay in that school. His nickname there was ‘Porky’ because of his build and I soon made this known to all and sundry at Mount Abu, for which he thanked me in his good natured way. He was not the ‘Strapping’ kind and as supervisor of the tuck shop I often found myself with extras when ever I bought anything!
In fact, 1944 saw an improvement in ‘strap and boy’ relations and in general there seemed to be a happier atmosphere in the school. In those days, evening games took place at the Polo Grounds. The whole senior school, complete with hockey sticks or in football boots according to the season, trekked to the ground at the outskirts of town for games. Although there was no ‘House System’ which I was used to in other schools, there were usually three teams captained by the three best players in the school, and they competed against each other. There were also the inter-class tournaments in which class six played eleven players, class seven had ten and so on with the Senior Cambridge having just eight. With Saxby, Ossie Jordan, Jackie Dias, ‘Tubby’ Lee and me, all first eleven players, our class won the tournament in all the years I was at St. Mary’s. In 1943 we dared not to lose for if we did, we got the strap from Nugent the next morning. If your class was not playing you skulked around the Polo Ground and eventually managed to escape to the bazaar and treat yourself to russagoolas, burfy or other goodies and even an ice-cream from ‘Youssefs’, Then sneak back and mingle with the crowd unnoticed, knowing very well that the brother in charge was too busy refereeing the match! This meant, to get to the bazaar, we had to pass the Lawrence School field on the Polo Ground which gave us a chance to ‘have a go at them’ although in fact, relations between the boys of the two schools were not very strained.
Brother Bennett (remember his initials were ‘A. G. B.’) was very different from Brother Nugent. His hand was seldom poised over his strap pocket. He spoke in a quieter voice and explained things calmly and sensibly and ensured you understood without bellowing obscenities at you and trying to strap knowledge into you. He had no particular whipping boy and treated all in the class with a certain amount of respect and equality. I got on the wrong side of him only once. That was during a geometry lesson when he asked me to come up to the blackboard and do something. I drew a triangle on the board and lettered it saying “Let AGB be a triangle.” He was not amused and after giving me two cuts with his strap said, “Now, use the convention of let ABC be a triangle” but as the whole class was laughing he saw the humour in it and broke into a smile and the incident was forgotten by both of us for ever. In spite of his gammy leg he was an excellent footballer and played a very useful game on the wing, managing to keep the ball in play at the same time avoiding tackles which got him the name ‘Slip along the line Jim.’ As it was permitted for the class master to turn out for his class, in the inter-class tournament he often turned out for us. I learnt a great deal under A. G. B and thought a lot of his method of imparting knowledge.
(In 1950, he came to Calcutta for a holiday with his family (He was not from Ireland but an old St. Edmund’s Shillong boy) and, as I was very friendly with his brother Frank who told me he was home on holiday, I made arrangements to call on him. He was home for a month and we had several outings together including visits to see Brother Meredith on many occasions, who by now, was Principal of the Catholic Male Orphanage at Dum Dum. We did correspond with each other but as years went by we lost touch).
On one occasion about ten of us from the Senior Cambridge broke bounds on a Sunday afternoon and among us was Ossie Jordan whose mother was a matron at the Lawrence School. On the way back to school, Ossie borrowed his father’s binoculars and instead of using the road we came back via the hill to the west of the school. (This valley has been dammed and now forms a lake). We crept up to the ridge and scanned the school with the binoculars. With the binoculars we could see several members of the staff who, being aware that certain boys were missing, kept watch for us. We made a lengthy detour around the hill and entered the school via the playing field on the way to the lake. We entered the back of the school undetected and made a point of walking passed the ‘Sentries’ wishing them the time of the day and asking them what they were looking at through their binoculars!
Apart from the annual picnics by class and the fete in aid of the War Effort held in the grounds of the British Residency, social life for the boys was non-existent. The thought of socials with the girls from the convent was an absolute NO. Outside contact was limited to hockey matches against the Lawrence School or matches in the Reynold’s Cup Tournament. There were usually about six teams in the tournament, the core four being St. Mary’s, the Lawrence School, the Secretariat made up of the civil servants and officers of the British Residents Office and sundries from Mount Abu and the Crown Police. There was also a Football Tournament which I think was played for the Limbdi Cup and a Cricket Tournament. We were treated to the pictures quite often. There were two cinemas, one at the Rajputana Club and one at the Military Sanatorium. On these occasions, the Convent girls also joined the ‘Party’. Other out-of-school activities were by means of ‘Bounds Breaking’! Often, we would have the luxury of a bus trip back to school or, if you were in the first eleven, a bus to the match when for some reason we all sang ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’ and its several verses for the whole trip!
In 1943, we had just the two day scholars Hyder Ali and a chap a class ahead of me, Tiku Marwanji, whose parents owned the Rajputana Hotel. Hyder, as I said, was in our class but unfortunately he failed the Junior Cambridge Exam and did not return in 1944. The second day scholar was none other than the Prince of Bikaner, ‘Bick’ to all the boys who joined the Senior Cambridge. Tiku now became our touch with the outside world. The trouble was he had a terrible stammer. I remember, one morning, at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the classrooms, asking him if he had news of the war.
He started by saying, “The AL” and then continued up the stairs with
his mouth wide open, and when he reached the top of the stairs he
finished, “lies have landed in Normandy.”
He was a lovely guy and turned up every morning in a chauffeur driven Studebaker car and would do you any favour provided it was not borrowing money!
By 1945, things at St. Mary’s had definitely got more civilised! Brother Morrow, a quiet sort of chap, had joined the staff. Few of the seniors seemed to have much contact with him, while we in the Senior Cambridge were aware that we were on our last lap. Most of the hard work was done in the Pre-Seniors and the latter part of the year was spent on ‘Ten Year Series’ which were little booklets containing the last ten years questions set for the examinations. This not only gave us the feel for the exam but also showed us the pattern of the papers set. We had two holidays. One was for the Victory in Europe (VE Day). To celebrate the victory there was a cricket match held at the Rajputana Club Cricket Ground. One side was the Military and the Lawrence School. The other team was the Civilians for whom I was chosen to play. The Civilians won easily by seven wickets which meant I never got a chance to bat, but I got a great lunch and tea out of it!
I remember ‘Merrie’ telling us the morning after the first Atom Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima about the devastating damage it had done and trying to explain to us what exactly it was! Unfortunately, he did not have a scientific mind and left us none the wiser and kept referring to it as an ‘Anatomic Bomb’. The next day we were told about the second bomb, and we celebrated that at last the Japs were being taught a lesson, completely ignorant of what had been unleashed on mankind! A few days later, World War II was over and we had another holiday for VJ Day on the 15th August. For six years we had lived under the cloud of a world war. Indeed, all us Senior Cambridge lads were not even teenagers when war broke out. No longer would we hear, “You have got to remember there is a war on”. These words were often used as an excuse to refuse you something you had set your heart on. For some of the lads who had already had preliminary interviews for the Air Force, things did not look bright as recruiting would be curtailed. Fortunately, for some of us who had already made up our minds to go on with further studies, things looked brighter.
The first of December saw the whole school, except for the Senior Cambridge, depart for the plains and home. They were split into two batches, one for Ajmer the other for Bombay. The Senior Cambridge lads were left more or less to their own devices to do their bit of revising and swatting and within the next couple of days the exams started. These were held in the study hall of the Lawrence School. After breakfast we all used to make our way there, unsupervised, do the morning exam, return to school for lunch and then trudge back to the Lawrence School. Sometimes there was also an evening exam which made it a long day. Everyone was good natured and enjoyed the freedom of the school without interference. Even Brother Roe kept a low profile. The school was quiet and deserted though, sometimes, you imagined you heard the echo of the past year coming from the corridor or the classrooms. By this time of the year, Mount Abu became very cold at night. To make things a bit warmer, the custom was to increase the thickness of your mattress by scavenging mattresses from the vacant beds of those who had gone home. We slept on three or even four mattresses. We had our supper, went to the Chapel for night Rosary as usual, and then went to the dorm all organised by ourselves. The staff who had not taken batches to Ajmer or Bombay, discretely kept a low profile. No one asked us how the exams were going or how any one was. Invariably the only member of staff you saw was ‘Spud’ who made sure we were all well fed! After years of camaraderie there was a feeling of all good times were coming to an end. One tended to forget the hard times remembering the good times only. The days of Nugent were History. Finally, you accepted the fact that the hardships of the Nugent Years were all part of building the strength of our characters to face the rest of life. There was a certain feeling of growing freedom from the routine of ‘Class, Strap and Clap’ and all we had to worry about after the examinations, was whether we had passed!
In spite of all the lack of amenities that one would expect in an educational establishment in the1940’s, and the pitiless method of imparting knowledge by people who really knew no better, (because this was how they, in their turn, were educated in Ireland), in an odd sort of way, I enjoyed my days at St. Mary’s. This was not because of the school itself but because of the fine set of boys who went to make the school. As a school, it was not the best I had attended, but the boys I shared with in those days must have been the best of my school days and this cancelled out the rest. I will forever remember the picnics to Trevor Tal, by class, the treks to the top of Guru Shikar, the climb up Plummy and the futile walk to Abu Road for no reason other than it got you out of school for the best part of a twenty-four period and wore you out for the next twenty four! Then there were the scrambles down to Ghow Mukh and the pleasant evening walks to Sunset Point to witness one of the most remarkable sunsets I have ever seen. Then there was the Monsoon! It was not as heavy as it was in Darjeeling but it was more persistent and annoying without a break or sunny day between the first week of July to the second week of September. In Darjeeling, if there was a rare sunny day during the Monsoon period and the Principal was approached by the prefects to request a ‘sunshine holiday’, it was usually granted. In Mount Abu, you did not get a sunny day and even if you did get one, you would never have got a ‘sunshine holiday’ from Brother Roe! My memories of the Mount Abu monsoon is best summed as follows:
“They came suddenly and without warning! The sky greyed the carounda bushes jerked and waved in the fury of the storm and the wind howled and tugged at every bough in the forests tearing aged boughs from distorted trees strewing them about in anger while huge rain drops were greeted by the parched hillsides. Then the full fury of the storm came. Thunder boomed about the sky with terrifying salvos echoing off the crags and resounding through the caves in them. Blue flashes of lightening forked and ruptured the grey sky. Water ran in rivulets down the baked slopes begriming itself with dust and a once brown and purple landscape transformed itself to an expanse of green freshness. Once drying and decaying lakes filled and spewed their overflow of ruddy water into dried nullahs that became rushing torrents that splashed over Paddy’s Bridge’ and roared over falls and rapids sweeping all before it that dared to hinder its charge to revitalise the withered rivers down in the distant scrubland plain. Then the rain came down with an even greater fury hammering at scorched corrugated roofs and splashing, hissing and steaming as a whole landscape cooled and bowed to the anger of the storm. The Monsoon had arrived!
For two hours or more the storm raged, banged and flashed while the sky, now black, mourned the passing of the dry season. And then it passed over the Mount to unleash its temper across the desert where it finally spent itself. The rain abated to settle into a heavy drizzle to last for two and a half months. Mist encircled the mountains in a damp and clinging continuous grip which even the persisting gale could not disperse. Day in, day out, the drain pipes dripped and gurgled a monotonous melody which greeted you as you woke and bored you to sleep at night. This intermittent heavy drizzle and violent storm continued into September when all of a sudden the awakening dawn was accompanied by a strange silence- the drain pipes had stopped playing and the patter on the roof had ceased while the mist had mysteriously disappeared. Just as suddenly as it came it had gone- the Monsoon was over.”