A Boarding School Education

Two decades after my own Boarding School education finished, I’m still regularly asked – “Should we send our kid to boarding school?” I suppose people feel that I can offer them a unique insight into the world of residential schooling, one that perhaps eludes the vast majority of folks who attended regular day-school. Perhaps they’re right. And then perhaps, it really comes down to common sense.

That a boarding school education can be infinitely enriching. That it can expose a young mind to limitless possibilities of self-discovery. That it can liberate a student from many conscious or unconscious constraints. These are foregone conclusions. Ones that most people are aware of.

Having said all of this, there is one insight I can offer. And that is, that for all the wonderfully exploratory benefits of a boarding school; it is NOT necessary that these will prove to be assets for each and every child. Boarding School is a testing environment. People used to believe that as long as a particular boarding school does not have bullying, it is well and good. But even WITHOUT bullying or ragging, it is STILL a testing environment. It is a space where a child needs to be strong-willed, self-confident, and self-driven. If there is a child who is extremely attached to home, isn’t particularly self-motivated; chances are that the atmosphere a boarding school offers will not sit well with that student. In the best case scenario, that student will go through the motions (years) at school not benefitting at all. The worst case scenario could be much more tragic, with the student developing many complexes and issues, that might become permanently embedded!

So, when it comes time to send you ward to boarding school, it is less the advice of other people, less the reputation of a school, less your own enthusiasm as parents that should determine your choice – and more your own child’s disposition, of which, you should have a clear, objective, un-biased perception and assessment. ONLY if you feel that your son or daughter can ‘handle the pressures’ of a competitive space where one has to work immensely hard to carve out a niche, should you take the plunge.

Like I said at the beginning, while people may be able to present many advantages and disadvantages of a boarding school education, it is for you as a parent, to really judge what you realistically feel your child is best suited to. And if that means sacrificing a boarding-school education to preserve his or her well-being, so be it. It can be a life-altering education but it can unfortunately also be, a scarring one. So THINK hard before you commit your child to it.

Brownie Points!

As many of you know, I recently conducted a Food-Based Writing Workshop. One of the pieces I’d written for that workshop to share with my students as an example of a Fiction Short Story arising from a Food-Memory, was a story that’s very close to my heart. I thought I must share it. So here goes! Relish…

BROWNIE POINTS!

(title courtesy one of the workshop attendees, think it was Ratika)

Ever since Kartik was a young child, he loved food. Naturally then, when he was shipped off to boarding school in grade six, all of eleven, he sorely missed home. Such was his obsession with food, that it was perhaps less his parents, more the food, that he craved. See his growing up years he’d been lucky to have been lavished with all kinds of yummy dishes, from traditional Marwari classics like gatte ka saag, matar kachauri to even a few western ones like brownies and pasta courtesy of the maharaj at home; as well as continental delights like the sublime Chicken Stroganoff and delectable, fluffy, runny omelettes, thanks to frequent trips to the Rambagh coffee shop that his mum would indulge him in. His was a fairly forward, modern family which resulted in unabated experimentation with all kinds of foods, vegetarian and non vegetarian.

Now, suddenly lodged in this glorified jail called the Doon School, he felt trapped, thwarted, deprived. He heard countless tales of how his friends’ mums were planning to pamper their kids with all manner of culinary extravagance when they’d get home for their debut vacation. Kartik too, dreamed of the same; of fresh baked brownies, perfectly crisp on the outside, soft like a cloud on the inside, each bite, a little piece of heaven!

The fateful day finally arrived. His first term at school done and dusted, the buses were lined up on one of the school grounds. As if stairways to heaven, the boys boarded the quite smelly, unkempt barges. But their poor upkeep didn’t warrant a single thought, because the mind was clogged with one thing alone – home food!

As soon as Kartik arrived home, quick hugs with his folks, he ran to the kitchen to meet his beloved resident-chef, Bhaglu. He was nowhere to be found. And just then, his parents delivered the greatest blow, one that shattered all the built up dreams Kartik had harboured for months, in one swift stroke – Bhaglu, that most loyal genius of cuisine, had passed away! Kartik fell to his knees. He was bidding adieu to two – to a much respected staff member, and to his food-filled holiday!

Kartik’s parents tried their best to lift his spirits. Assured him that a replacement for Bhaglu was being sought with urgent efforts. That they’d take him out for a meal each day, any place he wished to go. That he’d even be taken on holiday for a week to a destination of his choice, that they assumed he’d choose on the basis of the kind of food he’d want to explore. Nothing worked though. See the problem was that Kartik’s mother had never been a cook. She’d hardly even entered the kitchen except to give the odd instruction. In his mind, and heart, Bhaglu was her replacement. And now, he was gone.

Two days passed, he moped and wallowed around the house, listless, lifeless. Seeing this, and perhaps sensing the real reason behind his strife, Kartik’s mother decided to take matters into her own hands. She returned one afternoon with a batter-mix to make brownies, a particular favourite of her son’s.

Kartik lay sulking in his room, his mother’s plan unbeknownst to him, when he got a waft of the oven being preheated, cake batter being mixed. The familiar aroma of that divine mixture ensconced all his senses, his mind was in a state of flux. He felt compelled to investigate. “who is making brownies, have mum and dad found someone in place of Bhaglu?” There was a hitherto unseen spring in Kartik’s step as he leapfrogged towards the kitchen. And what he saw there made him much more ecstatic than he thought in his wildest – it wasn’t a new cook but his own mother, whom he never expected would cook, hard at work in the kitchen for her darling son. They exchanged a knowing, thankful, teary-eyed glance as Kartik sat right there, frozen, admiring. After all, Bhaglu’s void had been filled by none other than his own mum, what could possibly be better. His plans were back on track. He’d have a fantastic time at home and upon his return to school, would be able to share stories with his mates about whose mum cooked what. He felt at peace but excited all at once. Batter mix ready, it was placed inside the preheated oven and the mother-son duo waited together with baited breath. As the dough rose, so did their spirits. Mother and son, had become one. United in their eternal bond, bound by food!

Kartik said, “just 2 more minutes mum.” His mum began to put on her oven mitts, started to reach for the oven door, and BANG!!! A loud explosion, batter splatter all over, the brownie mix had exploded, as if with it, lighting the onlooking duo’s very lives on fire and burning them to the ground. What went wrong, nobody knew!

Kartik’s mum was inconsolable. She feared the absolute worst. From this debacle, there was no return. She had managed to inadvertently wreck not just the intended brownies, but also her son’s heart in the process. As a fearful Archana was scared to even look towards Kartik, a hand touched her trembling fingers. It was Kartik who said, “mum, I love you, thanks for trying!”

Speaking of Nostalgia…

 

So my last post was about creating Happy Memories for our children; a thought that stemmed from my own nostalgia. And speaking of nostalgia, I found these pictures of one of my birthday dinners at home in Bombay a few years ago – where, unsurprisingly, I was playing the fool, entertaining my friends, and generally goofing about. Especially a few drinks down, as many of you are familiar with, I love to have an audience!!

The pictures that I chanced upon however, and they’re the ones I’ve shared at the beginning of this post; reminders they may be of my party-tomfoolery – are symbolic of a greater, more significant truth. You see, what I am doing in these pictures, is mimicking a few of my school masters! And if I may say so myself, despite NO ONE in my ‘audience’ knowing who these masters are; everyone still found the impersonations, hilarious! Now.. Sure that’s because I’m a great mimic.. 🙂 More importantly though, it is telling testimony of the huge impact these masters have had on my life; almost 25 years since having graduated high school, I’m still imitating them! It is true. Imitation really is the greatest form of flattery!

I’ve spoken about this at length before,  so I will try and keep the ‘lectury’ part of my post to a minimal. We MUST expose our kids to passionate, eccentric, inspiring people and teachers. The reason people mimic their masters is not because they want to poke fun at them. Quite the contrary. It is because these sometimes mad, quirky, selfless, nutty-teachers gave us life lessons that have become invaluable.

Here’s saluting the ‘imperfect’ teacher. Because life’s imperfections, can not be taught, by perfect people!

The Doon School – A World Within A World

Circa 95, for me life at the Doon School was a world unto itself. Shielded in large part from the brutal reality that existed outside the hallowed boundaries of the ample campus; we were firmly placed in the school’s embracing womb. No I do not mean we were insensitive to the outside; just engrossed in boarding school life. Our days & nights consumed with sport, competition, and a little bit of studying. A clan, a clique if you will. There were silly things that at the time seemed epic, and swallowed our myopic minds and our racing hearts. Here’s introducing that world within a world…

The House. Not all of us were fortunate enough to pick our houses. Second and third generation Doscos aside; we got what we got. What’s fascinating now is how attached we became to our respective houses. “Men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own”. Not to say our houses weren’t great. My point being, irrespective of many factors including the kind of house mates, house masters, and the perception of the house; each boy’s house was his own, and it was loved unconditionally, with utter devotion. The house then, Oberoi or Tata, Jaipur Kashmir or Hyderabad; was to each of its students, a staunch religion. We lived to uphold the honor of the house. From the PT Gong to the One Act Play Competition; the Cricket Trophy to the Music Competition; each student, with relentless focus, pursued every inter-house title for his respective house.

The House also provided an identity, much like a country does. And not unlike countries that sometimes garner the wrong kind of publicity; houses too were perceived more, or less favorably, at different times (depending mostly upon how many sporting trophies lined each house’s trophy cases in the Central Dining Hall). Whatever the prevalent perception of one’s house, so was one’s own identity and standing in the school’s social order.

Beyond unconditional allegiance to one’s house & the self-image it endowed one with; the house was quite literally, the resting place. A safe heaven, a shaded sanctum (well at least when we became senior). A place to return to after a hard day’s work. The ‘common room’, our watering hole, and the ‘newaad’ beds, our counterparts to the luxurious memory-mattresses we’d ‘sacrificed’ to be here, rejuvenating, completely restful. It was in the house where we celebrated every triumph, rued each loss. It was in the house amid ‘house drinks’ that teams were either congratulated, or hauled up. And it was in the house that each Doon school boy made his little family-away-from-family. Safe, comforting, familiar, and reassuring.

The Sc. If the house was the country, the senior most class was its vanguard. A people who defined the consciousness of the rest of the house’s student body. They set the tone for the house – cool, sporting, scholarly, whatever the case. Most importantly, it was from among these super-seniors that we  picked our idols & mentors. We would sometimes easily, at other times justifiably, fashion ourselves on these seniors. The fellow who scored the maximum goals in the soccer tournament final; the guy who had the biggest following at a certain girls’ school; even the bloke who dared to have his head clean shaven! The reasons ranged from solid to plain bizarre; but we all, whether we admitted it or not, had our chosen ‘gurus’.

Apart from providing invaluable ‘guidance’; the seniors also served as ‘protectors’. At least a few important (read those wielding immense influence thanks to high cool-quotient) ones, that every wise junior had the foresight to ‘butter up’; would go on to bail us out in many questionable situations; even recommend us to that much-sought after ‘post’ that the senior was occupying at the time!

The Sc formers then, the senior-most set of students on campus; were a much revered lot. Sure there were those among them that were not in the best favor with students they may have rubbed the wrong way; for the most part though, they provided sheltering respite. They were our unsaid brothers, our insurance of a good time, our indemnity in moments of strife.

The House-Master. Arguably the most complex relationship that a student shared on campus, was with his house-master. A house-master who really was like a foster-parent; complete with all the love & hate trappings that are part of real-parenting. The house being a country, the House Master was its ultimate authority, its Prime Minister. And God forbid the chosen House Master wasn’t exactly Mr. Popular, the house would soon turn into a dictatorship, rather than a democracy.

In all fairness to the House Master, it was a particularly delicate balance that needed to be struck. A tight-rope walk along the edge of fun & liberty on one side; and faultless supervision on the other. A fall on either side would straddle the resultant extremes of ‘anarchy’ and ‘hate’. Despite this precarious prerequisite, most House Masters were happy, as were the boys in their respective houses.

Perhaps the defining aspect of the student-house master relationship was that of the latter being a strong counsel. In a real victory of the boarding school system and its true ethos, decentralized governance meant that it was for all intents & purposes, good or bad, the house master that would decide a student’s fate. It was the keen insight into each uniquely individual student, that a house master used to determine appropriate action. If one were caught in a bind, the house master was there to help. If one were caught flouting a rule, even then the house master would try to resolve the problem ‘in-house’; quite like the patriarch of a real family would do.

As one became senior, the dynamic with one’s house master matured, much like it does between a father & a son. Less formal, more friendly. Less fearful, more mentoring. The best part, a house master’s blessed pupil found himself in the much coveted position of house captain or school prefect. It was then largely incumbent on the house master, to shape a boy’s life on campus. And to the student, the dynamic he developed with his respective house-master, formed the most critical relationship of his tenure at the school.

The School. With all these elements, the house, the house-master, the students; Doon was our universe.  House first, the school a very close second. Pride for the school, often perceived as misplaced snobbishness, was in fact, and continues to be, ONLY respect. Respect for a universe that helped us define ourselves as young thinking adults. Thanks to the school that let us run wild and discover ourselves. Loyalty to an institution that cultivated our sensibilities. And indebtedness to an alma mater that is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness, it would be impossible to shake off.

For all us proud Doscos who spent between six to seven years of our growing up years on the campus; the gates of the Doon School don’t symbolize Alcatraz like they might have when we join as freshers. They’re the welcoming gates to our home. A world within a world, unlike any other.

http://www.doonschool.com/

With This.. I Thee Wed.. Food!

“3 Mixed Grill Sizzlers”

“Yes Sir”

“And 2 Full Butter Chickens plus 6 Butter Naans”

“Ok Sir, I will have the butter chicken and naans packed by the time you eat your sizzlers and are ready to leave”

“errrrrr…..the butter chickens and naans are ALSO to ear HERE”

(flummoxed, bamboozled waiter, bewildered, settles down and leaves to execute this modest order for 3 grade 9 students)

This scene plays out rather casually at the famed Hotel President in Dehra Dun, as two of my mates and I, place our ‘usual’ lunch-order while on one of our formative ‘private’ outings from boarding school (the kind where you’re allowed out of the campus by yourself, unescorted by coddling parents or regimenting masters). And thus begins, not just for me, but for most boarding school students, a life-long relationship. Say hello to our significant other – food!

To a hostel student, food represents the first important relationship in one’s lives. As such, the relationship encompasses, at different stages, the entire emotional scale. When we join school, food represents two things – the baser value is sustenance, and the more heightened metaphor, home.  When a senior takes away one’s home-food, or when one runs out of the laddus that grandma has packed and sent, one experiences what can only be described as the 5 stages of grief. There is denial… “how could this happen to me?”… “I can’t believe I was the one who got caught with my ‘home-food’”… This is shortly succeeded by anger, though it is almost always a passive, internal anger, since externalizing it and revolting against the culprit, necessarily a senior-boy, results in further antagonizing. Bargaining, there’s heaps of… It begins, like any negotiation the world over, with the least possible offer… “Ok out of the 10 packets of Top Ramen that I have, how about you take 2”… this ‘outlandish’ (from the senior’s point of view ONLY, of course) request is met with immediate and terse criticism.. There’s little choice but to sweeten the deal… “ok ya… take 5 out of 10 packets.. that’s fair right.. half and half?”… finally though, the senior takes 8 and one is left with 2!! and that’s a ‘good’ scenario! Alas… Depression sets in… One cries remembering home, curses the day one was sent to this dubious gang-land that they allegedly call the country’s best school.. and finally, after months of consistent similar incidents, one accepts one’s fate.. Food, especially home-food (tuck), is never one’s own.. not until one reaches at least grade 10!

The ties to ‘home-food’ though are just a small part of a much larger picture.. a slice of a giant pie, if I must employ a ‘cheesy’ food analogy.. Seriously though, think of it like a single battle in an eternal war! The ‘other’ woman in this greed-drenched illicit liaison – hostel-mess-food, which in our case was served at the CDH, the Central Dining Hall. About now, your brain will be forgiven for conjuring up images of ‘central jail’, rather than a boys’ mess.. The CDH was indeed, like a jail, with food similar to that in a jail.. and though our school was too fancy to call this hallowed-hall a ‘mess’, it was a right old mess.. Let me share the good news first (yes, there was some…little….but some)… Bread, butter, chapatis and such were unlimited.. Its what preserved our bowels, our sanity, and our ‘growth’.. Because the rest of it, the ‘main course’ and the ‘dessert’, was divided into woefully inadequate portions that would fall prey (yes quite literally) to seniors taking them away (even and despite the presence of masters and beras on duty, such was the ingenious resolve and enterprise of even those who were failing their subjects, but could devise the most clandestine schemes to steal food); or be simply inedible… Like mentioned earlier, if the just-described two scenarios did not befall you, and you got your ‘share’, the body hardly even registered its intake because it was just too little! Share it was, but to call it ‘fair’ would be a cardinal exaggeration!

In case you don’t already see a pattern emerging; that I today, not proudly, though resolutely, use all the food-injustices through my childhood as a solid justification for my absolute inability to ‘share’ my food, even a quarter of a century since boarding school – is not limited to me.. It is a scarring time that is almost like a right of passage, that most boarding school kids go through.. of course, having gone through this trauma, we have all survived and lived to tell the tale.. but like most victims of post any ordeal – some come out triumphant, others not so much.. fact is, this is all in good humor.. some of us have got closure by marrying wonderfully gifted cooks; others have gone permanently into the food & beverage business and made empires out of it (Nirulas being a case in point).. either way, mine, and many others’ relationships with food continues to be, like most relationships in life, bittersweet! Seems like, we’re married, till death do us part!