Back To School!

Over the weekend of 3rd May ’19, my own alma mater, The Doon School, invited me to conduct a Writing Workshop with boys from middle-school grades. Needless to mention, I was delighted to be back at school.

Wonderful as it was to return to my old stomping-grounds, it wasn’t ONLY nostalgia that made the visit and the interaction with the students exciting; that I have now been actively teaching for nearly six years, have poured tremendous hard work and passion into this pursuit – it was a huge validation of my work and efforts to be called by Doon.

I must share that my observations of the boys currently studying at the school filled me with pride and immense hope. That here is a school that is clearly doing many things right, because in a long time, I haven’t had the chance to communicate with kids that are as sharp, perceptive, intuitive and enthusiastic, as this bunch. It is almost a given for old/ex students of an institution to say, “It was much better in our time.” I am happy to report that Doon seems to have changed dramatically, though, for the better. The systems, infrastructure, facilities, the standards of boarding and lodging, it all seems exponentially better than it was when I was a student there. And let me make one thing perfectly clear – there is NO romance in enduring bad food, and poor living conditions. The vastly improved pastoral care and general environment is palpable, most noticeably in how happy and content, even kids who have recently joined, seem to be. This is most heartening.

Of course, to return to the institution that instigated my own journey of self-discovery, to now aid, in some small way, the potential discovery of a new generation of Doscos, is deeply fulfilling. Somewhere in my subconscious mind, I think I’d decided that I’d return to school only if and when I had a compelling reason, a meaningful contribution to make. This workshop has proved to be that ideal reintroduction.

It has been a moving and exciting weekend, Back to School! 🙂

The Underdog!

I understood the meaning of the word ‘underdog’ at a very young age. See when I joined the Doon School, like most all boarding schools, each student had to fight hard to create a niche for himself. If you didn’t you fell by the wayside, relegated to mediocrity, anonymity – the permanent status of ‘underdog’. What added to my woes was that in the grand scheme of history, I belonged to one of 5 – Oberoi House. Now unlike the other 4 houses – Tata, Kashmir, Jaipur and Hyderabad, Oberoi was a much newer entrant. Established decades after the school came into being, to fill the strictly ‘numbers’ need for more accommodation. So unlike the other BIG 4, it had no pedigree to speak of. Shunned as an outcast, unwanted, the boys of this house had an even tougher task ahead of themselves. To make a mark as individuals while also shouldering the responsibility of building a name for this ‘orphan’ Oberoi House.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when my house, at long last, hit a milestone – its 25th Anniversary, that I actually articulated the meaning of this word Underdog. The committee responsible for the quarter century celebrations got in touch with me and asked me to contribute a piece for the 25th Year Publication of the Oberoi House. That’s when I got thinking. What could I say about Oberoi House that was genuinely unique. And it hit me. It had to be its story as the eternal underdog. I realized while writing the article how much the boys, its masters and the house had together endured before emerging triumphant. A tough road indeed. But that’s how it often is for the underdog.

So I thought I’d like to leave you with the article I submitted to the celebratory publication. I called it…

‘ROUGE NATION – The Birth Of A New House’

When I joined Doon in 1992, I was sent straight to ‘main house’. For the uninitiated, this meant I would not have my 1 vital year of ‘gestation’ in the Doon School induction process. Because you see, typically one is first sent to one of 2 ‘holding houses’; a ‘womb-like’ setting where there are no seniors to bother you, nor the  pressures of inculcating instant feelings of voluntary martyrdom for your ‘main house’! In political terms, going to main-house ‘directly’ was like the equivalent of becoming part of the Union Cabinet, having skipped the ‘State’ altogether; thrust right into the murky deep end – harsher, more competitive, less forgiving.. And to make matters worse, perhaps because I didn’t have any ‘pedigree’ to speak of (read Dosco lineage, i.e., I wasn’t the ‘baba’ of a Dosco brother, father, or grandfather), I was sent to Oberoi House – casually described to me as the ‘new’ main house. There I was, some 1100 kms from home in Jaipur, one of a handful who’d ever been to this school from that city, entering, the ‘new’ main house! So naive was I, that I actually found it rather incongruous I wasn’t being put into Jaipur house! Of course that ‘sound’ logic of mine would beg the question – did I think Doon only had students from Hyderabad, Kashmir, Jaipur and a place called Tata? In my own defense, a scared, home-sick boarding school entrant is allowed a few momentary lapses…

Anyway.. I realized rather quickly, that ‘new’ main house was but a polite euphemism. One that meant anything from rank-outsider, to ‘sidey’, to downright unwanted. You see Oberoi House had only just come into existence a few years earlier. Until that point, it had been the famed quartet – Jaipur, Hyderabad, Kashmir and Tata. Now these were the ‘real’ houses. They had history & pedigree. They evoked nostalgia. They had produced generations of Doon boys. They were, patrimonies..

And now, suddenly, like an unwanted, unanticipated, unforeseen, un-required ‘mistake’, was Oberoi House! It was like that new, poor, uncultured colony that the empire had invaded; except everyone wondered why! Unsurprisingly then, it was revealed to me by my ‘new’ mates in this ‘new’ house; that no one from the other houses wanted to move here. Some had inheritances to care for, to uphold the names of their families and their associations with their respective houses, others had made steady friends and settled into full-lives in one of the house-quartet, and others still were just very, very skeptical. I dare say then, that the only students willing to leave their beloved houses and call Oberoi their new home, were driven less by guilt and a sense of abiding school-spirit; but more because they sought fresh starts and new identities.

I, on the other hand, had been handed my one and only start at Doon. It was to be at the Oberoi House. And I’d better have made it work! So I set about the process of  pursuing a ‘character’ for myself. Boarding School is a tough place. Its like this vast theatre with hundreds of actors. The ones who grab (read create) alluring personas for themselves, last. The others just fall by the wayside. They may as well have remained in the comfortable confines of their tangible homes and intangible parental love. I would work relentlessly to ‘distinguish’ myself from the pack. What could I do to make myself stand-out. Fortunately for me, I sang. And not just ‘Another Brick In The Wall’; I’d started training in Hindustani Classical Vocal since I was 6 years old. 6 years hence having joined Doon, that ought to have come to my rescue. Mind you, even that was far from the ‘desired’ or ‘approved’ persona – but it was at least, a unique, peculiar one. And that was more than what one could bargain for at the time.

So music happened. To use a rather rudimentary term thrown about on campus, I quickly established myself as a ‘musician’. Next up was the task of adding one more arrow to my persona-quiver. But it had to be something ‘cooler’; nothing too Indian for God’s sake. And it came to me. A Doon staple. One that would immediately get me out of my classical-shackles and unleash me as an ‘acceptable’ lad – Squash. I consciously molded my childhood Badminton training into Squash and there I was, selected, under-14, on the School Squash Team. In my head, my ‘character’ had been built. And in all fairness, it had been indeed.

But before you misconstrue this article as some self-elevating Bible for how to survive boarding school; let me quickly put it in perspective. In seeking this ‘new’ character for myself, I realized that it was the new house, my house, Oberoi House, that had been my biggest subconscious support and motivator. And I realized that the house had played that role not just for me, but for most of my peers. You see, this was a house that was desperately grappling with a severe existential crisis. So extreme was the negative pre-disposition towards Oberoi house that one constantly heard it mocked. Zero house, Flying Butter Chicken House (for the beautiful in-flight Swan emblem that my friend and founding O house stud Koustuv Goswami created)! It was all a bit much. But it was out of that travesty that the house and its boys joined hands and decided to fight and find our place. Each boy on his own, and collectively, as a band of brothers who would prove to the entire school that Oberoi was here to stay – legitimate, justified, talented, relevant, important.

Little by little our triumphs came. Chief among those triumphs was being blessed with some remarkable Masters who took charge of our house. Mr.Neeraj Bedhotiya, who was our firm but compassionate general, a real supporter of underdogs – and what better than a new house with a bunch of alleged misfits to guide, shape, mold, and believe in enough to make us into winners. Our victories started coming. Soccer, hockey, cricket, music – from the assumed number 5 (last) position, we began steadfastly climbing the ladder. Hell, we even produced a School Captain!

The narrative, or as news channels love to say, the rhetoric was slowly, reluctantly, but undeniably changing right in front of our eyes. The special pleasure of winning when you’re least expected to is really the sweetest form of revenge. And that’s what Oberoi was starting to do. In the 6 years I was at Doon, we’d already gone from somewhat ‘ashamed’ to mighty ‘proud’ of being the first few batches of Oberoi House. We had all come together, dreamt, fought insurmountable odds, and built a country of our own. One that could now stand tall amidst the quartet. One that was a force to reckon with. One that may have been the new kid on the block, but it was a darn strong kid. And one that was, no Rogue Nation!

Role Reversal!

When I was at boarding school, a young lad of thirteen, being away from home was a most confounding feeling. So much to settle into, so much to navigate, so much to accomplish, so much to live up to, along with the pressures of carving out a niche, an identity for myself. It was tough, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. An upstart from relatively small-town Jaipur suddenly thrust into the top-notch world that was the Doon School; it was simply overwhelming. I even contemplated fleeing, I almost did too!

But my grandfather, my dearest, sweetest dadu, explained to me, the importance of sticking it out. And boy was he right. Because what followed after that brief but painful adjustment period was the best time of my life. Not just because it was ‘fun’ but because it gave me the unique opportunity to ‘discover’ myself. That, in my view, is the essential difference between day and boarding school. You are left to your own devises .. You fend for yourself. You try different things. And you figure out life, and yourself in the process.

To the point that I want to make… This does not happen automatically. Of course not. Aside from the obvious – one’s own hard work & perseverance and the encouraging camaraderie of peers; there is a vital force at work, that recognizes, and insight-fully nurtures each student. And that is, the Teacher. In my case especially, I lucked out. From my housemaster Mr.Bedhotiya and later Mr.Ray, to my Music Guru Mr.Gursharan Singh, to my economics and Squash master-in-charge Mr.Deepak Sharma, to the most unlikely, my Sanskrit teacher (I say unlikely because I must have set a record of the number of times a student can fail that class!); these were men who were not just father figures, they inspired,  pushed, invested time and effort in me, understood me deeply, and dispensed the kind of non-preachy advice that made me embrace my shortcomings and play to my strengths. And that’s really what mentors do. I was blessed.

Now, about 20 years since I graduated Doon, I have been doing a fair bit of teaching myself. As some of you may know, my second Writing Workshop, one of many that I conduct all the time, concluded last evening. And during my week, especially with this group of students (and I use that term loosely considering the most senior student in the group is a corporate retiree, an accomplished, widely published author himself), it hit me… I had become, or was at least trying to be, a combination of my most beloved teachers, now myself, as one, to these students. And the absolutely indescribable thrill and joy I have experienced listening to their feedback and how they’ve enjoyed and been enriched by our interaction, is my greatest reward. I must be doing something right, FINALLY! Before you think this is some egotistical, hedonistic self-massage, far from it. The reason behind my elation is not that a few people spoke highly of me. It is, that like my teachers did for me, I now seem to be in a position, to do, for a few – provide insight & inspiration. I’d been familiar with this cliche, though Teaching is a thankless job, its greatest gift is the gift of satisfaction. Like most cliches, this one, I am beginning to understand, is so, so true. And I am so lucky to enjoy it.

My transition from student,  to somewhat lost adult, to now having ended my own existential crisis, is thanks in large part, due to this beautiful role reversal. And I hope I can continue teaching, until my last breath!

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!