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!

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