School Days

Boarding School and College

I spent eight years — middle school, high school, and college — at the boarding school. Like most parts of India, Catholic missionaries founded several ‘English-medium’ schools in Kerala. It may come as a surprise to some of you, but Catholicism has been in India, specifically Kerala, for several centuries now. According to the local historical accounts, St. Thomas the Apostle came to Kerala in AD 52 and traveled through the south of India till his death, near Madras (now Chennai) in AD 72. He is believed to have established seven churches in seven districts and many ‘Syrian Christians,’ as they are known in Kerala, who follow his teachings, trace their ancestry back to him.

I was sent to the Sacred Heart High School in Trichur, which was run by nuns. There was no boarding school for middle school and high school students, but the St Mary’s College nearby had a boarding hostel attached to it. Since two of my sisters and two of my cousins attended St. Mary’s and were exceptional students, I was taken in as a boarder in the college hostel. I was only 12 years old; all the other boarders were college-level students.

After the freedom I had enjoyed at my father’s house, I cannot tell you how difficult life in the college dorm was for me. The rules were strict, and they were for everyone. We had to wake up at 5:30 am, with twenty minutes allowed for a bath and to dress ourselves in our uniforms. The toilets and the bathrooms were not very clean, the floors could be slippery. We could only use a specific amount of water, and there were no washers or dryers. We hand washed our clothes and our uniforms. The middle and high school students wore blue skirts and white shirts while the college girls wore white, blue, and gray saris. We had to buy our uniforms from a store run by the nuns.

The food was horrible, and often lukewarm or cold; it looked unappetizing and there were set times when one could go to the dining room and eat. It is vastly different from how a college dining room looks in the US. There was no refrigerated food, no microwave to warm anything up, and no options for what one could eat. Sometimes, we would end up eating spoiled food, or simply discarding it and going hungry. We were also required to take our plates, throw the leftovers into a big bin, and wash our plates. The discarded heap of food was then fed to some chickens, pigs, and goats that were kept in a nearby farm. I was a strict vegetarian, but the non-vegetarian students knew that their leftovers were fattening up the animals that would later become their dinner.

All our activities were on a strict schedule: study time, playtime, extracurricular activity time, and so forth. Letters going in and out were scrutinized by the nuns. I can imagine how most Americans would consider this a gross invasion of privacy, or how much like a prison these hostels were run as. But let me tell you something — the Indian parents who sent their daughters to the convent schools wanted exactly this. They feared that their girls might go astray if they were not controlled in a strict fashion. In India, in those days, practically no one went on a date. I still remember what the nuns would constantly say to the young girls in the hostel: “It does not matter whether a thorn falls on a leaf or a leaf fall on a thorn — it is the leaf that gets broken.” Protecting our chastity was entirely up to us, and the convent school system ensured that we remained obedient, studious and chaste till our families had found a suitable match for us, till they were able to arrange a marriage.

This was the world that I suddenly found myself in. I was confused, depressed and miserable. I had little to study unlike the college girls around me and had lots of time to kill – but no one to play with or make mischief with. I realized that I had to come up with a plan to make myself happy.

Thanks to my extroverted and talkative nature, I slowly started making friends with the college kids. Many of them, even though they were much older than me, had lived very sheltered lives and were just as miserable or even more so than I was; they were always looking for someone with a sympathetic ear. Soon, the nuns noticed that, and they started using me as an example of how one could adjust to new environments and succeed. This made me an extremely popular person in the college hostel! 

At school, the nuns taught us everything, except for Mathematics and Sanskrit which were taught by male teachers. During the first week of class, I talked back to one of the nuns, whom I thought was being very unreasonable. I was dismissed from the class and was told to apologize to the whole class if I wanted to be allowed back into the classroom. I walked out and stayed out and refused to apologize; this caused a big commotion. My sister, Saraswathy, who was a senior in college was told that I was a troublemaker, nothing like my well-behaved sisters, and that she should intervene. I was very reluctant to apologize at first, but she cajoled me into doing so.

Since this was an English-medium school, the nuns placed a great emphasis on speaking in English at all the times. Most of us knew very little or practically no English, so the nuns came up with an inventive albeit harsh way to encourage us. Every morning, they circulated fifty-odd pieces of paper, called “Fine Cards” for 25 paisa (local coin, like the American Cent) each. If anyone was caught speaking in Malayalam, our mother tongue, they would be issued one of these cards. The only way to get rid of the card was to find another person to pass it on to. At the end of the day, the Matron collected all the cards, and those who were still holding on to their cards were required to pay the fine. It was a neat money-making enterprise, I will give the nuns that, and it got us to speak in English, faster than before.

And despite my best efforts, one day I was caught speaking in Malayalam by the nun who was also the warden of the boarding school, and she gave me a fine card. About half an hour later, I heard her telling one of her subordinates about how she had fined me…in Malayalam! I walked up to her, emboldened by what I was going to do, and handed the fine card right back to her, in front of another nun. She had no option but to grunt and accept it. I felt good about it, but that incident only made me more unpopular with the authorities.

This was not the only time I set out to outsmart the nuns. At one point, there was a terrible shortage of paisa all over India. Anyone who went to the dorm-run store to buy things ended up getting safety pins, hair clips and the like, as change instead of paisa. One day, a friend and I decided to play a trick on the nuns. We went to buy some candy at the store and when the total payment was rung up, we paid for it with a whole bunch of safety pins, hair clips, ribbons etc. that the nuns had given us. You should have seen the anger and frustration on the nuns’ faces! They refused to proceed with the transaction, but we held our ground and finally they gave in, rather reluctantly.

Many of my cousins and other girls from Koovappady started attending St. Mary’s College. My sisters and I were getting a good education there, and this spread in the village; many people approached my parents to discuss the procedure to send their daughters to the same school. As more people from our village came to St. Mary’s, the more popular I became in the hostel, and in the college.

I spent a good chunk of my formative years in the hostel. I went when I was twelve and stayed until I was twenty years old. The initial years were sad and disheartening, mainly because I was very young and immature, living in a college dorm for the first time. But the human mind works in mysterious ways, and one learns to become resilient and come up with new schemes to make life more interesting. I found that I was exceptionally good at it.

On Sundays, all the Christian girls went to church. So, I started getting some of my fellow Hindu college girls to complain that they wanted to go to Hindu temples on Sundays as well. The warden registered the complaints and one day, approached me to ask if I would take these students to the local temples, since none of the nuns were able to; people from other religions are not allowed into Hindu temples. Since I had already lived in the dorm for four years and she also knew my sisters as smart and able, she trusted me with this task. This was great news for all of us. Finally, a way to get out of the convent walls every week for a few hours! 

When Sunday arrived, roughly a dozen of us would get ready to visit the local temples, and then go to a local restaurant to have a good, tasty meal or visit some local shops. Eating outside and shopping were forbidden acts, but we swore ourselves to secrecy, and this went on for many years. My popularity was such that I was elected as the Prefect of the dorm. I helped students with their homework assignments, tutored them with their writing assignments and consoled the homesick freshmen students. During the freshmen orientation session, when parents were leaving their children for the first time in the dorm, I would be invited on-stage by the warden, introduced as a well-adjusted, successful person, and asked to give a small pep talk on all the things dorm life could provide for you. I was in seventh heaven, and I did my part well.

By the time I started college, I was the longest resident in the college dorm, having spent more than four years there as a middle and high school student. I became fluent in spoken and written English, was a top-notch student, and all the nuns and administrators knew me well.

My extroverted nature saw me participate in many activities at college – extemporaneous speech, elocution on various subjects, social service projects for raising money for good causes, freshmen orientation programs and so on. I tried my hand at creative writing and was quite successful — the college magazine published two of my short stories. I had won a full National Merit Scholarship for my undergraduate studies and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from Kerala University, ranking second at the Kerala University.