In 1955 I was admitted into one of the most elite boarding schools for girls in India- Tara Hall in Simla. (I just cannot say Shimla.) The six years that followed turned out to be among the most impressionable ones of my life. As I revisited the school recently I recount my memories and feelings.
Loreto Convent, Tara Hall belongs to the worldwide Loreto family founded in the 16th century by an English woman Mary Ward. The Loreto Sisters came to Simla in 1895 responding to a request to establish a girls’ school in the British summer capital. After a long search the nuns selected a perfect plateau on the edge of the town overlooking the Himalayan mountain ranges. Nine years later the first pupils were admitted into a school whose guiding principle has not changed: “women should find their rightful place in society by learning to reflect, to show discernment and to make correct choices.” Tara Hall is one of 15 Loreto schools in India that share this vision.
I can never forget Tara Hall’s grey and scarlet building set off by a lush green lawn. Enormous glass windows sparkled across the valley to the opposite hills-a flawless picture even today. Walking down the driveway after 58 years I felt a lump in my throat. Here I was facing the school building making my way to what was once the school parlour. I missed the gleaming brass pot holders with cascades of green asparagus inviting visitors to step within the graceful arches. Iron grills had closed those handsome arches; what was once a polished drawing room with pictures of the sacred heart and the Virgin Mary smiling down, was now locked from sight. It was there Mother Superior regularly met visiting parents to share nuggets of information about their daughter’s progress- always measured by goodness and talent and never by marks. Being the only ‘government servant’s’ child I knew I was different in some way but at 10 it was not possible to recognize why that was so. Tara Hall did not teach the vast difference between the upper and the middle class.
The 80 girls that constituted the whole school from kindergarten to senior Cambridge lived together for nine months of the year, studying, learning to play netball and badminton, practising to sing the operas of Schubert and perform in the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere. Eight of us shared a table in the refectory where we ate breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner day after day, like a family. Mealtimes were watched over by the Mistress of schools — Mother Patrick, who she sat all through each meal on a solitary high table, her Irish eyes observing and correcting broken table manners — talking with one’s mouth full; stretching for the bread instead of requesting for it to be passed; clattering the cutlery and talking noisily. It was there that I learned to eat mangoes with a spoon and bananas with a fork! It was there that I saw a large tin of cheese which lasted a month in my parent’s frugal Maharashtrian home, devoured by eight hungry girls in less time than it took to butter one slice of bread.
Not until I was much older did titles, flags, palaces, Rolls Royce’s and Bentleys mean anything to me. The daughters of the Maharaja of Patiala , and the Rajas of Faridkot and Jubbal received the same princely sum of Rs 8 a month as pocket money as I did. We wore “coloured clothes” only twice in the year and otherwise dressed in the same uniform, spending each day as ordained by the nuns – regularly attending Sunday Mass and singing hymns at evening rosary with fervour. The granddaughter of Mohan Singh Oberoi who founded the Oberoi Empire occupied the cubicle next to mine and I watched her rapped on the knuckles with a ruler for pinching my share of apricots. Eight daughters of the Thai royal family were regularly pulled up for chattering in Thai and not learning to mix with the rest.
During this visit to Tara hall nearly six decades after I left school, I felt saddened by many things-unavoidable in their own place. The once spotless dormitories with their cream coloured casement curtains and perfectly made beds had been replaced with overcrowded desks. I opened the door of one particular dormitory and memories of a midnight feast that my class had organised, flooded back. Of course the nuns were smart enough to catch us and that was sadly before we could get our hands on the patties and cakes we had spent our entire savings on. It was the biggest disgrace the school had seen. Were it not for Bijou Patnaik’s daughter Gita, some four years older than us congratulating us for this midnight foray, we might never have been able to lift our chins again. Nothing was more humiliating than listening to the harangue of two red-faced Irish nuns as they berated us in the middle of the night stared at by so many pyjama-clad little girls. And paradoxically for the nuns the biggest sin of all was “they did not even have a knife to cut the fruit bread!” Even midnight feasts according to Tara Hall standards needed cutlery!
On the way to the chapel my eyes brimmed with tears as I got a moment to chat with a 93-year-old nun whom I did not even know when I was in school. Each time I mentioned the name of one of my favourite nuns she smiled and told me, “she was called by God dear.” She helped me (despite an arm in a sling and an unsteady gait supported by an orthopaedic walking stick) to locate the address of a Mother Bernadine who was still alive the best teacher I have ever had.
It was Mother Bernadine who had taught me most things that have stood by me in life: to write English simply – far more effective than long descriptive prose. To “project your voice and keep your eyes on the last row in the audience,” whilst on stage. Under her tutelage I mastered the skills of acting and elocution – “never raise your arms in useless gestures; unless you raise them well above your waist they are pointless.” She forced me to open my mouth wide so that four fingers in a row could stand inside and the sound of the vowel “aaah” could be heard at the end of the hall. She listened again and again to the sound of the ‘t’ and the ‘d’ at the end of every word I spoke, something that set apart good diction from bad.
Was all this important? Yes- because it gave me a head start in life to speak and write fluently and with confidence which marked the difference between a leader and a wallflower. Perfect gait, head held high, and stomach in, had to be learnt the hard way by balancing on 2 inch wide beams, 3 feet from the ground without falling off. I learnt the foxtrot and the samba and to waltz to a perfect finish; also to jive and cha- cha- down the wooden floor- gratuitous skills but they taught mental and physical dexterity as nothing could.
Wasn’t it more important to learn physics and chemistry -which the school hardly taught? How useful was to learn about lumberjacks in Alaska and the Canadian Pacific Railway when there was no mention of Indian history and geography? Not very as knowledge goes. But what I learnt mattered much more in the long run because knowledge could be acquired anytime but the art of learning could only be learnt from good teachers. What Mother Bernadine taught me could never have been imbibed from books.
Most important of all Tara Hall imprinted values on our young minds which unfortunately have become complete anachronisms today. The words of the school song, “high ideals of purity, duty and of truth,” have resonated in my ears throughout life. No one howsoever big could budge me from those principles. And though I was repeatedly ridiculed and asked, “What was the use of you’re joining the IAS?” the values of integrity and duty have anchored my life.
The visit to Tara Hall was lovely but very sad. I missed the nuns that had given me so much affection. As I walked back with tears in my eyes and precious memories in my heart I thanked them for finding the best in each one of us and nurturing talent no one might have detected. Some of the best writers, painters and musicians have been products of Loreto and of Tara Hall. My getting into the IAS was not a matter of luck — the ability to express oneself and to hold one’s own with confidence is what the school taught me — more valuable than all the general knowledge I might have absorbed like a blotting paper and still fumbled in the examination.
I salute the school and the Irish nuns that moulded me to discover myself. And for teaching me to be grateful to the Almighty for whatever he gives.