Oak Grove Junior School (1932-1933)

From the start of 1932, preparations began for my going to boarding school at Oak Grove Junior School. Oak Grove was owned and administered by the East Indian Railway (E.I.R) and admitted pupils whose parents were on the E.I.R as well as those, far fewer in number, on the North Western Railway (N.W.R). A part of our identity while in school was being either E.I.R or, as with me, N.W.R.

My mother had already arranged with the school for my entry into Standard 2 (Class 4), and in a tin trunk neatly packed everything I needed for my nine months of school. My mother made a list of the trunk’s contents, and in early March I left home with a heavy heart, apprehensive of what was in store for me as a boarder, separated from the things of home and, so recently, from my brother Nigel, born on January 28.

A bus took me out of Saharanpur, through the Mohand Pass in the Siwalik Hills, and on to the city of Dehra Dun, some 50 miles away. Here, another bus took a group of us for Oak Grove (O.G.) to the small foothills town of Rajpur, seven miles on. The coolies noisily competed with one another for the job of carrying us in their dandies (palanquins) up the rugged slopes to O.G, about three miles on. The sound of their hassling I can still remember as they sought our patronage that would bring them a pittance for their toil, as the four of them would keep up their sing-song pahari (hills dialect).

Finally, at Junior School we assembled, a little dazed, awaiting the arrival of our trunks that were carried up, often four at a time on the backs of coolies, the strain being taken by bands on their heads. These human beasts of burden were to come to mind in later years with the words of Edwin Markham’s poem, The Man with a Hoe. Here indeed was a personification of the poet’s words:

‘Dead to rapture and despair, a thing that grieves not and that never hopes, Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox.’

Oak Grove was three schools under one administration headed by the Principal (Mr H.P.Watts, 1918 -1946):

  1. The junior school for boys and girls under ten,
  2. The boys’ school for boys from ten to school-leaving age, and
  3. The girls’ school for girls in the same age group.

Each of these schools had its own head teacher, as well as teaching staff and domestic servants. The Principal and head teachers of each school lived in their own homes, the best and largest being the Principal’s. The teachers in each of the schools lived in rooms set aside for them and their families, their meals being prepared in the school kitchens. The school hospital served the whole community, and the Valley, our centrepiece, was used by all three schools for Sunday worship, as well as sports and other social occasions.

Oak Grove, founded 1 June, 1888, was set in the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas in the village of Jharipani, the Hindi word for spring water. The junior and boys’ schools stood near each other, while the girls’ school nestled on another hill the other side of the Valley. Built of granite mined in the neighbourhood around 1880, the buildings had a solid, indestructible look that impressed one more for their ruggedness than their aesthetic appeal. The oak trees after which the school was named gave the place an added sense of sturdiness and endurance. At 5,300 feet, the air was as invigorating as it was clean, but for all its virtues I would gladly have exchanged it for my home in Saharanpur.

Children though we were, we seemed never to marvel how, despite the forbidding terrain, the estate came into being, complete with walls and embankments, playgrounds, roads, and an infrastructure for year round essential services. Neither the periodic blasts from hill-sides being mined, nor the sight of Afghan workmen (‘Ghanies’) busying themselves on the estate suffered us to contemplate how it might have been in those far off days when the granite-embedded earth first yielded to the tough dreams of our founding fathers to shape the reality around us. Strange too was the fact that no one responsible for our education thought it important enough to enlighten us on the school’s beginnings, nor indeed on where our electric and water supply came from, or where the sewage went.

Our daily fare, aside from the 3 R’s, consisted of local geography, nature study, and some history, very little of which stuck during my two years there. Miss MacLean was my teacher in Std 2, a swarthy, buxom spinster with a noticeable squint. A pleasant woman, in her twenties, she was, nevertheless, a disciplinarian. I spent many an hour in her class with spelling, arithmetic, and multiplication tables (including the ‘16 times’, for back then Re1 was 16 annas; 1 seer — about 2lb — was 16 chattaks). Words like maunds, lakhs, crores, pies and pice are part of my buried vocabulary.

The ‘brain’ of the class seemed to be Elizabeth Winstanley, about my age, but there was also Neville Gilbert who, though not an orphan, had come from an orphanage in Kalimpong. He spoke sometimes about his mother, and I assumed she was a single parent. He was more than Elizabeth’s equal, being more precocious than she. He had a lively humour, and gave us graphic descriptions of school life in Kalimpong — how they walked round barefoot on harsh surfaces, their tough life making them self-reliant. He had a way with words, and for his age his vocabulary was little short of staggering. We were to go through school together, he being always at the top of the class, while Elizabeth topped hers in Girls’ School.

Keith Gantzer, Maurice (‘Fritz’) LaZelle, Bill Derry, Noel (‘Tuttoo’) Atkinson, Ralph Scott, and Max Arber, all about my age, were among those in my class whom I remember. Most of us went through school together to Std 10. My sister Flo started school a year later and was in the class below mine. The only name among the girls that I remember, other than Elizabeth’s, was Blanche Buckle, a biggish girl for her age, but pretty.

We referred among ourselves to the teachers as ‘Ma’am’. The headmistress was Ma’am Walkie (Miss Walkhem). She came in 1914, taught the kindergarten children, and would address the whole school, some ninety pupils, on occasions, and also conduct the mass-dancing classes. From her energetic demonstrations we learnt to do a group dance while chanting, ‘If all the world were paper, and all the seas were ink… what would we have to drink?’ Flo and I would perform this routine before our parents for years after, rollicking in the laughter we created. There was also the time when Ma’am Walkie gave us a demonstration on how to conserve toilet paper by folding the sheets in half, then simulating the rest of the motions, leaving little to the imagination. This too Flo and I would enact before our parents, with rather explicit and exaggerated movements for comic effect.

Ma’am Sheppie (Miss Shepherd) was a slightly built, fair little lady, probably the best liked among that group of ladies whose exteriors surely belied a measure of inner tenderness. Yet she too was strict and brooked no nonsense. A matron and her husband were in charge of the boys’ dormitory and infirmary. Mornings we’d have to stand before them naked, one at a time, facing them with arms outstretched, then turning around, as they looked for rashes or other skin disorders. Little though they could have seen, even if they had been attentive, the routine nevertheless continued all my days in Junior School. Bed-wetting was punishable by having the offender stand in public, his sheet draped over him as the boys filed past him, knowing all too well who the poor little bugger was. I was punished once this way. Thereafter, when on the odd occasion I wet my bed, I was able to avoid detection by some rather crafty means.

Understandably, there was a certain sameness about our meals, making some of them a little unappetising. Grace was always said in chorus by us both before and after meals, the monotonous repetition making it a meaningless chant. Occasionally, our spirits would lift when Mrs Hayhow, the housekeeper, a kindly, gentle blonde in her forties would come quietly up to one of us to say there was a ‘small’ parcel from home which we could pick up later in the kitchen. Mine was tampered with once but I seemed not to care. It was enough that something nice had come from home. Like the rest of us I was always so submissive that it never entered my head to complain, even when a complaint was amply justified.

We lined up for everything, under the eye of school prefects who supervised us with unquestioned authority. One of these, Hector Brocklehurst, some 3 years my senior, had quite an authoritative air about him as he swaggered back and forth while we waited in our lines before parading off to some place or other.Junior school days were generally uneventful, our free time being spent mostly in small groups on the playground, girls away from boys, under the eye of the teacher on duty. Typically, the girls sat around and talked among themselves; the boys, more boisterous and competitive, played games to determine who was the best, whether it was piggyback fighting, or walking on one’s hands.

I took part in all these, even though I cared little for competition, for there was little else I could have done without being seen as unfriendly. I learnt to walk stairs on my hands, a few steps down and then back to the top. It was feats like this that earned us the respect of others, more than did any achievement in class. So, in spite of my lack of assertiveness, I was fairly well regarded by my schoolmates. Later, in Boys’ School, it was average all-round ability, but boxing particularly, that would give me my standing in school.

Mostly, in our free time, we’d lean on the low wall that surrounded the playground on two sides, gazing at the boys’ school, wondering how things were there. Sunday mornings we’d see a handful of prefects of Boys’ School (‘hefts’ — slang for ‘hefties’) taking their privileged stroll down the gravel road below us. They were a lordly bunch those prefects, with authority only slightly less than the masters. They were aware of their standing in our eyes, for most of them had once been onlookers like us.

Nothing was ever to be the same once I started boarding school. In a perpetual daydream, I paid little or no attention to what went on in classrooms, with the result that I was regarded as one of the dunces of the class — not that it bothered me much. In one of my reports sent home, my teacher made the crack: ‘Maurice must think he is up here for his health’. Ordinarily, a remark like that would have caused my mother some concern, but she seemed to be more tickled by its amusing sarcasm than hurt by its swipe at me.

I don’t remember ever being much concerned about my poor results, deriving instead some satisfaction from my skill in the basics: reading (aloud, generally), writing (spelling, mostly), and arithmetic (adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing – both short and long division). Although my teachers only occasionally complimented me in these areas, my own repeated successes seemed to reinforce my efforts. The final payoff each year for class work was a prize, usually a book, awarded on Prize Day towards the end of November. By then, the school song had been rehearsed to death, but nothing mattered so much to me as the joyous prospect of going home for three whole months, during which time our hills covered themselves in snow. I was not to be numbered among the prize winners until I had spent six more years at Oak Grove.

Directly in front of us was Boys’ School. To the right were the quarters of the married masters: Weldon, Pilcher, Lubeck, Smith and Niblett. A path curved down to the house of the Headmaster, Mr H.H. Gibbs (‘Gibboo’). His pipe-smoker’s cough heard miles away served to alert us in good time. To the right were a couple of cement tennis courts, one for boys, the other at evenings for staff and wives. A seldom used badminton court lay to the right of the tennis courts. Among the staff who played I remember ‘Cam’ Smith and his gentle, motherly wife; ‘Doody’ Pilcher and his florid, perky wife with an unmerciful underarm serve, and ‘Thofe’ Niblett and his trim, handsome wife. As we watched them we’d swap among ourselves an assortment of indecent remarks that tickled the hell out of us kids.

The highlight of the tennis year was the Principal’s Tournament (‘Princy’s Torny’) in Boys’ School. We saw only the finals of the singles, preliminaries having been completed earlier. The Principal, Mr H.P.Watts (‘Horsepower’), presented the trophy to the winner, who at the end of the match, did his customary hurdle over the net to shake his opponent’s hand. The champion was probably the only boy in Oak Grove’s fifty years who had his hand shaken by Mr Watts, an honour comparable to that vouchsafed to Moses on Mt Sinai.

We attended Boys’ School’s inter house swimming sports in their small pool with a 6-foot diving tower and spring board at the deep end. Our appetites sated with so much swimming in a single evening, we found ourselves back in Junior School ‘swimming’ vigorously against one another on the playground. I remember winning a few of those races, and conceded defeat once only in the back stroke when a wall from behind knocked me nearly senseless just as I was within reach of another victory. None of us could really swim, but with flailing arms, writhing torsos and a touch of imagination we became leviathans of the deep.

Of football, hockey, cricket and boxing in Boys’ School we saw nothing. Our life in Junior School seemed like one long wait for the things of Senior School. News reached us one day that Mr Smith of Boys’ School had shot a leopard on the slopes leading to the Doon Valley. In the absence of eye witnesses, the incident soon acquired epic proportions, and Mr Smith, the humblest of men, became a hero overnight. Miss MacLean had us write a description of the event. Basil Haye, I think it was who ventured the sentence ‘Mr Smith discharged[?] / dispatched[?] the leopard with his rifle’, and we tried discussing which was the better word. So meek were we, nobody dared suggest that neither alternative was any damn good.

On my last day of Junior School, a Std 10 girl Beryl Brewster fell to her death over a precipice while waving good bye to friends heading down to Rajpur.

Mr Mahoney, the boys’ school P.T. master carried her broken body back to the road, a feat of heroism made more dramatic by his having a marvellous physique, wavy golden hair, and rugged good looks. So great a tragedy, we were too stunned for words. Our imagination conjured up the dreadful fall, the grand feat of Mr Mahoney, the pathos of a life cut short in tender bloom, and the image of a lovely girl we’d never seen but believed we had. And, after all the heartbreak and the tears, the simple but unanswerable question, ‘Why her?’

For a whole generation of Oak Grovians the place where she fell was known as ‘Brewster’s Rock’. We all believed we knew the rock off which she fell. Such being the bewitchment of our minds by what we had chosen to believe, it didn’t matter that we never in fact saw the fatal rock.

Living for the first time among railway children from places along the Ganges plain, I picked up a number of slang and improper words, some of which came from the native tongue, Hindustani. Our language gave us a kind of homogeneity, thus making us readily intelligible to one another, but just as unintelligible to outsiders, unless we took care to avoid using words of our special coinage. After two years in Junior School, the next seven were to see my increasing grasp of a language that could only be called O.G slang, huge chunks of which to this day I recall with enormous satisfaction.

Even though the speech of many of us would change with the decades, within minutes of our being reunited, an old conviviality and kinship would be restored, binding the scattered years of our ‘diaspora’ in the warm embrace of a shared language. Names like Rawal Pindi, Calcutta, Moradabad, Dehra Dun, Mussoorie, (truncated by us to ‘Pindi’, ‘Cal’, ‘Morad’, ‘Dehra’, ‘Mus’), are part of the melange of sounds lodged deep within me. These and cries of paan, beeri, cigrit…chaa gurrum chaa from vendors above the din and pandemonium of railway stations, heard dimly from sleepy bunks in the small hours, recall a past forever locked in treasured memory.

P.S. I realise the distortions that have grown out of imperfectly remembered years. So, if my past is not now as I once knew it, that is something I must accept as I add these closing lines. As I walked around Junior School in October, 1984, with the principal, Mr Kichlu, and Mrs Raj Parti, one of the mistresses, I sensed a kindliness I never felt when I was there. There was a warmth and nurturance I could sense that was so vital for a place where young children live away from home for long periods.

I can hardly believe that I grew up in India without benefit of real exposure to Indians. Such were the times that though we lived in India, we seemed not to belong there, and the school perpetuated this isolation.

The Oak Grove of my time, shackled to a dying colonialism on the one hand and in the stranglehold of a world-wide depression on the other would scarcely compare favourably with the Oak Grove I was now seeing, rid at last of such perplexities. Nor that it was just the times that were unpropitious; it was quite simply that Oak Grove, along with every other institution in the land, had had enough of the British presence and, motivated by the implacable fires of desperation, was bound and determined that her own sons and daughters should take over.

– M.E.B. 


This content has been reproduced from a blog posted by Maurice Brayley on November 27, 2006. The link to the original post has been removed in accordance with his family’s wishes.

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