My first day at school is clearly imprinted on my memory, although I have no memory of my parents enrolling me in the school. I do know that I was carried on Bani’s shoulders. Bani was our sweeper and he must have been very tolerant as I yelled my head off all the way which was about 400 yards. The children were given a slate in a little wooden frame and a slate pencil, and told to copy what was on the blackboard. I tended to be left handed and when the teacher Miss Vanyck saw me using my left hand she said loudly and scornfully “Have you ever seen a donkey writing with its left foot?” At 5 years old I was deeply humiliated and have always been right handed ever since. Perhaps there was a lesson there somewhere, but on reflection I doubt if anyone has ever seen a donkey writing with any of its feet. I wonder why I didn’t think of that then!!
We lived in a very nice brick house, property of the Railway. The Railway settlement was quite small, about three or four hundred people broken up into three classes: Indian, Anglo Indian and European. The last was divided into two groups, the Covenanted Hands who had been trained in England or had come from there. This was the Officer group. Then there was the group of Domiciled Europeans, who had been born in India and were probably third or fourth generation as we were. This put us somewhat below the Officer class and the two groups rarely mixed socially. But on the whole we were more British than the British. This was more especially so with those of this class that were of mixed blood as they always referred to themselves as British. It was acceptable to refer to them as Anglo Indian, but the term half caste was regarded as most insulting and was never used.
One very early and vivid memory that I have was when our family was holidaying with my Uncle Harold’s family in Calcutta. We were taken to visit a celebrated music teacher Mrs Beresford Scott. At some part of the visit I was prevailed upon to sing for her and backing up to my Uncle Harold’s knee, he went through the charade of winding me up like a gramophone. I then sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles“. Mrs Scott then offered to adopt me for two years and teach me music. I was terrified that my parents would agree, but I shouldn’t have been alarmed as my parents had no such intention. However Mrs Scott gave me a tambourine on which my mother wrote the relevant details. I still have this tambourine.
My childhood was pleasant enough even though as I have said before, it was lonely for me with my two older brothers being away in boarding school for nine months of the year. The three months holiday they spent at home was when I tagged along behind ,probably getting on their nerves ,until I went up to Oak Grove School when I was nine years old.
On one side of us lived the Gurnett family Bill and Phoebe and their three children, William, Leslie, and Pat, Two more children were born after I went up to O.G. They were Hazel and Ken. On the other side lived Len and Tilly Rogers and their two children Sonny and Win.. Several other friends were in different parts of J.M.P., but our closest friends were Syd and Eddie Beard and their four children. Arthur, who was called Sunnoo, Lionel, who was called Tuttoo, Sheila and Daphne. The boys nicknames were dropped in later life. I was not so fortunate. Syd Beard was a senior foreman and being senior to my father he didn’t socialise with us very much. But Eddie and my mother were great friends.
LIFE IN INDIA AS I KNEW IT (VERY CONDENSED)
This is difficult to describe in terms that are credible in today’s world, as it leaves one open to criticism and perhaps justly so. The excellent book ‘Plain Tales Of The Raj’, edited by Charles Allen gives a very clear picture of conditions in India in the early part of this century. But even this book has greater meaning to those who lived in India than to the casual reader. Yes the Indian was considered something lower, sometimes much lower, than the European or those Anglo Indians who considered themselves British. But the class distinction was rife even between these people. A foreman and his family would rarely mix with a charge foreman and his family. Often foremen sent their children to private schools in Darjeeling, Nainital or Simla, while those of lower status sent their children to the Railway School in Jharipani, which is where we went.
As both my father’s and mother’s families had come out to India in the late 18th century we were considered to be domiciled Europeans and were of a lower status than those who had come directly from Britain to take up positions of Officer status. These people often sent their children ‘Home’ for their education.
Having several servants at your beck and call certainly gave one a false idea of one’s own importance especially when that one was a child and was brought up to think that was a normal way of life. You would call out to a servant to bring you a glass of water while you were sitting in the shade or otherwise occupied with your friends, regardless of what that servant had been doing at the time. The Mali or Mather (gardener or sweeper) would be instructed to clean your shoes while you had them on and woe betide him if he put any polish on your socks. This was the attitude of an eight year old boy. These were some of other several indignities that were imposed on the servants, but at the time our behaviour was considered perfectly normal. It must have been considered so even by the servants as they were fiercely loyal and protective. After a short time in New Zealand we realised the unfairness of our behaviour and attitude. I must add, even though it is no excuse, that having been back to live in India for two years, I noticed that the rich Indians treated their servants much more harshly than we ever did.
One particular incident occurred was when I was about 8 years old. Duncan, who was three years older than I was, had won a scholarship at Oak Grove School. With his permission Dad purchased a Dayton bicycle for him, but he was the last of the three brothers to learn to ride it. Being a full sized bicycle I learnt to ride it by putting my right leg through the cycle frame under the cross bar. I managed very well. But on one occasion when the older boys had returned to Oak Grove, I was asked to do some errand or other using the pushbike. I didn’t need to be asked twice. On the return trip I had to go as fast as I could, I just had to. But the right hand grip suddenly slipped of and down I came dragging my left knee on the metal road making a large hole exposing the knee cap. Fortunately I wasn’t far from home and managed to limp there with blood running down my leg. Mother was horrified. She wrapped a bandage on it and I was placed back on the bike, this time on the saddle, and one of the servants pushed me all the way to the hospital with Mum following closely. On arrival it was found that the only doctor was off duty and the dresser who was a sort of first aid assistant to the doctor decided that the hole would have to be stitched. I was put on the end of a bed, my legs were held, one under each arm of another hospital servant , while my mother leaned over me holding me down. The dresser then went to work stitching up the wound without any anaesthetic. I yelled blue murder and nearly deafened my mother. It seemed to take forever, but after it was bandaged and a splint put on to prevent me from bending the knee, I was sent home, again on the bicycle that was pushed by the same servant. As you may imagine this made a lasting impression on me and it was a long time before I attempted to ride the cycle again, even after the injury was well healed. I still carry the large scar.
– Bon Ross.
This content has been reproduced from a document shared on email by Margaret Mohamed on March 09, 2015.