My Convent Days in a Historical Context

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My years at Thiruvananthapuram’s Holy Angels’ Convent school paralleled the Bjorn Borg era of international tennis. The only black man to have won Wimbledon, Arthur Ashe, did it in ’75, the year of my graduation from Sunbeams Crèche to the Convent kindergarten. But from then on it was the bearded Swede with the bandanna who ruled the grass courts until a foul-mouthed brat called John McEnroe came and forced him into early retirement. During my third standard the Czech born American Martina Navratilova won the first of her nine Wimbledon titles, a record for men, women and women who loved women.

This was before television, computer and Maruti car, before Mammootty and Mohanlal. Life in Thiruvananthapuram was sedentary; Ishta Ganangal on Akashavani and a movie with newsreel were its ultimate pleasures. Eating out meant paper roasts at Arul Jyothi opposite the Secretariat under red hemispherical lamps on blue moon nights. We actually went to watch the parade at Central stadium  on Republic Days.

A middle aged woman we called ammachi herded a bunch of us children to school. We chattered away down Statue Road, past Kesavan doctor’s homeo clinic, Convent lane and Dr. Govindan’s Hospital where I was born. A few kids came from Vanchiyoor in a horse driven tonga. Meantime on the big screen, rustic tangewali Hema Malini romanced Garam Dharam and continued it off screen. Yes, 1975 was the year of Indian cinema’s biggest blockbuster Sholay. ‘Money money money/ Must be funny/In a rich man’s world’, crooned the ABBA girl. Boney M was formed.

Ladies and gentlemen, I entered a girls’ high school for a five year stint in the year that the United Nations instituted International Women’s Day. We were taught by nuns and teachers who were spinsters. Inspired by Indira Gandhi ruthlessly clamping Emergency on an unsuspecting country, Sister Ruth tightened the disciplinary screws on her wards. The reclusive Headmistress of the school was Sister Mary Xavier who reigned, like a local Queen Victoria, since 1937. Three generations of pupils in my family enjoyed her tutelage – my grandmother’s sister, my mom, her sister, me, my sister and our cousins. A bizarre communal harmony prevailed as we all were made to make the sign of the cross to Father Son Holy Spirit Amen and sing Guardian Angel from Heaven So Bright. In Hollywood Spielberg made Jaws with a rubber shark.  Priyadarshan, barely past teenage, emerged from a round of cricket at Manjalikkulam ground, lit a Charminar and watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest at Sree Visakh.  As we took our baby steps in school learning, India entered the satellite club with Aryabhatta. The cricket World Cup was inaugurated in England and the marauding West Indians walked away with the trophy like rude kids at a toy shop.  But all that we kids cared for were gullible Simple Simons who met suspicious pie-men, stupid mice who ran up rickety clocks and careless Jacks and Jills who fractured their bones falling down hills while fetching water in heart-rending cases of child labor.

However the blatant racism of Chitchor songs like Gori Tera Gav Bada Pyara and O Goriyare was not lost even on us first standard goers in ’76.  Yesudas was a national hit, making the green-eyed gosais of Bombay question his accent. In the year of The Omen we boys became mean Damiens in class, giving the teachers plenty of headaches.  Bougainvilleas danced in the school chapel when Sister Magdalene’s piano accompanied our yells of ‘Ole McDonald Had a Farm/ Ee aa ee aa o’ in the Singing Hall. At the Montreal Olympics a 14 year young Romanian named Nadia Comaneci achieved the first perfect ten in gymnastics.  Incidentally another such sweetheart was to be my maiden love eight years later, after I turned an explosive 13 — Ecaterina Szabo who lit up the ’84 Los Angles Games in a hazy Doordarshan dream. Emergency reached its nadir as Kozhikode regional engineering student Rajan was taken away by the police, never to be seen again.

Miss Jasmine was our second standard class teacher in ’77. By now I had girl friends that flanked me in the last bench. As I gushed with genius ideas unabated to them in class, Jasmine was left with no option but to summon my mom. I was made to parrot a dozen times before her that ’hereafter I will not talk in class’. Curiosity about a mysterious product that a teacher tossed on the desk along with other articles from her handbag gnawed into me. Timidity made me keep my question about the bundle of sanitary napkins to myself. Meanwhile in a scene from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall released that year, a Jewish boy kissed his neighbor girl in class. The girl complained to the teacher who went livid. The boy grown older, played by the bespectacled Allen, butted into the scene surrealistically and defended himself saying, ‘I was only expressing a healthy sexual curiosity’. Even as Star Wars released, NASA space station Skylab fell in the sea near Australia making the world heave a sigh of relief. Indira Gandhi bit the election dust as Janata Party rode to power under a pee-guzzling Morarji Desai.

During third standard in ’78 as John Paul I came to power and died after only a month at the papacy, Sister Mary Xavier, Headmistress for an incredible 41 years, breathed her last at Breach Candy hospital in Bombay. Thiruvananthapuram mourned her. Rathinirvedam repackaged the love story of an older Radha and younger Krishna. Jayabharathi was the poor man’s Sophia Loren. Our gang of ruffians imitated teachers in class and got ‘cuts’ with wooden rulers. I discovered cricket via the radio commentary of India’s tour of Pakistan. The arch rivals were playing each other after fifteen years in a series which blooded a buck-toothed bhaiyya answering to the name of Kapil Dev Nikhanj. Miss Blossom with the braces taught us English. Around this time, vowing to clean up the Augean stables of non-acting heroines of Malayalam tinsel world, Manju Warrier took birth in Nagercoil.

Padmini teacher who had got married and left the school, came back to visit us in ’79 when we were in the fourth standard. Dazzling in jewelry like a Hindu goddess, her curly hair oily and shining, the teacher looked like a fairer version of film tragedienne Jalaja. Facing her former disciples she blushed and burst into tears, gifting me the most touching souvenir memory of the school. The class teacher Miss Kanchana once booked four of us for the non-bailable offense of opening a tiffin box and devouring dosas while a class was on. The wafting aroma of spicy dosappodi had betrayed us. Miss Mohana who taught Mathematics and Malayalam stubbornly defied the nuns’ diktat against talking in the vernacular.  I got my first book outside of the curriculum as a gift. It contained a limerick which went, ‘Inky pinky ponky/ My father had a donkey/ Donkey died, father cried/ Inky pinky ponky‘.  As our division went to ‘war’ with another at ‘the hill’ in the school during lunch hour, like Davids vs. Davids with pebbles, in the faraway sand dunes of Baghdad a bristle-mustached Saddam Hussein quietly assumed absolute power.

Mother Teresa won the Peace Nobel making Calcuttans wonder whether to celebrate or hang their heads in shame. As Mandela continued into the second half of his 27 prison years, we children munched on salted karakka berries and took pride in our burgeoning collection of Binaca toothpaste rubber toy animals. Malayalam screen’s superstar Jayan, whose daredevil dialogues in Angadi we raved about, perished in a chopper accident while shooting for Kollillakkam. This and the killing of The Beatles’ John Lennon in an airport that year depressed producer Navodaya Appachan so much that he thought ‘what could be worse’ and gave chance to an oversize lad with an ungainly gait as villain in his Manjil Virinja Pookkal. Thirty two summers later Appachan was to die without once regretting that decision about Mohanlal. The brightest star yet in our celluloid sky had dawned even as Holy Angels’ Convent became history for me and my boyfriends.


Click to watch the video of the song that I wrote for Conventmates in 2013 

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