A soulful Sunday afternoon in the French colony of Chandannagar, that’s a one and a half hour’s drive from Calcutta.
The trip included an unplanned visit to my school which just celebrated it’s 160th year, from meeting June didi at the entrance of the side gate, who along with the security gaurd allowed me to sneak in as late as 5.30pm.
I actually went and peeped into our old study hall – Mary’s statue and podium were missing, refectory, junior dressing room, Sr Bridget’s medicine room under the dormitory stairs, and was about to stroll towards the Bengali medium school St Anthony’s to look for Diloo da’s hajmi and stick jaw toffees, when to my initial fear and anxiety and then utter delight, I noticed the current principal Sr Anna Maria emerge from far, as she happened to step out of the chapel just then.
I felt like a boarder all over again, in all my childhood reserve — who was caught sneaking into the side gate after returning late from a trip home and going towards the dormitory unnoticed. So many memories including the late afternoon cubicle baths followed by tea time and then the hour of compulsory sports, rushed back to mind…though the boarding has been shut now for years, and this is a day school.
Then I gave Sister so many explanations even as she tried to pacify me by inviting us to the chapel and the back play ground, but I was still nervous and even mentioned June didi, who I had met after 33 years but recognised her eyes even through her mask, allowing me inside, when Sister in a serious tone blurted:
“I have to find out where June walked out to at this hour…”
I bit my tongue and profusely apologised on behalf of June didi — who used to be in charge of the numerous dogs we had then since I joined in class two. She also often minded the two riverside charming parlours flanking the gate used only by boarders, with the two pianos, where we met our parents.
This is the home where I grew up in, from class ii to x, in the boarding school in the photos here, and am now quoting from our anthem – “Here in Western Bengal set, snug on the Hoogly side…which is our joy and pride”.
The town of Chandannagar and the boarding school is as vivid in my mind like it were just the March of 1987 when I left it. Born in, and my parents living in Calcutta — I’m a big-city girl mentally, but with a small-town girl’s heart! 😁
With reference to this visit, I am sharing below – excerpts from my first novel Acrosss Borders, to illustrate the backgroung to this narrative…more of these photos of Chandannagar are on my facebook author page Across Borders in the link below…
by Shuvashree Chowdhury
Excerpts from the chapter ‘My Daughters’
The new school is over an hour’s drive from Calcutta, in the former French colony of Chandannagar, on the banks of the river Hooghly. The headmistress, an Irish nun named Sister Helena, suggests I admit Dipanjana as well, even though she is underage..
During the years that our daughters are at boarding school, it is the first Sunday of every month that Nayan and I love the most. These Visiting Sundays are the only day in the month when boarders are allowed to meet and spend quality time with us parents and family. These Sundays will play a significant part of the memory of my daughters growing years, in spite of the rest of the days spent engagingly in the company of friends, schoolmates and nuns. Life has a way of straining the good times through a sieve, preserving it to conscious memory. Just as it has a way of disallowing one to reach out to the unpleasant memories as easily and frequently. Visiting Sundays, like every other day, is time bound for the boarders. The visiting hours, between 1pm and 5pm, never seem long enough.
Unlike other Sundays, these mornings pass like a breeze for the girls. Their routine jobs of changing bed-linen, giving clothes for washing, keeping uniforms and clothes ready for the coming week over, it is time for lunch. Anticipation sets wings to their feet, making them expedite otherwise mundane tasks. But their appetite takes a beating in excitement. Though Sunday lunches are out of a special menu, most girls barely eat on the visiting ones. The reason being that we parents bring their favourite dishes when we come to visit them. For me, these mornings are spent cooking, then setting all the dishes into a multi-layered tiffin carrier. I also pack into a basket two portions each of tucks —
biscuits, hot-grams, chips, powder-milk, marmalades and pickles for the month ahead, bought the day before.
The hot-case and basket, along with a mat for us all to sit on, I shove into the rear of our olive colour Ambassador car, before we set out. I never forget to take a water-carrier, plates, napkins and cutlery either. Every Visiting Sunday is for us, a picnic on the river strand, running alongside the school. We sit facing the quiet and majestic flow of the river that the girls see the sun rising over, from their dormitory on the first floor. As they step out of the formidable school gate, it is again this river that is first visible, through the large trees lining its banks. On reaching their school, Nayan and I wait in either of the two parlours flanking the school’s entrance after signing the visitor’s slip. The girls are waiting eagerly in the study hall for the ayahs they call Didi, to announce their names aloud from the visitor’s slips.
On hearing their names, the girls pick up their empty truck boxes, bringing them along for us parents to fill. When older, they fill the boxes themselves in the refectory, after we leave. Sanjana and Dipanjana usually walk into the parlour together. They briskly hug Nayan and me, after identifying us amongst other waiting and eager parents. Both girls, then pulling us by hand, urge us to step out of the gate immediately. The outside denotes freedom to them, even if only for a few hours. Now they can be themselves, away from the hourly bells and constant vigilance of the nuns that regulate their every waking minute. The girls skip alongside Nayan and me, rapidly trying to update us on their lives since our last meeting. Though they write letters to us every Sunday, they cannot be free, as the letters are read by the Sisters before dispatching. All letters they receive are also read by the Sisters.
Walking along the strand to the car, we pass groups of people sitting on either side of the road, in varied sized picnic groups The school’s Sunday uniform-aqua-blue pleated skirts and white shirts worn by one or more in each group, identify them as boarders. The children eat hungrily, as the parents look on, indulgently, listening to their simultaneous chatter.
“What have you brought for us, Ma?” the girls always ask en route to our car, to retrieve the basket in the rear, after greeting the driver.
We find a shady, vacant spot, under one of the several trees lining the river. I spread the straw mat on the moist green grass, before we take off our shoes, to sit facing the river. Tiny fishing boats are bobbing about, and steam-launches packed with commuters are spurting water, leaving a brief trail as they cross the river noisily. I love watching the boatmen sway back and forth rowing. It reminds me of the river in Mihirpur, East Pakistan, and my boating escapades as a schoolgirl. The images seem pretty remote now, like from another lifetime. I have not returned there since leaving in 1964, and will not till a long time yet, that too only on a brief visit. It must be this childhood association and yearning for the river that brings me to its banks repeatedly, even though to a different one. Those the boatmen are ferrying now are expectantly looking ahead at the approaching bank, to their destination. They are overlooking the vast expanse of water and sky, impatient with their present situation, not relishing the moment like I am. Close to the shore, in the water, little and large fish play. At times we can spot a snake or two, shooting up from the water.
My girls are terrified of snakes, unlike me, who has grown up with them almost as pets in my childhood home in Assam. But the presence of their Ma and Baba make them feel safe and secure now. They know with us around, no harm can come upon them. This is so disparate from my own childhood — when it was my parents who brought upon me the most damage. Those, on whom God bestowed the responsibility of my upkeep, ironically pushed me unprepared into the hightide of an abandoned adolescence. By now Sanjana and Dipanjana are relishing the mutton-curry and fried rice I have served them. They have put the cutlery aside, bored of its constant and compulsory usage at the refectory, preferring to eat with their hands.
On the opposite bank of the river is the industrial belt. There the paper, rayon and other factories’ huge chimneys sporadically emanate clouds of thick black smoke up in the sky. But they fail to take away the beauty and serenity of the place. Like the soot from my early life’s burns fail to take away the loveliness of my current life, as I sit contentedly in this picturesque location, with my husband and children. The river is lined by huge banyan, mango, guava, and other unidentifiable trees, some bending low to allow
their branches and leaves to kiss the water. Sitting under trees here, one has to be careful of bird-droppings. There are varied birds — parrots, mynahs, crows and pigeons in abundance. Their chirping merges harmoniously with the sound of the launches plying to and from the jetty. The well-built concrete strand, beyond which we are sitting close to the water glass edge, runs for quite a distance, maybe a mile or two.
Beside the school are other well-constructed buildings belonging to the French era – identifiable by the balustrades and French windows. After the girls have eaten their fill, finishing with sweetmeats Nayan brings them in abundance, as his share of treating his daughters, we go for boat or launch rides across the river. The girls enjoy these immensely, bending to touch and play with the clear water mid-stream. Nayan and I usually have a quick cup of tea each across the river, from a tea-stall. On our return, we all go to the local market on two cycle-rickshaws. The girls can supplement their month’s supplies we bring from Calcutta, with their personal choice of things.
We return from the market by 5pm, to wait outside the boarder’s side school-gate. If the girls miss going in on time, the gates will close. One has to then draw the attention of the nun on duty, and spoil a perfect afternoon with the ensuing reprimands for indiscipline. Since I am a stickler for discipline from my own school days, I do not make the slightest compromise when it comes to my daughters. The nuns at this school too have become fond of me. Perhaps it is due to my being a lecturer at a teacher’s training college now, and being on the same wavelength as them on discipline. I make it a point to follow all the rules unlike some parents, constantly urging my daughters to do the same. I always bring them back from home on the designated day and well before the due time, with all requisite supplies as per the lists.
A brass hand-bell will be rung outside the gate, to announce the end of our time with our children on Visiting Sunday. Till then, the girls gorge on street-fare including ice-creams along with their friends, from hawkers crowding the strand by now. It seems like they will never eat again.
Their stomachs are rather elastic considering they have already eaten two lunches. It will be a month before they experience the outside without a nun monitoring them.
PS: Now that the hostel is shut, I’m so glad I’ve recorded this for posterity, as this is historic for a 160 year old school! 😄
PS: For details on the book please click: https://shuvashreechowdhury.com/…/across-borders-media-rev…/
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For more information on Chandannagar, please read here: https://chandannagarpolice.wb.gov.in/index.php/Cpc/history_heritage