THE invitation to participate in a panel discussion on ‘Impact of internal dimensions on security of India’ came informally from a friend who had retired from the Intelligence Bureau. It was followed by a formal invitation from Dr Mashelkar and Dr Kelkar, president and vice-president, respectively, of the Pune International Centre, and the coordinator, Lt Gen Patankar (retd). The General had been a Division Commander when I was the DGP of J&K and is one of the finest officers I have came across — a thorough professional and gentleman. After my retirement, I had almost taken a vow not to take part in any TV channel discussion or seminars. However, this invitation pulled at my heart strings and aroused some deep feelings because I had done most of my schooling in Pune in the late 1940s and early 1950s — childhood beckoned me, as did the eminent personalities involved in the discussions.
However, the travel time involved, with long stopovers at Delhi, almost dissuaded me — I am four score and a little more. Finally, I took the plunge, accepted the invitation and took off on the appointed date, along with my wife. We got down at Pune airport and drove to the hotel. Kiran (my wife) started cribbing about the roads and traffic and high-rise buildings — these were facts, but to me, every breath I drew invigorated me, as did every word of Marathi. I could find nothing wrong anywhere because I saw everything with the rose-tinted glasses of childhood — things as they used to be, changed and unseen now except through the inward eye.
The interactions were a whole-day affair but kept you riveted most of the time. The participants were from different fields — Intelligence, police, Army, Air Force, foreign service, private sector and NGOs. It was a well-chosen galaxy of participants and the presentations were purposeful, both critical of certain practices and also offering thoughtful suggestions for the future. The question-and-answer sessions were sharp and incisive. I shall not go into the details of these discussions as today, Pune (or Poona, as I remember) is the subject matter of this piece.
Almost the entire last day was free and we made a beeline for St Vincent’s High School where I had completed my ninth standard (I had done a few years of primary classes at Hutchings Girls School). As the car wound its way, with the help of the GPS, I tried to locate the landmarks along the roads I used to cycle through. It was with great difficulty that I located a couple of turns and twists but the mushroom growth of cement and steel structures made everything look unfamiliar — the Hindustan Book Shop where we bought our stationery and textbooks, the Bohra shops, were not to be seen. The small cottages with tiled roofs had been swept away by the myriad of flats. My heart sank and I began to think that Kiran had been right.
Then, however, magic happened and there we were in front of the school and time stood still — the same frontal and side buildings as they were in 1956 when I left school. In the midst of all that I had seen in the city, stood my unchanged light house — a permanent fixture, a source of light and illumination that has lasted a lifetime. At the top of the front building was the statue of Christ and the school logo. I wanted to bow down to this hallowed earth. The lawn had a slightly different look but as we stepped up to the verandah and saw the staircases and classrooms, I was transported to another time and space. The vast lawns, the buildings, the playgrounds were all empty — it was a Sunday and only a chowkidar was present who looked in awe when I mentioned ‘1956’. I remembered that even when the school was functioning, it used to have the same silence outside the classrooms while classes were on.
The verandahs and buildings were spotlessly clean. Soon we were outside a classroom, VIII-B. It was the same room and the same class where I had sat. Wonder of wonders, even the desks and two-seater benches were the same, with scratched markings — original, but maybe repaired and restored.
Standing there, I remembered an incident which had taken place in that room. Mr Lobo was the Math teacher and a real sourpuss with a perpetual scowl on his face. Those were the days of blackboards and he was writing something on it with a chalk, with his back to the class. Some inspired soul took out a pea shooter (a glass tube) and let fly at his back. Mr Lobo whirled around but the instrument had been suitably disposed of. He wanted the culprit to stand up — nobody did. He wanted the others to identify the culprit — total silence. It was the last class of the day, which was to be followed by the compulsory sports period. Mr Lobo decided that nobody could go for the games or go home till the issue was decided. After a couple of hours, the principal, Father Rehm, who happened to be passing by, inquired as to what had happened. Upon learning, he went his way. However, when inquiries started coming from anxious parents, Mr Lobo had to relent and make do with another tongue lashing!
We stopped opposite the class VII-B room, outside which I had my only fight in school. Miss Fernandez was our teacher and my desk mate and best friend was Abdul Kadir. He disliked another boy named Khalil and kept on goading me to take him on. As soon as class was over and we went outside, I punched Khalil and we exchanged a couple of blows. Miss Fernandez came rushing out and stopped the fracas and was shocked at my behaviour because I had never ever shown such an inclination. However, she did not report me to the principal, and I escaped the caning.
We could not go upstairs and see the sixth standard classroom where Miss Gomez was our teacher. I remember the class being asked to write an essay on ‘Knowledge and Wisdom’. I remember because my essay was read out to the class — please excuse my bragging.
We passed the cycle stand and the empty space where there used to be a tuck shop. The playground was meticulously maintained, and a new stadium had come up. Also, a new building for nursery classes. The residential building which housed the Fathers and Brothers was the same one — it used to be a no-go area.
I remembered Father Rehm, Father Hefley, Father Hobelar, Father Clement. Most were Swiss or German. I remembered a picnic on which we had gone to a lake and Father Hobelar started swimming. He asked me to join. A German, he was shocked to hear that I could not swim. The next day, he took me to a swimming pool — in three or four days, he had me swimming. ‘That was the level of commitment.’ We had picnics galore and explored most of the Maratha forts in the vicinity of Poona. When the first factory came up at Pimpri, we were taken to see it — now Poona is a heavily industrialised city. Then there was the NDA and when we saw the cadets on their off-day in blue and grey combination suits, envy filled our hearts.
I wish to mention one thing because it is a hot topic today — conversions. In all those years at school, we were never asked to go to the chapel on the premises and the Morning Prayer was a common prayer. Not once, even obliquely, did anyone broach this subject. My wife also studied at Loreto Convent, Lucknow — the same was true of that school. Maybe things have happened in the North-east or tribal areas but never in the convent schools that most of us attended.
It was time to leave, time to come out of the ‘zone’ and move into reality. This school had taught me and given me the knowledge and tools to combat the challenges of life. It gave me a value system which only strengthened with time, got me ready to be tested in the crucible of life, and its ups and downs. In days of glory and gloom, it has been a protective shield against all the vicissitudes of life. May all the generations passing out from St Vincent’s be similarly armed and also be grateful to their alma mater.
— The writer is ex-chairman of UPSC, former Manipur Governor and served as J&K DGP