The Internet Personified: B is for Boarding School

The alphabet editions part ii

My darling phat philter coffees,

This is EDITION TWO of my Great Alphabet Series, where I use the alphabet as a prompt to explore some aspect of my life. I got a bunch of emails for the first one (which you can read here) and all were encouraging! So onward we go.

There are people who go to boarding school who never seem to have left it. You know the type of person I mean. Their friends are exclusively from that part of their lives or maybe, when they’re around each other, suddenly they stop being in their thirties, forties, fifties, and revert to being teenagers around each other, wide mouthed laughs at nothing very funny. In-jokes swapped around. Back slaps—these are mostly men I’m thinking about, I don’t know why there’s not a particular Boarding School Woman, or maybe I haven’t met any—and lots of alcohol. Someone might pull out a joint, the others look at each other sideways, smirks across their faces. Their wives are putting the children to sleep. Maybe there’s a wife or two left, sitting around the fire—when I think of them, it is in the winter, which is apt, because all of India’s boarding schools are on cold pretty hills, a British legacy—and that wife is nursing a Bacardi Breezer or a glass of white wine, and the men are drinking Scotch. To be polite, some of the men might include the Wife in their conversation, but really, she’s holding them back. They are here to celebrate each other, men don’t really have close friendships with each other that they are allowed to cherish, and this is the one weekend all these men have to lean into each other a bit. To let go, to be around the friends of their youth. To say—in the words of Joni Mitchell—”I love you” right out loud.

There are those kind of people, and then there is me. What I did was what a friend described as “Boarding School Tourism.” I was in and out in two years, ages 14 to 16, returning to Delhi for my eleventh and twelfth, and also returning a different person than when I left it. Living independently for two years in the midst of your teens will do that to you. Sure, we had loads of adults, adults coming out of our ears, sometimes even too many adults, but for the most part, what boarding school expects of you is to be responsible for yourself way ahead of the time that your parents, back home in your soft day school life, would have expected you to be. Of course there were rules you had to follow, but you could break a lot of those rules, and there wouldn’t be that much trouble. Some were sacrosanct, those you obeyed, or dodged more cleverly, but if, for example, you were so inclined to stay awake after lights off, you could. It would be a bit dull and also you’d have a hard time making your 5.30 am wake up call, but you could.

My particular boarding school was called The Lawrence School, and it was in a little part of Tamil Nadu that I had literally never heard of before my cousins were sent there. The place was called Lovedale, and so the school was called Lovedale (up North, The Lawrence School has another branch in Sanawar, and that version is called, duh, Sanawar). It was unusual because it was one of the few co-ed boarding schools in India, a fact that made our teachers paranoid and extra vigilant about guarding our virtues. About an hour or less drive up from Ooty, that whole spot was a popular boarding school area. On one side, there was Hebron, which was an international school, so full of white kids, and far more liberal than us, which made it the envy of everyone. There were two smaller ones for younger children—Lovedale only started taking kids at eight? eleven? I don’t remember, but small—and if you wanted your kids to start going to boarding school, at, oh, I don’t know, five or something, you could put them in one of the prep schools close by.

I am glad I was fourteen when I went. It’s the sort of age you’re already beginning to pull away from your parents, seeing yourself as the centre of the universe, everyone else receding quickly. Amongst other teenagers, I was happy, we all had the same concerns. In the cocooned safe environment of Lovedale, I kept my innocence for another three or four years, something I only realise now. Even though I pulled against my leash many times, I never broke it. And I was an innocent child for much longer than most. Reading so much made me both peculiarly older than everyone, but also younger than my peers who had real life experience. Many years later, I found out not everyone stayed as sheltered as I did, people were drinking, getting high, sneaking make out sessions on deserted parts of campus, much like teens everywhere. I was never much of a rule-breaker.

A representative image of me at sixteen at Lovedale. We were allowed to wear saris at Diwali and also this is the clearest photo I have of my face, everything else seems to have been taken in the dark. A lot of us wore our hair like that, brushed under, and side parted so you always had to tilt your head to one side. This worked better—needless to say—-for girls with straight hair rather than hut shaped heads like mine.

I can only tell a few stories, because my life there is so clear and so stamped on my brain, that it would take a whole book to unravel all of it. I’ll tell you a few memories that stand out though.

The Period Toilet

There was one stall in the Girls’ School bathroom—that’s what the senior girls’ hostel was called: Girls’ School, which is kind of misleading, because we had to walk across the hill (and a gated area with a guard watching us to make sure we weren’t sneaking boys back) and down a road to get to our classes, where the boys also lived, known as Senior School—anyway, there was this one stall, in the corner, which was dedicated to our periods. Girls took off their sanitary pads and tossed them over the wall of the cubicle, where they collected in one large festering pile, until they were raked out and disposed of once a week. You were supposed to open the door, of course, and put it inside the bin there, but no one dared enter, it was too gross to contemplate, so over the wall it went.

At one point, the administration decided it would be nice if some of the boys came for scheduled visits over on the girls’ side. A way to demystify the opposite sex, I suppose. Each week, one or two likely fellows—did well in classes or something—were brought to us for lunch like sacrificial virgins. Everyone was on their best behaviour, especially the boys, who looked around, eyes popping, like they’d been admitted to some secret cult headquarters. Then they asked to use the loo, and all our composure fell apart, because in the loo was the period stall and to admit that we had a PERIOD STALL, well, we might as well have taken off our clothes and run around naked. Teenage girls like to behave, most of all, like they are not human. They rarely eat, they definitely do not fart or poop or pee, they never have blood emerging out of them once a month, in fact, they would like the world to assume that they were born hair brushed and lip glossed, with no attachments in the world. Teenage girls were born, they’ll argue, to stand in clumps with each other, wisecracking, posing, and smelling delicious. Thousands of teenage boys have fallen prey to this illusion. Teenage girls are terrifying, and I ought to know, I used to be one. (But only to the outside world, on the inside, they are all just swans paddling wildly beneath the surface.)

Luckily, one of the housemistresses realised our dilemma and she allowed the boys to use the visitor’s toilet, and so the crisis passed.

The Dramatic Society

I went from being somewhat of a wallflower in Delhi, to throwing myself into every single activity that school offered. Philately? Sure! (It was so boring.) Debate team? ON IT. Choir? I can still sing some of those songs. The school newspaper? I nursed ambitions of being the editor one day. But what I did the most—what I loved the most—was the dramatic society, which didn’t even really have a name, I mean, we never said, “I’m a member of the dramatic society” we just said we acted in plays.

There were two sets of shows we did: just within your own house and one for the whole school at Founder’s Day. The smaller show was an inter-house play competition. I was in Vindhya—all the houses were named after mountain ranges, we used to have separate house names for the girls and boys, but that got confusing, so they just integrated us—I was glad to be in Vindhya house because our house colour was purple, which was my favourite colour at the time. And you got judged and whichever house won got a cup or whatever. Very Hogwarts, except our food was execrable. Like Oliver Twist bad. (Later we found out it was because the caterer had been happily siphoning off funds and serving us shitty food, but this happened much too late to make a difference to me.) The first year I did a play, I fell head over heels in love with my co-star, the older brother of one of my batchmates. I adored him. I worshipped him. I gazed at him with moony eyes. I loved him so much, I thought I’d give him a rakhi—once you were rakhi-brothered with someone, you had an excuse for further intimacy—only I asked my mum to send some from Delhi and she sent my maid’s son, which I mentioned in my note to this fellow and thereby super insulted him for some reason? He would not, he made clear to me, and the messenger who sent the note, wear a rakhi picked out by a servant. He returned all of it to me, the rakhi, the note, and devastated me for the whole weekend, but there was my first run in with the Prince Inside Every Indian Man. I never spoke to him again, though I felt bad whenever I saw him. Ugh.

I loved acting though. I loved being on stage, and the carmaraderie of it all, and being “famous” through the school. I loved it even when I got head lice from sharing a hairbrush back stage. Those lice! I thought I’d never get rid of them, they loved my thick curly hair so much. I had to use lice shampoo (gross) and combs (also gross) and cut all my hair off and still they remained for the longest time. Just thinking about them is making my head itch.

Wow, this is long. I should stop. I still have so much to tell you: that was the time Titanic came out, and every weekend—we were only allowed stereo systems on the weekend—someone or the other would be playing My Heart Will Go On, so you listened to it over and over again. We wrote letters every week, and my great delight was receiving mail, only my housemistress picked off any foreign stamps before she passed them on, which irritated me mightily, but I could never say anything, because, well, she was the housemistress. The teachers! Such varied characters, some strange ones in there. Horse riding. Reading, reading, reading. Having a uniform for every hour of the day. KAJOL shooting part of her movie on campus and getting half my head in the music video. (Green t-shirt, when she’s jumped on the table. I could see all the way up her skirt but she was wearing tights and bicycle shorts.)

It was fun. I was glad to come home, glad it was only two years, but it was still fun.

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Links I Liked On The Internet This Week:

Slow week for links because America was obsessed with their inauguration which was nice but, like, not that interesting to me, and sadly, the rest of the world didn’t have much I found either. If you’ve read something fun and interesting this week, would you please leave a link in the comments? THANK YOU.

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I wrote the second of my Auth Couture columns where I talk about the intersection of writers and the fashion they wore. This month, I talk about Ismat Chughtai, which led me to her paisley embroidered blouse, which led me to the history of paisley. I found it hugely interesting. Read, read.

I liked this piece on reparative justice, ie, when the victim’s family get to talk to the killer for some sort of closure. It’s a radical idea, and backfired in the case of this story, but it’s an interesting thought.

That’s a wrap! See you next time for the letter “c”!

xx

m

Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.

Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.

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