As the lights out bell rang on Saturday night, all the girls in the 3 dorms would be heard yelling out bedtime greetings to their besties.
“Good night!”, “Sleep tight”, “Don’t let the bugs bite!”
The next day was the day for Sunday visits and girls would fall asleep dreaming of the goodies their parents would bring for them.
Matron Hailey had sized up the girls in the respective dorms in her own inimitable style.
G-dorm was for the youngest of the lot, class 1 to 4, the real ‘kids’. Matron said the G in G dorm stood for ‘Goats’ – goofy young ones, bleating and following the older girls in the E and F.
F-dorm had girls from class 5 to class 8. This dorm was the most populated and had the real troublemakers. Matron Hailey called them ‘Fools’ – foolish enough to get caught after their misadventures.
E dorm – Now, these were the senior most girls in our boarding school – classes 9 and 10, the prefects and school captains, but they were the ones who flouted the strict rules the most. Matron Hailey had the perfect name for them: ‘Educated Idiots’.
I guess the boys in the Boys Dorms kept their warden too busy to ever indulge in such creative pursuits. So, their dorms were named A to D – no further information supplied.
I had joined the boarding school in 1977. That’s when I met Dina Patel in F dorm. My bed was next to hers. She was a unique one – vivacious, exquisitely pretty and completely different from the other girls in the dorm. That she came from a rich family was evident by her clothes and the stories with which she regaled the others. She would speak of what she wore to the derby races during the mid-term breaks and of family friends who had private zoos at home! All the girls, I included, hung on to every word she said during her story sessions before bedtime. Surprisingly, she rarely had her parents or relatives visiting her. That was perhaps the only thing Dina and I had in common. My own parents were posted from one remote village to another working towards bringing government benefits to tribals. This meant that frequent trips to Panchgani to visit me were near impossible. So, a bond developed between me, miss two goody shoes, and Dina my exact opposite. I played safe, Dina took all the risks. There in lay our fault lines. Years later, as adults, we would each crack from there.
F dorm was on the second floor and had a row of windows spanning 3 walls giving a panoramic view of the entry gate into the school, the massive open sports field that followed, and the old tamarind and badam trees with thick canopies that served as umbrellas for the benches below. Every Sunday boys and girls sat huddled with their parents under these canopies, lost in their own private worlds. Two young girls spied on them from the windows of F dorm.
Visiting hours were from 4 to 6 in the evening and the end was signaled by the Angelus bell* which rang ominously, precisely at 6 pm. That’s when the drama turned to melodrama. Moms hugged their little ones like they were never going to see them again, and some of the G dorm girls would start their whimpering.
For Dina and me, this was Sunday evening’s entertainment. No internet, no TV, but boy! Did we have fun trying to figure out the conversation that went on between the parents and their children! Our version was without doubt, spicier. We even used dialogues from popular Hindi movies.
Truth be told, every one of those little girls had enough drama in their lives. Perhaps that was the reason that they were in a boarding school and not at home even though the parents or at least one of them lived in the same city.
Like Judy, whose mother visited her and her two younger brothers every Sunday with the same fare. Three buns stuffed with omelets. They sat there quietly eating their egg and buns while their mother caressed their hair and seemed to be either asking them too many questions or giving them long-drawn instructions. We had seen her in several Hindi movies, standing in as filler in the scene. She worked as an ‘extra’, and perhaps never had any extra money to buy fancier snacks for her kids when she visited. We had heard gossip that Judy’s father had abandoned her mother and moved to England, never having really divorced her. There was news that he was coming back soon for the kids. Perhaps that’s what she was coaching them about. She was scared that he would buy the children’s affection with money.
Then there was Rebecca’s grandmother, who arrived every Sunday with the tastiest homemade cookies. Both of her parents lived in London. Their letters stated that they were now doing well enough to be able to get her to live with them. This left Rebecca really worried. She had not seen her parents since she was 5, and her grandmother was everything to her.
The old badam tree had beckoned the new Muslim twins of class 6 to come and sit under its umbrella when they first arrived. That bench, then on, held the reserved sign especially for them. Apparently, their father was a rich businessman in Zanzibar. The ‘rich’ part was verified when Dina saw the amount that they got as their monthly pocket money – 4000 rupees!!! The going rate that the other girls demanded from their parents was 20 times lesser! The twins attracted the most number of friends and sat on those benches with a spread of snacks from the canteen. Orange and kalakhatta pepsi cola sticks, brun-keema, khari biscuits and guava cheese! But we never saw their parents ever. The twins were mostly quiet and did not reveal much. They just seemed to enjoy spending money on ‘friends’.
Every week day, Dina and I would play together in the Girls Field. Sometimes, we would act out a scene where we would pretend to be adults walking down the street, suddenly recognizing each other. We enacted how we would gleefully shout each other’s names and run to hug each other. But Sunday was story time all through year 5 and 6. Craning our necks out of the window we gauged the figures trickling in through the school gate. We would weave stories that ranged from hilarious to heartbreaking as we interpreted what was happening under the canopy umbrellas. What was happening in our own lives was another story altogether.
Girls in our class started talking about ‘periods’. I and a few others had no clue what that was if not the time that we studied one particular subject.
“It’s when we have babies, right?” asked Judy
“Yes” I replied, not wanting to sound ignorant.
Dina giggled. We looked at her, and she laid it out exactly as it was without mincing words.
Me with my scientific bent of mind, had another question for Dina.
“Do boys get periods?”
“Yes”, she replied. “White periods.”
Judy and I came away from that conversation feeling very grown up indeed.
By year 7, Senior School, our fault lines deepened. Dina had started slipping in studies and living mostly in the grandiose stories that she told. She wanted to be a model, and certainly looked and walked like a miniature version of one. Her risk-taking behavior would show up in flashes of misadventures where she would smuggle in cigarettes and smoke them in the toilet. She was even caught in the Boys Toilet once with a day scholar from class10. She started finding me boring, and I found her ‘corrupt’. We started avoiding each other. Dina’s cigarettes progressed to more potent stuff by class 10. She fell behind, and I moved ahead to college working towards my degree and being a good girl by the book. I sometimes thought of Dina and her spark, and every time I did that, it would hit me that I was leading such a boring life.
I met her once years later, when I was in final year of college. I was walking in through the college gate, a scrawny figure passed me, then turned around and called out my name. “Mini!” I turned around and looked blankly at the gaunt, hollow-eyed face that was smiling at me. I smiled without any recollection of who that was. She looked aghast! “Don’t you recognize me? I’m Dina!” I was shocked at the transformation, and certainly could not bring myself to hug her.
The next time I heard of her was at our schools 30 years reunion. I was a much married, crabby woman living a commonplace life. I heard she died at 28 of drug overdose.
* Angelus Bell – A bell that rings in many Catholic Christian churches thrice a day, at 6 am, 12 pm, and 6 pm to call the faithful to recite the Angelus, a prayer recited in honour of the Incarnation of God.
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