It’s all in the game

Boarding school life has its fringe benefits and its fallout. I went to a boarding school in the Himalayan mountains for a good, long eight years. Here I was privy to the inside track, if you may. The grand old stone buildings, built to last several lifetimes, housed over 200 boarders. The school itself, some 6000 feet above sea level, found a permanent resting place high up in those massive green, brown, and white mountains we call the Himalayas. From our games field facing the main school building, we got a breathtaking view of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, on either side of which were close and distant siblings of the famous Mount Everest – fabled snow-capped mountain ranges that shone under a tie-and-dye sky of stunning color.

A waist-high stonewall bordered the top field, and approximately seventy feet down the steep hillside lay our lower field, where all major games were played. Games were compulsory for all boarders, and 200-meter races were run straight across the length! As boarders, we got to see most of our classroom teachers almost as often as we saw the cryptomaria trees that surrounded the campus. Such familiarity also bred mischief. We called our teachers by nicknames, instead of Mr. This and Mrs. That! (I am sure you had nicknames for your teachers too.)

What’s in a name?

Mr. Bimal Gurung comes first on my shortlist, not so obviously because of his height, which was challenged, but because of other attributes I will tell you about. When the weather got warm as it did around March and April, Mr. Gurung wore loose, flapping pants made of a strange silky material that allegedly whistled in the wind. This is why Mr. Gurung earned the nickname “Georgette Pants,” or later because of his piercing voice and body size, “Transistor.” You may not know this, but that was when inexpensive transistor radios had just hit the Indian market and were being carried around fondly by every Ram, Rahim, and Raghubir. Audio reception was outrageously poor and output metallic, sometimes very scratchy.

Another teacher, who had an equally shrill voice, was better known as “Black Beauty” because of the color of his skin, outstanding as it was on a sun-drenched games field. Later, not uncharacteristically, Black Beauty, although far from beautiful, went on to become Headmaster. Perseverance, not good looks, they say, is key to success. I have a thing about success, though. If it is propelled merely by an unabashed desire to get ahead, the unpopularity that comes in tow may be hard to shake off. Black Beauty was also derisively named “Shugrib” (from the epic Ramayana) — not something you’d call a popular teacher behind his back. To me, the latter name was quite appropriate because the science and math he taught always confronted me like warring monkeys.

Vicarious participant

Everybody called Mr. Choudhury, our games teacher, “Good Shot” for a good reason. Mr. Choudhury, despite his official designation, rarely entered the games field, which even as children, we innocuously presumed should have been his primary focus. Instead, he watched us play from the top field, once in a while yelling “Good Shot!” from above. His bulky six-foot frame was always sartorially correct, but flinging encouragements from high up was mostly what he did, in addition to living in a nicely-furnished apartment a stone’s throw away from the field, and collecting a decent salary largely by sniffing around the salubrious surroundings. On occasion, Good Shot would proudly sport a navy blue blazer that had the emblem of the Indian Olympic Swimming team, but to us kids that meant mighty little.

Good Shot could very well have been Mr. Malaprop too! Once, a group of us went up to him after a game to complain about the girls from our sister school calling us names. Occasionally a junior boys team would go over to the girls’ school to give their senior “first eleven” hockey practice. The girls’ team was pretty good; they had long been district champions. Good Shot listened to our varied complaints, and finally exclaimed, “Did you hear it with your own eyes?” Whether we heard with our own eyes or saw with our own ears, the issue was soon forgotten, for once again we looked forward  to playing hockey with the girls because the girls’ school always served scrumptious high tea!

Neither thinning hair nor an ostensible bald pate could spare our Art teacher, Mr. Roy the nickname “Paint Brush.” Quite a talented artist in his own right, he had this habit of swaying from side to side (an obvious lack of balance in many creative people, I am told) sometimes giving you the impression he was standing entirely on one leg. As he talked, he would lurch unpredictably like a paintbrush bent on leaving a lasting impression on canvas.

Both “Crocodile,” who taught Bengali while peering behind dark brown horn-rimmed glasses, and “Apache,” who taught History, were surprisingly docile, although any talk about achievements in history got the latter visibly agitated, as did tobacco snuff, which he pinched out of a little silver canister. There must have been other teachers with equally fanciful nicknames, but many of them were there before I joined school, or maybe after I left.

Heady heights

After my first year, the Scottish Headmaster who ruled with an iron fist left for greener pastures. The obvious choice then for Headmaster was K. A. Dowd because of his remarkable experience and seniority. Mr. Dowd was a brilliant English teacher and a wizard on the games field. To this day, I don’t know exactly why they called him “Choach.” I owe my interest in literature largely to this fascinating English teacher. Choach was also known to spin tall tales. He told us he had seen the Guns of Navarone with his own eyes during World War II, soon after the movie was screened in our Assembly Hall. He claimed to have fried eggs on the deck of his battleship while on a blistering mission in Africa. Despite some doubts about the veracity of these claims, Choach was always known to lead by example. So awe-inspiring were his batting skills, for instance, that never for a moment did we doubt his playing cricket for an English County or supposedly drinking beer with Sir Donald Bradman. He displayed equal dexterity on the soccer and hockey fields, so much so that, in our young eyes, K. A. Dowd was superhuman. As English teacher too, his classes were memorable.

The entire student population was divided into three houses named after a famous team of mountaineering heroes who had attempted Everest in the early 1900s. In early spring, Mr. Gurung would officiate as umpire in our inter-house cricket matches. He wore his usual georgette pants, which were quite a distraction, especially for the batsmen. The bowlers loved it because they had to put in little or no effort to bowl off breaks, leg breaks, googlies, cutters, or a variety of trick deliveries. Depending on which way and with what intensity the wind was blowing, Mr. Gurung’s pants would sway like curtains in Shah Jehan’s summer palace — thus turning batsmen bleary-eyed and bewildered. Some batsmen, understandably nervous, would even imagine a transistor playing in the background! Thankfully, Mr. Gurung ‘s dubious expertise was not called into play in our prestigious inter-school matches, where victory or defeat had aftereffects sometimes lasting weeks, even months. The school’s reputation was at stake, for often the girls from our sister school were invited to watch, thus making winning a matter of personal and collective honor.

Fruitful pursuit

I suspect Georgette Pants was not very well read, and therefore probably unaware of Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous quote about how it is not important whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. The decisions he brought about on the cricket field taught us acceptance and sporting spirit in the face of all odds. In addition, Good Shot yelling from the top field inspired us to keep doing our best. Choach always lead by example, and stood out like a beacon to ships lost at sea. We put in our best efforts always; playing the game without laying the blame, no matter what the final results happened to be! The aforementioned teachers imparted subliminal messages that I am convinced stuck deep in our fertile minds.

Most teachers, whether in or out of school, help us build character. Georgette Pants, Good Shot, and especially Choach were responsible for inculcating an overriding sportsman-like ethic in all of us. Getting ahead was never as important as playing fair. Now, isn’t that what karma yogis teach us about life? Continue to do good work, and never – repeat never – focus on the fruit! Even when failure comes to greet you with open arms, you must keep on playing. Sometimes I wonder if this very attitude could steer our nation away from the selfishness and greed that is jeering us painfully behind our backs everyday.

Wishful thinking, I hear you sneer, because public and private officials all over India are focused on nothing else but the fruit, more fruit, and yet more fruit! As I look through my broken windowpane into the world, and recall the endless pain that money and greed has wrought the world over, I can picture Transistor’s voice getting scratchier, Good Shot well dressed as usual but tongue-tied, and Choach rolling his eyes heavenward, glancing at the Don, wondering when in Heaven the umpires will step in.

Shyam Bhatya

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real-life characters noted above is neither coincidental nor concocted. Boarding school students from the Himalayas or elsewhere might want to share their fond memories of school on this site, if they wish. Go ahead, amigo, make my day!

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