Josna Rege

24. Hidden Places

In 1960s, India, Stories on March 18, 2010 at 9:29 am

photo by Karl Hagen

Why are children so attracted to hidden places? At boarding school in Darjeeling, up in the Himalayan foothills, one might have thought that we would take every opportunity to get out of school bounds and into nature, and we did. But more frequently we sought hidden places within the school itself, places unknown to adults and authorities, where we delighted in being unseen.

We organized a midnight feast, probably inspired by the Enid Blyton books that were ubiquitous in our childhood. (Enid Blyton’s boarding-school books were the Harry Potters of the time, except that the magic, for most readers, lay in the unreality of the privileged world of her characters.) In preparation, we collected as much food as we could, smuggling sticky jam sandwiches out of the dining hall under our arms, contributing a can of baked beans and a bar of chocolate, bought from the school tuck shop with our precious pocket money. Some girls had parcels of food sent from home, and we may have cajoled a special treat out of one of them. At the appointed hour we crept out of our beds and down the long, dark hallway of the stone school building, terrified that we might wake the matron. When we reached the chapel, we tiptoed through the stage door and then climbed the stepladder into the loft above the stage, careful not to drop our candle and our bundle of goodies. Once there, we ate the clandestine food, told ghost stories in hoarse whispers, and screwed up our courage to brave the long passage back to our beds again.

There was another secret place, also behind the stage. One night, while students were rehearsing late for a school play but most of us girls were back in our dormitory, we heard excited whispers coming out of a dorm closet. It turned out that there was a small hole in the back of the closet that opened through to a changing room in the wings of the theatre. What a thrill to talk to our boyfriends through that hole, and at an hour when we were supposed to be in our separate dorms getting ready for bed!

Early one evening, three of us set out looking for hidden places. We climbed up to the third floor where the little girls’ dorm was, and found there a door under the eaves leading to a long, low space that ran the length of the dorm behind the wall. Creeping along in the dark with only a candle to light our way, we heard the sounds of the matron and the junior girls on the other side of the wall, all unaware of our presence. As we edged along, shadowy objects loomed at us out of the dark, and we had to catch our breaths to keep from crying out. Then the corridor widened and we entered what seemed to be a small room, where we could stand upright. There was a large, dark object in the corner which, on closer inspection, we found to be an old piano,  festooned with cobwebs. It is hard to account for the excitement that we felt at this discovery, but anything that caught our imaginations or hinted at secret worlds was thrilling to us. For me, the abandoned piano in the hidden room, waiting with open sheet music for ghostly players, evoked my favorite scene in the Classic Comic of Great Expectations: Miss Havisham still wearing her wedding gown after all those years, the wedding feast, cake and all, similarly hung with cobwebs.

We didn’t spend all our time hiding behind the walls like Mary Norton’s Borrowers. Some of the more intrepid among us would “bunk” under cover of dark to a little stall called Hafiz’s up the hill at North Point, and bring back hot momos, delicious meat-filled dumplings. Every evening, in the five or ten minutes between dinner and evening study hall, those of us who were official “couples” would stroll round and round the school building in the gathering dusk hand-in-hand, defying the eagle eye of the aptly-named Miss Hawke. And on the Saturdays when we had permission to go into town, one of our favorite destinations was the New Dish Chinese restaurant, which offered us a rare experience of privacy with its curtained booths.

(For more Tell Me Another stories involving Mount Hermon School in Darjeeling, see Himalaya and Study Halls and Cinchona.)

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. I loved this story Jojo. And to hear of another person who had read Enid Blyton was most reassuring. I still remember being really scared by events in those books, even if the events resolved themselves fairly quickly. I remember the parrot saying “Fusty, musty, dusty” in the old castle. I still say that to this day! Boy, you sure lived it up in your school. I was a complete goody-goody. But my spunkier sister, Janet, managed to tie the music teacher to the piano with a couple of friends, before she converted to catholicism and became a saint.

    • Enid Blyton was a fixture in our lives, Sally, and throughout the former Empire. Perhaps not so much in America? I still remember reading about the “potted meat sandwiches” her children used to eat on picnics, wondering what potted meat was and thinking how delicious it sounded. Now I look back on it, it was probably something akin to Spam!
      Actually, we were very well-behaved children by today’s standards. It’s just that there were so many rules at boarding school that one could hardly breathe without breaking at least some of them.

  2. Josna tai- This was such a lovely read and brought back pleasant memmories! 🙂
    You would be plesantly surprised to know that Enid Blytons were very popular when I was a kid too.. some of the high-demand books in our school library. Although, I think I will always hold it against her that all of the food goodies that she wrote about “tasted” so much better in her books than when I tried them almost 10 years later! Ginger ale being one of the worst let downs 😦

    Never having studied in a boarding school myself, I always fantasized about secret passages and hidding places where we “could” have midnight treats, just like you did! Im glad I know someone real who had an Enid Blyton experience 🙂

    Hope you are doing fine- I will call you sometime.
    take care!

    • Mayuri, Next time you come, I will get some delicious, all-natural Jamaican ginger beer (not ginger ale) for you. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but I love it. I think that is what EB was talking about in all those descriptions of the children’s picnics.
      In EB books, boarding school is made to sound like more fun than it actually was–particularly in England, where many children were sent away at too young an age, and were miserable and seriously mistreated. My school in Darj., though, had an enlightened leadership and was a warm and friendly place, at least for me. I have a lot of fond memories of it, and fast friendships to this day.

  3. Josna, now I really caught the bug of reading all your wonderful, short “memoirs”! I love them all.

    I have never read Enid Blyton, but now I will look for her books.

    “Hidden Places” reminds me of a series of books by John D. Fitzgerald, “The Great Brain”, that I read to my kids as bedtime stories. It takes place in a small town in Utah in the late 1890’s, about a Catholic family in a town of 90+% Mormons. The voice is one of the boys in the family(who has a penchant for swindling his brothers and friends.) There are several adventures in the Catholic boarding school in Salt Lake City that the boy and his brothers attend.

    • Thank you, Anna. I’m enjoying writing them, and went into withdrawal after deciding that I didn’t have time and needed to slow down. I never read The Great Brain to Nikhil–would like to check it out. Catholic boarding school—hmm; mine was run by Baptist missionaries, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, but most of the students were either Hindu or Buddhist. We had many interesting discussions.

      Enid Blyton was always rather a guilty pleasure, because it was considered trashy by the authorities (certainly not “good” literature) and was politically incorrect as well. Her books were banned in my school library in Greece because apparently her vocabulary was incredibly low–just a few hundred words used over and over again. This didn’t prevent us reading her, though, mostly because her books were all about children having adventures without adults around and they sparked our imaginations. The world she evoked was entirely unlike our own; the children were upper-middle-class English and the politics was conservative, even reactionary, but we didn’t notice that at the time–or perhaps we identified with them out of a desire to be them. They were very popular around the former British Empire, partly, I suspect, because they evoked an idealized world of English culture and privilege that readers vicariously participated in.

  4. Jojo- I love reading all your stories- especially this one, as my favorite MH stories from Mom were of the Midnight Feasts! I really wish my boarding school had been more like MH, although I think the people have a lot to do with the atmosphere of a place, and the Murrays are AMAZING!

    • Dear Jenn, I’m delighted that you have read these stories and amazed that you’ve found the time–O Mother of Three! Thank you so much for posting. It was the idea of those feasts that was the most fun–the food itself was highly questionable, but it tasted great because we wanted it to! Although Tsognie told me that there was a higher-class midnight feast group that used to arrange for hot water and other supplies from the kitchens and eat noodles sent from Thailand and other tasty cooked food! All my love, hugs to Lily and Justice, and Gianna, and Congratulations to you and Justin. Take care of yourself, d’you hear? (Oh, and by private message on Facebook, could you please send me your new mailing address?) Lots of love, J

  5. Your story instantly transported me back to MH and our excitement as we planned and then carried out our “daring” midnight feasts! Those corridors you mention behind the upper small girls’ dorm was where Janice Jude and I kept a wonderful cage of white rats for almost a whole year! They had many babies and we gave the young rats to the kitchen manager who used them to kill off the black and brown rats. (White rats are carnivorous and even better than having a cat!) I wonder where Janice is now? She and Merrilyn Lee were two of my best friends the two years before you arrived.
    One of the thrills I remember was sitting up there above the stage and holding our collective breath while the chowkidar (night watchman) came around and shone his huge flashlight about. We were sure he would see us one night and turn us in to the principal, but he never did!

    • Dear Marianne,

      Thanks for posting this terrific (and rather terrifying) response, Marianne. The idea of those aggressive white rats multiplying and then being set loose in the kitchens gave me a very creepy feeling! I’m glad I didn’t know about them when I used to go down to the kitchens at night to get hot water for my hot water bottle! And yes, I had forgotten about the chowkidar until you mentioned him. x J

  6. You guys (classmate) are just amazing with incredible memories. Jo jo, you are in for an Oscar. God Bless.

  7. Sorry I do not remember you from my school days, but the memories incorporated are as fresh as ever. Thanks for the pleasure you have given me in reliving my youth specially at this juncture when Ms Hawke will be in Darj from the 5th to the 9th Nov. and we are getting charge up for her visit.

    • Thank you for your comment, Pratap. I have read some of your posts on the Hermonite websites and am glad that my memories refreshed your own. Best wishes, and I hope both you and Miss Hawke enjoy her visit!

  8. you are welcome ma’am . and i was delighted 2 know that my mere words made your day … it was fun reading the other two stories aswell … hahahaha … i liked your hiding place of jam sandwiches though . under the arms is comparatively better . we guys were even worse . either hiding our food stuffs under our dirty jersey sleaves or tucked tightly below garters of our socks and later enjoying the same like as if we had earned a royal supper … but telling you truelly they tasted sweeter after the dormetry light outs … (in 6th std)
    the other fun times were the evening prep (study hour betwix 6 to 7) where the prep hall was on the ground floor . after the prefects had their strict petrolling we (3 of us) little werewolves had to hunt down grubbs from the Moktaan Stores for hot aaloo parathaas , titoraas , chips , and chocholates . and for this we had to jump out of the only unbarred window of the hall , then run along its narrow racks and jump again to reach the khud side { a dark muddy slope crowded with the tall pine trees which ran down slightly to the fenced area } . oh yeah the fence was already cut in our early missions . such that later it was made even easier to reach our destination which was placed just across the narrow road below the streached fence … hehehe i can still recall the munching sound under the lid of my desk ……..
    Dear Josna , after having read your stories and those small sweet experiences it seems we have actually lived every precious moment of our early life … as human nature speaks ” we human are never satisfied with what we have , had , and will receive … so being a human again i whish we enjoyed a bit more when we had that time .. ” THE TIME WHICH RULES THE WORLD ” …… sob sob .

  9. Hi! Another terrific response–thank you! Did you call it “bunking,” too, when you slipped out on your “missions” for hot aloo parathas? Sounds as if the culture at both the schools was very similar. And yes, looking back those “small sweet experiences” (as you describe them so well) were so rich; you are right that they remind us to continue to appreciate every little thing. Best wishes to you and your family.

  10. Josna that was real nostalgia.Keep it up.I wish I could once again go back in time & join MH. I m going to sleep now as its 11pm.I m really feeling nice connecting wth u.Good night.Rashid.calcutta.

  11. Josna Rege is stil a name in my memory…and so are many of the items in your stories! I remained at MH till the end of ’89, so know most names that crop up in MH reminiscences. It’s very satisfying to hear that one of the main purposes I had for nearly 30 years in the school,, which was to make it a home away from home for your kids,.. seems to have been fulfilled. You may not have kept in touch to know that I took over from Mr.Murray in 1978 after several years away in Australia. I have had contact through FB with Marianne and Chuni and we had wonderful reunions in Kolkata and Bangkok when visiting India for our Diamond Anniversary trip earlier this year.

    • Dear Mr. Johnston!
      How kind of you to comment on my story! Yes, it is thanks to your vision and warmth–yours, the Murrays’, and the exceptional teachers and staff–that Hermonites never become ex-Hermonites. How many other alumnae sing their school song on a regular basis? Very few, I’m quite sure. In Jan. 1984, when I took my husband to India right after we got married, my second destination after visiting our family was Darjeeling and MH, where I had written to you in advance and you had kindly booked us into the Windamere. We met at that time–the school was closed for the winter, of course–and you caught me up on news of my friends and classmates (including the tragic and shocking news that Preet Mander had died ten years before). Heartfelt thanks to you and to Mrs. Johnston for everything that you are and everything you have done, and Congratulations on your Diamond Anniversary! I looked at the photos and watched the video of the Kolkata celebration on Facebook and so wished that I could have been there. I have a clear memory of you directing us in learning to sing Blake’s “Jerusalem” with the requisite feeling, especially when we got to:
      I will not cease from mental fight
      Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

      With love and very best wishes for the New Year,
      Josna (Jojo, SC Class of ’69)

  12. How lovely to hear from Mr. Johnston! He has a warm place in my heart as well, because he called me into his office at the end of my time at MH just before the final dinner and gave me a lovely book of the orchids of E.P.Gee who was an Englishman in Shillong with a marvelous collection of orchids, It was so thoughtful of him to do that, knowing I was so crushed not to have received the Miss Stahl cup which I was apparently considered for, but some female staff members refused me. I never did find out what they did not like about my behavior, but Mr. Johnston made me realize that there were still one or two people who thought I was an acceptable girl if not the best leader(because I had a boyfriend).

    Strange how something like that can cut so deep. Anyway, he was very kind to me and I always loved him for it.

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