At boarding school in Darjeeling back in the 1960s we were required to sit through three study periods a day: morning study, from 6:30 to 7:30 am—tantalizing because the study hall was adjacent to the kitchens and we could smell breakfast being prepared; afternoon study, from 4:30 to 6 pm—also hard to sit through before dinner, since, as growing adolescents, we were perpetually hungry; and evening study, a mercifully short hour after dinner, followed by a precious hour of free time before Lights Out.
During these tedious sessions I would while away the time daydreaming or passing notes furtively back and forth between the rows of desks without attracting the attention of the teacher monitoring from a dais at the front of the hall. (In a box somewhere I still have a little stack of these notes, many of them written in Thai, which my boyfriend was teaching me.) I was grateful that I was studying the piano, because it allowed me to excuse myself legitimately from morning study for a daily half-hour of peaceful music practice—from which I could sneak out for a few minutes to race back up to the girls’ dormitory if I had not had time to make my bed between the Rising Bell at 6 am and the beginning of the study hour. (I was a slow riser at the best of times, especially on cold, misty mornings in that unheated stone building, where we had to keep three blankets on our beds throughout the school year.)
We were required to keep a log in which we accounted for our study time and which was checked periodically by the teacher on duty. Because I never kept mine up, I was obliged to reconstruct several weeks’ worth as each review loomed. This was a faintly enjoyable creative exercise, with an element of danger involved if the subterfuge were to be found out; for the study hall was a place of punishment as well as of mere boredom. As we accumulated demerits for this or that infringement of the rules, we would have privileges progressively suspended, starting with our monthly pocket money, followed by the movie shown in the chapel every Saturday night, and finally, the highly anticipated Saturday every month when we were free to go into town for the day. On at least two occasions I had to sit writing an essay alone in the study hall while my classmates were watching the weekly movie upstairs or treating themselves to Keventer’s legendary milk shakes in Darjeeling.
I won’t dwell on the nightmarish exam periods that stretched over a very long week three times a year, when we would have to take two to three exams a day in the study hall. They instilled the principle of delayed gratification in me, because the only thing we had to look forward to during the seemingly never-ending rigors of exam week was the prospect of the school holidays beyond. To this day I find it hard to justify taking a vacation without undergoing a period of intense hard work beforehand.
One of the small pleasures that made the study hall bearable was our classmate Sonia’s cinchona. Her father had a cinchona plantation a few miles down the mountain in Sonada, and she used to have supplies of the fibrous stalks which she would distribute for us to chew on like sugarcane. The bitter principle—the very substance, I suppose, from which quinine is made—had a distinct tonic effect, and to this day, I love drinking tonic water on its own because it has the same pleasantly medicinal taste.
How is it that my feelings about these experiences are ones of fondness, even nostalgia? Perhaps it is because our school was sited in one of the most beautiful spots in the world, six thousand feet high in the Himalayan foothills, with a view of Kanchenjunga from our dorm windows on clear days; perhaps because we were known among the Darjeeling schools for our music, and sang our way through the days and weeks that would have been unbearably regimented if they had consisted solely of work and more work; perhaps because we were all in it together, like one big family (albeit dysfunctional at times), students and teachers alike. Or was it simply that we were young, full of life, and determined to enjoy it, rules or no rules? As my classmate Bina wrote in my autograph book before I left, “May you live all the days of your life!”