Josna Rege

38. Study Halls and Cinchona

In India, Stories on April 14, 2010 at 1:03 am

photo by Karl Hagen

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.

photo by Karl Hagen

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!”

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  1. One of the wonderful things I have discovered that binds us together is that nostalgia we all seem to feel for our experiences at MH. Some of us had unhappy experiences, particularly in relation to certain teachers, which were unknown to most of the rest of us until we were long gone and grown up.
    Many years later we found a few teachers had difficult experiences there as well, of which most of us children were completely unaware, however, the discoveries of these negative aspects somehow has made the whole experience much more real and authentic. The story otherwise would read as a fanciful fiction because so much of our schooldays was rich with delight and excitement and even wonder and our friendships were particularly special because they have lasted all our lives and given us a bond which our children can only dream of.
    The amazing fact to me is that I was there for only four years of my life and yet my whole self-image and much of my understanding of the world seems to have been rooted in those four short years at Mount Hermon, high among the clouds of the lofty Himalayan foothills.

    • Dear Marianne, your response is very moving. I was at MH for less than three years and yet I too feel the way you do about it. Living in the majestic presence of the snows gave us something lasting, so that the swirling mists of those “lofty Himalayan foothills” still fill me with wonder as I look back on them in my mind’s eye.
      Despite what I wrote about the regimentation, MH was probably more permissive than many of the other boarding schools, and had a unique and delightful diversity of students–all of us! And of course it was coeducational–that also made it unique and was one of the main reasons my parents chose it over others.
      Thank you for posting. xJ

  2. I was in Mount Hermon for 7 years during the 90’s.We had many good times, occasionally some bad moments.But I guess it was totally different experience than students from the 60’s might have experienced.We did not have the afternoon morning study.Instead we were absolutely free during that time.We would engaged ourselves by playing cricket,football and other sports.I was lucky enough to be in Mount Hermon during the Centenary year(1995).My message to all Hermonites past and present is that you have know idea what it was like.It is without a shadow of a doubt the best year in Mount Hermon.I will not get into the details,because it would take a long time to write all the things.I will just say you all missed it.

    • Hi! Thank you for posting your comments. It is good to hear from a young Hermonite. (My classmates are getting on in years by now, though inside we feel the same as ever!) I’m glad that you had more free time by the 90s. We too had sports in the afternoons, but we had very little completely time to ourselves. Still, I may have been exaggerating a little about how regimented our lives were. They probably weren’t any more regimented than the lives of other students of the time, and Mount Hermon may have been more carefree in spirit than the other Darjeeling boarding schools.
      You are so lucky to have been able to be part of the centenary celebrations. I have seen a little of them on YouTube and wish like anything that I could have been there. Best wishes, and thanks again for writing.

  3. I was in Mount Hermon from 1983 to 1994 and many of the experiences that you are writing about sound so familiar. I have been planning for years to put my experiences down on my blog but I still haven’t got down to it. It would be an interesting comparison between the 60s and the 80s wouldn’t it ?

    • Hello and thanks so much for your comment. Yes, I wish you would write about your experiences in the 1980s and 1990s. I for one would love to read them and it would be fascinating to compare what has changed and what stayed the same. In case you haven’t seen them, I have a couple more stories about life at Mount Hermon beside this one: Himalaya and Hidden Places. May I visit your blog?

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