The author recalls her life after the family moved to Shillong from Guwahati
We moved to Shillong where my father became the director of public instruction (DPI) of undivided Assam. Sabita (my younger sister) and I were admitted to the prestigious Pine Mount School. It was quite a change since my education in the primary school (pathsala) in Guwahati. It was in Pine Mount that I met some of the best teachers in my life. These teachers had a great influence on me. My life in the school began in the first standard, into which I was admitted by my father. My sister Sabita was admitted to kindergarten.
Coming to Shillong, I felt like I was in another kind of fairyland, very different from the fairyland of our village Amranga. I was a small girl and my mind was immensely delighted and thrilled by the natural beauty of this hill station. In those days, it was known as the “queen of hill stations in India” and the Scotland of the East.
All around were hills and mountains, their peaks hidden behind a screen of mist. Some of the hills were barren, without a green top. But most were covered with thick coniferous vegetation. The hills appeared to me like the humps of camels. Perhaps of all the official buildings, the DPI bungalow was the most exquisite in its location (Shillong remained the capital of Assam till 1972).
Across our bungalow was the Crinoline Falls. The brook then flowed in a semi-circle around our bungalow. From our drawing room, we could see the waterfalls.
This is the reason why the name of our house was Falls View. The scene felt like paradise. There was a garden where a wide variety of birds and butterflies could be seen.
Along the road in front of our bungalow were long lines of pine trees on either side. There was a constant wind owing to the town’s high altitude. The pine trees would always sway in the wind. They would make a strange sound, as if someone was weeping, and the sound would fill the air all over the place. I grew curious about the sound and asked my mother if anyone was crying. She would reply in a sombre voice that yes, maybe those who lived with the angelsof the sky and helped cleanse the town were weeping.
Shillong those days used to be spotlessly clean. From the church close by, the peal of church bells would echo in the air. It truly felt different from Guwahati or Amranga.
My first few days were mostly spent loitering around the place. I felt as if some long-buried secret about the beauty of the place was waiting to be discovered. A few days later, father got me admitted into the school.
One of my earliest and vivid memories of Pine Mount was our teacher Mrs Ceat (I have forgotten the actual spelling of this name). She was European, like most others in the school. She looked beautiful beyond words. We girls would often spend time admiring her beauty.
Mrs Ceat was a different kind of teacher. I remember that once she instructed us to write an essay on the weather. The window in the classroom was wide open and when I looked out, I couldn’t make myself see my notebook again. As far as the eyes could see, to the farthest distance in the horizon, there was only the splendour of greenery basking in glittering sunshine.
When I finally started writing the essay, all I could write was a sentence, “In this weather, I do not want to be inside the classroom. I want to go out for a picnic.” Mrs Ceat, rather than being angry, was so happy at what I had written that she asked all the children to clap!
I also remember the incident fondly because that was perhaps the earliest instance of my being appreciated in public for something that I had written. I remember vividly that I was a student of Class I at that time.
The education given to students in Pine Mount was very systematic and disciplined. Each class would have only around 15 girls and the teacher took note of each student (without the knowledge of the student). The morning would begin in the assembly hall where we would all take part in singing hymns. Mrs Powell would be on the grand piano, and with the music of the piano, we would enter the hall in a line and then form a grid. Each class had a monitor and they would hand over a small Bible to each student and also indicate the section that would be taken up for singing. Once the singing was over, we would again leave the hall to the piano music being played.
When we were in Class I, we were given lessons in painting. Our art teacher was Mrs Coleman. She was a heavy woman in short hair and wore dark lipstick. She was a very good artist herself. She would show us some portraits and then take them away. She would tell us to draw any one of the portraits that we saw based on what we remembered or thought we remembered.
Once, I drew a picture of Christ. My Christ had long hair and a flowing beard. I still do not know why or how I drew Christ that way. But when I showed it to Mrs Coleman, she looked very happy. She took me to the other classes along with my painting and in each class both my painting and I were greeted with applause! It felt utterly wonderful.
The image of Jesus that I grew up with in Shillong was of the crucified Christ, His hands and feet nailed to the Cross, and a crown of thorns on His head and blood all over His body. I was deeply touched by the scriptures that said the soldiers fought over the clothes of Jesus as war booty! Lessons in the Bible had always fascinated me.
Being non-Christian, it wasn’t compulsory for us to attend the lessons in scriptures. But my father insisted that I attend these lessons. He said that my education wouldn’t be complete unless I took lessons in the Bible and Quran.
My father was totally against the display of any lavishness. We were given only two sets of school uniforms. Even our washerman, an old man with a thick moustache, knew about it. He would never be late in the morning with the washed and pressed uniforms.
Coats and overcoats were a must in the cold weather of Shillong. Unlike my friends, whether Indian or European, the ones that we wore were made of coarse materials. But as children, we never thought much about it. I had only one party frock and in every party, it would be the same dress that one would see me in. My father was strictly against the celebration of birthdays. So we never celebrated our birthdays. He said that there were many people in India who cannot afford the luxury of celebrating a birthday and we should realise that it is possible to live without such celebrations. But we were free to take part in such celebrations on the birthdays of our friends.
Much later, I realised the greatness of these values that he instilled in us right from our childhood.
At Pine Mount, we were given swimming lessons. I had learnt to swim even in our village Amranga, swimming with our elephant in the Jagalia river. But in Pine Mount, the training was systematic. Our trainer was Mrs Holltin. She was tall with white, curly hair.
But there was another problem with my swimming classes: the problem of procuring a swimsuit. For some reason, I don’t know why, I felt very shy to ask for a suit from my parents. But it was imperative that I arrange for a swimsuit to go for my classes. One of my friends, the daughter of a cook, came to my rescue. She told me that the daughter of the earlier DPI’s wife had given her a swimsuit as a parting gift and if it fitted me, I could very well wear it.
I found the idea a wonderful solution to my problem. We went to her house and opened that wooden trunk and found the swimsuit. I tried it, and to my utter surprise, it fitted me as if it were mine! My mother did come to know of it later. She flew into a rage, that I was wearing the swimsuit of some unknown girl and that, too, which had been handed down by another. She threw away the swimsuit and bought me a new one.