Old boys

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 22.01.09

‘Three shorts to soften the blows’

Siddhartha Shankar Ray
Former chief minister of West Bengal

St. Xavier’s was known as an Anglo-Indian school in those days. Most of the students were Anglo-Indians and Bengali and Sanskrit were not taught at all, although Latin was compulsory. Jyoti Basu, who was about six years my senior in school, could not write the Bengali script. When I said this in the Assembly some time ago, Jyoti just smiled.

In school, maintaining discipline was of foremost importance. School started at 9am and the teacher would not let the latecomers enter the classroom without a note from the prefect, who would give us a strapping (a form of caning) when we went to his office to get the note. Many of us preferred to wear two or three shorts when we went to meet him on such occasions!

I joined the school as a seven-year-old in the first standard in 1926 but was withdrawn, along with my brothers, at the height of the nationalist movement, post 1930, when I was in the sixth standard. Both my parents were from nationalist families. But I would like to testify that, contrary to the belief of some, the St. Xavier’s authorities never harboured anti-nationalist feelings. They were beyond all that.

One incident that comes to mind was that I had skipped school the day the martyr Jatin Das’s mortal remains were brought to Calcutta, to watch his funeral procession from the first floor balcony of our house. The next day I had to go Fr Prefect to explain why I had been absent. I went wearing three shorts because I was sure I would be strapped. When Fr Sebastian asked me, I told him the truth. Father didn’t scold me, he instead said: “I see that, my boy, I see that.”

A misconception doing the rounds in our time was that St. Xavier’s wanted to convert its non-Christian students. I have never heard anything further from the truth. In my six years in St. Xavier’s, I never got that sort of vibe.

Even in those days, St. Xavier’s took sporting activities very seriously. I owe it to St. Xavier’s that I went on to play cricket and football quite well and led Presidency College in both the sports. I also played tennis.

Even at this age, I remember all my teachers vividly. In the third standard, Mr Carr used to teach us, in the fourth standard it was Mr Couch and in the fifth and sixth standards it was Fr Pinto. Fr Vermere was the rector and Fr Stephens the prefect.

I only attended primary school but I was lucky that all the classes were held on the 30 Park Street campus. I was mesmerised by the building every day and used to gape at the majestic columns near the hall after my father dropped me to school on his way to office.


‘Disciplines that became a lifelong passion’

Mohammad Hamid Ansari
Vice President of India

Address at the valedictory and first convocation of St. Xavier’s College Calcutta on January 18, 2008:

Homecoming is a feeling that is difficult to articulate. A sense of happiness is evident. So is a flood of memories. I return to St. Xavier’s to express my gratitude to the college that initiated me in disciplines which became a lifelong passion.

I come also to salute an institution whose dedication to its mission is exemplary and foremost amongst them is a passion for excellence.

More objectively speaking, it is always a privilege for any alumnus to return to his alma mater after half a century, to interact with a new generation of students, to share perceptions, to catch up with their vision of a new world, and their hopes and aspirations in it.

This is a convocation with a difference — that of an autonomous college. The students graduating today follow an illustrious lineage. They have demonstrated academic excellence. This was the easier part of the endeavour. As Xaverians, they bear a lifelong responsibility for a wider concern pertaining to humanity. Let Nihil Ultra — the motto of this institution — be their guiding principle.


‘The Fathers have shaped my vision’

B. M. Khaitan
Tea baron and chairman, Eveready Industries

St. Xavier’s has produced some brilliant students and has today become a trademark of quality education. Now the whole city wants their children to study in St. Xavier’s and everyone is wondering how to get his son admitted, which itself speaks for the institution.

During my time, the Jesuit Fathers did all the teaching that was steeped in strictness and principles. It is the thoroughness of the Jesuit Fathers who taught us that has given me the confidence I have today.

We were always given a broad picture on every subject. I have been fortunate to study in an institution that has enabled me to hold my own while discussing any subject. I was never a very good student and usually trailed from class to class, but it was never a problem because we were not expected to become experts and were given broad-minded education.

The democratic attitude of the college has also left an impression on me. Religion was never an issue. We as students were never pushed to become Christians.

My fondest memory associated with the college is when Pope John Paul II came to Calcutta. Fr Picachy, who taught me in the sixth standard and who was the archbishop then, had organised a special audience with the Pope for my family and me. I felt gratified that he had remembered me.

I will always remember how gracious the Fathers were. You did not have to be a brilliant student for them to remember you. Fr Picachy and Fr Verstraeten gave me a lot of encouragement. They have shaped my vision and how I looked at the future.

St. Xavier’s has my unquestioning support in whatever endeavour it undertakes.


‘For us, every teacher was a role model’

General Shankar Roychowdhury
Former army chief

I joined the school in 1945 in the third standard, after we moved to Calcutta from Dehradun. There were two sections and there was intense competition between them, I remember. I was in section B throughout, till I had to leave in Class IX just before my Senior Cambridge examinations. My father, Sunil Chandra Roychowdhury, who was with the Imperial Bank, got transferred to Asansol.

Significantly, there were four of us in the same section at St. Xavier’s who later went on to join the armed forces and did quite well — Surinder Kapoor, who got the Mahavir Chakra in 1971, Late SK Chowdhury, Late N Bhavaadam and myself.

Like most other students, I was mesmerised by the magnificent, colossal building on my first day in school. I remember walking up the stairs to my classroom on the first floor that day, awestruck by the grandeur around me.

I remember all my class-teachers very clearly. They were Mr Bellety, Mr White, Fr Biot, Fr Desbruslais, Fr Marrlot and Fr Dobinson. Sgt Rony Moore was our physical training instructor. He later went on to become the deputy commissioner of Calcutta Police. Sgt Moore was himself an ace boxer and there was quite a boxing culture in the school during his time. A boxing ring was constructed in the gymnasium, and intra-school weight category-based competitions would be held. I took a keen interest in boxing apart from football and hockey.

I am in touch with a few of my batchmates, while many have passed away. Many generations of Xaverians know one of my classmates particularly well, Fr (Boris D’) Santos, who was the senior school prefect till a few years ago. I bet you did not know he was a fantastic athlete and that there weren’t many who could take him on in 100m and 200m on the annual sports day!

Fr Desbruslais was my class-teacher in the seventh standard. We were probably his first batch. He was young and handsome and he excelled in athletics. He was also a wonderful teacher. We often hear that education at St. Xavier’s Collegiate School shapes the moral character of its pupils. Well, if you want to know how that happens, you have to come in contact with the likes of Fr Desbruslais in your formative years.
In fact, each one of our teachers was a role model. We are what we are today because we got the opportunity to interact and look up to these fine people. They were lessons in how to talk, how to walk, how to carry yourself and even how to feel for others, and these things have rubbed off on us.


‘Academic knowledge and human values’

Kamal Nath
Union Minister for Commerce and Industry

St. Xavier’s College brings to mind many pleasant memories... memories of the morning hours and of my walk through Short Street to my home.

I remember running away from college and going to Flurys for breakfast, avoiding the watchful eyes of Fr Joris who was an institution in himself. Through his inspiration and authority he maintained strict discipline in the college. He would often come by Flurys to catch unsuspecting students bunking classes. I was, however, not a regular at Flurys and was thankfully one of the fortunate ones never to get caught.

St. Xavier’s College is an institution of excellence. It is a role model for many colleges and institutions in the country and has introduced a high standard of education not only to the St. Xavier’s fraternity but also to faculty and students of other institutions.

Education in St. Xavier’s College is not just about academic knowledge but also about humanitarian values. And it is a learning that has stayed with me all my life.


‘You learn to question the answers’

Shashi Tharoor
Author and former UN Under Secretary General

My years at St Xavier’s (1969-71) were amongst the happiest in my life and helped shape me definitively for the challenges that followed in adulthood. On the auspicious occasion of the 150th anniversary of our excellent institution, I am proud to join my fellow Xaverians in celebrating the high standards, the devotion to learning and the dedication to country and community that St Xavier’s instilled in all of us.

The text of a speech by Tharoor, delivered at SXC in February 2008:

I still remember what it felt like to come to St. Xavier’s for the first time, as a rather nervous young boy, not yet in his teens, from Mumbai. I remember playing during the recess in our wonderful ‘big field’ and, of course, I remember the galaxy of reverend Fathers who taught us in the classroom and instructed us outside it, from whom we learnt so much. Both from the books and what books couldn’t teach us and what only good souls could teach us… what the Late Fr Remedios used to call ‘values of life’.
One of the things I most valued about St. Xavier’s, apart from the quality of education I received, was the warmth of friends who so generously welcomed this new kid from Bombay in their midst. Also, the institution was insulated to a remarkable extent from the prejudices of middle-class Indian life. It little mattered where you were from, which Indian language you spoke at home, what religion of faith you espoused.

So when I joined SXC in January 1969, the son of a Keralite newspaper executive, I did not have to worry about fitting in. We were united by that spirit and were all part of one extraordinary eclectic hybrid culture.

I studied at SXC for three years and it is, of course, a small and decreasing proportion of my life. Partly this is because I enjoyed an extraordinary amount of freedom here and not just in debates and speech contests.

Too many schools are places for lectures for rote learning, memorisation and regurgitation. We had to do our share at St. Xavier’s too, but our teachers encouraged random reading, individual note-taking and extra-curricular development.

The school inspires secularism. It affords you a pan-India outlook, a well-rounded education, an eclectic social interest, the questioning spirit, the humanitarian regard for the wellbeing of others, that are all the vital ingredients of a Xaverian ethos.

As a 14-year-old editor of Nihil Ultra, the school magazine, I wrote an article once trying to disprove the existence of god. It was a brief period of schoolboy atheism that comes with the discovery of rationality and goes with the acknowledgement of the limitations of rationality. But I am sure that my article did not shock the brilliant Fr Cyril Desbruslais, who lectured us teenagers on the proof for divinity, citing Kant and Thomas Aquinas in the process.

We were absolutely free to express our beliefs. Elsewhere, you learn to answer the questions. At St. Xavier’s, you learn to question the answers and later I went on to question the questions, but that’s another story.


‘...breaking barriers and going beyond’

Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti
Commissioner of police, Calcutta

I have many fond memories of my time spent in St. Xavier’s College, of my teachers and especially of Fr Goreux. We had a mix of students both urban and rural, coming from different economic backgrounds, but Fr Goreux always made us feel that we were all equal. He called us by our pet names and was like a friend. He would visit our homes and provided books to those who couldn’t afford them. He even made notes for us that he would distribute.

But what I remember most about him is that he taught us to think and learn and encouraged us to speak our minds. He himself was a thinker. He would make three-dimensional models of various things that were not only difficult to learn but also hard to visualise. He taught us to learn by thinking beyond textbooks. We used to visit him regularly even after we left college, till his last days.

The atmosphere of free thinking in the college left an impression on our minds. But the free thinking was never without discipline and that attribute has been with me through my life. We were encouraged to express our opinion but always within a limit. The right mix of free thinking and discipline that I was exposed to helps me in my job now. In the police department, you need to do things differently, handle different situations in different manners that require original thinking within the parameters of a disciplined attitude.

Even at the height of the Naxalite trouble when things became very bad in other colleges, we faced no trouble. It is the standard of discipline that set us apart from other colleges.

St. Xavier’s College was one big family. Fr Huart knew every student by his or her name. Fr Beckers, who was then the superintendent of the hostel, spoke fluent Bengali and would make friends with the students who came from rural areas and had language problems. The Jesuit priests were not just dedicated to academics but to the welfare of the students. St. Xavier’s College was all about breaking barriers and going beyond.


‘The spirit of working in a team’

Sanjiv Goenka
Vice-chairman, RPG Group

The 150th year celebration of St. Xavier’s is a momentous occasion. The effort is to focus on the school in a manner that does justice to the culture, ethos and glory of St. Xavier’s. The attempt will be to have all the celebrations with warmth, subtlety and the right profile of dignitaries.

The celebrations will carry on for a year and it will have an appropriate mix of Xaverians from different cross-sections. We would like to involve Xaverians from different fields — politicians, entrepreneurs and the cultural sphere. Lots of Xaverians have done the city and country proud, we would like to involve them in the celebrations.

Being a Xaverian is not just about studying in St. Xavier’s, it’s about imbibing that tradition. My years in St. Xavier’s were the most important years of my life. Those years were definitely about education, but more importantly, they were great levellers. In school, I came in contact with different cultures, religions and backgrounds and realised that there is a society beyond the one I knew. St Xavier’s also imbibed in us the spirit of working in a team. No victory was individual, it was always team victory.

The most important lesson that St. Xavier’s taught me is humility. There were so many people far more capable than you that if you had any illusions that you were special, they came crashing down. One of my classmates was Sandeep Chatterjee, the renowned surgeon. He would always top the class in every subject and with him around the competition was always very tough.

I remember many of my teachers well, but two of them were really special — Mr Hassan, our maths teacher, and Mr Bienna, our English teacher. They just made everything sound so simple.

The institution right now has a great set of Fathers — Fr Jerome, Fr Mathew and Fr Sebastian. These are people with great mission and vision. If these people continue to be in charge of St. Xavier’s, the future can only be bright.


‘We were taught to be all-rounders’

Sanjay Budhia
Managing director, Patton Group

St. Xavier’s College puts you in a different league. As I told the commerce students I addressed three years ago, I believe that very few lucky people get a chance to be part of this institution and they should justify their being there.

The unique thing about the college is that the will to perform and excel comes naturally and if the benchmark is high then you have to deliver. The college taught us dedication, discipline, devotion, determination and ultimately to deliver.

At St. Xavier’s, it is not only about being an academic person or a sports person but we were taught to be all-rounders. I was generally a disciplined student, always on the first bench. The college taught me punctuality, one of my biggest assets today.

St. Xavier’s College was also about the samosa at Delights dhaba, morning tea at the Russell Street and Elgin Road dhabas as well as the breakfast at Flurys, where sometimes Father would come and catch us just as we were eating the omelette.
As soon as I enter the college gates today, I am filled by a sense of nostalgia. I have made many life-long friends from college. It was truly my second home.

Conferring of autonomy is a befitting tribute to the institution. I would like to express my appreciation of Fr P.C. Mathew for what he has done for the college and for introducing St. Xavier’s to the world. His ability to maintain the delicate balance between being a principal and a friend is something everyone should learn.


‘We make leaders of men’

Noomi Mehta
Chairman and managing director, Selvel Advertising; Honorary secretary, ALSOC

Sourav Ganguly, the batsman, was not a product of St. Xavier’s. He learnt the sport elsewhere. But Sourav Ganguly, the captain, was probably born here. We make leaders of men.

ALSOC has always striven to be of service to the school. Our way is not to lead the school but to play a supporting role and ensure that the institution lives up to its name.

ALSOC has planned certain initiatives to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the school. We are going to add eight more classrooms to the primary school building on Wood Street, by adding one floor to the main building and constructing two towers on either side of it. The terrace will be covered and converted into a hall.

The entire school building will be provided with a glass shell on three sides to keep noise and pollution out. The target is to complete this entire construction in one year. Also, elevators will be installed in both the senior and junior schools. A health insurance scheme will be introduced for the 180 members of the staff.

There will be at least one event every month this year. It can be seminars or debates or some fun activity. Our programmes will involve parents and students in interactive sessions. The needs of the students are changing and they need to be understood — something we would like to help the parents do by involving psychologists. There will be interactive seminars with teachers. We will have philosophers, poets, writers, musicians… successful people from various fields interacting with us. A corpus fund will be created to get the best teachers. We are looking to fund the salaries of six teachers in the senior section.

ALSOC will also construct a lime-and-mortar building with modern toilet facilities for the Pravabati Mondal Bal Balika Vidyalaya in Bishnupur, which is supported by us. We will also try to ensure that more students from ALSOC’s primary school for the underprivileged, Titli, make it to the institution’s night school. We hope to be able to provide a job guarantee for every Titli student who passes Class VIII and gets into vocational training. If some student is good at studies, however, we will be happy to fund his/her higher education.

We have set ourselves a benchmark of excellence in every activity being planned for the year ahead. There will also be one high-level debate, and in keeping with our theme of excellence, it will be a cut above anything we have done before.


‘I was madly in love with my school’

Sourav Ganguly
Former skipper, Indian cricket team

I joined St. Xavier’s Collegiate School in 1978 and that was the start of a very long association with 30 Park Street as I went on to complete my Higher Secondary and then B.Com from St. Xavier’s College. I was madly in love with my school and still am.

verything about St. Xavier’s was special though I must say that I enjoyed myself much more in school than in college. My brother Snehashis Ganguly also studied in St. Xavier’s College.

My first teacher was Ms Braganza in Class IA and I remember all my teachers more or less. There are some special memories from each class. My favourite teacher was Mr Rozario, who unfortunately died at a very young age in a motorcycle accident. We had an intensely competitive house system in high school and I represented Britto House. Mr Rozario was our house master and I was his favourite since I was good in sports. I was also very close to Anindo Sir, who taught us in Classes IX and X. I also have the highest respect for Fr Bouche.

There was a lot of accent on sports in Xaviers. The annual sports day was something we all looked forward to. The excitement would begin as soon as the goal posts on the big field were removed and the tracks marked with lime and chalk. On sports day, I would participate in all the races, including the 100m, 200m and the 110m hurdles. I have many best sportsman awards that are very close to my heart, despite the many trophies and medals that came my way later in life.

I also remember the relay races between the boys of Classes V and VI on both the primary school and high school sports days, which would be the premier event of the day. Those were really special. I also represented the school in football and cricket.
In between, strangely, I found time for studies. I was quite good actually till my cricket schedule got really really busy. By Class X, I was already playing for Bengal Under-15 but I managed to score 86 per cent in Madhyamik.

The discipline in St. Xavier’s was really stifling at times but later through the ups and downs of life I realised that it has stood me in good stead. But I can assure you that we found little virtue in it back then!