Time travel in Poona: The Tribune India

Gurbachan Jagat

The invitation to participate in a panel discussion on “the impact of internal dimensions on India’s security” came informally from a friend who had retired from the Intelligence Bureau. This was followed by an official invitation from Dr. Mashelkar and Dr. Kelkar, President and Vice-President of the Pune International Center respectively, and the Coordinator, Lt. Gen. Patankar (Retired). The General had been a Division Commander when I was DGP at J&K and is one of the finest officers I have met – a professional and a complete gentleman. After my retirement, I had almost made a vow not to participate in any discussions or seminars on a television channel. However, this invitation touched my heart and aroused deep feelings because I had done most of my schooling in Pune in the late 1940s and early 1950s – childhood appealed to me, everything like the eminent personalities involved in the discussions.

However, the travel time involved, with long layovers in Delhi, almost put me off — I’m eighty-something older. Eventually I took the plunge, accepted the invitation, and went on the date with my wife. We got off at Pune airport and went to the hotel. Kiran (my wife) started talking about roads, traffic and high rise buildings – those were facts, but for me every breath I inhaled invigorated me, as did every word of Marathi. I couldn’t find anything wrong anywhere because I saw everything with the rose-colored glasses of childhood – things as they were, changed and invisible now, except through the inner eye.

The interactions were an all day affair but kept you riveted most of the time. Participants came from different fields – intelligence, police, military, air force, foreign service, private sector and NGOs. It was a galaxy of well-chosen attendees and the presentations were helpful, both critiquing certain practices and also offering thoughtful suggestions for the future. The Q&A sessions were sharp and incisive. I won’t go into the details of these discussions because today Pune (or Poona, if I remember correctly) is the subject of this piece.

Most of the last day was free and we headed to St Vincent’s High School where I had completed my ninth standard (I had done a few years of primary school at Hutchings Girls School). As the car followed its path, I tried, using the GPS, to locate the landmarks along the roads that I used to cycle. It was with great difficulty that I located a few bends and twists, but the fungus growth of the cement and steel structures made everything unfamiliar – the Hindustan bookstore where we bought our stationery and textbooks, the Bohra shops, were not visible. The small cottages with tiled roofs had been swept away by the myriad of apartments. My heart sank and I started to think that Kiran was right.

Then, however, the magic happened and we were there in front of the school and time stood still – the same front and side buildings they were in 1956 when I left the school. Amid all that I had seen in the city, stood my unchanged beacon – a permanent fixture, a source of light and illumination that lasted a lifetime. On top of the front building was the statue of Christ and the school logo. I wanted to bow down to this sacred ground. The lawn looked slightly different, but when we walked up to the verandah and saw the stairs and the classrooms, I was transported to another time and another space. The sprawling lawns, buildings, playgrounds were all empty – it was a Sunday and only a chowkidar was present who looked on in awe when I mentioned ‘1956’. I remembered that even when the school was functioning, there was the same silence outside the classrooms during lessons.

The verandas and buildings were immaculately clean. Soon we were outside a classroom, VIII-B. It was the same room and the same class where I was sitting. Wonder of wonders, even the two-seater desks and benches were the same, with scratched marks – original, but possibly repaired and restored.

Standing there, I remembered an incident that had happened in that room. Mr. Lobo was the math teacher and a real curmudgeon with a perpetual scowl on his face. It was the era of blackboards and he was writing something on them with chalk, with his back to the class. An inspired soul pulled out a pea shooter (a glass tube) and threw it at his back. Mr. Lobo turned around but the instrument had been properly disposed of. He wanted the culprit to stand up – no one did. He wanted the others to identify the culprit—total silence. It was the last lesson of the day, which was to be followed by the compulsory sports period. Mr. Lobo decided that no one could go to the games or go home until the matter was resolved. After a few hours, the principal, Father Rehm, who was passing by, asked what had happened. After learning it, he went on his way. However, when demands started coming in from anxious parents, Mr. Lobo had to give in and settle for another lick!

We pulled up in front of Class VII-B, outside of which I had my only fight at school. Miss Fernandez was our teacher and my office colleague and best friend was Abdul Kadir. He didn’t like another boy named Khalil and kept pushing me to take him. As soon as class was over and we walked out, I punched Khalil and we traded a few punches. Miss Fernandez rushed out and stopped the fights and was shocked at my behavior as I had never shown such an inclination. However, she did not report me to the principal and I escaped the beating.

We couldn’t go upstairs and see the sixth standard classroom where Miss Gomez was our teacher. I remember the class was asked to write an essay on “knowledge and wisdom”. I remember this because my essay was read to the class – please excuse my boasting.

We passed the bike stand and empty space where a candy store once stood. The playground was meticulously maintained and a new stadium had been built. Also, a new building for kindergarten classes. The residential building that housed the Fathers and the Brothers was the same—it was once a no-go area.

I remembered Father Rehm, Father Hefley, Father Hobelar, Father Clement. Most were Swiss or German. I remembered a picnic where we went to a lake and Father Hobelar started swimming. He asked me to join him. A German, he was shocked to learn that I couldn’t swim. The next day he took me to a swimming pool — in three or four days he had me swimming. “It was the level of commitment.” We had picnics galore and explored most of the Maratha forts around Poona. When the first factory appeared in Pimpri, we were taken to see it – now Poona is a heavily industrialized town. Then there was the NDA and when we saw the cadets on blue and gray leave, envy filled our hearts.

I want to mention one thing because it’s a hot topic today: conversions. During all these years at school, we were never asked to go to the chapel on site and the morning prayer was a common prayer. Not once, even obliquely, has anyone touched on this topic. My wife also studied at Loreto Nunnery, Lucknow – so was this school. Maybe things happened in the Northeast or in the tribal areas, but never in the convent schools that most of us attended.

It was time to leave, get out of the “zone” and into reality. This school had taught me and given me the knowledge and tools to fight life’s challenges. It gave me a value system that only grew stronger over time, prepared me to be tested in the crucible of life, with its ups and downs. In the days of glory and sadness, he was a protective shield against all the vicissitudes of life. May all generations leaving St. Vincent be equally armed and equally grateful to their alma mater.

– The writer is former President of UPSC, former Governor of Manipur and was J&K DGP

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