We boarders in the co-ed convent school were a motley bunch… Catholics, Muslims, Rajputs, Parsis, Anglo-Indians, Maharashtrians, Sindhis, Gujaratis from South Africa, South Indians, Jews, – only girls. It was a poor convent, serving basic food to the boarders, but imparting good education, where those who could afford paid the princely sum of Rs.60/- a month, the rest paid by helping in the kitchen or doing other mundane chores. That was the only differentiation. Everything else was the same. The maximum number of boarders at any time, in the ten years we spent there was 40.
We sat at two long tables and ate the same food (fixed quantity), which quality-wise too left a lot to be desired. Often we were served dishes that were rather unpalatable, except perhaps to one or two girls. Such dishes were passed on from plate to plate to that one fortunate or unfortunate girl, while the rest made do with a chapatti and water. Unfortunate, because if she happened to be the last one, she could not return the food, whether she liked it or not. It was too risky. If we got caught the whole lot would have to forgo the next meal. The point I wish to make here is that we were all one with a common cause and a common enemy – food we couldn’t gulp. It didn’t matter on whose plate it was served and how many plates it traveled on, missing the eyes of the supervising nun, till it reached yours or the one you wanted to pass it on to. We didn’t think even for a moment that the food was on a non-so-and-so’s plate. (And yes, everyone’s parents were well aware of what used to go on.) We never formed communal groups and were always discouraged from doing so.
Religion was never an issue and no discriminations were made based on that. We Non-Catholics enjoyed respectful freedom to practice our own religions and follow our traditions and festivals. Not once in all those years of schooling did we come across an instance when anyone even attempted to convert others. Some of us were part of the convent choir, we used to attend church services, we made retreats and yet there were no conversions. Not even oblique references.
The toppers in almost every class were again not Christians, but the real meritorious ones, interring the belief that Christians would be favored. Our teachers had names like Prajapati, Mistry, Solanky, Rana, Dhanbhoora, Topiwala, Roy and Sikligar, together with Fernandes, McClure, D’Souza and D’Costa. They too sat in one common room, lunched together and were always on good terms with one another.
It was only after we were in the big world out of the secular environs of the convent, that I was smacked in the face by the ugliness of casteism and communalism. I’ll give just two instances below, because their impact stays with me till today.
I got in touch with a classmate some years after leaving school. We used to correspond and as he was going to be in town once, I invited him over to my house. He refused to come home and would not let me visit him at his sister’s place either. “We are Harijans and your family members will not like me visiting you,” was his explanation. I was dumbstruck to put it mildly. His sister had been in the boarding with us and she was one of the cleanest, friendliest and most well-loved girls. And till he revealed we didn’t know what caste they belonged to!! Even now I couldn’t see how it would matter. Finally I had to make my husband talk to him and persuade him, but he still refused to have a meal in my home. When I met him, I was shocked to see a nervous, fidgety man, all the time expecting to be insulted and thrown out of the house, because insults and marginalization was what he and his sisters had faced after their return to India, except in the convent!
To quote just another instance, when I was teaching a class of eight-year olds different forms of greeting, one Hindu boy stood up and said something derogatory in response to Salaam aalekum. I was appalled and pained to hear that his father had taught him that. On probing further, I realized that kids were being mentally ghettoized from a very early age in their homes and in society. And those who tried to make them unlearn this mentality were not looked upon favorably.
Children’s minds are molded before they enter school. They come preconditioned with attitudes that are difficult to change, particularly when parents oppose. And they can become belligerent when their children are taught what goes against their ‘ethics’. Like I had a student whose father once came to my house and shouted angrily at me, because I had taught the children in the Moral Science class that they should not lie! He wanted that subject removed from the syllabus! I wasn’t surprised when this same parent defaulted on his child’s tuition fees at the end of the year.
Going back to the school of my student years, whatever these Christian institutes might be doing today, ours was a good school, where we were taught to be human and humane above all things and I bow in respect to the nuns and teachers who shaped our lives.