An old boy’s reminiscences around a school chapel

At the heart of the campus of the Lawrence School, Lovedale, stands this memorable colonial-era structure

About five decades ago, a feeble-looking me was transported from a small town in the Central Travancore region of Kerala to the Nilgiris. Much like transplanting paddy from the backwaters to the slopes of the Himalayan terai.

I was delighted to be on the rolls of the Lawrence School, Lovedale, where I spent six joyous years, and seem to remember most details as if it was yesterday. I watched with wide-eyed wonder the large colonial-style buildings with turrets, cornices, and even a large clock tower fashioned after London’s Big Ben.

The buildings had high ceilings, huge wooden doors with pieces of wood wedged in, so that the unpredictable wind did not bang them shut. Much of the flooring was wooden and almost all the walls were in red brick. Indeed, it was a slice of an English village of the 19th century, all solid and made to last till kingdom come.

Almost right in the middle stood a chapel, blending with the other buildings scattered across 700 acres. The older among you may remember the scene of Simi Garewal praying in this chapel in Raj Kapoor’s movie Mera Naam Joker.

It was exactly two decades after Indian Independence, and the edifice had clearly lost its importance as a place of worship but none of the grandeur. Up until the mid-1970s, it was run by the Church of England, and an Englishman from Ooty used to conduct the service. A few of us were regular to the Sunday morning Eucharist.

In their Sunday best

Certainly more charming were the Englishmen and their ladies who landed up without fail. I remember they were all dressed in their Sunday best; the ladies in frocks wore hats or donned scarves. Only now, on looking back, do I realise that the members of the fair sex was adhering to the biblical dictum of not dressing up in a manner similar to a man, and also covering the hair when bowing before God.

After the service was over, they melted into the surrounding hills. It’s still a wonder to me who exactly they were, and what exactly they were up to, 5,000 miles from their original homes. Could it be that they were not anymore comfortable with the idea of going back, and were resigned to the fact that they would all be living out their lives in this far corner?

The chapel’s pews had soft cushions to kneel on, something I have not seen since in Indian Protestant churches. The prayer books were ancient and the language archaic. One sentence that I particularly remember well was, “Lord shew mercy upon us.” Ruskin Bond recalls that his father had worked in this school around 1917, and that one such prayer book is there in his prized possession of “small books”. The walls had many plaques of brass commemorating those who had fallen for ‘King and Country’.

An organ and a task

There was also a grand organ. It was an imposing structure and, curiously, had the ropes to tighten the bellows in an adjacent tiny room. We were once in a way called to tighten the ropes which came down from the ceiling and did so with gusto.

All these are old memories. The chapel is now under the Church of South India. Services are held in Tamil and intelligible English. Recently when I visited the school, I went all by myself to the old chapel. I saw in my mind’s eye at least four generations of Englishmen coming out after worship.

I wondered what they thought of the people they were “administering”? Could they have been thinking like their hero, Sir Winston Churchill, of “a beastly people with a beastly religion”?

Or perhaps like Jim Corbett, “The real Indian — the Indian whose loyalty and devotion alone made it possible for a handful of men, to administer, for close on two hundred years a vast subcontinent with its teeming millions.” The poor of my India, he avers. I reckon there would have been all shades of opinion in between.

Whatever the case, a legacy has passed into the night.

The author is a psychiatrist at a hospital in Central Travancore. [email protected]

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