It wasn’t just me. It was my whole family, starting with my grandfather (who always had an unending supply of reading material for me), to my mother and of course my older sister. For us boarding school immediately evoked images from Enid Blyton’s book. Young girls in skirts – white socks & black shoes, short hair, a lacrosse stick slung across their shoulders and a scattering of freckles. So when it was time for me to go I too was decked out in a tartan skirt, a crisp white blouse, socks and shoes, hair cut short and a soft top suitcase. Luckily I didn’t have the lacrosse stick or the freckles. Needless to say I stood out like a comic character on that Howrah Station platform. The other kids looked at me with quick glances – feeling embarrassed I’m sure to be even seeing a creature like me. Mean while my family stood around beaming with pride. I was the first child in the family going to a “boarding school”. I was a heroine.
I’m happy to say that the excitement of the train journey and the destination it was leading to, saved me from sentimentality – so when the train left the platform and I had waved away the last relative, I turned around eagerly to make new friends.
This time the stares were quite obvious. No one turned away. they were all looking at me as if I was an extra terrestrial. The first difference I noticed between them and I was the clothes. They were all dressed in sensible jeans and T Shirts – tough clothes that would last out the two day journey in the non air conditioned second class sleeper.The second difference was the air of belonging that they all had and that moved me to blurt out – “I should probably change my clothes!” in an embarrassed gush. Nita Chopra (now Joshi) agreed and I proceeded to open up my suitcase to take out a pair of trousers and a T-shirt. Luckily for the boys I was doing this activity in the passage area so they were able to satisfy their curiosity re what a ‘dame’ packs in her suitcase.
“What’s your name?”, I heard some one ask.
“Semaynisinneray” my head was still inside the suitcase contemplating appropriate clothing(black elephant pants with the purple Tee or the light blue pants with – no light blue would get dirty – but elephant pants?..), and of course the American accent I’d picked up in Jakarta didn’t help.
“What???”, this time it was a chorus, so I stuck my head out of the suitcase and said in a louder tone “Semaynisinneray”
Nita, brilliant Nita then observed that I didn’t have a name tag on my luggage and suggested I do something about it – “otherwise it might go off to boys’ school”. Heeding this ominous advice I pulled out the bottle of blanco and with my finger spelt out in large letters on the black top of the suitcase – S E M A N T I S I N H A R A Y.
“Semanti Sinha Ray” – the chorus shouted in relief. I had a name!
Finally I belonged. I’d shared the innards of my suitcase – I’d changed into less formal clothes (the elephant pants won) and I had an Indian name. The remaining 48 hours to Madras passed in a flurry of questions and answers and boisterous games that could only be played when you have so many top bunks to swing from and jump about. Most of the compartment was occupied by us Lawrencians so noise levels didn’t matter.
We arrived in Madras in the morning. Hot dusty Madras with crowds of unfamiliar looking people and unfamiliar odours. (But that was true only for me – the others seemed to know their way around quite well) Plans were made – the senior boys were going to escort us – First stop – a bath and a change in the platform waiting room. Next lunch at, I think it was Buhari’s, and then a movie. We had time to kill before our train to Metty – from where we would finally board the hill train. Oh bliss – I was so enjoying my independence – no looking over shoulders to check out disapproving parents. It was all fun fun fun – till we walked into the movie theatre. No Tora! Tora! Tora. Adult movie. No way. There was no other movie we all wanted to see so back to the station it was to sit around under the gloomy fans of the platform waiting room.
Now when I look back, the four decades seem like eight. My memories have a sepia tone and it runs like a Merchant Ivory film. Till I board the hill train – then it’s just a burst of colour and sound. The happy chug chug chug of the train echoing through those hills – birds’ song mixed with old friends shouting out greetings. Fresh air and sunlight. So much sunlight. So much laughter and excitement – there wasn’t anything blue about these hills – only a promise of a new secret world that would be mine for the next four months.