Tuesday, June 15, 2010

This La Martiniere Thing

Everyone is writing about it. La Martiniere has been the school for generations of everyones. The school in Calcutta, specifically the boys' section, has lately been the subject of intense discussion, not just in the city, but across the country and continents, where Martinians reside. You are never an ex-Martinian. You identify yourself in groups, online and on-ground as So-an-so from LMC or LMK – Lucknow or Calcutta, the year you graduated, and the House you belonged to.

So here I am with my version of this La Martiniere thing. It has been inspired (inappropriate word given the circumstances) by the suicide by hanging of a current student and the corrupt demands of a teacher, both incidents occurring back to back.

Go here and here for the murky details...

...And here, here and here for the sage-like commentaries.

Who am I to write of this other than being a Martinian? Well, because for instance, my father, uncle, sister, ex-wife, daughter, cousins, nieces and nephews all studied there, many with distinction, as well as for other sundry relatives who taught there, this has been part of our personal heritage. We do owe a lot to the “schooling” we received. And I am making a distinction between schooling and education.

The media of course, predictably enough, has run amuck with the stories. Martinians all over are expressing anguish, solidarity, maudlin sentimentality and all the other usual over-the-top human emotions which get prominence when circumstances do not affect one directly or individually. Apologists for corporal punishment, child rights activists and ex-student commentators such as me abound in cyberspace. While the “Great Game” is playing in South Africa at the time of writing, a 'great' game of observations and obfuscation is being played, at a lesser and localised level no doubt, in the La Martiniere thing.

I've often wondered at the sentimental attachments we have towards our alma mater. I cannot help being amazed at the continuing nostalgia we gloat over and the life-lessons we allege to have learned at this institution. While we were in school we were told that such would be the case. That was the greatest benefit of of having had a Martinian schooling. Or so we were made to believe. Many of us still do. Despite knowing things to the contrary.

For me, the school's name did open a few doors, the old boys' network did play a role, but I consider them insignificant to whatever I can claim to have achieved. The formal education I received was ordinary, tantamount to mediocrity, except for a couple of subjects. Of all the teachers who participated in my formal education in the Humanities, only two names stand out whom I can claim contributed importantly to my intellectual development – the late Mr Sudhir 'Denzy' Bose, and Mr John Mason. My classmates from the Science stream can possibly add three more names. The others did nothing whatsoever to develop our young, impressionable minds. Only a few others were brief influences in my “schooling” and who faded into the background as I progressed. The majority were the ones I detested, who were pugnacious, vicious, and of such mediocre intellect, that had I been of lesser capabilities, I would have probably been a basket case because of their “teachings”. They included two Vice Principals and one Principal. Naming names has no relevance here. La Martiniere went by its historically established reputation and not because of the “teaching” it offered. At least in my time, other schools in the city were known for better quality education than LMC.

We did have enviable playing fields in both the boys' and girls' sections, the only swimming pool in a Calcutta school, tennis and basketball courts, a boxing ring, a majestic enough building with mythological underground pathways to Fort William, extra-curricular activities like theatre, elocution, debate, art and science exhibitions, the NCC and Boy Scouts, not to forget the Safety Patrol which handled traffic problems outside the school gates like a boring game. A well-stocked library, Western music lessons, an exclusive but ridiculously expensive school tailor, dormitories which accommodated more residents than any other school in Calcutta, all gave LMC an aura that was hard to beat. Our annual Sports day, Prize day and Founder's day were elaborate events unmatched by any of the other institutions.

The founder of the school, the raffish Major General Claude Martin, served the French, the British and the Nawab of Oudh in the 18th century, making a considerable fortune thereby, and was obviously a man who thought out of the box. This was also where the people executing his legacy after his death were at complete odds with his intentions. Legal wrangles that stretched for 30 years and more finally settled for Anglican Church administration that did not allow for discrimination on grounds of caste, creed or community. Some poor Christian students received the largesse of his benefaction as well as that of another Calcutta trader and businessman, Paul Chater, and they were known as Foundationers. This is continuing I am given to understand.

I was caned many times. I was never caned for failures or lack in educational progress. In fact none of my batch were. We were caned for “disorderly and unbecoming conduct”, for “disobeying” rules and sometimes, unwritten laws. This was the 60s and 70s. To be disorderly, disobedient and unbecoming was fashionable for our generation. In the last year of school, some of the sportsmen in the Calcutta team for our annual fixtures against our Lucknow sister school were given what we batchmates viewed as a raw deal. Two of them being prefects, were stripped of their ties. In solidarity and protest against this high-handedness, all us other 14 prefects, silently went into the Principal's office one by one and handed in our ties. The rest of the batch boycotted classes and games for that day. The next day we did not perform our prefectorial duties and there was chaos, especially in the rounding up of the junior classes. But the message got across to the management. We were not going to take any old shit you threw our way. That day, Mr Bose and Mr Mason brokered a truce. The two sports team members side of the story was heard and their dignity restored. The Principal, who was subsequently removed during our final year for other reasons, was as usual stone-faced and unapologetic. That is probably the only time such an incident has taken place in the history of LMC, and I personally am still very proud of what we managed to achieve. Almost none of our educators were in any way inspiring or motivating. Rather, I remember them as dogmatic and cruel, and in retrospect, frustrated has-beens who opted for physical punishment to get their point across. A few of them moved on to become reputable educators in other schools across the country, including our sister school in Lucknow, laughable achievements to say the least. What is worse and unfortunate for me personally is that I recall them all to be Anglo-Indians, a community I otherwise have a declared affinity and love for.

My schooling was largely acquired from the interaction I had with my school mates. We came from a heterogeneous mix of cultures, religions and backgrounds. Radical thoughts, extreme posturing, diverse opinions and varied influences, all made for a veritable revolt against the strictures which the school laid down. Other than English, my father and mother informally tutored me in almost all the other subjects. Those days most of the teachers were incapable of providing quality formal education. Today, when private tuitions are the norm, teachers are simply neglecting their vocational obligations for the lure of lucre.

What did LMC teach me then? That discipline was necessary for personal development alone. Others I came across in the wider world did not actually believe so, and despite everything one has to function in chaos. That the feeling of belonging to an exclusive, highly nostalgic coterie was something that would advance one's prospects in life. I was quickly disabused of such notions once I was out of the hallowed halls. That the formal education I received was the foundation for my future. Me and many of my batchmates are doing what we never thought we'd ever do when we were in school; the batch toppers have somehow not really lived up to their names or rather, their final results. We did have a crook from our batch who conned many of us into parting with money for a start-up website for the school when such things were in the realm of dreams. Needless to say, that particular website never happened and the batchmate disappeared. There was even one guy who claimed friendship with Sanjay Gandhi and stole cars when he wasn't studying. And there was a master who was more interested in taking rich boys and girls on jaunts to the Far East, Dubai and other places, than “teaching” us geography.

We learned what we did because we had the inclination to be better educated than the school could provide us. We learned because our parents and families wanted us to achieve honourably and they ably communicated that in so many ways to us. LMC was merely a transit station for me, one of the better ones to be sure, but transitory nevertheless. Comparisons with students from other “lesser” known schools don't hold water only because such comparisons are meaningless. Otherwise every single successful, multi-talented person would be a Martinian.

While I am about this La Martiniere thing let me also put into some perspective the significant role that the Church administration has played in sullying the “name we own”. Over the years, a general neglect of the school had led to huge financial losses where the legacy and benefaction left behind was completely eroded. When my late father, a member of the Board of Governors, together with the then Chairman of the Board developed the useless part of the property called the 'dhobi ghats' (and not the playing field) into a large income-generating proposition, the whole world and their uncle - the media, termed my father and his colleague thieves. Without getting into a defensive position for my parent, all I can say is that only his family and friends (many of them Martinians too) knew the heartache, stress and injustice he felt at this slander. I regret that I have not been able to live up to the standards and principles that my father set himself, first as a human being, secondly as an old boy, and finally as a Christian. That should have been the schooling I gave myself, rather than what LMC claims to have given me. Today, if the finances of the school are in the black, it is only because of the foresight that my father and his colleague had. And that is what the present Church authorities are milking for all their worth.

Today LMC is a money making racket. A paean to greed and petty larceny. The Christian part of that institution is just lip service. It is a well-known fact that the previous Bishop of Calcutta of the Church of North India, PSP Raju, the ex-officio Chairman of the school's Board was one of the most corrupt people around. He and his cohorts treated the many reputable English medium schools in the city under the aegis of the Church, as their personal milch cows and mostly as real estate property to be developed at a profit. The present Bishop is hoping to avoid too much shit hitting the fan by dissembling and being reticent in the face of controversy. He will probably succeed because there's just too much money involved and too many important people who can get caught in the crossfire. The media knows this very well and they too are playing the game. Some people are willingly becoming the fall guys in the machinations because their dubious involvement in the past will come to the fore if they stick around, and that is not an option for them. The press is anyway declaiming innocence on their behalf.

So here's one more thing I have learned. It is better to have studied in an ordinary and unknown institution that genuinely imparted education, rather than the place I was in which inculcated you with a false sense of glorious history and tradition and schooled you to be obedient, orderly and becoming. Fall in line, or else...


Gordon-M said...

Great piece!

Solid sordid insight into the many "vays" we have been be-fooled in the name of glory right from the horse's mouth!

However, you missed adding "Mousy" as you did "Denzy". But both are perfect examples.

DebuCee said...

Thank god, I went to scindia school, where the punishnmet was kneeling down on hard stone floors, the murga and rounds of the cricket field (size of cc&fc)-last i heard to get your child in to La Mats u need to pay a donation of anything between 2-5 lakhs...

Sharon Ishika said...

Your sister but also your worst critic is how I would describe myself.
Just finished reading your piece -- its something we have discussed so many times. At the end of the day a child learns both at home and in the school and to even try assisgning percentages to what "fraction" of time is spent in one or the other is pointless.
I have to agree with you that what we had in the way of teaching was mediocre with exceptions ---Miss Bose and Mrs Narasimhan stand out in my mind.
Someone in the media needs to ask the question they WONT even if they can ---did this unfortunate child never get a beating/caning at home? Was he not able to talk to anyone at home about what was happening in school? Was noone at home able to give him some sort of support? Did it all go wrong at school and school alone?
Are we all still looking for scapegoats only ---to frightened to take on the real issues? Too cowardly to say I'm putting up with nonsense from this school because it is the same nonsense that allowed me to get my child admitted to this school in the first place and you know .....
You're right ---if only we had a fraction of Baba's guts, his humanity, his Christianity...

Sue said...

Pat, your sister raises the only point I repeat when I'm asked for my views on the subject -- a thirteen year old is caned for months on end. Probably with a view to intimidation and extortion. Why don't his parents notice? If his father now has the pull to get the media involved and the law invoked, he presumably had it before his son died.

It stinks every which way.

Rimi said...

Pat, a wonderfully thoughtful piece. However, although Sharon and Sue have beat me to it, after the first surge of disgust wore off, I had to wonder how the child was treated at home. When I was at school, particularly when I was young, I remember being hit on the back of our hands with a wooden ruler, and it wasn't as massive an instigator for emotional trauma then as it seems to be nowadays. We took a good lick every now and then to be part of the growing up process.

Part of why I survived those almost gleefully--and also managed to survive the considerably more traumatic high school years (poisoned by a woman we both know)--was likely because, apart from being something of a tough cookie, I also had a wonderfully supportive and loving family that always questioned my side of the story when I came home and reported a perceived injustice, but were careful to do so in a way that didn't make me feel I like I was being disbelieved, or that I was going to be further punshihed for getting an 8 out of 10 or a 60% in maths, or bringing home a note from school about talking during lessons. My mum would hound me to do more sums, but I realised even then she it was a fair thing for a parent to do.

the trouble is, most situations like this one being dreadfully polarised. If one questions the quality of parenting, it's taken for granted that one wants to let the school off the hook. I want no such thing. Teacher, from personal experience, can be persistently and almost unbelievably cruel, given how difficult it is to bring them to justice, as it were. The job, till recently, had little incentive to draw the top of the lot, so largely mediocre and poor students gravitate towards the teaching pool. A certain amount of resentment or frustration can be taken for granted. One understands that, but such attempts as the candle-lighting to save the school is ridiculous. The school's immortal soul is not in peril. It does not need to be saved. It needs to pit mawkish sentimentality aside and weed out the problems inherent in the structure, or it's likely to collapse on itself pretty soon.

(Will you look at the length of that comment!)

Dr. Sanjeev Chhiber said...


We have had a few cyber space spats but believe me reading this makes me want to buy you a drink.

Well done.

Sub said...

Agree with the sentiments expressed in the last paragraph. Nicely written!


Anonymous said...

Seems like I'm intruding on a private conversation here...

I came across this article through a Google alert, and I have to say that I agree with almost all of what you say. Looking back, and I loved my time there (no canings for me!), I can't help wondering that rather too much was made of the history and tradition and rather too little of the crap teachers on crap salaries. During my time there, I would say there were only 4 or 5 really good, impressive teachers there -- Milford Hennessy perhaps rating as a 0.5 count on account of not being around all the time.

Prefects giving up their ties became a bit of a rite of passage in my time there... the '87/'88 batch did exactly what you guys did in almost exactly the same circumstances following rough play in the football match vs Lucknow. Think the '92/'93 batch also did something similar over another incident.

Interesting to hear your perspective on the "dhobi ghat". I must say the conventional wisdom in Cal is that someone made a packet from that transaction, but maybe the school did benefit 100%?

Joysheel, '94 batch.

p@tr!(k said...

@Gordon: thanks buddy! you know too well! yeah and "...Mr John 'Mousy' Mason..."

@Debucee: Even the stuff you went through has been banned. and wtf is 'murga'?

@My sister: good questions, but as I've pointed out the press knows what's what most of the time...sometimes it's politic (read 'marketing friendly') of them not to ask those questions.

@Sue: was that why the deceased exploded stink bombs on his last day in school? ..and I'm not being funny.

@Rimi: well said!

@Sanjeev: thanks pal! and we can have a drink any time you're here in Cal next.

@Sub: thanks!

@Joysheel: good to know some students kept the right flag flying! and from every commercial deal someone will always make a packet...and it wasn't my dad... yes, but the school has benefited.

Anonymous said...

The dhobi ghat as an "useless piece of property.." Surely you jest.

I was one of those who opposed the involvement of a particular member of the Board who was also on the board of the Company that developed the property. Was this not a case of conflict of interest?

However, you write well and by and large, it is an interesting viewpoint - we are all entitled to our own.

By the way, I have met your sister and have high regard for the work she is doing.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, are you involved with the Old Boys Association? I see that they've offered very qualified support to the principal.

Don't want to put you on the spot as you probably know some of them, but overall I think they've managed to pull off a good job, considering the circumstances. Wish the press conference had some real heavyweight alums there, but I guess most don't live in Cal anymore. Very smart to have a solicitor like Avik Saha (who I thought was very good) up there alonside a couple of medics like Darius Anklesariya. And, Brandon De'Souza added real presence. But could have been much more heavyweight if they had John Mason, Prtish Nandy and Suhel Seth as well...


dr_feelgood said...

An eye opener for people like us who are nor Martinians.Having done a few years of schooling in Calcutta, we always looked at the school with awe and envy, and clearly out of the reach of ordinary people.
BTW, nice to be seeing your blog after a few months of hiatus.

dr_feelgood said...

An eye opener for people like us who are nor Martinians.Having done a few years of schooling in Calcutta, we always looked at the school with awe and envy, and clearly out of the reach of ordinary people.
BTW, nice to be seeing your blog after a few months of hiatus.

Ramesh said...

Hi Friends,
I was extremely sceptical and heard a lot of stuff on La Marts taking donations etc. for admitting students. I just got my daughter admitted into La Marts for Girls and the admission process was a breeze. No talk of donations or any form of money... the interview panel was more interested to know about me and my spouse's education, profession etc. Even my friend got his son admitted into La Marts for Boys and he had the same experience to share.


p@tr!(k said...

Ramesh - good for you, your friend and of course your children. still, that we have to now openly state we DID NOT pay bribes (in a school like LMC) itself speaks volumes about the situation we have been in for so long.

Ramesh said...

p@tr!(k - correct... but i believe a lot to be rumours.. all my associates whose child have got thru had a smooth admission process..

and a few of my colleagues whose children have not got thru still maintain that admssions are possible only thru donations.. and they appear shocked when I say the contrary..

there seems to be a big communication gap amongst the people in general...and a lack of belief too...

Ramesh said...

Hi Patrick,

May I ask... LMG or MHS? :)


p@tr!(k said...

@Ramesh: not sure what your question is...are you asking which school, in which case you've confused my gender. I'm LMB if that settles it.