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.
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...