By Pradeep S Mehta
It was an exciting trip down the memory lane, when I visited The Scindia School, Gwalior as the Chief Guest on August 15, 2006, India’s 60th Independence Day. I was delighted to have been there for two reasons. Firstly, being honoured as a dignitary, and secondly, to see the progress of the school that has preserved most of the traditions and ethos that existed over forty years ago, when I had studied there.
The Independence Day parade was held at the Cricket Ground opposite the main school
Chief Guest addressing the audience For more please Click here
building as has been done for as long as one can remember. It started at 7:15 a.m. It was little hot and humid during the day, but the morning cool breeze made it quite pleasant. Thus it was quite bearable wearing a raw silk jacket over a soft silk kurta. Considering the weather, I decided to not to wear a suit, and hoped that the school community would not mistake me for another scoundrel politician.
At 7:00 a.m. sharp, an escort came over to the School Guest House to take me to the main ground. While I was driven the one km route in first gear in a Tata Sumo, there were horsemen (senior school boys) as a ceremonial escort with one person in the lead carrying an unsheathed sword. On arrival, the ebullient Principal, Nirmal Kumar Tewari received me with a broad smile and took me towards the podium. On the way, he introduced me to the staff who had so kindly lined up to greet me. Having reached the exalted podium, I was garlanded and then asked to hoist the national flag, the Tiranga. After I unfurled the National Flag, the National Anthem Jana Gana Mana was sung by the whole assembly. Soon after, the parade began, and I along with all others on the pavillion stood up to receive it, as it marched past the podium to salute the Tiranga and me.
My own memories of the five Independence Day parades, that I had participated in during 1960-65, were refreshed, and it was the same smart turnout and the same enthusiastic fervour as ever. As always, some boys fainted and were carried away. The only thing, which was perhaps new, was the school band, smartly turned out like an Army Band. In our times, we did have a school band but they used to be in school uniforms. They played excellently.
The Principal introduced me to the parade in an extempore fashion and spoke quite eloquently about me. He explained the idea that alma mater have been invited to take such a salute in the past also, who could be presented as role models before the present generation of students. I then got up to speak, with the resolve of making my distinct points in few minutes. I was already cautioned to not to speak for more than 10 minutes, and my speech should focus on the changes that I see and how do I feel about them. I was told this by two boys, who had met me the earlier afternoon to do an interview for the School Review, the magazine. This can be seen on the Scindia School website (www.scindia.edu). In fact, I was informed that old boys do not receive the printed school magazine, and they can have access to it on the website only. I did mention this, as I have not seen the Review for many days. Moreover, I was informed that the practice of sending the Review by post was discontinued after such a recommendation was made by the Scindia Old Boys Association (SOBA).
Reverting to my address, the first thing that I spoke about in terms of changes was the new central dining hall built on the far side of the cricket ground. I felt that it was quite incongruous. I wished the architects were mindful of making the structure similar to the sandstone buildings that have existed in the school since about 100 years or so, so that it could have melded into the whole environment. It is a flashy building and plainly out of sync.
I also recounted how discipline was inculcated in me during my school days, which has been a strong point in my character. I narrated the incident of how I was punished to run four rounds of the cricket ground by then School Prefect, the late Madhav Rao Scindia. He had caught me walking to the school from North Block (Vivekananda House, now Daulat House) with hands in my pockets. I found the same discipline among the boys. Among other things, which continue to exist today are the school uniform i.e. white shirts and grey half pants (trousers for senior boys). The thing that has changed about uniforms is that the cloth is now polyester-cotton, while it used to be only cotton during our times.
Independence being the flavour of the day, I said that we did achieve political freedom in 1947, but economic freedom is still a distant dream. Over 300 million out of our 1.1 billion population are very poor, while another 500 million just about live on a sustenance basis. “India, which is aiming to be a big economic power over the next few years, cannot do so unless every one in India has unhindered access to “roti, kapda aur makan, and sarak, paani aur bijli” and that is the challenge before all of us”.
“One citizen is better than 1000 individuals”
As a career path, after few years in self-employment, I decided to pursue social activism as an obligation to discharge my debt to society. In this thought process, the School played a vital role in shaping my future career in addition to the institutions of labour camps, social work, NCC etc. I asserted, “The School provides all round education and it is for every boy to choose his career, but they should also proactively think of their responsibility towards the society and the nation”. In conclusion, I reminded the assembly about what Nani Palkhiwala had said, “One citizen is better than 1000 individuals”.
I stressed the need that each one of us must strive to become a responsible citizen and not just an accomplished individual. If every boy decides to contribute some amount of his time to help those who cannot help themselves, then that will be sufficient.
After the parade, I planted a flowering tree on the roadside. This is an admirable part of our culture, because it helps to retain the record of a visit and also reminds us of our duty towards the environment. I hope to see the grown tree whenever I visit the school next. The next halt was at the Astachal, where prayers were offered at the foot of Gandhi’s statue and a one-minute silence was observed in memory of those who had died in the struggle for independence. The Astachal, an open air amphitheatre, is perhaps one of the most unique institutions in the school, where all boys gather in the evening at sun down or on such occasions, and meditate.
This was followed by a sumptuous breakfast at the Principal’s house, where every teacher was invited. At the breakfast, there were a few parents and old boys, including house prefects. Besides, there were two British students, who were here on an exchange basis from Westminster School in the UK. As per the exchange programme, Scindia School also sends its students to Westminster. The school caption, Rahat Kulshresta who escorted me in a few occasions, has been there for three months.
Visiting the old house and other sights
Then I decided to take a round of the school and the fort, with an escort of senior boys from Daulat House (my old house) in the North Block. The trip took me to deeper nostalgia. The house looked the same except we had to take a longer route to reach it. The famous Gurdwara, where Guru Hargobind was interred during Aurangzeb’s time, had encroached on the road, next to the football field, and beyond. In our times, we used this road to travel between the school and our houses. Next to the Gurdwara, there used to be a gallery, a big stone and lime construction, a larger version of a squash court, for people to practice tennis. That does not exist any longer. The Gurdwara was allowed to carry on the encroachment without being challenged, because of the dadagiri of its managers, while the school authorities did not interfere in view of political sensitivities.
At the Daulat House, once again I was asked to speak to the houseboys, when I exhorted them about developing the spirit of enquiry, something, which we should do in order to be better citizens. On taking a round of the house, I noticed that changes have taken place, which include new bathroom blocks. During our times, we had to go outside just behind the house for our morning ablutions. The four corner rooms on the first floor of the house, which were exclusively used by prefects, are now used for things other than housing prefects. Now a days the prefects live in the dormitories along with the hoi polloi.
The common room has not changed, except there is a colour TV set. I could see the first house picture of 1961-62 of my times, which had mine in the group photo. Due to want of space, only a few pictures could be hung on the wall. As my name did not feature on the list of prefects, I was asked why. I explained: we had two house prefects and two school prefects in 1964-65, our final year. I was not appointed one, because of my own non-conformist ways, but that did not deter me from becoming a globally recognised person in my area of work. This was a message that I gave to some of the boys who too did not get the prefectship, so that they do not carry any complexes when they pass out. I reasoned that there are various stages in life, and one need not get disheartened if one did not achieve any distinction at any one stage. There is always a bright future. Luck too plays an important role, I added with a wholesome glance at the boys.
The new housemaster, Dr Dubey gave me a cup of milky tea, while the boys picked my brains on what we did or what not during our times. Naturally, the talks turned towards the adventurous experiences. Smoking was very much in practice then, and the boys were surprised to hear that we too used to smoke during the 1960s. In fact, one of our suppliers was a small shop in the dhobis’ quarters right behind the house. He used to supply us with Embassy brand unfiltered cigarettes in a hush-hush fashion. Now the dhobis’ quarters have been fenced off with barbed wire. However, I did offer the advice that there is no need to smoke if one can avoid it. “As a practitioner, I can be a good preacher”.
In spite of denial by teachers, many boys also keep mobile phones, which was another prodigious change. I just could not imagine whether such discipline can be followed elsewhere. Even in my office, everyone, nearly all, carry their personal mobile phones. In spite of clear instructions and the threat against banning mobiles, people do misuse the liberty.
Boys continue to bunk school, as we did in our times. Twice I had bunked and was caught. Nowadays, they call up taxis from the town and venture forth. In our times, there were no such luxuries. Besides, the only phone was in the Housemaster’s quarters in the house. It was but an extension of some phone exchange remotely placed in the main school building or so. During our days, there was no STD as well, and one had to book calls for long time, or a lightning call which was terribly expensive and often delayed. Now there are STD booths around the school premises, so that boys could call up their home. Interestingly, boys continue to come from many of smaller cities and towns, such as Karnal, Allahabad, Bareilly and even as far as from Kerala, Assam, Meghalaya etc. This aspect has its own merit, as the school reflects the whole country and promotes national integration.
We next visited the Saas Bahu Temples. These are two beautiful temples, a big one for the mother-in-law and the smaller one for the daughter-in-law built a few centuries ago. On my first day I had also visited the Teli temple next to the school ground: Oval. The Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has now taken them over and charge fee for entry. However, but we were able to persuade the gatekeeper to allow us in without the ticket, as these had to be procured from quite a distance. Mansingh’s Palace, a beautiful multi-storied palace, doesn’t require entry tickets unless one is visiting the sound and light show in the evening. The view from the parapets next to both the structures was again very scintillating, with strong breeze blowing in the face. I was told that the Son-et-Lmiere show at Man Mandir Palace is very good with Amitabh Bachhan as Gopachal, the sutradhar (commentator). I will perhaps see it some other time, when I visit the school again.
I also visited the new Science Block, just behind the main school building. This was gifted by Vinay Modi, which inter alia houses the latest Internet facility. NIIT Ltd. also has a seven member project team there to impart the latest learning in computer education. The NIIT project manager informed me that the school gets the latest knowledge in computer technology from its source. The building and facilities there are very modern and will do any Scindian proud. Alas, the block has very few flowers or planters, which I pointed out. The premises thus looked quite gray and barren. The suggestion was welcome and the boys felt that it is such a small thing, which never struck them.
Some of the other building changes that I saw, was the abandonment of the Ravindra House due to its bad condition. Two new house buildings were under construction just below the Shivaji House. I was told that these will be modern with perhaps individual rooms for each boy. Most likely they will be replacing Mahadji and Jeevaji Houses. Their design is also modern without any thought (like in the case of the new central dining hall) to meld them into the environment, keeping the overall old look of other buildings on the campus.
School council meeting
During the evening before, I was invited to attend the School Council meeting, which elected a new Joint Secretary and a Secretary position held by 9th and 11th class boys. However, boys from 10th class are not eligible, as they have to prepare for Board Exams. There was a huge contest for the Joint Secretary’s position with all the class 9th boys, about seven, wishing to stand for the post. In the first round, two strong contenders emerged, and in the run off one of the two was elected with a very small margin.
For the Secretary’s position, there were three contenders from 11th class. As in the case of the Joint Secretary, each boy was asked to say a few words on what he would like to see the school to be like. I was asked to nominate the best of the three. I selected a boy who had some track record of having been successful in several school-based societies. It turned out that he was from Daulat House, of which I had no inkling when I chose him. Overall I was impressed with the enthusiasm that the boys displayed, which also showed that institutions of the school were intact. It had not degenerated, as has been expressed by some old boys.
In fact, when the meeting began, the Principal explained the role of the Council etc., and that it is part of the learning process and that the Council is an advisory body. Later, when I was asked to speak I did explain that such institutions are part of our participatory democracy and how the School maintains transparency. Secondly, it is a step in the learning process whereby participation in democratic institutions in the country is taught since the early stage. The Principal also echoed this view in his address.
I narrated an instance of my times, when once Jalal Agha (two years my senior, and the famous comedian Agha’s son) had quite stupidly asked as to whose pocket does the surplus of income over expenditure go in. For this, he was reprimanded. It is perhaps since then that financial results are never shared with the School Council, which the Principal thought is a good idea and worth considering to be revived.
I also pointed out that of the new boys who stood for elections, none of them were coached on what the Council does and what will be their role. It was their first Council meeting, and hope that they will receive some training/orientation on what the Council does and how they can play an active and constructive role.
New dining arrangements
I had four meals in the School during the visit, of which three were at the Principal’s bungalow. I, therefore, decided to have at least one meal at the School mess. The mess is in one long hall divided into two sections. Alas, the acoustics are pretty bad and the slightest sound echoes. While eating lunch, I was quite pained to hear screeching sounds when a big plate carrying receptacle was being shifted on the floor. I am quite sure that the problem could be solved by installing some sound breakers on the roof and the walls.
The meal was quite wholesome. The mess catering has been handed over to a catering contractor, who charges Rs 60 per day per head for three meals. One has to self serve, thus not requiring armies of servers or wasting food. These are quite sensible things, which the school has done. The kitchen looked quite hygienic as against what existed in our times. The difference that I did find is that boys have been trained to use spoons and forks to eat rice, while during my times, many of us used our hands. I was told that if any boy is found using his hands, he is criticised. This is wrong.
We had thaali katories, while today they use moulded steel thaalies with compartments for curries. In fact, in our times this system was quite different and more Indian than what exists in other similar public schools. I was told that a few years earlier the school had switched to ceramic ware but the breakage was quite high, and then they shifted to the moulded steel thaalies. Further, we also used to have continental meals once a week with knife, fork etc. This continues till today but they have to use the same thaalies. I was informed that the practice of a sit-down continental dinner is still followed but only during exclusive banquets for boys who have been awarded colours.
Change in ethos
One change in ethos, as the above, did strike me. During our times, being an Indian and imbibing Indian values was very critical. Not that the School does not do so, it is these changes, which are somewhat disconcerting. Another one, which struck me, was the approach towards westernization and the strong thrust on speaking only in English. I did offer my opinion on the latter that one should know how to write and speak equally well in English and Hindi (and/or their own mother tongue). In any event, one can be equally proficient in at least three languages.
My conversations with many senior boys on a variety of issues, which touched upon the school were very interesting. One felt that other similar public schools promoted more of individualism, while Scindia promoted team spirit and shared work.
Their complaint was that unlike other schools such as Doon, old boys do not help school boys in getting jobs etc. I was told that Doon has a dedicated website to help freshers from the school to get a job within three months of passing their career courses.
Sending their own boys to school
The ultimate test for measuring consumer satisfaction is whether there will be a repeat purchase. Thus, I asked several boys whether they would send their sons to the school. In response, I heard a unanimous affirmative. In fact I then called up one of my batch mates Kiran Sapat in Guwahati, who had sent his son Ashish to this school. He has since passed out and is currently working in the US. Kiran too felt that sending Ashish to school (who was there for eight years) was a very sensible decision.
Most of the boys felt that the teachers were good and dedicated though the leadership could do with some improvement. After running and managing organisations with over 150 staff members, I can say that one cannot always get everything in a person; there are
strengths and weaknesses and one has to see the same in balance.
In sum, it was a good and exciting visit and I am thankful to Arun Kanodia for having suggested my name for being invited to the school and being honoured; to the Principal, Nirmal Tewari for having invited me and playing a splendid host. And to a host of teachers and students who made my short trip very enjoyable and interesting. I will certainly go back again to the School and sooner than my earlier visits of many years ago.