Dearest Komal, Anjli and Amar,
To conform with my New Year’s resolution of being more grateful, I would like to thank you for spending quality time with Ba over the holiday period.
We celebrated her 93rd birthday in December and yes she is still walking. For her age she is thriving physically. Mentally, it has become an ongoing task to keep her in good spirits. So it was great that you were able to cheer her up. As the years go by, she tends to forget what she ate the day before but get her to remember her boarding school experiences and she could talk for hours. Anjli was able to record her ‘interview’ with Ba on her favourite subject.
Here is the overall gist of the ‘interview’:
Ba and her younger sibling, Tara(masi- to us) started boarding school in Vadodra around 1934. The school was based on the Arya Samaj Principles. Ba’s parents were based in Mombasa, Kenya. This was the the early pioneering days for many Gujaratis.
As there were no schools in Mombasa at the time, the sisters were sent to this boarding school. They could have stayed with their grandmother in Gajjera, their paternal home in Gujarat but then they would not have got any formal education and all their days would have been spent with the numerous household chores. It was very forward thinking of their father to send the girls to boarding school. This meant that the only time they saw their parents was when they came over to visit them at school. Ba does not remember going to Africa during her holidays. All holidays were spent in Gajjera!
A Typical School Day
- 5 A.M: Wake up call.
- 5 to 6 A.M.: Getting ready. Brushing teeth, bathing, dressing etc.
- 6 to 7 A.M: Puja (Prayers with shloka reciting) and Exercises
- 7 A.M: Breakfast
- 8 A.M. School Begins
- 12 Noon to 2 P.M.: Lunch Time
- 2 P.M. to 4 P.M.: Resume School
- 4 P.M. to 7 P.M. Free time including homework.
- 7 P.M. Evening Meal
- 10 P.M. Lights Out
This list only gives you an overall picture of their daily routine. Please listen to her ‘interview’ , it will give you an engaging flavour of her school days.
Lots of little anecdotes to be heard:
The school had around 360 girls, all boarders. All the girls were divided into dormitories of 50 , 40 or even 10. They were all given single, very comfortable metal beds. The smaller dorms were for the younger girls(youngest being around 9) where the warden would be present throughout the night. Lights out meant that the wardens would leave the room but many girls continued chatting in the dark.
Morning rituals consisted of brushing teeth with ‘datan’ (દાતણ), all prepared and ready to use the night before. The ritual of using datan to clean teeth is a natural and hygienic method involving tender twigs, the size of a toothbrush. No toothpaste required. You might not be familiar with datan, listen to Ba’s detailed description of it. I know datan well, as it reminds me of my school holidays in the jungles of Kenya. (Details in another letter)
Bathing, a compulsory daily ritual, was communal and using cold water. Brrrrr. Many girls would pretend to have had a bath by showing their wet clothes to the wardens.
Wednesday afternoon were check-up days when long finger- and toe-nails were cut and hair was checked for lice, juu(જુ ) . This task was carried out by maids(બાઇ). The maids would use a special comb(કાંસકી ) to detect lice.
All meals were taken in the school dining hall. It was all gujarati cuisine, with the main meal at lunchtime and a lighter meal in the evening (dhebra ઢેબરા , paratha પરાઠાં , shaak શાક , and always a glass of uadulterated milk). The canteen maharaj, મહરાજ (cook),freshly made rotlis that were served (piras, પિરસ) at the main meals. (Ba goes into the details of how these rotlis were made and ‘buttered’.) Tea was never offered. All food was served (similar to our ‘thali’ experiences in India) and you only took what you could finish. So if any food was left over( chandelu, છાંડેલું ), your name would be written on the plate and you were given another opportunity to finish the leftovers in the evening or not served that item again. There might have been leftovers in the early days, but never again……to this day.
The two sessions of exercises included games, yoga and marching. To this day she spends a long time doing yoga, albeit in bed or in the settee. All these movements kept the girls in good health. They did have a medical room to visit for any sickness or ailments. This ,I think is one of the reasons why she is still mobile in her 90s.
To keep the ethos of the Arya Samaj philosophy, original surnames were never used and everyone was addressed as Arya. Surnames were associated with the class system and this way all pupils were treated equally without any class discrimination.
- Languages: Hindi, Gujarati, English and Sanskrit
- Religious Education
- Memomirising Sanskrit Shlokas
- Arts, which comprised of sewing, knitting and embroidery. Cooking was offered but apparently none of the girls took it up! There was also drawing and painting offered. Still life too!
Listening to the interview, I work out that languages are Ba’s favourite subject. She still excels in that subject. Remember she had to master Swahili after moving to Kenya. She does not have the practice of speaking English but she is proficient in reading in English and can read an English newspapers from front to back. She always prefers watching English television, and these days all the German channels! Another language acquisition in progress! It made me smile when she talked about her geographical knowledge. She challenges Anjli to refer to her phone(google) to confirm her knowledge from her school days. Homework time was usually before dinner and included writing essays, nibandh (નીબંધ ).
The school organised many outings, visiting different parts of India. They were also taken to see different shows. Many different games were played in their free time. Though it was frowned upon, playing cards was also a great past time.
Ba stayed at this school until 1945, when at the age of 20 she got married. She refrained from doing her final exams because, in her own words “It would have been embarrassing to sit exams as a married lady!” Once girls got married, they were expected to leave but were never expelled.
Ba talks about her siblings, about her journey to and from India on the steamers, about her father and his life in Mombasa, about the role of Patels in Kenya, and also recites some sanskrit shlokas. I notice, she does not mention Mathematics, as one of her subject so perhaps not her favourite subject, but she is good at it. It really is an interesting audio. Lots of new Gujarati words for you so please feel free to use me as your dictionary.
One of Ba’s school mate was Savitaben, daughter of Shri Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta. Nanjibhai Mehta was highly influential in East Africa and specially for the Ugandan gujaratis.
You have all heard her talk about her school days quite often, and now you can visualize all the details. It is great that you phone and talk to her regularly. Your conversations keep her spirits up.
Yet another new year and again most of you missed the snow blitz. Despite the heavy snow fall and therefore increased risk of avalanches, I was able to go for a scintillating hike in the shimmering conditions. It was ecstatic.
Another milestone for me was to get Amar to hike with me and that too on his birthday. Thank you Amar for your company.
Thinking of you all and missing you a lot. Good luck with all your many ventures and hope to be together soon.
Lots of love, hugs and kisses,