OpinionRiding the Tides

The First Slice

The year was 1982 and I had just found myself in a boarding school, away from my parents, for the first time ever. I was just shy of 8 years old.

Unfortunate circumstances that I had little to do with had led to my being dropped off in this boarding school up in the hills in the southern town of Yercaud. Montfort Higher Secondary School, an establishment run by the ‘Brothers of Saint Gabriel’ would be my ‘home’ for the foreseeable future. My Father stayed on for a few days at the Government Guest House as I tried to adjust to the living in a dormitory. Although I stayed with him for the first few days, I cried myself to sleep every night knowing that my time with him would be short-lived.

After he left to resume work in Mumbai, I found myself trying to come to terms with the loneliness, the new people, the new country (I had not lived in India for 4 years before that) and strange languages. English, at least the way the Indian students spoke it was alien to me and this other language, Tamil was absurd. But here I was trying hard to find a way through Hindi lessons, obscure Math theorems, the Chola Dynasty, the Himalayan mountain range, the concept of a fulcrum, elements and what not. All of this as I tried to adapt to a new routine of waking up to the sound of a siren that went off at 5:45AM, being told to maintain silence at the dining hall that they called ‘the refectory’ and so much more.

I found solace from all that was going on by clinging to the Principal of the school, Brother Antony who was warm and friendly. He was a kind hearted man whom the boys liked to spend time with. He was someone I genuinely liked.

As you’d imagine, my first few months were an absolute disaster and I ‘failed’ in quite a few subjects except English and History. I was told that receiving report cards for those who failed subjects would be a very unpleasant one. But I didn’t really know how bad it would really be, did I?!

The day finally came and Brother Antony walked into my Grade IV classroom as Ms. Macedo walked to the back of the room. As was a practice, names were called in order of worst performers all the way up to the best. A Sardar boy by the name of Ranjit Singh was called out to the front because he was supposedly the worst in class. I say supposedly because of what I know today – that while education is a necessity, the method evaluation many of us have been subjected to is absolute and total nonsense.

All the while that Brother Antony stood there, he had his hands behind his back and when Ranjit Singh’s marks were called out, my eyes literally split open as I saw Brother Antony pull out this large cane with a knob at the top of it. It was thick, long and bent and gleamed for some reason. I looked on in horror as Ranjit was caned repeatedly on his buttocks. He cried inconsolably. He seemed familiar with the ritual.

A few moments later, Ranjit made his way back to his desk at the far right of the classroom. After a few more students went through a similar experience, my name was called. I made my way to the front of the class and smiled at Brother Antony. Surely, he would not wield that cane on me, would he? He turned me around quickly, almost in a state of guilt, so that I faced the blackboard and as I attempted to protest, I felt it for the first time. That first sting was so sharp that I felt the pain rise so quickly and numb the senses. My brain hadn’t processed the pain but before I knew more, a second sting flashed across my buttocks as I flinched finally feeling it. Two more followed before it was finally over.

As I turned to take my report card, I did not make eye contact with Brother Antony. I could feel a tear fall from one eye as I slowly made my way to my desk. As I sat, I felt the pain again. My skin was sore as it started to swell in the aftershock of such an experience.

I would learn later that the number of shots you’d get were a direct multiple of the number of subjects you failed in.

As I sat there and watched the rest of the proceedings, I realized that this was going to be a lot harder than I had initially fathomed. Something inside of me had cracked and I would have to man up in a hurry if I was going to survive this.

In the years that followed, I would come to know Brother Antony better and he was genuinely a nice person. He cared very deeply for his students. But I would also find out that he was an exception to a far more depraved bunch. What happened that day in Grade IV was just a day and age. It was obviously a common practice but to a 7-year old, it was a true shocker.

The author of this article was a student of Montfort Higher Secondary School from 1982 to 1986. He would like to remain anonymous as he exposes the happenings at the school.

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