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February 2008

Mehera: Making a Man Out of Me

Saroj Kumar Mehera
The Doon School, 122K, 1940-1944

Mehera_3 I joined Doon in the first term of 1940, a somewhat self-centred weakling of 12, with an abrasive manner which was soon knocked out of me, both verbally and physically, by other boys!

In my previous school, all the masters were Anglo-Indians and the only Englishman I had come face to face with was a doctor in Calcutta, an amiable elderly man. At Doon, I was awe-struck by the Headmaster, Arthur Foot, tall and unsmiling, and my Housemaster, Jack Gibson, who had a superficial  facial resemblance to King George VI. Ram Sathe was School and House Captain. Jammy Marker succeeded him as School Captain and S.K. Candade as House Captain. Candade was a stern figure as were the other praefects (Foot’s spelling). Inevitably, I was bullied by bigger boys and only in class did I feel secure. I would probably have run away from school, that first term, had the human side of Jack Gibson not manifested itself to me in his singing, on some days, in the House dining room, ditties from his native Yorkshire like “Ilkley Moor Baht’At” and “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Eliza”, encouraging us to join in. It was his way of making Kashmir House into a family. In subsequent years, particularly during mid-term trips to places like Ambari, Khara, and rafting on the Jumna (as the Yamuna was then called) Jack would endear himself to his flock by his ideas of Hindustani. Boiled potatoes were the standard Kashmir House staple on these trips and, on one occasion, Jack sought an exchange and said to a village maiden “Hum Aloo, Tum Atta”. The poor girl fled, thinking Jack was propositioning her! Chickens were “Murgi Ka Babalog”. Any spring, be it metal or the season was “Basant”.

Jack had his eccentricities, like when walking across a heavily flooded Main Field, he found his trousers drenched up to his calves, took them off and strode on semi-naked and, in his classroom, cut off their legs!

He had a naturally loud voice but this did not deter him from exclaiming on one occasion, “…..and there was Khalid, running down the corridor, holding his cock like a Naga”.

Jack made me take up boxing but by then I was heavy for my height and age, resulting in my being a punching bag, at practices, for others of my weight. It did, however, take a lot of timidity out of me, as I passed into adolescence.

As a teacher of Geography, Jack made an otherwise dreary subject come alive by, among other things, showing us how to map-read and how to use a magnetic compass if one was lost in, say, a forest. He was an excellent photographer and would illustrate his lessons with shots from his Leica camera. His pride and joy was an enormous plaster of Paris relief map of India, his handiwork, which filled the classroom. In 1942, Jack took leave to serve his country in the Royal Indian Navy Voluntary Reserve, as the son of a naval officer.

Posted for a time in Bombay, he managed to photograph the enormous ammunition explosion in the docks in 1944. His locum as Geography teacher was one Farhatullah, who decided, at some stage towards the end of his tenure, to paint the relief map! Jack’s fury, when he returned in 1946, was full of naval invectives which would have reduced Farhatullah to little bits had he still been around!

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Indian dress has recently made waves all over India. Jack produced “The Merchant Of Venice” in Indian dress in 1941 in the Rose Bowl and was a great hit. Another Gibson production was Galsworthy’s “Strife” in 1946, in which I played Frost, the butler.

Like his colleagues, Holdy and John Martyn, Jack was a keen mountaineer and a keen shikari. As an aside, the story has often been told of Martyn and Gibson shooting at a civet cat from opposite ends of a large drainpipe; less has been told of Jack silencing a loudspeaker on the Chakrata road with his shotgun fired from the edge of Skinner’s! 

It was in my last year at school, 1946, when I was studying for the HSC, that I really got to know and respect Jack. At 18, I was on the threshold of manhood and Jack treated me as an adult. During the summer holidays, my classmate Humayun Mirza and I stayed for about a month at the school before the second term began, ostensibly to study for the HSC exams! Both of us had been appointed House Captain, he of Hyderabad and I of Kashmir. Jack was in residence and would have us over for a chat, often about Indian independence, the Cabinet Mission et al.  Knowing or guessing that I smoked, he would offer me a cigarette, saying I was still on holiday! When term began, Jack took pains to impress upon me the needs of a responsible citizen in the independent India that was round the corner. Penderel Moon, ICS, was a friend of Jack’s and, as I found later from his writings, highly perceptive and sympathetic to Indian aspirations. During interactive sessions (in today’s jargon) between Housemaster and House Captain, Jack would often refer to his correspondence with Penderel Moon, to buttress his exhortations to me.

March-born like Jack, but twenty years later, my foregoing ramblings at the age of 80 probably do not explain why I say that he made a complete man out of me, but he did.