« January 2009 | Main | September 2010 »

August 2010

Mitra: Memories of Mayo

Subroto Mitra
Mayo College, Batch of 1964

Subroto Mitra

I first met Jack on 11 January 1955—yes, that’s the exact date—when I arrived in Mayo as a seven year old, accompanied by my father and my cousin Badal-dada. The previous year, my eldest uncle had found an ad in a newspaper for the Merit Scholarship Competition and had insisted that I be entered for it. So I took the exam in Hindu School, Calcutta. It was horrendous. I was competing with several thousand kids and we had to undergo psychological and memory tests. In addition we were subjected to a viva voce by half a dozen examiners. The questions they asked me and answers I gave them have become part of my family history, but the important thing is that I got through.

We were the first arrivals in Jaipur House that year—Mrs David was the House Mistress--and Jack was there to meet the junior most boys.  Even at that age, I was a nationalist. I’d seen plenty of Europeans before in Calcutta, so Jack wasn’t a novelty—and, as far as I was concerned, Europeans were to be observed, kept at a distance and never trusted. My patriotism was in my genes. My dad, too, was anti-British. In his college days, he had given a gun belonging to my grandfather Karunamoy, a Deputy Magistrate, to the revolutionaries associated with Rishi Aurobindo’s brother Biren Roy. In fact, after having read Durgesh-Nandini and other novels by Bankim Chandra, as well as stories of pre-independence struggles, I had taken a distaste to the British and had sworn not to learn English!

Initially, of course, Jack was a very distant figure, as were DNM, Ratan Singh, Onkar Singh, Pushpender Singh Vijay Singh or Sardul Singh, then the heroes of Mayo. I saw Jack mostly at Assembly, in the dining room, on the PT grounds and while playing games. I still vividly remember marching up to the Main Assembly Hall on important occasions, listening to a piece of European classical music, then saying our prayers in Hindi, and hearing Jack’s announcements. It took me some time to understand his accent. And the few times he spoke to me or announced my name, he mispronounced it, saying Subrata instead of Subroto. (Years later, when applying for the higher secondary exam, I formally changed the spelling of my name to Subroto Mitro, which reflects the correct Bengali pronunciation.)  Actually, Jack was not the only offender regarding Bengali at Mayo, as far as the teachers were concerned. Once, during Assembly, he asked Mr. T.D. Pant how to pronounce a word in Bande Mataram, and Gurudev incorrectly gave it a Sanskritised spin.

At first, not only was my English shaky, I didn’t know any Hindi. So I clung to my Bengali-ness. It was a great relief to have Mr BC Gue and Mr RN Chatterjee, both Bengalis, around. Kirit Bikram Dev of Tripura & Samir Bhattacharya spoke with me in Bengali, and in spite of their seniority, quickly became friends.  For a month I spoke pretty much only in Bengali with them and with my friends like VP, Robin, Golak, Samarjeet, Abhimanyu, who always replied to me in Hindi and that’s how I learned the Hindi language. Once, Miss Erasmus, our junior teacher, asked me to count aloud in class and I began saying the numbers in Bengali. When I said Kuri (20), much to my surprise everyone started laughing. Only much later did someone tell me that Kudi in Punjabi means girl! In those early days I was indeed, as Mr. HL Dutt recently described me, “A chubby boy with intelligent eyes who was quiet.” I hid behind my friends and quietly observed everything.

Jack and Mayo activities

Over the years, I played soccer, hockey, and tennis, with Jack, went rock climbing with him, or canoed in Ana-sagar in his inflated rubber and wooden boats. Even though by this time Jack was well over 50, he was very vigorous and gave us all a run for our money.

Although Mr. Gibson was equally accessible to us all, he was especially solicitous of a privileged few—Deb Barua, Samir Bhattacharya, Aditya Singh. They were boys he liked or those whose parents he knew.

When I was in Colvin, BCG was the House Master and Jimut Chatterjee became my room-mate. I remember telling Jimut, “Gibby has his eye on you and if you do not mess up you’ll become a prefect.” I also had a room when I first moved to Tonk House and then a year of dormitory life in Bikaner House when Tinnu Anand was my dormitory captain. I was also close to Jaideep Samarth, who, like Jimut, later became head boy.

In BT House when Pannalal Hazarika (62) and then Jimut (63) became Head-boys, my interaction with Gibby increased.  Shantanu Jha, Jimut and I would regularly taken rides with him in his red jeep to the playing fields or the Dining Hall to avoid being late. In fact, we’d often wait for Gibby to give us a ride. That’s really how Gibby and I got to know each other; otherwise, we wouldn’t have, since I was a quiet, unnoticeable sort of boy.

I remember two negative incidents involving Mr. Gibson.  Once, during a Diwali night, an atom bomb cracker was slow to ignite and burst in my right hand. My index finger and thumb had to be bandaged.  As a result, I could not do my Geometry home work.  Mr. Gibson, who taught us Geometry and was left handed, would not listen to any excuses. He asked me to bend over and caned me once—the first that had ever happened to me. He also insisted that I write with my left hand and submit the homework the next day.

The second incident also involved geometry. While teaching theorems, Gibby used to keep asking students questions. Once when my turn came and I answered a difficult question correctly, he was surprised and assumed that I knew the answer only because I had studied the theorem beforehand. That wasn’t true and I was hurt that he didn’t think I was capable of thinking intelligently for myself.

I grew to realize, Jack was actually a very likable person. He was also an incredibly versatile man, who could pretty much do anything well: He could sing (I can never forget his belting out ‘Dear Lisa, There is a hole in my bucket’); he could direct plays, especially Shakespeare’s (remember Othello with Devendra Singh and  Merchant of Venice with Bomi Gamat as Shylock?); he could fence (he was an Olympic level fencer and he used to show us the techniques with the European interns); and, of course, he could organize the most enjoyable camps and picnics. I remember the whole school once going to Taragarh at 9 one night to play cops and robbers. As cops we had to find the robbers—who were from other houses—and kill them by shining our torch on them. At 1am a flare went up and we all collected to see who’d won while munching samosas and pakoras and sipping hot tea. Another year we went to the sandy hills of Pushkar in the moonlight. Jack was the life of the school and in every activity we found him leading from the front.

During Gandhi Jayanti, Gibby gave workers a holiday, so we did the chowkidari ourselves. I also volunteered for the Adult Educational Society where we taught village elders—many of whom worked at Mayo or were related to those who did--to write in Hindi and English. Mr. Gibson took a keen interest in such activities and this inspired both us and the villagers.

At the end of every term, on returning home to Calcutta, I would await with keen interest each year, both the House Master’s Report and the Principal’s Report.   Gibby’s Report was printed and detailed life at Mayo for the boys and his own activities.  He would then scribble in few words on each student. House masters Report was all specific and begin with how we did well and then be critical of us.

After school I visited Gibby in 1965, 1971 and 1991.  The first time, an uncle of mine accompanied me and was most impressed by Jack. The next time I met him at Gulab-Bari but couldn’t spend much time with him because there were a lot of people present and I had to leave early. During what turned out to be my final visit in 1991, I went with Ranjit Babbar who worked for Air India and had taken him to Africa. Jack and I had a long chat and I offered to bring him to the States but by then he had become weak and lost the will to visit new places.  At that time I remember Jack discussing with HH of Jaipur and Jodhpur how two brothers who could be brought together to resolve their differences.  Later after I visited Lake Palace in Udaipur and met Arvind, I realized that it was he and Mahendra—both of whom had been with me at BT House--that Gibby had been concerned about.

Although we didn’t meet that often, we corresponded regularly and in May 1986, Jack wrote: “You ask me about the years before I came to India. I have been writing about them but don’t think that what I wrote, lacking violence and sex, will ever be published, so you must come here and read it. My coming to India was mere chance. I had been with another man on the short list for a teaching job I very much wanted in England. He was a married man and I was not; they wanted a married man, so he got the job. I was very disappointed but happened to be told of the start of the Doon School so I lightheartedly applied for a house mastership there and eventually found myself in India. I have never regretted this.”
Another time, he wrote: “You make a perfectly legitimate reference to my hand writing.  I won’t worry with you with it but have dictated this to Tansukh’s son Omi who is training to be a stenographer.  Many thanks for the B/W blow ups and for your offer of Gurudakshina. Your letter was a very satisfactory one.”

Towards the end of his life, Gibby wrote, “I have little of any interest. I am getting old, slow, and forgetful and I have been having a little trouble with my heart, but on the whole I keep a’going very happily, and at the moment the sun is shining as I sit on my verandah and admire the 20 varieties of flowers blooming in something over a 100 pots.   In a letter of 28th Dec 1991 he wrote, “How good it was to see you at the beginning of this month….. Old age has caught up on me. I have lost my sense of balance so can’t walk more than a few places without someone ready to hold me up, and my eyes are a bit apt to go out of focus. …Otherwise I keep happy, spending most of the day sitting or lying down.  I have been tearing up many old letters and destroying old photographs of interest to only myself: but looking through them has revived many happy memories from my prep school onwards and made me realise how lucky I have been to live a life usually so happy.  I wish you could see the pots of flowers on my verandah, where I spend most of the day time. They are a lovely mass of colour from roses to chrysanthemums.”

The last letter I received from him was his delayed 1993 Christmas Letter with his colored photo in it.  It is published in As Jack Saw It and titled “Jack and his companion.”  I wonder how many such photos of him were printed.

I don’t like divulging my personal feelings, but I owe Jack so much. He put his heart and soul into making Mayo what it was—the finest school in the country. He gave boys like me so many opportunities, exposed us to so many things. I met a lot of famous people when I was at Mayo--Lal Bahadur Shastri, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Gen Thimayya, Gen Srinagesh, Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee, Jackie Kennedy—but, frankly, as far as I am concerned, Jack stood head and shoulders above them all.