Mayo College, Batch of 67
First of all, Gibby would have hated the title of this piece.
He would have found it ungrammatical and illiterate. And even if I protested that it was a reference to the title of Ricardo Braithwaite's book, he would have none of it; he’d call me a “misery” and tell me to come here and bend over, anyway. You know what I mean….
In my mind’s eye I shall always see him as a kind of cross between Mr Chips and Ernest Hemingway. Mr Chips for obvious reasons, and Ernest Hemingway because he seemed to exemplify the values of outdoor life: mountaineering, fishing, shooting, trekking, driving off to remote but exotic places in his battered brown jeep, playing a variety of games with great determination, if not always great skill. And, what none of us knew was that he had been, in his time, a fencer of Olympic standard.
I first met Gibby was when I was 11. My parents had deposited me at Mayo and gone back to Bombay. I was sitting in a spooky, freezing room in Jaipur House, feeling rather sorry for myself, when Gibby suddenly appeared and hustled me off with all the other new boys, to climb Taragarh. I can still picture him, red-faced in the sun, shepherding a gaggle of small schoolboys up the hillside. Halfway up, I got stuck on a rocky ledge, sprained my foot and had to be rescued, but my home-sickness had magically disappeared. That was one of Gibby’s special tricks.
And the last time I met Gibby, while at Mayo, was when I went to say goodbye to him on my last day. He put me in his jeep and took me to see Shanti Niwas, the retirement home he’d just bought, and was in the process of refurbishing. He showed me a small verandah upstairs from where we could see the Main Building, and said, “You know, this is where I’ll sit and have my drink every evening, looking out at Mayo. A little like Shah Jehan and the Taj.” Uncharacteristically sentimental of him, I remember thinking to myself at the time.
In between those two meetings were some of the most important years of my life. Where do I begin?
Gibby made it a point to get to know every boy who passed out of Mayo. He devised a system by which he’d teach us at least twice: once when we were about 11, when he taught us geometry, and how to think logically, and properly; and then again in our final year when his subject, officially, was English, but he would veer off into various other useful things like Speed Reading and Memory Systems -- which, forty years later, I find I still use almost every day.
We also knew that during one class – at some point in the course of that final year -- Gibby would abruptly shut his Shakespeare text, and launch into his famous talk on Sex … an event we waited for with great eagerness, and dissected with hilarity at leisure. That Talk was an important rite of passage at Mayo.
Everybody has their own different reasons for admiring Gibby. My own was for his wonderfully playful mind. It showed in little things that he did, like those clever Mayoor competitions would invent. Like the time when M.C. Chagla was chief guest at Prize Giving, and you were supposed to send a telegram to your parents in 8 words, beginning with the letters MCCHAGLA”. (My own 12-year old effort was “Mayo College Chaps Have Achkans. Gentlemen, Ladies Attend”, but the prize, if I remember correctly, went to Anees Shareef’s “Missed Convocation. Chagla Has Already Gone Long Ago”). Or like the competition where there was a rambling passage of prose in which the names of over a hundred Mayo boys had been carefully hidden. (My own name, for instance, I found buried inside the word “unwarranted”.)
His playful wit showed in the ditties and limericks he composed, and the complicated plots he thought up for all those Moonlight Schemes. Like the one we once played near the historic battlefield of Dorai: there were two opposing armies, the Tupjars and the Lahgums (note the palindromes) and Gibby’s detailed rules ran into nearly two full cyclostyled pages. If you were identified through the darkness by no less than two enemy soldiers simultaneously, you were dead. But if you then went to the Pundit seated under such-and-such peepul tree (i.e. Gurudev), he could grant you an extra life to get back into battle … but only provided you requested him in proper, grammatical Sanskrit. The latter was a touch only Gibby would have thought of.
His wit also showed on occasions like the time when Tejraj Singh and an accomplice, at the end of term, got hold of a jeep and rammed it straight into the Ajmer House gate-post. Gibby gravely announced this misdemeanour at Assembly. Then, wicked twinkle in eye, he continued, “I have thought very carefully about what to do with them. And I have decided to follow the advice of Gilbert & Sullivan, and let the punishment fit the crime. Thus Tejraj and friend will have to stay back in school and personally repair the damage they have caused. The cost of bricks and cement will, of course, be deducted from next term’s pocket money.
“When the gate-post is re-built,” he intoned, “And when the gate swings freely, then -- and only then -- will they be allowed to go home.” We were in hysterics.
When he once saw me reading P.G. Wodehouse, he said, “I’ll lend you something even better than that,” and gave me a book of Antrobus stories, Lawrence Durrell's stylish tribute to Wodehouse. He later introduced me to Durrrell’s Alexandria Quartet. My life was never quite the same after reading those books.
Gibby was an unusually perceptive man. When I was about fifteen I went through a long period of depression. Nobody noticed it, not my family, not my friends, not anybody. But Gibby did, somehow. He cornered me one day in front of the Chemistry lecture room. “What’s troubling you?” he asked.
“It’s not nothing. I’ve been noticing the way you look.”
“Nothing, sir. Really.” I didn’t feel like talking about it.
“It’s all right, you can tell me.”
“No, sir, it’s nothing”
He looked at me for a long moment “All right,” he said finally, “but if you ever want to talk about it, remember I’m here.”
It felt so good to hear that.
There were sides to him that we glimpsed only rarely. Like the time we had put up an entertainment show in the Central Mess, and Gibby turned up to watch. He looked uncharacteristically elegant that evening, in a crisp chikan kurta-pyjama and Lucknowi “dupalli” topi. He’d obviously had a more than a couple of drinks, and was in great spirits. He walked onto the stage at the end of the evening, and proceeded to regale us with a rowdy Cossack dance, squatting on his haunches, arms crossed in front, kicking his legs out straight in front of him, singing loudly and tunelessly in Russian, chikan kurta flying and dupalli topi askew. It demonstrated, how fit he was, even at that age. It also suggested to me, in some way, what a lonely man he was.
We took an unseemly interest in Gibby’s love life -- or lack thereof. There were a couple of middle-aged English ladies who used to visit school occasionally, and we were eager to pair them off with him. Our hot favourite among them (no pun intended) was a Miss Crystal Rogers, who ran the “Animal’s Friend”. We all agreed she was The One, mainly because she looked uncannily like Gibby himself, from her leathery, wind-beaten face and sinewy form, right down to her short-back-and-sides grey hairstyle. But Sub Kumaramangalam claimed – claimed -- that Gibby had once asked him about the headmaster of his former prep school in England, and remarked, “You know, he married the only woman I ever loved.”
He was a man of Spartan tastes. He had his jeep, his gun, his pipe, his two Labradors, his old wind-up gramophone and his collection of classical music records. And that was about it. He had no time for the frivolities of life, and that especially meant fashion and pop music. He once confiscated my prized Fred Perry tee shirt, saying “I’m not going to have you walking around with that green titty” (a reference to the then-iconic oak-leaf logo on the chest).
When the Beatles first emerged, Flash Anand and Ips Sinha formed a rock band and got themselves into the Prize Giving entertainment programme to sing A Hard Day's Night. Gibby found out at the last moment and threw a fit. He later relented, but only on one condition: that he would personally rewrite the words of the song. And so, on the night, the band dispiritedly sang:
“It’s been a hard day’s night
And I’m looki-i-ing such a fright
In my long pointed shoes
And ti-i-ight fitting trews
But you can see from my hair
That I sure ain’t square.…”
As the song ended, they were to bow low to the audience and their too-tight drainpipe trousers were to rip loudly from behind. Flash and gang may not have been amused, but the audience certainly was.
When I finished college, I wrote to Gibby saying that I was thinking of pursuing a career in advertising. He promptly wrote back, enclosing a letter of introduction to somebody. That somebody turned out to be no less than the Chairman of India’s largest advertising agency, who, Gibby explained in his accompanying letter, was a retired General, “a keen mountaineer and a fine fellow”. I never used that introduction, as it happened, preferring to approach the company through a less exalted route. The fact that I didn’t get in is a different matter.
I kept in touch with Gibby over the years. The first time I had written to him after school, I signed my name, and added “Batch of ‘67” under it. So whenever he wrote to me after that, he would wryly add “Batch of ‘26” under his own name. I particularly looked forward to his delightful Christmas letters, full of all the adventures -- and misadventures – he’d had during the past year; of all the places he had traveled to; all the old friends he had met up with.
I had an argument with him once, after a second mug of his rather awful home-made beer. I told him I thought the value system he had set up at Mayo was distorted. The role models were always the football-kickers and hockey-stick swingers, I said. And any boy who was intellectually or artistically gifted was simply branded with that uniquely damning Mayo compound word: saalaintellectualfreak. “That’s rubbish,” Gibby replied, and talked of leadership and character. I cited examples to prove my point. The argument continued. Then he stopped and thought. “Maybe that’s true,” he mused. “Maybe there were some boys for whom Mayo was not the best place. Maybe they would have done better elsewhere.” It was gracious of him to say that.
I last met Gibby in the early ‘90s, when I went to meet him in Ajmer. He looked ill and frail, wearing a crumpled kurta-pyjama and soda-bottle glasses. I’d been told he had skin cancer. Too many years of Rajasthani desert sun and open jeep, I suppose. Or perhaps too many sun’s rays reflecting off the ice faces of the Himalayas he had climbed.
I started to introduce myself, but he interrupted, saying, “Yes, of course I remember you. You’re the chap who was Editor of the Mayoor. You had reviewed General Kaul’s book on the 1962 war. How is your grandmother, the one who was in politics?” He remembered, still.
He led me onto the terrace and said “Wait, I have to first take the temperature”. I thought he was going to put a thermometer in his mouth, but no – ever the geography master, he hobbled across to a set of instruments to check the ambient temperature and humidity, and noted them meticulously in a log. He then showed off to me how he had trained a pair of stray sparrows to come and actually eat off his fingers. That done, he said, “All right, now have a beer”. We sat and talked of his days in World War II, and how the British fleet in Ceylon had narrowly missed being wiped out by the Japanese Pearl Harbour task force. It had slipped away just in time to a secret base in the Maldives, where Gibby spent much of the War.
As I was leaving that afternoon, I noticed a beautiful pair of old wooden skis mounted on his staircase wall. I think they were Peterboroughs. I casually remarked that they would probably be very valuable now. Gibby immediately insisted that I take them. “Go on,” he kept saying, “I have no use for them any longer”. He sent for a servant to pack them for me. The only way I could stop him, finally, was to say that I really wouldn’t be able to carry them back to Bombay.
When we first saw My Fair Lady while at Mayo, we were struck by the marked resemblance between Rex Harrison and Gibby: the cut of the face; that lopsided smile; the way their eyes crinkled up at the corners. I recently learned that when they were re-making Goodbye, Mr Chips in the mid ‘60s, they had originally wanted to Rex Harrison to play the part of Mr Chips, but he turned them down; it was only then that they chose Peter O’Toole for the role. What a pity! For us Mayo boys, Rex Harrison as Mr Chips would have meant Gibby forever.
As I write these words I realise that I am now the same age that Gibby was when I knew him. I compare what he did in his life with what I have done in my own, and I feel shamed. But then I console myself that men like him are very rare indeed.
Thank you, sir. It was an honour to have been taught by you.