In the very heart of Lutyens’ New Delhi the Gol Dakhana (Round Post Office) is one landmark among several- the cream and red brick Cathedral of the Redemption, the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, the Hanuman Mandir and my old school, the Convent of Jesus and Mary, which I still think of with fondness. The tall wrought iron gates of the Cathedral marked the pick-up point, girls standing in neat clusters on their right, waiting for lifts home, and St Colombus boys hanging about in untidy bunches to the left.
Lying in wait to tempt our rumbling tums were vendors of peanuts, chaat (a spicy and dangerous concoction of diced guava and banana, a bonafide passport to delhibelly) and the most forbidden treat of all- aampapar. This sticky sour-sweet delicacy of evil looking black sun-dried mango, the paste exposed on filthy village rooftops swarming with flies, was hastily crammed into our mouths with our desklids raised, after dipping strips of it in tiny screws of newspaper with rocksalt and pepper; dangerously mouthwatering, the risk of consumption enhanced by dire threats that it would deliver us to the cholera ward, the Principal’s office or Hell.
The Convent (or CJM) pioneered the trend for practical uniforms.
Mother Francis, the exuberant, roly poly Mother Superior in the early 50s clutched me to her ample, starched bosom (I was eight) and in her Irish brogue theatrically whispered in my ear. “We’re going to have a new uniform, girlie. White shorts and red socks!”
Next day my mother sent me to school, to Miss de Souza’s Standard 3 class located upstairs in the then “new” junior block, with an ungainly eucalyptus growing by the window. At the eleven o’clock break, Mrs Pereira emerged outside her downstairs Standard 3 classroom peering up and shouting, “Doro? Doro? You coming for tea?”. Pretty Miss Dorothy de Souza would release us and join the other teachers in the Teacher’s Parlour. We’d clatter down the stairs and spy on Mrs Ballantyne, with the ample middle, balancing her tea-cup on her tummy.
The day after Mother Francis’s confidence, I arrived in trim white shorts to consternation all round.
“No girlie, that’s not what I meant. This is what the uniform will look like. See? Tailored culottes, no more than 2 inches above the knee, box pleats back and front. White shirt with three red buttons, red belt worn through loops, red socks and white gym shoes. For winter, the same but grey flannel culottes. Oh, and red ribbons for your hair”
The contract for making the new uniform went to Girdharilal Tailors of Connaught Place and the daughters of Girdharilal wore a smug expression for months to come. It was a challenge to keep those box-pleats smartly pressed. And white culottes! On certain days, inevitably, someone was shuffled to the Cathedral gates accompanied by her circle of friends. That unlucky centre of attention had started her period and leaked right through her sanitary towel. For many years, in an attempt to conserve foreign currency, India stopped importing anything from abroad, including female necessities like sanitary napkins. The story went that our dentist’s wife, who was a formidable, blue-rinsed grande dame, had the ear of the Prime Minister Mr Nehru, and had begged him to make an exception for Kotex. He refused, and we were stuck with the ghastly and clumsy Indian variety that always let us down.
CJM provided the daughters of the Army, Navy and Airforce, the high-up Civil Servants, posh shop-owners and hoteliers and other well-off people, with elocuted, somewhat stilted English, some science and maths and a few other subjects. In my day we had no history and only a minimal knowledge of Hindi, which we were supposed to pick up outside school hours. We played fairly genteel games like rounders and netball and some of the more wiry girls sprinted in local sports meets.
Once in a while we watched a film in the Downstairs Hall (which could be darkened). I had a crush on Stewart Granger (Scaramouche) and we assembled every morning in the Upstairs Hall for prayers and Announcements and on the terrible days when our termly exam results were read out for the whole school to hear.
At break time we scrambled to wave our two anna coins at the man who ran the tuck shop from a large black tin trunk. “Clerk, clerk,” the girls screamed, “two vanilla fudges, one samosa, one peanut brittle!”
I have never since eaten samosas like the ones from Clerk’s black tin trunk (I don’t know why he was called that). They were plumply filled with dry, spiced potato and coriander, and the pastry was light and incredibly crisp. Between samosas and evil black Aampapar anyone could have bribed me to ghost essays for at least one year.
The Cathedral was built on land donated by a Portugese lady in waiting at the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court in the late 16th century. Emperor Akbar married her to a French adventurer, Jean-Philippe, who was the renegade son of the Constable of Pau- cousin to Henri IV of France. Jean-Philippe fled eastwards, was captured by pirates, held at the court of Suleiman the Magnificent of Egypt and finally made his way to Goa. Balthazar Napoleon de Bourbon, said to be his direct descendant, now lives in Bhopal, eastern India, and could even be heir to the Bourbon dynasty.
No less a person than Prince Phillip’s cousin, Prince Michael of Greece, is convinced this is a fact.