Down Memory Lane
By Dr Rajagopal Soondron
Our first experience with palpitation was when we were late by a few minutes past 9 a.m. at high school. We jumped and ran out of the bus as we espied from afar both the rector Mr Bullen and the usher Mr Mareemootoo – Cotoc – on the front porch of the school (Royal College Curepipe), waiting for the late-comers before proceeding to the morning assembly. Cotoc was already a living legend of the school; but in 1961 Mr Bullen was a totally new factor in the students’ life. He looked 6-foot tall, standing straight as an army man. He had a long pointed nose, ready to turn pink at any emotional upsurge, and always dressed in his black cassock over his well pressed light beige linen ‘tussor’ suit. With time he became the perfect target for some daredevil students, who would hide behind the huge roundish concrete column of the school verandah, and shout out “Zorro…Zorro”, to tease the Englishman. Both rector and usher would surreptitiously turn round to investigate the source of such effrontery; if caught, the culprit would end up in the arrest class after school.
Years later, after Independence, the personal secretary to the rector, Mr Parahoo, would tell me how Mr Bullen confided in him that he had been transferred from one of the new African states and was very apprehensive of his reception in Mauritius by the ‘indigenous’ people. He carried for some time a small dagger in his suit’s inner pocket; he even planned to teach the local students French, but soon gave up!!
As newcomers, we soon realized that class would not start immediately after the first bell: we had first to gather for morning assembly. That was how we discovered the hall which appeared to be huge, rectangular and high-roofed. It had a nice wooden flooring and a high stage. There were huge windows with thick dark red curtains on its southern wall; its northern wall bore wooden boards about 8 feet in height; on them were painted the names of the students who had been laureates since 1818.
Here every morning at nine the various batches of the seven Forms would come and stand in rows, Form I students with grey shorts and white shirts, being nearest to the stage; completely at the back were the Form VI boys wearing their long trousers.
So Mr Bullen, standing on the stage behind his lectern with the male staff seated behind him, would in a solemn, terse voice invite us to his daily ritual: “Let us pray,” treating us to a new, short, secular prayer devoid of any religious connotations. Sometimes we were introduced to some distinguished visitors. One was an American, who clumsily or purposely talked about the American war of Independence from the British; Mr Bullen blushed like anything. But of all the announcements that he might have made in seven years perhaps the most memorable one was when in 1967, looking quite a disturbed Victorian man, he complained about a freshman who, exhibiting the signs of a new generation of pre-independent Mauritius, had been reported by a resident White lady of the new Casa Maria building across the road, for having blurted out to her “May I rape you?”!! Did the youth want to impress by his newly-acquired English language? Or did he just want to say “I love you”; no one has ever known.
To us the hall came to be the centre of many other activities.
How could we forget Miss Toolsee’s music class, conducted in the back corner of the hall; each Form I or II class had to attend in turn. She was quite a nice, charming and motherly lady, doing her best to teach music to boys coming from different social, economic strata from all over the island. We learned about harmonics and pitch, and we drew those double horizontal lines with bird-like figures which remained Greek to me for years. No wonder when Miss wanted to set up a chorus to train our class, we all started singing in a very indisciplined manner. With time there was a sense of order, but that had not prevented the teacher to point in my direction and say “You…, yes, you there…, you will sing later.” From that day I realized I was no soprano and would never make a living as a singer; though the dancing molecules of water in my bathroom could still give the lie to Miss Toolsee.
What to say of the poetry recitation competition? Many of us had climbed on a stage for the first time to face that huge empty hall, except for our classmates who had come gleefully to see some of us being grilled while we recited tremulously our English or French poems, be it Kipling’s “If ” or La Fontaine’s “Le Renard et Le Bouc”. But many of us also had the excitement of going up at prize-giving day to collect our rewards, though tense and stressful as we were aware of all those eyes of the audience focused on us.
We boys were treated to an unforgettable incident around the mid-60s. A proud mother had come to collect the prizes of his laureate son who had already left for higher studies abroad. Going up the steps she soon realized that the stage was too far from the last one. She was wearing a tight, contour-revealing ‘mini jupe’ and could not reach over – surely quite a gruelling experience for the poor lady. Fortunately one of the male staff seated on the stage, realizing the embarrassing situation, ran to her rescue, holding her hand up to come on stage to collect the prizes, and then back down. To us boys it was our introduction to ‘mini jupe’ fashion, the craze of the 60s.
And we would have the Boxing Day celebration, when the physical instructor Mr Steel would go up into the ring and be the umpire as many able boys would climb and face each other in 3 or 5 boxing rounds – all to great fun, as that day allowed us to skip classes. And still in the eastern corner there would be a table tennis game, where many boys would be practising during recreation time. We also had a few plays acted on the stage by the senior boys and even the staff members; but it was unfortunate that that activity died out soon. Of that stage, it must be said that below it was the dark room of the photographic society, where once my friend Subodh got inadvertently locked up, after practising his hobby; fortunately his repeated banging on the door alerted someone in Mr Steel’s room who came to his rescue.
However, with time the hall came to command respect as it revealed its more austere purpose. It became our examination centre for every final semester exams, stirring all sorts of mixed feelings. Sitting by oneself in one of those long rows of chairs and tables we would sometimes squirm, cursing our late revision or for having played the fool during the previous few months. However, years later we would appreciate that drill. It trained us to familiarize ourselves with the place so that when the more serious public exams like SC and HSC came we already felt comfortable and familiar in the surroundings. This was quite an advantage.
The roll of honour boards, bearing the names of the laureates, had rendered many of us humble and surely inspired many a student to greater heights. Yet, some three decades ago, they gave me food for thought too, after I met a young patient coming for electroconvulsive therapy at the Brown Sequard hospital. His name struck a chord; on enquiring I learned that his magistrate grandfather’s name was in fact on the college board since around the 1890s. I reflected that one can be brilliant but can never know what will become of one’s future generations.
Meanwhile, down the years, the Old Boys have not lost their sense of humour; during their many get-togethers, some of the more outspoken would suddenly stand up and clamour out “Lett Us Prayy”, to reminisce of and mock jokingly at the morning prayers of Mr Bullen!
* Published in print edition on 11 January 2019