Presentation Convent, Kodaikanal
Photos courtesy Avinash Peters

Under the Green and Gold

I remember my first day of school. I was ten, freshly returned from Lagos, Nigeria. It was June 1984. We lived in Orchard, a turn-of-the-century bungalow situated between Tapps Road and Lake Road; the TV tower loomed over our shoulder to the left, and the Dunnattor bungalow lay right across from us. Uncle Johnny, who lived in the outhouse, had told me between helping him roll his cigarettes and learning the chicken dance, that if I ever saw old Mr Whitmore—who lived in the annexe and who, rumour had it only came out once a year—I should never make eye contact or I’d turn to stone.

So, I always ran past the annexe without looking up. I would not stop until I was well down Tapps Road, which is where I learnt to cycle in my free time. I don’t ever remember running into a car. A stranger on his walk once stopped and taught me to turn properly, without putting my leg out against the road. I’d arrive at the jetty huffing puffs of cold air to catch the ferry. But Pakkyam anne, who lived in the house with the walnut tree, would not start the ferry off, the first of the morning at 7am, for just anyone. He would wait for Mrs Hart, my principal, to emerge from her bungalow. 

Mrs Hart, red-cheeked and prim, clutching her handbag like the Queen, would expect a proper Victorian courtesy and a “Good morning, Mrs Hart” as she checked my shoes. Whether rain or sunshine, therefore, I polished my shoes a lot at the back of my knee-length socks. After crossing, we would stand together for Nathan anne’s van at the boat house. If I made the crossing alone, I would be able to stick my hand in the water when she wasn’t looking, so sometimes I missed the boat deliberately. 

The author, her sister and other ‘van children’ waiting for Nathan anne’s van on Bear Shola Road, circa 1987; by then, the school had introduced co-education into the primary section (Photo courtesy Gayatri Jayaraman)

In 1984, Nathan anne had not started his van service yet, and Mr Hart was driving Mrs Hart to school. So, on this first day, my mother and I walked up the hill to Presentation Convent Kodaikanal (PCK), now a 100-year-old grand dame. It was to shut down in my 8th standard, four years away, but we didn’t know it then. (We would hear later – my mother was, by then, a kindergarten teacher there – that orders had come from Ireland stating that the mission was to serve the poor, not cater to the wealthy boarding school girls on its roster.)

I had exhausted my energy skipping across the two green bridges on the lake (between Carlton and Spencer’s, which have been dismantled now), and was late and cranky. So my mother arranged for Johnny Boy, Murugan’s horse, to take me up after the crossing from the following day. Johnny Boy was kind and slow, and he made it easier for me to navigate this new world, of hills, mists, interminable walking, and boarders angling for tuck, and seniors who pinched my cheeks to listen to me say ‘owwww’ in an accent. Johnny Boy and Murugan would drop me off at the Silver Arch and I would make my way down the long driveway for assembly in the billowing wind. School was all wooden floorboard and ancient stone, history in the eaves, peace in the chapel, and sprawling beauty under the pines. 

Inside the lovely chapel at PCK

I signed up for the van from the next term, but I remained friends with Johnny Boy. Johnny Boy lived a long life because Murugan renamed every subsequent horse Johnny Boy. I like to think of him as still there, helping some child feel less overwhelmed on their first day of school. 

A file photo from the PCK centennial yearbook shows the school’s sisters in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue at the entrance to the school, at the end of the driveway

I settled into the routine of the girls (we were a girls-only school then) quickly enough. Jump off the van, a quick dip of the knee at the statue of Christ the Redeemer; “please don’t allow Mrs Ramanathan to ask me for my Hindi homework”, “please don’t let Mrs Abraham ask me a science question”, “please let Ms Stella forget to check my embroidery”. Then, rush to squeeze into the line (in order of height) before anyone spotted us.

With only the rustling of the leaves for accompaniment, we sang the PCK anthem: 

Under the Standard of our School,
Glory, honour reign…
Planting the seeds of faith and good deeds
Of Presentation Convent fame.
Alma Mater, let the flag unfurl
Stand brave, stand true, under the green and gold.”

Big Bell pealed across the valleys. Some day, I would ring the bell as a prefect too, a dream we all had harboured. Games in our skorts in the stadium, where we would hear of Indira Gandhi’s assassination one day. I ate lunch on the steps of Sinclair house with my best friends: Rekha Nair, whose mum, Leela Nair, was head nurse at the ‘dish’ (dispensary) at Kodai International School; and Raji, who had the longest hair in the world, so that she had to fold her braids up three times—her parents ran the Shanmuga Vilas lodge.

Class photo of the graduating class of 5th Standard, PCK (Mrs Vasantha’s class) in 1985; featuring the Principal, Sister Gemma; Gayatri is pictured in the second row from the top, third from right

We were always running, half-opened lunch boxes in hand, from the monkeys or a rakshasi whom we believed inhabited Sinclair House, or from the skeleton in the science lab. We were only seven day scholars in the school then, three of us in the 4th standard and Anees, Deeparani, her sister, and Niranjana Wilson. 

After lunch, we slid down the grassy banks over the parapet to gossip beneath the trees and secretly pluck the school’s plums and peaches. We would dust our black shoes with chalk powder and skate down the corridors. Or dive for books in the cupboards at the back of each classroom filled with texts left behind by our seniors, some nearly a century old. I once found Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake, inscribed to Elizabeth in 1908. We were determined to find her but we didn’t have internet then. 

After school was out, at 4pm on alternate days, I would walk to Ganga Compound, then the home of Mr and Mrs Nageshwaran, the Kodai School music teacher, where she would attempt very fervently to teach me to sing. I was probably her only failure. However, I did learn well from Mr Nageshwaran, who would stand at the door counting down the seconds till I arrived. “You are three seconds late” he would proclaim. I have never been late for an appointment since. 

Bear Shola Falls, Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India

Our home, Gayatri Bungalow on Bear Shola Road, was built by architect Henry Wilson, Niranjana’s father. Our neighbours were Doctor Subramanian and his wife, on the corner, with only orchards between us, the earth a fecund carpet of leaves. It was surrounded by pear orchards, all the way up to Jay Hotel and the falls. In the cottage to the left of us, wild boar would forage Mani anne’s ladies fingers and sweet peas. Hippies in bandanas waved out to me as they passed, foraging for mushrooms and weed that grew wild. By night I’d lie in bed listening to the sound of the water, and the howling wolves, or what I thought were the hounds of the Baskervilles. Mrs Abraham would tell me of tigers at Coaker’s Walk when she was a young girl. 

By day, I would lie on my back on the grass and watch for eagles and hawks and hoopoes. Down the road, rumour had it, the Whitakers kept snakes in their homes, and while I loved to watch their horses, I couldn’t risk the snakes, so I always took the detour.   

The detour went down the hill behind Manna bakery, which sat on the corner opposite Bina Pani. It was two wood stumps and a stone oven, its inhabitants and chimney perennially smoking. Sometimes mom would send my brother and I to buy fresh pizza and warm bread, which we would finish on the way back down, clutching our ‘Tourist Go Home’ stickers.  

The brook that babbled out from Bear Shola was so crisp that in summer we would wade in it and play catch, and have picnics of Enid Blyton sandwiches and lemon rice on its grassy banks. We knew Aachi’s cows in the pastures by name. 

Our domestic help, Rani, my partner in crime, would catch fish, either out of our lake or the brook, both of which were safe then, or so we thought, and sneak us fried morsels. Jesse, who would go on to start Rendezvous at Pondicherry with her husband Vince, would make us pizza. We would scamper up the rocks above the falls with a grand plan to follow it to its source, then forget and stop to watch the Malabar whistling thrush sing and tell vidukathais, or riddles. 

At night, on sleepovers, Rekha and I would sit on the roof of the ‘dish’, and signal with our torches in morse code to see if any smugglers in the woods responded. For those of us who were not boarders and would remain as the town emptied out in December, for some reason, the sole ice cream shop would open the Dasaprakash freezer near the football field. But there was also the comfort of hot cocoa from the Daily Bread, cinnamon buns from Jacob’s and fresh butter from the dairy. In the summer came tree tomatoes, orange bush berries, val beri, black plums if you knew where to look, peaches, and avocados mashed with sugar. And such good faith that we never locked our front doors. 

What more does a town, or a childhood, need, but Kodai?

Gayatri’s son, Dhruv, learning to scull on the route which she once took to get to school, circa 2010 (Mrs Hart’s bungalow can be seen in the background, behind what was the old ferry stop)

Gayatri Jayaraman

Gayatri Jayaraman is the author of Sit Your Self Down and the forthcoming Anitya . She is a columnist, and a mind-body spirit therapist, currently residing in Mumbai.

4 Comments

  1. Dear Gayathri I studied in PCK in 3rd and 4th std I think in 1982 not sure but some of the girls are very familiar .I enjoyed reading your article. Are u familiar with Finnula the blonde hair from Sri Lanka? Anyways I am just longing to visit the school hope it’s the same as I heard there is going to be a renovation.

  2. What a lovely article.I left PCK in 1972 and was in standard 6 then ..we shifted to Chandigarh. And nothing ever came close to my wonderful years spent there..under the green and gold…all your memories are in my minds eye though we were boarders and very few dayscholars …

  3. A very nice article. My mother Miss Auxilia Morais was a teacher in PCK in the 1980’s. She taught science and tamil. The characters and the places you have depicted in your article were once told as stories by my mother. If any students of her’s happen to see this would love to connect you’ll with her.

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