By: Ganesh Saili
‘My mother went to school here!’ clucked author Ruskin Bond in his usual matter-of-fact manner. We were dropping by on our friend Vishal Ohri, who managed Jharipani’s only bank. This was where the East India Railway decided to start a school for children coming from Railway families. It’s to Vishal we owe our first peep into the school Principal’s diary.
Oak Grove began on the 19th of May 1888, when Mr and Mrs Chapman joined the school as its first Headmaster and Headmistress to open its doors on June 1st 1888 with just twenty-eight boys. Fortunately for a part-time historian like me, we learn that ten days later, two of the boys ran away to be with their relatives in Kanpur on the 14th! I suppose scampering downhill to Rajpur must have been the easy bit, but getting to Hardwar and then on to Kanpur?
Of course, life was no cake walk in those days and on 1st of August, he wrote: ‘I had to stop giving boys supper to reduce expenses.’ Was it pepper-water and rice instead? I wonder.
There were cheap thrills aplenty, like the time a Sergeant let the Matron into his rooms for smoking. Mr Chapman was fuming: ‘I had to speak to him about this.’ They got marching orders plus the loss of a month’s pay as the headmaster had notified the commanding officer of his Regiment.
On May 24 1889 Henry Thomas fell from an off-limits area near the Boy’s lavatory, fracturing his arm. Though treated by the school doctor, his condition deteriorated and three days later he passed away with the dubious distinction of being the first boy to die in Oak Grove School.
One cannot hope to tell a story about the place without mention of the curious case of Stephen Fennimore, a teacher, and his wife Millicent. She had got herself enmeshed in a silly defamation suit. Each hearing grew more distasteful to her husband until the awful business drove him to a horrid solution. On the night of November 24, 1917, he armed himself with a revolver, moved to his wife’s bedside, and, finding her sound asleep, shot her through the back of her head. For no apparent reason he slipped the weapon under her pillow – who could have mistaken her death for suicide – and then calmly going to the lavatory, three rooms beyond his bedroom, he leaned over his loaded rifle and shot himself.
To get away from this gory tale, come past Half Way house to the ruins of what was Mrs. Granges Hostelry. It no longer resounds to the sound of ‘Koi-hai?’ (or ‘Is anybody around?’) for that was how one placed orders at eateries that still had character or an individuality like this one. No matter what you ordered, be it her coffee, or white bread, or imported cheeses, or white loaf sugar, you would later meet her guests discussing the chocolate wedges or the crunch of pineapple chunks in her pastries.
Returning to his old school from Australia, the late Patrick Corbett happened to access the Principal’s Dairies, and said: ‘You should see the exquisite calligraphy of McGowan’s handwriting!’
Among the precious gems he discovered was one where the grey-heads had gathered to interview a fresh crop of teachers. Among the day’s finds was a gruff Matron, who had struck up a close friendship with one of the pretty lady teachers. Soon after the two of them were inseparable.
‘Wonderful!’ said the Chairman of the Appointments Committee. ‘Good for morale! Give them rooms next to each other.’
Things worked perfectly! Perhaps too perfectly, until the night in a Jharipani thunderstorm, the lights blinked as the Matron groped her way to the toilet at the end of the veranda. Stumbling in the dark, she missed a step, lurched over the railings and plunged twenty feet into the khud.
Awakened by the scream, the boys scurried into the defile where they discovered a dishevelled figure lying face down. Turning the person over, they discovered the matron was a ‘he’.
Emerson once stated ‘The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.’ I guess something similar could be said about stories.
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.