An Englishman at Sainik School 1969-70

by Steve Rosson 
My thanks to Reji for allowing me to post these memories on his blog.

As I neared the end of my university course in 1969 I was accepted by Voluntary Service Overseas to work for a year or so in the developing world.

It was in August of that year, a few days short of my 22nd birthday, that I arrived at Sainik School to teach English.

I had flown from London Heathrow (my first time on a plane) to Bombay (as was) and then on to Madras (as was). After a few days of orientation I took the overnight train to Coimbatore to be met by Major Bhoopal (the Registrar), Paul (the volunteer I was replacing) and Driver Menon (with his splendid moustache). We piled into the school jeep and, after Bhoopal had done a few bits and bobs of shopping, we set off on the seemingly endless journey to the school. Route planning software tells me that the drive should take two hours today so maybe the roads were worse then or maybe I was just very tired.

As we approached the school Bhoopal suggested that Paul should take me to meet some of the other teachers at “the cafeteria”. I had visions of a sleek, modern establishment with chrome fittings and bright neon lighting so imagine my surprise when I entered a windowless room with rudimentary lighting, a cement floor and mismatched chairs and tables. I got even more of a surprise when I was introduced to Swami, the proprietor, in his dhoti, beads and full Brahmin tilaka. I grew to really like this place, however, and I was to spend many hours there chatting with friends on the staff, drinking coffee, eating masala dosai and being served by Swami and his waiter Rajamini.

My home for the next fifteen months was to be a small three roomed house in a row of four. The windows were barred and shuttered (no glass) and the door was secured by a huge padlock. In truth I only really used the bedroom and the toilet at the back. The bedroom was furnished with what I presume was an army issue bed and wardrobe made of olive green steel and a desk and chair. I had no need of a kitchen as I took all my meals in the mess except when I was invited to the houses of other staff members. The school had very thoughtfully installed a western style toilet for me. Flushing this involved filling a bucket of water from my storage drum in the room next to the toilet. The dam supplied water twice a day for an hour so water had to be stored. My one luxury was an immersion heater about a foot long that I clipped onto a bucket full of water and then plugged in. After about half an hour the water was warm enough for me to “take bath” as I learnt to say.

I said that was my home. Really it was just my house. The school was my home.

The first thing I had to do was to learn to ride a bike in order to get around the campus. The boys found it absolutely hilarious that someone of my age had never learnt to ride a bike and watching me wobble around the place for the next couple of weeks brought them more hilarity. A couple of the senior students were deputed to teach me and eventually I got the hang of it.

I soon got used to the routine. I was woken early by a mess waiter who brought me a mug of “bed tea” from the vast urns that were being taken to the boys’ dormitories. Then it was off to the mess for breakfast. The mess was a large hall a bit like an aircraft hangar with long tables and benches. As I was attached to Pandya House I sat at the top of their table with the House Captain and his deputy. Most of the other teachers ate at home.

I soon got used to Indian food although I do remember the first time I was given idli sambar for breakfast I just could not manage the spicy sambar and asked for an omelette instead. The omelette arrived a few minutes later ….. with green chillies in it!

Then it was off to the academic block to teach. The classrooms were arranged around four sides of a sort of courtyard of rough ground where the daily assembly was held complete with a rousing rendition of the national anthem. I still have the words and music of “Jana, Gana, Mana” rattling around in my head even after fifty years.

I can not imagine I was much good as a teacher. I had no training and my degree was in English Literature and here I was trying to teach youngsters who were all working in their second language even though it was an English medium school. I think we progressed pretty much page by page through the textbook and all the lessons were fairly formal but that was probably how the school liked it. Discipline was never an issue as the boys were all incredibly well behaved but I was horrified to see on a number of occasions boys being made to crawl across the stony courtyard on their elbows and knees as a punishment for some misdemeanour. Remember that the daily uniform was short sleeved shirts and short trousers.

Lunch in the mess was followed by an afternoon nap and then games at the extensive sports fields. Football, volleyball and basketball predominated but I was truly astonished one day when I saw with what ease and alacrity the senior boys tackled the assault course. I can not remember ever seeing the swimming pool with water in it.

Then it was back home to “take bath” and then the evening meal in the mess unless I had been invited out. After that home to mark books, read or listen to my small radio which could pick up, usually with much interference, Radio Ceylon which played British pop music and the BBC World Service for news. I sometimes wandered over to the Pandya House dormitory to chat to the boys but not as often as I wish I had done.

I did get regular invitations to dinner from other staff members and sometimes I was rather uncomfortable when the man and I were served by his wife who then went back to the kitchen to eat her meal. I never knew whether this was shyness or the fact that she had no English or it was just tradition. This was not the case, though, when dinner was with Colonel Thamburaj, the Principal, and his wife or with Major Menon, the Headmaster, and his wife. With them, too, you could usually rely on a good supply of alcohol.
PTC
(Extreme Left is Mrs Mercy Mathai – our Matron when we joined school in 1971 – with Late Mr Mathai. Late Mr PT Cherian and Mrs Sheila Cherian on the extreme right.  Mr Steve in the middle. The children in the pic are Mathais – Robin and Reena.)

I was most comfortable when socialising with the other residents of my row of houses. At one end there was Sheila Murphy, then me, then Mrs Mathai and her two children and then Cherian. We were sometimes joined by Ranganathan the mess manager. A few years ago I was pleased to hear that Sheila and Cherian had married.


There were plenty of other social functions organised like the House Days and at Diwali and Pongal. I always loved the huge buffets that were laid on and one of my favourite foods was the large potato cakes. I never could get on, though, with the custom that nobody could leave before the chief guest. I was often ready for my bed hours before that.

Some other random memories include watching a flock of about 100 sheep go past my house being driven by a little boy with no clothes on, sitting on my verandah and watching A K R Varma with his Groucho Marx moustache riding past on his bike ringing his bell furiously and waving to me, eating my first ever mango at Venki’s house and then my first ever papaya at Mrs Mathai’s, the dhobi wallah squatting on my bedroom floor and listing the clothes he was taking away to wash “one kurta, one jibba, one pant, one half-pant”, the frogs croaking after the monsoon, Balan the tailor making trousers for me that fitted perfectly without him even measuring me, a hike in the Animalai Hills with the mess waiters carrying all the gear so that we could have a brew-up en route, a school trip to Mysore and Bangalore, Sports Day with its “Olympic style” march past complete with flags and the band in their red tunics, the view of Idli Malai across the sports fields, learning to eat rice with my hand whilst sitting on the floor. All happy memories.

Of course, I wasn’t always happy. Sometimes I felt lonely and sometimes I felt homesick but I look back at my time at the school with great fondness and I have always been grateful for the immense kindness that was shown to me, a young man a long way from home, by all the staff and students.

If anyone would like to contact me please email steverosson@aol.com.

 

16 thoughts on “An Englishman at Sainik School 1969-70

  1. Dear Mr Rosson ,
    Very nostalgic and proud to be an alumnae of the School you have referred. Your memory of summer 1969 is awesome , although, my batch joined two years later to have had similar experiences when we reached Amaravati Nagar.
    Great sir .
    Excellent photos too.
    Regards .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the post Sir. I remember you … you led the English choir.. The song was, ‘we shall overcome…’

    We did try singing the same…during our reunion in 2019 (when we all became sixty!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Mr Rosson,
    Thank you Sir, for your fantastic recollection of your days at Amaravathinagar…. a fascinating journey down memory lane and for sharing it on Col Reji’s blog site. And thank you Reji for connecting us once again with Mr Rosson after decades.

    We were in Class 6 (I was in Chola House) when our School bid farewell to Mr Paul Newton Syms and welcomed you to join the Staff. Mr Paul was fondly called ‘Mr 4.30’, as he would tap his wristwatch and tell football enthusiasts and say ‘see you all at Number One Football Field at 4.30’….he was always punctual and instilled that quality in us. We found you also to be very friendly, approachable and in today’s jargon, ‘cool’.

    Thank you for sharing those priceless pictures of you with the Cherians and Mathais, and our campus as it was during those days.

    The Swimming Pool was very much functional, but emptied very often for cleaning. That was the place where all students were taught to swim by the late Mr Madhavan Nair and Mr ARK Singh, our iconic PT Instructors. The pool used to double up as the open air theatre where movies would be screened on Saturdays…. an event vividly described by Col Reji in one of his blogs. Your memories of the empty pool must be of those days when the pool was invariably drained for maintenance.

    Am sure that alumni of our School, especially those who had the privilege of seeing you as our Teacher, would be thrilled to reconnect with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s nice for a 73 year old to know that he was once considered “cool” and I am pleased that I was friendly and approachable.
      I remember Mr Madhavan very well. I was terribly embarrassed when he wanted to hold my hand walking along the road. Not something that English men do.
      I remember the film nights at the pool. Maybe there was water in it sometimes but I certainly never swam in it.
      I have a number of other photos. If you would like them please email me on steverosson@aol.com

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Mr. Rosson
    Thanks for your writing and the photos of Sainik school. It has rekindled lots of memories. One thing I remember is the red Indian dance we performed on an annual day. Painting of stripes on our body and feathers on our head and dancing to some wild music;you taught us how to dance.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Superb going down the memory lane Mr Ross. How can we ever got me john, white, syms, and you? Was your student in A section. You taught us the most complicate part of writing letter. How to tie a shoe lace.still on it at 65. Brilliant of you to write so much. Almost seeing a live recap. My regards to you sir.
    Capt shiva 572 chera 74 batch

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Mr Rosson,
    I am Vanaja Varma, d/o AKR Varma whom you had amusingly remembered in your memoirs of the campus life at Sainik School Amaravathynagar. It was sheer nostalgia for me, going through the vivid descriptions of the people & occasions at my alma mater in ’69-70, all very candidly expressed by you. It’s amazing how you still carry some wonderful memories of your interesting experiences. I find it even more amazing how you manage to preserve those priceless photos – wow!!!

    In fact, my dad too used to reminisce a lot about his life at SSA. He had mentioned your name many times and recalled the several trekking & outdoor activities that you both had been part of.

    Let me surprise you by saying that even my 88 year old mom recognized you when I showed her your picture. She recalled your visit to our home once, when she made ginger tea for you which you appreciated, she says!!

    Finally thanks to Regi & his blog on Amaravian reminiscences that takes us alumni back to the golden era of school life.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hello Venaja
    Thank you for these nice comments about my piece. I really liked your dad. He was such a jolly, friendly man. I will respond in more detail via email.

    Like

  8. Hello Mr. Rosson

    I cannot fully express the emotions that I felt when I read your write-up in Reji’s blog. Is there one word that means happiness / nostalgia / amused all rolled into one? You took me back 40 years – the scenes you describe all happened during my time there too, and you recreated them vividly.

    I joined Sainik School in 1971 and ‘passed out’ in 1979. I now live in Boston (USA) and it takes leaving the country to realize how funny our usage of the English language would sound to those in the West. Like the way we ‘take bath’ for instance!

    The school changed a little from when you left to when I left. We got a new auditorium, a new ‘mess’, and the swimming pool did get put to use – we even had Inter-House swimming competitions.

    If it weren’t for your fair skin, you could have easily passed off as a desi, the way you look in the folded lungi and ‘banian’.

    Thank you for the pictures you put up – the one of the Cherians and the Mathais has particular meaning for me, they were extremely fond of me, and were my defacto parents for 8 years. Though we didn’t cross paths in India, you have my thankful appreciation for having done the Voluntary Service. I have a good idea of the comforts you had to leave behind, and I have no doubt your students’ life is richer having had you as one of their teachers.

    Best wishes
    Benoy Zachariah
    874
    Pandya House

    Liked by 1 person

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