My first memory of school dates back to sometime in 1962, I cannot be sure precisely when it was. In fact it’s one of my earliest memories full stop. I was 4. And I was at a place called Hindustan Park School, a couple of minutes walk from my home, 70C Hindustan Park, Ballygunge, Calcutta 29. It wasn’t my first day at school, but it was early-ish. It had maybe 10 students. Some of the other students were more established there, and had worked out how to irritate newcomers like me.
Their ploy was simple. They would take turns at sitting behind me; then, when the teacher was in mid-flow, the person seated behind me would squirt water on the seat of my shorts using his plastic water bottle, and then they’d all laugh, pointing at the wet spot. I asked them nicely to stop, but to no avail. So, after a while, when it came to break time, I felt I had no choice. I ran after them, deciding that fists would do what words had failed to do.
This running took place indoors. In the classroom. The only classroom the school had. The only room the school had. And in that enclosed space I caught the miscreants one at a time and helped each one remember why he should change his ways. All bar one, who was somewhat faster than the others. He was so fast that I managed to run eye-first into the corner of the nearest desk while trying to catch him. And that was the end of school for me that day. Blood everywhere. And a scar on my left eyelid that remains an identifying mark today.
Sometime soon after that, I moved to my second school; the move was not related to the incident, but to my turning 5. Miss P Hartley’s Private School, Lansdowne Road, Calcutta 16. A converted stables, laid out as a quadrangular set of classrooms around the house in the centre. Each stable stall was a classroom. No doors, no window-frames. Just a cemented half-wall on three sides adjoining the boundary wall, with an open doorway in one of them. I was there from 1963 to 1965.
In 1966, soon after turning 8, I went to my third (and final) school. St Xavier’s Collegiate School, 30 Park St, Calcutta 16. I was there from 1966 to 1975, and then stayed on at the college till 1979.
14 years with the Jesuits. A wonderful school, a wonderful time, a time I remember with love and joy.
The other two schools were brilliant as well, it’s just that I didn’t spend as much time in them. While each school was individually fantastic, they differed in many ways.
Hindustan Park School was primarily about nursery time, drawing and learning to form letters (on small personal slates with pink and green lines on them, using white chalk). And we played. And we sang. And we ate. And we went home. At Hindustan Park the classroom was the school, I can’t remember the teacher’s name, she was the sole member of staff. And she was Indian.
Miss P Hartley’s was somewhat different, five different years of schooling, maybe a dozen students in each year. Some of the teachers were local, but the majority were white “staying-on” relics of the Raj. Relatively young relics at that, my teachers were primarily in their twenties and thirties. They all appeared to come from England. And the focus was very much on language and grammar. Ronald Ridout’s name comes to mind. I can only remember one teacher’s name, she had us call her “Miss Pamela”, and she was probably the first person I had a crush on. I can still remember how she looked.
And then came St Xavier’s. I started off in “Small School”, flanked by Hungerford, Short and Wood St. Fr Sassel was the Prefect of Discipline and Studies, effectively the headmaster of the junior school. It ran from Class 1 to Class 5, with each “year” having four sections. And each section had at least 35 students. While it was referred to as Small School, it seemed huge to me. The whole ground floor was like a car park under the building, and we would assemble there and take our meals there, dry, in the shade, away from the heat and the vultures and hawks and kestrels ….and the monsoon. The only other things on the ground floor were the music room and the sports kit room; there was also a scout hut on the other side of the grounds. The first floor had the school offices (Fr Sassel, the treasurer, the stationery department) and Class 1. Classes 2 and 3 were on the second floor, 8 rooms in all, and classes 4 and 5 were on the top floor.
The teachers at Small School were a motley crew, some white stayers-on, some Anglo-Indian and fully integrated into local society, some Goan, the remainder local. Our PE teachers were an incredibly tall couple called the Deefholts, I think they were from South Africa. The rest of the teachers were English, Belgian or Goan/Portuguese in origin, or Indian. But in a sense they were all Indian. They’d settled there, made India their home. And they were doing wonderful jobs teaching children there.
Three schools. Completely different. Different geographical locations in a very large city; different sizes, different teaching styles, different teachers.
Yet they had one thing in common. A diverse, and sometimes completely incomprehensible, list of songs taught to the children.
Here are the ones I remember:
When Johnny Comes Marching Home: Published 1863, based around the American Civil War.
Oh! Susanna: Published 1848. A minstrel song bridging four continents
The Happy Wanderer: A post-WW2 German folk song
Alouette: 1870s French-Canadian children’s song
Oh My Darling Clementine: 1884 American Western folk ballad
Molly Malone: An 1860s Irish ballad now apparently the trademark for Dublin
There’s a Hole in my Bucket: 18thC German song westernised in the 195os
It’s A Long Way To Tipperary: early 20th C English music hall
And then the impetus for this post.
Hava Nagila. A Hebrew folk song based on a Ukrainian melody.
Yes, Hava Nagila.
And there you have it. What a completely random collection of songs to be inflicted on a bunch of young Indian lads, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsee, Jewish and everything in between. I’ve tried to reason why, and the best I can come up with is that many were made popular in the fifties by people like Harry Belafonte and Burl Ives.
But what a strange collection. I’ve left out the obvious children’s nursery-rhyme songs like My Grandfather’s Clock and Lavender Blue and Yankee Doodle and Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush and London Bridge is falling Down. Because you would expect children in such circumstances to learn them and sing them. Even Teddy Bear’s Picnic and How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?
But Hava Nagila? And Oh Susanna? and Happy Wanderer?
A strange collection. But the songs made me travel to different places and different times and different cultures. And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. And I still cherish those memories.
Uru a?im be-lev samea?.
I’d learnt the words to Hava Nagila in 1967. But I’d never seen them in print till today. Hence this post.
As I write this, it is Independence Day in India. 65 years since we were an independent country. A country where such cross-cultural, time-bridging antics like these are commonplace.
The songs aren’t the same. The languages vary. Children probably learn them off mobile phones. But the songs continue to mesh together amazingly diverse people. Long may it continue.
A coda. I was in Austin, TX, recently. I took a cab. The driver was Ethiopian. We had nothing in common. Except we both knew the words to some of the best Hindi film tunes of the 1960s. Apparently everyone in Ethiopia watches Hindi movies, the older, the better. They get them every which way, share them every which way. And laugh and smile and build bonds with strangers.
Music. It’s a social thing first, an artistic thing second, and a commercial thing third. The commerce is important. Artists can and should be paid. [In this context, maybe it's time to have a law that publishes the breakdown of each song's price in terms of where the money goes to. More on this later].