|Mussoorie International School|
“Hanisha, you’re going to boarding school! Are you excited?” To my eleven year old mind, this one sentence coming to me from my mum was just too much to process; I probably did not completely comprehend the entirety of the situation and the journey I was going to embark on. One minute, it is life as usual with my sisters and I returning from day school in Nigeria lugging a 3kg bag with books – and the next minute, there was going to be a disruption in this cyclical routine of eight years in the form of being sent to a boarding school in Mussoorie. I did not even know where Mussoorie was! Was I prepared to leave behind my oyster and be swung into the sea of the unknown?
I was fresh out of fifth standard and watched as my mum and dad gathered the contents of my cupboard and neatly placed them into a suitcase. We were departing for Delhi the next day from where we would hail a cab and head towards my mum’s maternal home in Jaipur. I remember it all so well – it was a blistering cold February day. We halted in Jaipur for two days before we left for Mussoorie. My family and I stuffed ourselves into an Ambassador with luggage loaded on the top of the car and off we went. It took us an entire day to travel to Mussoorie. Our journey involved traversing up winding and narrow roads. I recall our driver being particularly skilled especially when it came to taking blind turns high up on those majestic green mountains. We did not talk much through the ride. The air was thick with anxiety of what was to come.
We finally arrived at the tall gates of the all-girls Mussoorie International School. After registering our names at the gates, we were allowed to proceed inside. Welcome to a different world, I thought to my little self. The receptionist told us to wait before we got our chance to meet the Vice Principal. When we entered her office, a cold and fair Ms. Bhatti, greeted us. As she shared details about the school to our parents, my eyes wandered through the picture frames and glimmering trophies against the polished wooden walls of the office. “You have to give an entrance examination in half an hour”. I did not know that I had to sit for an English and Math exam after a tiring day-long road trip! But there was really no choice in the entire affair. Three hours hence, Ms. Bhatti called our parents into her office again. She shared that we barely passed in the papers but that she would grant us admission nonetheless. I did not know if I was happy at that or not. Did that mean that I had to say good bye to my parents soon? Did it imply that we were going to have to live all by ourselves now? Sadly, it did.
The next day was spent shopping for items in that very long list of requirements. Everything a student needed to stay in the boarding school was in that list –Vaseline, shoe polish, rain coat, sleeping bag, quilt, socks, nail clippers, shampoo, etc. Bags freshly packed again, it was time to bid farewell to mum and dad. The world came crashing down on me. The only two people, the rocks in my life, were going to be away, almost halfway across the globe. The only way to reach them would be aerograms and rare calls! It was unimaginable. My vision blurred with fresh hot tears and I cried uncontrollably in front of my sisters who were not as emotive as me. I did not want to let go of my parents. Sobbing non-stop, it was time for them to step into the Ambassador again and depart back to the life we left just a few days ago. My heart had a gaping hole in it that I did not know how to fill.
I was led in to my dormitory by a senior and was introduced to eight absolute strangers whom I was to share the room with. After I unpacked my luggage, I deposited myself on the bed; it was a hard bad unlike my soft warm bed back home. But home was far away now. My eyes were still wet from all the crying and even though I was exhausted from the events of the past few days, I found it difficult to sleep in this strange place. “Trrrrrrrring, trrrrrrrrring”! I jolted out of bed and checked my watch; it was 5AM. It took me a few minutes to realize where I was. My roommates told me to change into my track pants and head out for morning P.E. In the freezing cold, I dragged myself out and joined the assembled students in the court. A strict instructor with a whistle in his mouth stood inspecting us all huffing and puffing from the rigorous jogging. I breathed heavily and feared punishment and embarrassment if I stopped. I somehow got myself through it. What followed was a really quick two-minute cold shower in the bathroom. The seniors checked if the collars of our white uniform short were clean and if our nails were clipped. This was a pre-breakfast scary ritual. We would be yelled at in public if we were found looking unpresentable and if even if a strand of hair was out of place. Breakfast was to be had in a hurry so that we made it to school premises in time for the Morning Prayer. Latecomers were punished. After this, our classes resumed. We breaked for juice and biscuits at 11AM, lunch at 1.30AM and our last class ended at 4PM. After a hot snack and tea, we went back to our dorm and changed into our tracks and got back to the court for exercise. At 6.30PM, we got back to our dorm, showered and got dressed before we left for dinner at 7.30PM. By 8.15PM, we were back in our classrooms for homework and study time. This was the toughest part of our day. Most of us would be struggling to stay awake and read or write. Anyone caught yawning or sleeping was punished. At 9.30PM the glorious bell rang and everyone promptly ran back to the dorms to sleep. This was our almost-military style daily routine.
It was too much to get accustomed to in the beginning. I learnt the word ‘homesick’ and lived its meaning day in and day out. How do I get myself through this…I was missing home so desperately I could not focus on anything; I did not feel like eating or sleeping, and studying was definitely the last thing on my mind. One morning, a girl next to me in class fainted. She was then carried by four other girls and taken to the school hospital to be cared for. I thought what if I fainted. Maybe I would just be lucky enough to lie in bed all day at the hospital and not have to attend those boring classes or wake up early mornings for the exercise drill. I chose the occasion and the time carefully – the pre-night study assembly. My hands on my head, I made myself fall down flat on the ground. The teachers and student prefects soon took notice and came to my help. I pretended to faint, and through my almost shut eye lids, I saw the evening sky above me as I was lifted and taken to the hospital. I overheard the doctor as she got me checked and deemed me weak. I did not know I could pull something off so well. But I did. Quite daring of me. But it is human tendency to survive and adapt.
Before I knew it, I started getting accustomed to the daily grind. I vividly remember the first girl I befriended telling me as she pointed to a tiny speck on the floor, “Hanisha, don’t worry about homesickness, you'll realize you won’t even get time to stop and say – hey what’s this?” She couldn’t be truer. I realized studies and sports bored me and soon, I engaged myself in lots of extracurricular activities. I took up the junior painting diploma under the admirable artist, the old Mr. Raj Saxena; I learnt classical Indian music from Mr. Jha; he thought I had a great voice and made me participate in an all India classical singing competition (I did not win, but got a certificate to my name). I became known as an ace sketcher and painter in class, and even acted as a lead in a play! My imagination peaked with Enid Blyton's books on faraway lands with pixies and elves. I went on adventures with the Famous Five and their Uncle Quentin. I discovered the world of thrillers with R.L.Stine's Goosebumps and Fear Street - I used to read them while I pretended to do my homework during the post dinner night study sessions. 'King Lear' and 'The Merchant of Venice' became my favourite plays when I got introduced to Shakespeare in English class. I remember those Saturdays when we were allowed our monthly visit to The Tuck Shop where we would fight our way in and grab packs and packs of chips and chocolate and ate them under the sun on the lawn. There were those memorable moments when I was a part of the winning house in the annual talent competition where we, the house members were treated to watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in the theatre in Dehradun when it released! I remember my first 'Jam session' in the school auditorium where we students were allowed to dance to blaring music all night under zero teacher supervision.
Lo and behold, time flew, two years to be precise. I made some great friends, had some memorable experiences and for the first time, learnt to live by myself. I mean it when I say everyone must have a boarding school experience.