Not long after, I received a call from the Staff Station Officer at the Army Headquarters in the Cantonment to come over to meet him. I had met the Staff Station Officer at an army social evening a few days earlier. He wanted to know my future plans. I had none.
We had no other home and though we had sent some money to various developers for buying a piece of land in Hoshiarpur and in some unknown place in the Dehra Doon district, we had heard no more from them. We found out later, to our dismay, that the land near Dehra Doon was in fact situated in the middle of a river-bed and that the Hoshiarpur land had been taken over by the government! We had been cheated both times.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, he came straight to the point.
“We are badly in need of a school up here,” he said. “There was a school running in the building near the parade ground which was used for the children of the British Army, but after they left the cantonment it has been closed. Now that the officers and men of the Indian Army are coming up, we are in desperate need of schooling facilities for their children. Could you do it for us?”
“Me?” I said in astonishment. “But I don’t know anything about running schools! I have run some classes for young workers in a factory as part of their extension education. But that is about all...”
“Oh, with your background and education you could easily do it,” he said, referring indirectly to the fact that I was English. The colonial hangover was still very much apparent.
“Here, take the key of the school house and go and have a look at it, and then let me know what you decide.”
I took the key, left the place, and without going home even to discuss the proposal with Yudister, I walked along the road to the school house. It was a double-storied, grey, stone building with a lot of steps leading up to the main door and the first floor. A gravel playground was adjoining it. Built in British style, it reminded me of some of the old primary school buildings in outlandish places in Britain.
I opened the door and went inside. The classrooms were full of desks and chairs, the slate blackboards were in place on the walls, the cupboards and in fact every possible space was filled with textbooks, notebooks, slates, chalk boxes, charts and pictures – all coming from Britain and very familiar. Everything needed for a school was there, except for the flesh and blood – the teachers and the students.
I perched myself on one of the desks, and dangling my legs I started musing like Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark: To be or not to be?
I was only twenty-five and had spent just two years in India, and that too in a sanatorium far away from the madding crowd. And here I was being asked to run a school for the children of the Indian army. It was just crazy.
What strengths did I possess to take up such a venture that would irrevocably affect the lives of Indian children? I had good organising skills and some qualities of leadership, with the ability to get on well with people. I was a fighter by nature and loved taking up new challenges and striking out on unknown paths. I was multi-talented and enjoyed nothing more than dance, music, art and literature.
My English university education, which was known for its broad and liberal approach to life, without narrow specialisation, would also stand me in good stead. My weakness was of course that I knew little of Indian culture, languages or traditions, or even the basics of Indian education. Neither was I a qualified and trained teacher.
“Well,” I thought to myself, “all this I can tackle as I go. Already India has cast its spell over me. I feel an intricate part of her and if I do not know her past at least I shall have a chance of becoming a part of her future. Yes, this is a challenge I cannot miss.”
These were the thoughts that kept running through my mind. Little did I realise at that time that the decision I was about to take would determine the whole course of my future life in India.
I jumped down from my perch, full of resolve, and made a beeline for The Parsonage. Yudister and Bhaji were reading in the garden.
“Da!” I shouted, “I’m going to run a school.”
He looked up from his book.
“What did you say? You’re going to run a school? What do you know about schools, and where is the school that you are going to run, may I ask?”
Excitedly I blurted out the whole proposition, my eyes getting wider with the very thought of it. I looked him full in the eye to see if I could find the reassurance I was looking for. It was there.
“Will you help me?” I asked.
“Go ahead, Puch. I’m with you all the way.”
I gave him a big hug, and rushed back to the army office to meet the Staff Station Officer.
“Well,” he said, “what’s the decision?”
“I’ll take it up,” I said rather breathlessly, “but on one condition – that you give me a free hand to run it.”
The colossal cheek of it! Here I was, a young girl of twenty-five, without any experience or expertise, and I was demanding to do things on my own, in my own way and expecting him to agree.
But incredibly I got the answer I wanted.
“That’s fine with us. You can have a free hand to run it as you like, but we also have some conditions that you must fulfil. You must admit any child from the army, whether he or she be the child of a general or a jawan. The fees for the army children will be fixed by us, and you will follow the syllabus of the Board of Education of Punjab up to Class 8. If you wish to start classes for Punjab matriculation, that will be your own choice. Other than that, you may fix your fee schedule, recruit your own staff, admit the children from the civilian population as you wish and run the school in your own style. Only, please remember the financial viability or otherwise will be your responsibility. We shall not subsidise it. Of course, any of the facilities of the army which would be useful to you in running the school will be placed at your disposal.”
He got up to shake my hand.
“All the best to you. We know you will run it well.”
What more could I have wished for?! I was to run the Army School, Kasauli, in my own way, with the full trust and backing of the army. A new world was opening up before me. As I walked home I thought I was treading on air. My heart was bursting with excitement. I could hardly contain my sense of joy.
I had always welcomed change, never failed to take up a challenge. Now here was to be another testing time for me. Would I prove equal to it? Only time would tell. I went back to the school house the next day and browsed around the classes, opening up the cupboards and taking stock of everything. Inevitably my mind went back to my own school days in England way back in the 1920s and ’30s, searching my memory for any lessons that I could draw from them or should better be forgotten.
Excerpted with permission from Against the Wind: A Life’s Journey, Rajni Kumar, HarperCollins India.