Thomas Hardy could never have imagined that a gnarled, old mango tree in the courtyard of a missionary school set up by two American Jesuits in a sleepy, small, upcountry town in distant India would be named the ‘Greenwood Tree’ after his anonymously published novel, Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School. But there it stood, in all its awesome majesty, right in the middle of the paved assembly ground.
I remember spending many a recess chatting with friends under the Greenwood Tree, swapping my Kissan mixed fruit jam sandwiches for parathas, sharing Little Johnny jokes and whispering in Hindi which, of course, was prohibited on campus – the only exception, reluctantly made, was during Hindi classes. We would snigger at the ‘Dingos’ — Anglo-Indian boys — who insisted they were from ‘Chakadapore’ and not Chakradharpur, lived in the school hostel, had runny noses, faintly blue-grey eyes and auburn hair, boasted about their fathers who drove steam engines at ‘jaldi speed’, called jamuns ‘black berries’, and went home for Christmas.
Legend had it that Fr Eugene Power, who taught English in high school, was dreamily romantic as only the Irish can be, and who introduced me to George Orwell by gifting me a copy of Animal Farm for my contributions to the cyclostyled school magazine, came up with the name for the ancient tree to commemorate Hardy on the iron-rich soil of Kalimati which later became Tatanagar and then Jamshedpur. Till 1947, the premises of the school belonged to the Chhotanagpur Regiment Club; it is possible that the tree (which the school inherited along with the club’s rooms, a well-stocked bar and sprawling football and cricket fields) was christened by a regimental commander’s maudlin wife given to reciting Shakespeare’s
Under the greenwood tree,
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither:
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.
Or it may have served as a rendezvous on moonless nights for tipsy regimental officers and their breathless lovers playing Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
In junior school we didn’t bother our silly little heads with such profound questions as to why was the tree called the Greenwood Tree. For us, it was both a shelter and a refuge; we would rush to it, clutching our aluminium tiffin boxes, the moment the recess bell rang. Far away, or so we thought, from the spying eyes of teachers, some wearily lighting their mid-morning cigarette, in the faculty common room, and the Jesuits in their white cassocks who would be in the refectory. As we laboured our way through bread gone limp and over-salted parathas gone soggy, we would try to figure out what was being served in the refectory from the smells that would waft out from the second floor dining hall with its pretty chequered curtains that was out of bounds for all. “They have wine at lunch, men,” Andy from Chakadapore told us one day, furiously scratching his groin, an act for which we would be walloped at home. There was a collective, jaw-dropping, “Wow!” Andy had more to tell: “Buggers swipe it from the chapel vestry.” We looked around in alarm, lest his blasphemy had been overheard.
Years later, when we had just stepped into our teens and entered high school, the Greenwood Tree became our meeting point, the place for sharing more than tiffin. Those were exciting times, or so we thought, and we didn’t want to be left out. There was no television, the only decent place you could watch a film was Nataraj Cinema, and the only newspaper, The Statesman, came by the morning train from Kolkata and was delivered at home in the afternoon or the next morning. What we looked forward to with great excitement was the weekly JS, or Junior Statesman, which carried centrespreads of rock stars and other icons of the day. I wasn’t quite impressed by Bruce Lee’s poster, but had plastered the walls of my room with centrespreads of Jethro Tull, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead and, of course, the Beatles. Jim Morrison got the pride of place.
We would talk about the bands and their latest albums, news of which reached Jamshedpur months after they had been released. We would pool in money to buy LPs, and then fight over who got to take them home the first day. If you had your own HMV Fiesta, and could listen to music in your room and not on the family gramophone in the living room, you were a notch above the rest. Others envied you. I broke with my best friend after he scratched my Fleetwood Mac, and, lesson learned, have never ever lent my music to anybody.
What else did we talk about? Bell-bottoms and jeans (which were then just arriving on the Indian scene), platform shoes, shoulder-length hair, dog-collared floral print shirts and the pretty girls in their starched white blouses and swinging blue skirts from Sacred Heart Convent who walked past our school, giggling and tossing their heads, every morning and afternoon. Like Archie Andrews agonising over whether to share his sundae with Betty or Veronica, we would spend hours choosing between Ipshita and Sharmistha, Snigdha and Sutapa, to take out for a movie on Sunday morning followed by Campa Cola at Kwality in Bishtupur.
It never quite worked out that way. We neither had the guts to walk up and invite the girl of our choice, nor did we have the courage to face our friends if the girl had just said no and walked off haughtily, the probability of which was extremely high. Some of the boys, however, were not averse to making up stories of stolen kisses and hands held furtively in the shadowy corners of Beldih Club or on an ill-lit lane in Contractor’s Area. I recall the late summer day when the whole class was agog with what now seems a preposterous story. It was about how Jimmy had done ‘it’ with this girl, the Veronica of our dreams, who wouldn’t even cast a glance at her many suitors. Jimmy became an instant hero, although all that he was reputed to have been seen to have done was to sit with this girl, arms around each other, her head resting on his shoulder, at a film show in Beldih Club.
In Class 8 we had to read The Jacaranda Tree by H.E. Bates as part of our English course for the year. It was a fascinating story of the trials and tribulations of British men and women in Burma fleeing the invading Japanese forces. Fr Roberts taught us English that year and made us skip a whole lot of pages in class. That didn’t stop us from reading them on the sly under the Greenwood Tree: Otherwise staid prose dripping with passion (or so it seemed then!) as women fell in love with bombs dropping around them and cholera breaking out in camps. Recently, The Jacaranda Tree was reissued as “an explosive novel of men at war and women in love”. Fevered imagination could have spun the Jimmy-did-it story, but who cared?
There were other things happening, too. The annual elocution contest – Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” was a perennial favourite – was suddenly cancelled. Mrs Indira Gandhi had imposed Emergency. Teachers became cagey. Mr Rai, who taught us physics and was a bit batty (according to a wicked story, handed down by seniors, his wife fled the marital bed one night, and never returned home, after he jumped out of it shouting, “Eureka, eureka!”) told us about censorship and the death of democracy. In Class 8, it made little sense. But the senior boys, who would also gather under the Greenwood Tree, animatedly discussed JP’s movement and the resistance to tanashahi. That was a new word learned.
As we graduated from shorts to trousers and our voices broke, we began to look around us with new eyes. The ice-cream wallah with his ten paise coloured ice sticks and the churan wallah with his tongue-singeing concoctions, who were not allowed anywhere near the school compound but were nonetheless a big draw at the far corner of the cricket field beyond the boundary wall, lost their attraction. I and my friends began to spend more time on books and music, on reading the Illustrated Weekly and Youth Times, and would cruelly laugh at the goody-two-shoes who read Reader’s Digest condensed books and pitilessly ridiculed those who hummed Dum Maro Dum or thought Zeenat Aman was made of moulded sugar. We read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and debated Ayn Rand. Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind became an anthem, though our knowledge of the war in Vietnam was limited to black-and-white photographs published in Life magazine bought second hand from roadside stalls. That was also the time I smoked my first fag, a Passing Show if I remember correctly.
We never quite talked about careers and jobs, of what we would do after school. Life was taken as a settled issue in small town Jamshedpur where aspirations were limited to three ‘F’s – flat, fridge and Fiat. You left school, went to IIT, Kharagpur, or Fergusson College, Pune, and came back to Jamshedpur where you took up a job with a Tata enterprise. Life would begin with a company flat in one of the colonies; you would then buy a fridge to store beer; and then save some more to buy a Fiat. You didn’t disturb the order; the order took care of you.
For the moment, we went to school on bicycles or in school buses. The Jesuits wouldn’t countenance children being dropped at school by their parents in cars. A boy once rode his father’s Vespa to school, hoping to show off to others. He was promptly frog-marched to the principal’s office, suspended for a week and sent back home. The American Jesuits were fanatical about obliterating class distinctions; the khaki-and-white school uniform material had to be pure cotton; and, since there was no other option, the shoes were factory-produced by Bata. Stretchlon pants and nylon shirts were allowed on Saturdays when we came to school to watch movies in the auditorium, invariably grainy prints of old Westerns. The more studious lot would busy themselves with catching tadpoles for Biology Club or building traffic signal models for Physics Club.
Chemistry Club, presided over by Mrs Awasthi, was a different thing altogether. Regal and snooty, charmingly beautiful in crisp cotton saris to our untrained eyes, she held us in thraldom with her acid tongue as no other teacher did. She drove to school in an Ambassador, the only teacher who owned a car; the rest came on scooters or in the school buses. Her son, Vivek, was my classmate. Once I dropped in at their house where tea was served along with dainty cucumber sandwiches. Vivek made a slurping sound and Mrs Awasthi snapped, “Would you like me to serve your tea in the dog’s water bowl?” Soon after we entered high school, she suddenly left for Delhi.
Another teacher of whom I have fond memories is Mrs Siganporia who taught us geography. The poor soul was hugely distressed after the Bangladesh liberation war because our textbook, authored by a certain Goh Cheh Leong and ordered in bulk from Hong Kong for the next couple of years, still showed the new country as ‘East Pakistan’. She made us draw a red line through every mention of ‘East Pakistan’ and scrawl ‘Bangladesh’ over it. Miss Patel, whose life’s mission was to teach her Class 3 students how to stand and sit ramrod straight, hold the pencil right and practice cursive writing till the last curl had been mastered, couldn’t quite reconcile herself to the fact that children grow into teenagers, and teenagers grow into adults. “Stop slouching or you will get a tight slap,” she is believed to have famously admonished a former student of hers who had joined the school as a teacher in the faculty common room.
And so life went on, from spring term to summer term to winter term. As Polly -- Mr Paul Mathews – droned on about altitude and longitude, we gazed out of the large bay windows in our class room, dreaming of Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd concerts in faraway lands. Till the ICSE exams were upon us and we had not yet even bothered to figure out what we would do next. That winter we sat for the exams and next spring the results came. The last time I met the boys in my class under the Greenwood Tree, where we lingered till the shadows lengthened, was the day the results were put up on the school notice board. Within days we were scattered, each of us leaving town to seek our own destinies. Many were to return to Jamshedpur and pursue their dream of living in a flat with a fridge and driving a Fiat. But some were destined to break free and seek their fortune, if not fame, elsewhere.
I travelled to Patna for my ‘plus two’ years, discovered a whole new world, and moved on to Kolkata for my graduate studies, worked in the city, and then shifted to Delhi. Like Nirad C Chaudhuri, a writer whom I greatly admire, I have never looked back since that spring of 1978. But that has not dulled memories of school. Thirty-two years later, I still recall the loving shade of the Greenwood Tree under which I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life.
Nothing, however, remains constant. A Google search to check on my alma mater tells me the Greenwood Tree no longer exists although the school is now much bigger than it was during our time. Did age finally weaken its stout trunk? Did a storm bring it down? Or was it simply felled to create space for the school’s expansion? Along with the tree has gone the mystery shrouding its name. And a part of Loyola School’s history.