It was called the gallery class, seats arranged like that in a theatre, one level above the other. The desk by the window was the most sought after. At the same height as the window sill, the seats offered an unparalleled view of the visitors to the college office. Not that we were expecting any exciting ones. Except during admission time, the only members of the male species that we were used to were the muscle man Joy chettan in Physics lab and the scrawny and Kunjumon chettan, in the school bus. Even during admissions, it was the father figures, not even one good looking brother came our way.
The class was almost over, we were restless. And then, miracle of miracles, a young man walks down the stairs. Quite a handsome guy, at that. The buzz in the class was palpable. Who could that be? As he walked into the guest room down the corridor, we just couldn’t sit any longer. “Miss, can we go to the library?” asked Asha and I together. Miss Agnes had a knowing smile on her face as she let us go. As we passed the guest room, both of us took a dive under the half door to catch another glimpse at the good looking chap. And we raised ourselves up right on to the laughing face of Sr.Margaret. “Taking a guess at who that is? He’s Sheena’s brother.” Even before we could erase our embarrassed smiles, the bell rang and out came Miss Agnes. “You should have asked me, that’s Sheena’s brother,” she said, followed by that hearty laughter of hers.
That was the spirit in which they raised us. What kind of nuns and teachers did you have, friends whom I made later in life used to ask. That too, in a long forgotten place like Alappuzha? Catholic nuns who laugh unabashedly and teachers who joke with you? “Not just that, they dance, they sing, they even stage plays as nursery kids for us,” I told them. They were no ordinary ones, those nuns and teachers of St. Joseph’s Girls School and Women’s College. Followers of St.Magadalene of Canossa, from Italy.
By the time we were in school and later college, the nuns from Europe were either in the cemetery of the Latin Church nearby or had gone back home. But stories, we had in plenty. Starting from my grandmother who used to ridicule our English, “learn from me, I was taught by the Europeans.” And my mother who used to tell us about the cherubic ‘Mother Unneesho’ and the sprightly Mother Josephine.
They were no ordinary nuns. The lamp of happiness was passed on from the Italian sisters to their Indian counterparts, the teachers, many of whom were students there earlier. If you asked me to describe them in a word, it would be ‘joy,’ undoubtedly. For us, college was fun. They knew just not us, but our whole family and its history too. That never deterred them from being the friends they were and still are. We could tell them just about anything. And vice versa.
The lovely Mrs. Valsa Mammen would hide her face in a mocking manner each time we met, “move away, you make me feel old.” “Her mother was my student,” she would tell the perplexed onlookers. The waif like Miss Ramani, who made Rima , the heroine of Green Mansions an immortal romantic icon for us, Miss Jacintha, our favourite Physics teacher who would scatter the six of us to six different seats and then laugh with us when she saw us all back together in the very next class, Miss Elizabeth in Chemistry who told me off at the end of a ‘very busy’ union year, ” koche, come to my class at least once a month, lest I forget your face,” the frail Miss Chandrika, our department head, the nightingale of our college, Miss Chitra, who was more like an elder sister, the millions of sine thetas and cos thetas from Miss Rita, the hearty laughter of Mrs. Andrews, the ever effervescent Mrs. Rosamma, Mrs. Mathews who was family, Miss Maniamma and a her long and luscious hair, the lovely Miss Saraswathy with her beautiful husky voice, the painful memories of Miss Usha, Miss Leela who turned to be an aunt-in-law, the beautiful and vivacious young Miss Latha, the cherubic Miss Sandhya who fought the system and won what was her due, the elegant Miss Ragini who ‘blessed’ us, “may you have kids just like you,” the list never ends. I have long forgotten the Physics, Chemistry and Maths that Imlearned there, the profession that I got into had nothing to do with what I studied there.
My life is another matter altogether. What I learned there, in school and college, is the kindly light that leads me on even now. When I think of my alma mater, how can I forget my school teachers. Marie miss and then Zelma miss. When people listen to my almost non Mallu accented English (preening a little, bear with me;) ) and they wonder how, when I tell them I’d never been out of that little town until after my graduation, I have only two people to thank – my father who led me to the small library in the town and Zelma miss. When the new Mother Superior came to school and they were looking for someone who could give a welcome speech, she selected me. And I was awestruck. Me, who hadn’t got on to any stage till then? The confidence that she gave more than thirty years ago still holds me in good stead. Miss, I can never thank you enough.
There was nothing we couldn’t ask them, that they wouldn’t do for us. The love they had for us was unconditional and absolute. I can never forget an incident in my final year. Sr. Annette called me one evening, “koche, there I saw one boy who wants to meet you. I’ve told him to wait on the parlour.” I was dumbstruck, “sister, you?” With her quintessential mischievous smile, she said,”enthekilum paranju vittekku, paavam payyanaa.” The poor chap had no idea how I was laughing inside.
St.Joseph’s taught us never to take life too seriously, that there are plenty of fishes in the sea, that questions are meant to be asked whether we got an answer or not, that standing up for what is right is always right, that if nuns could dance, so could we, that we could always go back there and we would be welcomed back as only mothers could and that love was all that mattered, at the end of it all.
A thank you would be a mere cliche. But wanted to let you know, my deaest teachers, that you all are rembered, much fondly and with great love.
*nurturing mother – alma mater
p.s. wonder where Miss Sheena’s brother is 😉
update – apparently he was so scarred that he decided to be a life long bachelor
p.p.s a confession to Miss Elizabeth and Miss Elamma – Chemistry always was and still is a nightmare 😛