If the Battle of Waterloo was said to have been won on the playfields of Eton years before the actual battle then it could be said that the destiny of the Himalayan States was decided on the playing fields of North Point, Darjeeling, other wise known as St.Joseph’s School.
Established in 1888 in a place then known as Sunny Banks in Darjeeling by Jesuits it soon began to be dubbed as the “Harrow on the Hooghly”.Initially manned by strict Belgian Jesuits who were eventually replaced by the Canadians, it ran on the British public school model with an ethos of helping a “faltering brother” with a motto of Sursum Corda meaning lift up your hearts. It initially catered to the children of British officials then serving in India in a cool clime and offered the same atmosphere as a British public school.
Soon the doors were opened to white Protestants and the Burmese and the royalty of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. And then came pupils from across the world, as far as Africa and nearby Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. It had a complete cosmopolitan atmosphere where the only distinction was the colour of the house shirts that you wore. Otherwise the uniform consisted of grey suits on weekdays, blazer and flannels on Wednesdays and Saturdays and Sunday was a navy-blue suit with a cap and an umbrella to match. Outings to town were reserved for the last Sundays of the month and of course there were areas in town marked as “out of bounds”.
The royalty from Nepal consisted of King Birendra and his brothers Gyanendra and Dhirendra and Paras Shah, King Gyanendra’s son often in the news for all the wrong reasons now. But the school also had Shashank Koirala, son of BP Koirala, the man who sowed the seeds for the overthrow of the monarchy in Nepal. The present King of Bhutan’s father was also a North Pointer and the queen’s father too who was my student. And so were his uncles Rimp Dorjee and Lhendup-Dorjee. Lhendup later went to be listed in the international playboys’ lists and rubbed shoulders with Hollywood starlets. And so also were family members of the Chowgyal’s family of Sikkim.
But royalty apart North Point had its own share of other celebrities and included Admiral Ronnie Pereira who commanded the Indian Navy and Michael Fereira who was world billiards champion twice and who also had the gumption to refuse the Padma Shri first time insisting that Sunil Gavaskar who was awarded the Padma Bhushan had achieved nothing more than he did. He was given the Padma Bhushan the next year. Then there is also Daryl De Monte who had made his name in mainstream Indian journalism.
There were many others who have become Ambassadors and captains of industries, academicians and politicians too. Each of them made a mark in his chosen field of pursuit.
And each institution has also to have its own share of individuals who are institutions in their own right. Begining from the founding fathers like Depelchin, Fallon, O’Niel and Laenan to later days stalwarts like Father Hayden who as a radio operator was in the Atlantic when the Titanic sank. Or Father Burns who was said to have been in love with Hollywood starlet Doris Day to Father Stanford who in 1982 received the then Crown Prince of Nepal Dipendra in school.
Then there was Hank Nunh the man whom Darjeeling fell in love with and who in 1970 had introduced Outdoor Education in the form of Adventure Courses in conjunction with the nearby Himalayan Mountaineering Institute for the senior boys converting boys into men or forging iron into steel. Then there was Bill German who would cheer up the football team with his “Habahaba” chants.
Amongst the lay staff were Maurice Banerjei, a Bengali kulin Brahmin who converted to Christianity and spelt his name ending with a “jei”. He had put in over 40 years of his lifetime teaching science and mathematics. And there was also Jack Vaz, the quite diminutive Goan who taught English and Zabu Abeddin the Hindi teacher whose famous catch word was “Bandar” or monkey to anyone who tried to monkey with him in class.
And there was Karma Tshering who after schooling here had returned to teach and taught maths and would inevitably pronounced Multiplyas “Multifly”. And there was Chandan Singh Rawat the man who played football for India in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and was the school football coach for years. The North Point team that he had coached is said to have held Chuni Goswami’s Mohun Bagan team in Darjeeling. Mention could also be made of Patrick Hallis, Gita Bhutia, Kakoli Chowdhury and Shamim Quadir who had devoted their whole life to the school on the hills. But pride of place must go to 80-year-old Manuel Coutinho who has spent 57 years of teaching at North Point and still takes classes as a ‘Teacher Emeritus”.
Every year, old North Pointers from across the world gather for a reunion to relive old times and ties ranging from London to New York to Kathmandu to Thimphu and next September a global reunion is scheduled in Sri Lanka.
Last June there was one held in Kathmandu which I had dubbed as the mother of all reunions held in Nepal. Unlike earlier ones held batch wise, this one invited all those who had attended North Point ranging from those belonging to the 1950s to those who had just passed out.
And the beauty of it was that they had invited teachers including the present Rector Father Lawrence and Father Kinley Thshering, an old boy himself, a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad and the man acknowledged as the maker of modern St.Joseph’s School hoisting it to the position of the best boarding school in West Bengal and one of the best in the Country. And there was Manuel Countinho and yours truly having studied and had returned to teach in 1981 and 1982 before taking to journalism. We were flown into Kathmandu and feted by students eager to show their gratitude for having groomed them into what they are now.
The stage was set for the 29th of June and the venue was an Old Rana Palace now being run as a heritage hotel by the Shrestha brothers both North Pointers under the name of Shanker Hotel named after their father who had the foresight to purchase the palace and convert it into a hotel. There, in the sprawling chandeliered Durbar hall where once the old Rana held court, gathered were some 200- plus North Pointers and their family members.
To top the list was Shri Panch Maharajah Dhiraja Bir Gyanendra Shah Deva,one of the last absolute rulers in the world who had been in power till recent times,to other former aristocrats to entrepreneurs and captains of industry, trade and commerce to educationists and self-employed individuals all tied together with a common thread called North Point, which according to Father Kinley Tshering the only North Pointer who also became Rector is the only “school in the world with a soul”.
There were gentlemen who were there in the 1950s to those who had passed out last year. And the organizers to ensure a living link of the past and the present with those who manage that fountain of hope had flown in the present Rector of NP Father Lawrence and the man who has spent his entire life in NP from class one onwards plus 57 years of teaching, the evergreen Manuel Coutinho and yours truly and other current staff member four days earlier for the event.
A cross-section of North Pointers had chipped in to make it happen ranging from sponsoring the air tickets to hotel stays both at Kathmandu and Pokhara to ensuring the best of breakfasts, lunches and dinners possible in town. That was the NP spirit at work.
Recollecting his days, Mr. Coutinho told the gathering how Gyanendra was the best elocutionist of his time and a top hockey player. Father Kinley Tshering, acknowledged to be the man behind the making of the modern North Point, simply said that it is a School with a soul.
It was great catching up with two of my batch mates, Sonam Tobgay Sadutshang and Thupten Gyalpo and with my former students Bikaram Shah who was a Member of Parliament; Binod Singh, an entrepreneur; Rabi Rajkarnikar, the man who controls Baskin Robbins Ice Cream in Nepal; Nirankar Yakthumba, who is into Sports Management; Ghimirei who is into manufacturing micro hydro turbines; Udaibir Rana, former Finance Minister of Nepal and Surendra Malla, a successful banker. Each of them has made it in their chosen field of life as “Onwards to life” they went after passing out of the twin towers of NP.
A very touching moment was reached when the present Father Rector Lawrence was called out to receive the American Flag containing the names of all those who were killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 11th September 2001 and was requested to find a proper place for display in the School as it contains the name of my younger brother and fellow North Pointer, Jupiter Yambem. It was sent in time for the occasion by Ms Rina Rai from America.
Every great event must have some great people working quietly behind the scene to make it happen. And this time the “hard core” group consisted of Patrick Wilson, Indra Bahadur Khanal, Peterson Dangol, Shrawan- Manadhar, Danny Shyangbo, Shailendra Chitrasen, Arun Tewari, Nirad Chettri, Divesh Rana, JaneshShresta, Milan Hiring, Rajiv Shrestha, Sajan Sakya, Subu Shrestha, Prajwal and Prabhu Shrestha.
We know that a global reunion is scheduled in Sri Lanka in September. All that I wish to say is that I will be there in spirit if not in body.
The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman.