Readers Write In #253: American high school style in South India

Posted on August 27, 2020

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(by Krishikari)

The Kodai School graduating class of 1982

Imagine a school where teenage boys and girls flirted in the halls on their way to classes, planned their outfits for the weekend dance before skipping off to cheerleader practice or the library. Imagine being young like that, formal proms at the end of the year, girls in long dresses and boys in tuxedos pinning corsages… actually you don’t have to imagine it at all, just remember the last American High School movie you watched. We’ve all seen this school at the cinema. Endlessly fetishized by Hollywood directors who never quite got over high school. American Graffiti, Grease, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it would be hard to find an American movie or TV show with teenage characters where high school was not the central feature of life. Is there even life after such a high school? Well, yes, at high school reunions of course, another rich vein of drama because the American High School experience lasts forever! I give you Romy and Michelle, or Grosse Pointe Blank!

If some sheltered teenaged Indian boy living in Madurai (named Amit for example) who had never in his whole life, even talked to a girl who wasn’t his equally awkward cousin sister, imagined that this was some idyllic existence only glimpsed in American movies and TV shows, he would be dead wrong. Just a three hour drive from his own dusty school grounds, somewhere past Batalagundu, (where they had the best and crackliest murrukkus at the bus stand), up in the Palani hills, this very hopeless dream he cherished, of dressing up in a tux and asking a girl to be his date to the prom could have been his own real life experience!

Good marks, parents who could either dredge up several lakhs in school fees and/or convince the principal that he deserved a scholarship, would be all that stood between him and The High School Dream. Or he could do what a friend of mine did, just happen to have a gangster type uncle who could fix the school’s water supply problem.

Kodaikanal lake with our red roofed school, in 2020 looks almost the same as it did in 1980

Upon reflection, it would seem we were the luckiest (and most oblivious to our luck) kids in the world. Only a short but vomit-inducing drive up inumerable hairpin turns from the nearest large city, our little town had a lake in the middle of it surrounded by tree covered hills dotted with red roofed cottages. It could have been a model for the movies about idyllic after lives, where your consciousness is uploaded to a simulation of eternal paradise. Or, to the quintessential American high school movie, the one that surpasses them all: Dazed and Confused, only without Ben Affleck.

So there I was, in the late 1970s along with my siblings, ensconced within a perfectly middle class south Indian family, my mother, the lady doctor, as they called her in those days, was offered a stupendous salary of one thousand rupees a month. My father was a planter of cardamom just like the mothalalli in Merku Thodarche Malai. He didn’t mind driving the top station route every so often so we moved to Kodaikanal and started attending that dream school you are by now all familiar with. My mother’s duties besides being 24 hours on call at the local hospital, also included being the school doctor, so our education was part of the deal.

There were 3.5 Indians in my class in 1973 plus Mr. Kalyanasundaram

Kodaikanal School was started in 1901 by American missionaries for their children to attend. While the parents preached at, educated, doctored and converted the poor natives, (the rich ones being impervious to their charms and their puritanical God), the children continued being American, dancing, dating, playing tubas in marching bands, and hitting home runs at boarding school up in the cool hills away from the heat and dust of ‘real’ India.

By the time the 80s rolled around, the Indian government was having second thoughts about the whole concept of allowing foreigners special visas to come and convert people, so this school, in order to continue existing, had to stop being primarily for missionary kids. The school became international but with an ethical conscience of sorts, and soon we were studying world religions, world literature, social justice and South Asian civilizations. Hindi and Tamil joined German and French, mandatory manual labour hours were introduced, and field trips to villages became a highlight. World news was announced to us at the daily assembly. The school fees went up steeply and the students were now children of diplomats and spies, Coimbatore mill owners, Iranian exiles and Bombay high-society (self proclaimed). The latter came in skinny jeans and regarded our bell bottoms, stitched by the town tailor with great disdain. But, we were too cool for fashion, these hip kids were also soon wrapped in bazaar blankets and smoking beedis at Raja’s or Hanifa’s tea shop and eating kothu roti on biscuit tin tables at the Udaisuryan. The American could not pronounce it, so for some reason this eatery was known The Star. Maybe because the Sun is a star?

Raja and son, 1982

Oh, by the way, Arjun Ramphal went to our school too, not to mention Anupama Chopra, who went to “The Prom” with my younger brother and his other date! I met her briefly when I was let out on parole from the Stella Maris jail in Madras for his high school graduation. She was a tiny pale girl in a sophisticated looking black dress with a pink fur trim. That was 1986.

Perumal Malai, 2020

The proms, the formal dances were fun, we had decorating committees and what not, the major downside was being unpopular and despairing of ever being asked by a boy. I did get asked always at the last minute, so I did not have to go drown in the pretty lake which would have been the only other option.

More fun were the informal weekend dances with boys asking girls to dance and even slow dance, but also girls dancing with girls and girls asking boys became a thing and everyone started fighting over rock vs. disco. Sneaking into the boys dorms or vice versa was great fun too, and I bet the staff members had fun pretending they didn’t know what was going on or sometimes catching us and suspending the culprits!

We did have rules. Oh yes. No smoking and drinking. One could get seriously busted in a dorm raid. The PDA rule was another one. No public display of affection. Damned teenage boys and girls were always going around hugging and kissing back then. I went back to my old school with my young family in the early 2000s. My husband marveled looking around the flag green, that piece of lawn in front of the cafeteria just made for hanging out “What is this, the school of love?” he asked. They were still at it.

There were some cliques and subtle schisms that defined who was popular and who wasn’t but this part of American school life did not completely transfer to our wholesome little existence. It was still all about the jocks and cheerleaders but not as extreme as you see in American movies like Mean Girls. However, the endless tyranny (to me) of forced participation in sports was a big feature of school life. I think there were even jackets with letters on them given out to the enthoos just like in the movies, but we also had hiking and camping in the beautiful hills and valleys all around us almost every weekend. Damn, we remained fit for life with all that high altitude tromping around with leeches stuck to our shins and sliding down waterfalls in leather bottomed shorts. Teachers getting lost for days and having to be rescued by students is another story.

Unlike the other kids in the convent boarding schools at most hill stations, we were never restricted to the campus. The bazaar food, hippy communes and local tea shops were completely part of our unofficial extra curricular activities. Wandering around the lake, just lying in the grass talking to friends who became lifelong friends filled our non-study hours.

There was no television, internet or movies to entertain us. (I actually looked forward to going to my Madras cousins for the holidays just to see movies.) Unaware that we were missing out, we hung out, danced to somewhat outdated music and revelled always in the fresh clean misty mountain air, clouded only a little bit by ganja smoke. Imagine after this high school and before escaping to Bombay, I went to Stella Maris in Madras for a year, where we were at the age of 18 not even allowed to exit the front gate! (oh, but we did)

Years later many of us reminisce, now that we have old school friends at the tips of our fingers. “We were all such good friends, there was no racism or bullying, no cliques” we tell each other. Well, I do know of boys who got beaten up in the smelly boys dormitories, we girls had other ways to torture each other, mainly by withholding friendship or maggi noodles. The white staff members practiced racism for sure, and the Indian staff all complained to each other that they were paid much less than their foreign counterparts, who back in the day barely needed any other qualifications to be hired. And this was and is still a boarding school in India for the elites; however progressive, we were all supported by an army of underpaid watchmen, cooks, ayahs and dhobies like the rest of India. Their kids didn’t get to study at Kodaikanal International School, even though scholarships were given out to staff kids like me. India makes casteists out of everyone who lands on our shores and the American missionaries who started the school picked it up as soon as they landed too. They too had ayahs and cooks trained in making casseroles and accepting castoffs.

This school still exists, please send your children there to experience dating, communicating with the opposite sex, prom and also academic excellence, it’s an IB school. The principal is my dear childhood friend who I have once stuffed into our dogs house, and Kodaikanal School is still a kind of paradise on earth. Scholarships are available, all you need is a dream to make a good case for your kid!