Recent images from Loreto school in Lucknow were disturbing. Like a village ojha, one Mr Mandal claimed to possess Christ’s spirit and collapsed in convulsions (while also claiming to cure cancer); little girls fainted in fright; and fundamentalists smashed flower pots and the chapel windows, live on television. Not quite the Loreto I knew.
High on the pine-clad hills of Shillong, the Loreto school I went to stood for standards of excellence. The students included the little Baruas and Lyngdos, and lively Anglo-Indian girls from Calcutta who went on to excel in music and sports. The teachers were no less. They mostly came straight from Dublin, and had distinct Irish accents.
Our favourite was Sister Consiglio. Then in her early 20s, if not less, she had twinkling blue eyes and we all speculated that underneath that smothering Penguin outfit, she was sure to have golden hair. She outjumped the hill streams with the best of us on nature rambles. Last heard of, she was in Ranchi and still going strong.
But never once were non-Christian girls asked to participate in any Christian rituals. We stood respectfully as the Christian girls went through their Hail Marys and Our Fathers, but all joined in with gusto in the school song: “We don’t want to march like the infantry, ride like the cavalry, shoot like the artillery. We don’t want to fly over Germany, we are Loreto’s navy.”
Excellence was not only about studies and music, but character-building. Though expected to come first in class every month by proud parents and teachers, I failed badly in Class IV one month. My pet bogies, arithmetic and needlework, had pulled me down to fifth place. I was so ashamed that when the time came for the monthly proclamation — when the classes line up and individual positions are called out while a music student plays the Golden Eagle march on the piano — I ran home early.
When my mother asked why I had returned early, I mumbled something about a stomach ache. I said the same thing when I returned to school the next morning. “No dear, you did not have a stomach ache. You ran away from defeat and we shall hold the proclamation all over again,” I was told.
They did, and the whole school heard my miserable marks. I dissolved into tears as I was ushered into the Mother Superior’s room. “Don’t cry dear,” she said as she gave me some barley sugar, “We are only teaching you not to run away from defeat.” A valuable lesson that has seen me through the most difficult moments of my life.