Humayun Khan, 77, stood outside the imposing mahogany doors of the Irwin Hall inside Bishop Cotton School (BCS), Shimla, his crinkled old eyes darting around, as if trying to remember the last time he was here 62 years ago. The door, its huge brass knobs polished to a fine gold, was shut.
It had been shut since 1947 to mark the evacuation of Khan and 41 other Muslim students for Pakistan, to keep them safe during the post-Partition riots that engulfed the country.
For Khan, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan and ambassador to India, the memory of their escape is still fresh. “One day, 42 of us were assembled together. A military convoy took us to Ambala, from where we boarded a plane to Lahore. Hasan Agha, who was the school captain in those days, was also with us,” he says.
Twenty-four from that group of 42 flew down to India last week, travelling up to Shimla in a special train from Kalka for the 150th anniversary celebrations of their alma mater. And the doors of Irwin Hall were thrown open to mark the joyous occasion.
Founded in 1859 by George Edward Lynch Cotton, then Bishop of Calcutta, BCS is a public school along the lines of famous English ones such as Eton. The children of the elite were sent to Bishop Cotton’s, initially only from British families, but later Indians as well. Among its more famous alumni today are industrialist Ratan Tata, writer Ruskin Bond, politician Virbhadra Singh and golfer Jeev Milkha Singh.
BCS was a pioneer in many ways. It was the first public school in Asia to have houses and the system of prefects, as also the first to institutionalise interaction with the opposite sex. There were regular socials with girl-students of the nearby Auckland House and St Bede's College, with games and ‘Date of the Day’ programmes.
Ranveer Singh Gulati, a 2003 passout and a ‘pure-bred Cottonian’ — that is, he had entered BCS in kindergarten and graduated from there — remembers how the headmaster, Kabir Mustafi, advised “us to be true gentlemen”, even as the young boys emptied bottles of cologne and took hours getting ready.
For the older Cottonians, it was a time to recall the values that the school they had entered as boys had instilled in them — respect for tradition, leadership and independence.
It was often a lesson learnt the hard way. “We would have to put our hands behind our backs when we saw a senior, even if it was on the Mall Road on Sunday, and say ‘sorry’ and ‘thank you’ after being whacked,” laughs Vijay Khurana, 62, of the batch of 1963.
What made life bearable, and BCS a home away from home, were the teachers, particularly the Englishmen and their wives. Saturday evenings, when the students would have tea with their teachers and discuss everything under the sun, were especially memorable. “I was eight when I joined BCS and so miserable that I simply wanted to go back to my home in Panchkula.
Mr Cuzzon, my English teacher, came to me and took me to his quarters where Mrs Cuzzon’s loving embrace made me feel better,” relates Rajwan Sandhu, 67.
But the one event that brought back the fondest memories were the matches against Sanawar Public School, which were as keenly fought as any India-Pakistan cricket match. Sanawar didn’t play last week, but the goodwill games of football and cricket between BCS and Aitchison College, Lahore — where Humayun Khan and his mates went to after leaving Shimla — more than made up for it in good cheer.
Fittingly, BCS won.