(Backstory: This is not a commissioned To You letter, or one I ever wanted to write. One in fact I should’ve written and read out loud and handed over to her, with a hug a while ago. Mrs. Abraham, the principal of my school, (that ochre painted, gorgeous turret-topped castle I called home for 14 years) lives on inside me and every girl from La Martiniere who ever knew her. There is no way to write a letter to Mrs. Abraham without writing it to La Martiniere and to my entire childhood. It involves, above all else, wanting to invent time travel, to go back and do it all over again.)
Time is never on time, I’ve noticed.
It’s sloth-paced and languorous; filling up years and lifetimes of reading in the afternoon sun, chocolate ice creams and 5pm evenings during summer vacations when you're 12 and it’s a mechanical drill of Monday to Friday work projects and “Oh! has it been five years already?” when you are an adult.
And that may be how memories conspire too. Those you scooped up in your arms and collected during school, technicolour and bursting with sights, smells, references and inside jokes.
And those later you only remember as milestones: the first job, the next job, and that time you turned 25 and then 35.
My school life could be cleaved into two.
Until Cl. 7 when Mrs. Keelor was the principal: her shock of beautiful white hair, the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen and her ability to quiet a room the minute she walked into it. We weren’t really sure how school would go on when we heard she was retiring. There were rumours that it would shut down and we nodded our 12-year-old heads gravely. That made sense. Of course going to any other school would be the deepest betrayal so we discussed which of our parents got to teach us when we would eventually be home schooled. I picked my mother and went home and broke the news to her.
To say that we understood and fell in love with Mrs. Abraham, the day she took over would be a stretch. To say that we did this inadvertently and absolutely soon enough wouldn’t even begin to cover it. To us, in those first few weeks Mrs. Abraham seemed like a new parent.
What does this mean? We’d ask each other.
And no one had a convincing answer.
But that’s the thing with parents. They come in sets. And I had no choice in the matter of falling in love with both, like I did with my biological ones.
I remember clearly, that first assembly led by Mrs. Abraham. We listened expectantly, maybe for a prophecy. What we got was an anecdote of a boy overcoming a problem later in life because when he was younger he’d read many books, each of which had taught him lessons he did not know or understand at the time, but served him later in life. And in her fierce love of reading and books I identified a burning kinship.
I couldn’t name the date when Mrs. Abraham became indistinguishable from the walls, passages, classes, smells and sights of my school: that drafty walk up from Junior School to the dorms or from the senior school staffroom (always neat as a pin. Always a mystery.)
To meet her: you needed to cut through the study room, where protractors met wood and names were carved, claims were made and a clock that seemed to loom larger than the length of the room, smile at Matron Michael and pray fervently she doesn’t ask you what you were doing out of class and how you had no business being near the offices.
Stop at the precipice of the office, re-arrange meticulously the pleats of your tunic (sometimes twice over), pull your socks up and sleeves down and then convince Mrs. Healy to let you see her. That your problem or question was possibly of State interest. Once in, her voice and she filled the office. You didn’t sit, because you’d practiced what you had to say in the walk from there to here, and timed it to under two sentences, but you almost always left her office smiling or definitely less terrified of the scare you’d drummed up, on your own, inside your head.
There was always a solution and a smile at the end, followed by a
“You’re welcome, Kakul, now go back to class.”
In school every class you were in felt like the most important anyone had been in yet. Class 9 was scary. We were near adults, because looming around the corner were the dreaded ICSE Board exams. All of us walked faster and looked at the class 7 girls goofing around like they were children at least 15 years younger and so much more irresponsible. We didn’t think there was anything more important going on in school than what our class was doing at that moment, and she helped solidify our belief. I wonder today, as I run to keep up the demands of my day, how she managed it all.
She ensured she made it to almost every Inter-house elocution contest, impromptu speeches, sometimes even flower arrangement competitions. Mine one year, was a long red flower, curved along a rocky bed and coloured gravel. In my best calligraphy, I had typed out the caption: Rhett. She told me that it was interesting I didn’t go with the obvious choice: Scarlett and wasn’t Gone With The Wind a delightful book and hoped I was reading better?
Monday morning assemblies meant her reading out snippets from books, anecdotes or just stories of what doing the right thing meant. And every time she spoke, without a microphone, her thick, soft voice always met silence and seemed to effortlessly glide across the space and reach the Prefects standing at the end. She shook our hands solemnly, every prize distribution ceremony, ensuring that Best Student (English) Cl 8 felt as accomplished as General Proficiency -1, Cl. 11.
It was in Class 10 when Ruchira and I found ourselves outside her office. Standing straighter, feeling as grown up as we ever thought we would be, we were asked if we’d like to go to Welham to represent the school for the debate next year. I don’t remember what we said, I remember her face, the sunlight streaming through from behind, the ochre of that almost round room and leaving thrilled and certain that the pride of the entire school rested on our excited, wiry shoulders. Since that day, we never ended a debate without her and Mrs. Dasgupta reassuring us that irrespective of results all that mattered was how well we spoke and argued. No one cheered us on as loudly, fiercely and proudly as they did, each time we won.
During the final round of Frank Anthony Memorial in Trivandrum, we walked away with the runner up prize. Two Type-A girls sullen and semi-sulky decided to spend the evening watching TV in the guesthouse, to honour that special relationship teenagers seem to have with TV. She told us to go outside and soak in the colours of the sunset against the water, because debates will come and go, what if we never came to Trivandrum again?
We went out. And she was right I’ve never had a chance to return to Trivandrum since.
She loved us kindly too. In Class 11 when the Boys’ school cruelly heckled us, she ruled that the girls would not attend the Social that evening. Crushed with disappointment, as young girls before the evening of any dance they can’t go to would be, I know now that it was her teaching us to put before all fun and revelry our pride and dignity, and let no young boy(s) who challenges that, come first. Another time Class 11 Science decided to bunk school together; we thought we were entitled to that experience. All the badge holders who participated were issued a stern letter and when she found us laughing and making light of the letter, she told us how disappointed she was. That being a House Captain or Head Girl necessitated that we remember those young babies of Class 6 who would emulate our behavior. Teaching us that pride in offices is preceded with the responsibilities we shoulder.
Mrs. Abraham became the beginning of all things to us. My center-point during march past, on sports day, “Lyons House, look at Mrs Abraham and march sharpest when crossing that section”, who during the Cockhouse social, at my reluctance to open the dance, told me, “have fun and dance for one song, and then you can go back and just have fun with your own friends” , the person who after a trying career counseling session and my disappointment with the entire process sought me out to tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be, and La Martiniere would be proud. Except a ballerina, it may be slightly late in the day for that career choice. But anything else at all, and she would be proud.
And so I told myself I’d return when I had made them (La Martiniere and her) proud. Visiting only once after my Masters, but promising myself to write that book, and return again with it, to her. To stand in that auditorium, the ceiling panels of which we whispered sported blood stains and remains of past founders.
I thought of school often as the years went by, it’s was my primary reference point and where in a deep vault lay my happiest memories. It’s where I was convinced I could be Darrell from Mallory Towers, because other than Lacrosse and constant rain, La Martiniere was almost the same as St. Claire’s, Mallory Towers and Hogwarts. And Mrs. Abraham stood in the centre of it all.
My first week at LSR in Delhi University, I would answer, “La Martiniere", each time we’d discuss schools we came from. Unmistakably proud, I learnt after several weeks that the school life I'd known, loved and was fiercely loyal to wasn't the same as everyone else. That La Martiniere, my teachers, that Christmas cantata, our house competitions and Mrs. Abaraham were memories and a time and tribe of belonging only ours to hold and cherish. A special secret that I could attempt to describe but you wouldn’t be able to taste and feel unless you’d lived there for 14 years.
In 2013 I ran into Mrs Abraham and Mrs A Dass in Delhi and couldn’t stop smiling, or fidgeting with the belt of my dress. Because she looked as regal out of school, in her floral sari, as she did when roaming school grounds, and I was sure I wasn’t standing up straight enough. She smiled at me and told me that the school missed me and I should come visit. And I promised her I would.
The fact that I didn’t when she was around is still a coal shaped, burning regret. I may not have had all the awards I want and that book yet, but I know she would’ve been proud, no matter what I’m doing. Because, she made a 13 year old girl feel that, as she leaned against an interpretation of a flower arrangement- neither professional, nor centerpiece worthy-“It comes from a story Kakul, and that’s what makes it special.”
With all my love,
(Mrs. F. Abraham, principal, La Martiniere Girls' College)
(Those turrets and that moat - one of my fav buildings of school. La Martiniere Girls, Lucknow)
The final letter will be up on my blog and a copy will be handwritten and posted to you or to an intended recipient. Kisses on the envelope only on my discretion. Give me a shout at: firstname.lastname@example.org )