Volume: 9, No: 08 ; August-2015
The architectural skyline of Lucknow remains incomplete without the mention of La Martiniere. Built at the end of the 18th century, this building is a mixture of designs. Gothic gargoyles piled merrily atop Corinthian columns to the produce a finished product which a British Marquess sarcastically pronounced was inspired by a wedding cake.
Well, it was designed and built by French Major General, Claude Martin. This was meant to be his palatial home which he had named Constantia, but he died before it was completed. However, he left funds and direction that it should became a school. He now keeps watch from his tomb in the basement. Martin was an adventurer. He came to India as a penniless soldier but gradually his luck and labour fetched him a fortune big enough to lend a princely amount of 250,000 pounds to the Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula.
La Martiniere is today a private school of great repute. It isn’t easy to have a look at the room, library or the tomb of Claude Martin from inside. You have to take prior permission if you are planning to visit it. If school is on, you are requested to maintain silence and not disturb the students. The authorities also don’t encourage you to stand outside the classrooms for long, thus distracting the students and a teacher may object to you visit during school hours.
The college consists of two schools on different campuses for boys and girls. La Martiniere boys’ college was founded in 1845 and La Martiniere girls’ college was established in 1869. The two Lucknow College are part of the La Martiniere family schools. There are two La Martiniere colleges in Kolkata and three in Lyon. La Martiniere provides a liberal education and the medium of instruction is the English language. The schools cater to pupils from the ages of five through to 17 or 18, and are open to children of all religious denominations.
I began my scholarly life at Lucknow’s Loreto convent, which admitted boys up to standard II. Since I am in a confessional mood, I might as well come upfront; I was expelled from Loreto Convent for making a pass at a girl. She wanted to borrow my rubber (that’s we called it then), I asked her to be my girlfriend. Mother Alacock, the no-nonsense Mother Superior, did not approve.
As a result, I was shunted off to La Martiniere College where I spent ten of the happiest years of my life. Acquisition of learning or earning a degree was the least of my concerns in those ten years.
If you observe the façade of La Martiniere you can not believe that such a humungous, ambitious but slightly comical building with a curios sort of phallic symbol – called the Lart – jutting out of a lake could boys’ school and not an 18th century palace of an eccentric king who had travelled west and returned with woolly architectural ideas.
Call it serendipity, but at La Martiniere I made a wonderful chance finding. I located three chums – two Muslim, one Hindu. That made us two Muslim and two Hindu. This politically correct, equal opportunity co-mingling of faiths had a profound social, cultural and intellectual impact on me besides providing space for copious and sustained laughter. It converted me to the life-long belief that laughter was the answer for all the ills and evils our planet is heir to. To laugh one’s way through life became my lofty mission. In my professional life I have tried to make use of laughter. My dog is called Editor. Why? Because like most editors he is willful, stubborn and thinks he knows everything!
Is there anything to match the nostalgia and romance of revisiting your old school ? Two months ago I went back to my school and I returned full of golden memories. True, one gets maudlin and sentimental about bunking classes, protecting food from muscular Anglo-Indian boys, getting “six of the best” from the principal, lusting unsuccessfully after girls from the sister school, enjoying the dirty tuck shop grub, avoiding the homosexual physics teacher, remembering the perfect who was so magnificently hung that he charged a fee for a peek, recollecting the shivers of the Hindi master bullied by the boys and, last but not least, George Gilbert who refused to learn Hindi because he said he was going ‘home’ – to which our no-nonsense Mr. Falls replied: “You mean Allahabad.”
The excuse was a class reunion. We sang the school song, praised the founder (Claude Martin), a swashbuckling French mercenary with negotiable scruples, prayed to our Heavenly Father, were sumptuously dined by the principal, exchanged jokes with Tatti Shah, Buniya Khan, Lugs Hasan. I don’t have much of an education, but the little knowledge I gathered was at my old school.
La Martiniere college taught me all I know about life: don’t take yourself too seriously, laughter is the key to cheerful living, convictions and beliefs don’t come from slogans and dogma but from the air one breathes (I’m a card-carrying pseudo-secularist because I was brought up on Lucknow’s composite culture), a weakness for well-cooked food is a sign of refinement….
It is said that you only make real friends in your school days. That is true for me. Going back to La Martiniere always revives and refreshes me. The days of your old school are surely the days of your glory!
Some year ago, I was invited back to La Martiniere which was celebrating its 150th anniversary. I was informed that I had been chosen as one of the Distinguished Martinians (it seems I just made the list) and would be suitably honoured by the Governor of UP. Now, in my time I have won a few awards, but the prospect of this particular scroll gave me a rare thrill.
The reason, I suppose, is because I was anything but ‘Distinguished’ in my school days. In fact, academically I was something of a disaster and close to a joke figure. There were others who were formidably bright and it was assumed that these gentlemen would make it big in the world. Alas, life is cruel. With a few exceptions precisely the opposite has happened. The ‘duffers’ in a sense prospered while the ‘toppers’ ended up in tea estates.
After the awards ceremony there was a dinner and dance, during which I discovered with mounting alarm that except for a few ‘duffers’ I knew not a single person. Things didn’t improve during the latter part of the night when three 30-something lads accosted me. “Are you Vinod Mehta?” Recognition at least, I though. “Weren’t you once the editor of Debonair?” Even before I could confirm or deny, one of them asked: “I say, that July 1979 centre spread – do you have her telephone number?”
Since this is a magazine devoted to the joys of eating, I will end appropriately. I fondly remember the tuck shop at La Martiniere. Two dishes come to mind: poori-tack (greasy poori and greasy aloo) and bun-kebab. Both dishes would not get a Michelin-star but at that time they smelt and tasted like heaven!
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