It was Anita’s first day as a boarder. She had never ever been away from her family. Her day had started with tea in the refectory at 4pm. She was anxious but all seemed jolly. A very friendly nun ushered her to the table allotted for the students of Class VII and introduced her peers. The reception was enthusiastic though in hushed tones because talking loudly was a taboo while eating.
Then it was time for play – rounders, throwball, badminton, hockey – whatever one fancied. After an hour of diversion, the girls proceeded to the refectory to eat their supper. Anita was quite disappointed with the food served at the table. All her forebodings of being in an alien place with strangers returned. She gulped down her food stoically and lined up with the rest to go to the study hall. Boarders were expected to do their daily homework for an hour and half.
The first day was one of inculcation; two nuns took turns to speak about the history of St Joseph’s Convent for the benefit of the newcomers. Indeed it was a very old school started in 1861. At the request of the erstwhile French city-fathers, three nuns had come down from St Joseph’s of Cluny in France to teach European orphans. After encountering considerable local enthusiasm, they began a boarding school. 1868 saw them established on premises, bought by a kind lady, on the banks of the Hughli. Soon the adjoining run- down ancient chapel was restored and it became a part of the institution. In 1877 a grotto was created in the garden surrounding the chapel and the statue of Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes was installed.
Then the nuns talked about the ethos of the school – discipline and perfection. The girls were urged to be as perfect as possible in whatever they did. So far, so good. But the uneasy feeling in Anita’s heart refused to go away. There was this long night to endure! What would it feel like to sleep alone in one’s bed even though it would be in a dormitory?
6-45pm. The central quadrangle was already enveloped in darkness. The buildings standing all around had transformed into chimerical black silhouettes. The girls had lined up in a single file outside the study hall. The evening study was over. They would first proceed towards the chapel for evening prayers and then walk up the stairs to the dormitory on the terrace.
Helen D’souza, a lanky girl with a lilting voice, and Elvira Braganza, stocky and raspy in tone, stood before and after Anita in the line.
“ Anita, we would like to warn you”, lisped Helen. “ The nuns never tell you the whole story. That grotto is surrounded by the graves of dead nuns.” Alvira joined in: “Among them is one who was in charge of the dormitory many years ago. She was very strict and would become furious with any girl who did not make up her bed properly.”
We walked a few more steps and she continued in a guttural whisper, “ You know what – she still visits the dormitory at night. If the bed is not made perfectly, the sheet is not straightened or the counterpane is not tucked perfectly, she will give you a massive slap!”
By then they had reached the garden in front of the chapel. Anita could feel the anxious shudders deep within her chest. She looked around. An other-worldly atmosphere seemed to surround the grotto. The shadowy statue of the saint looked mysterious. And the darkness was filling up with vague figures! Or was it her imagination? Anita was frightened out of her wits. Even the brief moment inside the chapel did not soothe her frayed nerves.
The evening prayer was over. The boarders accompanied by a nun climbed the stairs to retire for the night. The dormitory consisted of a cluster of rooms in the middle of the terrace. The night was pitch dark though the murky outlines of the banians and peepuls on the banks of the Hooghly were visible over the surrounding low wall.
The nun stood by while the girls kneeled down against their beds and chanted the last prayer of the day. Then they peeled off the bedcover, folded it and placed it neatly in the cupboard and got into bed. Her heart beating frantically, her mind drowned in trepidation, Anita checked if everything was perfect.
As soon as lights were out, she reached out for the bedcover and covered herself from head to toe. No matter, it was a very warm night. And she waited with a beating heart! It was agony. She tossed and turned and she tossed and turned! But sleep was elusive. She sweated profusely in fear and anxiety. She felt worn out. The room seemed as dark as hell.
Then the nightmare began. She became conscious of a presence – an-other worldly presence. A menacing image in the semi-darkness! And the sound – spine-chilling! The swish of a nun’s habit and the eerie sound of the rosary beads jingling from her waist. The sound came nearer and Anita held the cover tightly against her body shivering like a mouse in front of a snake, expecting a blow any moment.
The wait seemed never-ending – an eternity! Her feverish brain saw the image of a raised hand. Any moment now, it would strike but it disappeared like gossamer. And she fell into an abyss of tired slumber.
Morning dawned with all its splendour. The sun shone brightly on the eastern sky across the river. But it could not dispel the darkness and fear in Anita’s mind. The day proceeded relentlessly towards the night. Meanwhile, the tasks were performed with clock-work precision. Repetition of another night of terror, and the next, followed by many, sometimes peppered with the sound of someone sobbing or crying out in terror – “Please don’t beat me!”
Is this the end of the story? Frankly, I do not know. The Anita of the story is yours truly! I have never been able to resolve whether this was an instance of veterans ragging newcomers or something really sinister. Later when I discussed my experience with an old inmate of the boarding-school, she confirmed that some of her peers believed that it was not a made up story!