Go to
Indian-Tales home


Finally, in 1946, it became obvious to everyone that he had gone mad and, after due consultation with the doctor and, who knows, maybe even a psychiatrist, “Spud” was ordered to escort him to the lunatic asylum in Poona get him admitted there and then return to Abu.

About a week later during Mass, we were suddenly asked, in an address by the principal, to pray for the speedy recovery of “Spud” who had, it turned out, been totally overcome with remorse at the result of his terrible prank and, in an attempt to commit suicide on the way back from Poona, had cut his own throat.

Everyone, right down to the poorest inhabitant in Abu knew “Spud” and someone had recognised him dying in a pool of blood and had set off the alarm. He had been taken to the local hospital and even after he was sewn up and started to recover, he remained morose and silent and would not say a word to anyone.

I wrote home to Mum and conveyed the sad news to her. She came dashing up to Abu right away and went straight to the hospital where she begged the staff to tell “Spud” that it was she who was there and wanted to speak to him. After some deliberation, but without too much argument, “Spud” assented. Remember that “Spud” was god-father to my sister Philomena and a good friend of Mum and Dad, and I guess he had taken that into consideration.

Over several days, when he had the strength, “Spud” blurted out the whole story to Mum who wanted to take him home with her and allow him to recuperate. But he refused every offer of help and said that he felt he had to do the penance in his own way and had only told Mum the story because of who she was and because he could not face anyone else. Mum left Abu after about ten days and went home.

Soon afterwards the school year ended and when it re-opened in 1947, “Spud” had disappeared. Dad tried very hard to get in touch with “Spud” to offer him a home with us because Partition was near and Dad knew that “Spud” had been in India so long that he would not have had a valid passport even if he could lay his hands on his old one.

However, everyone who was “in the know”, was very secretive about his whereabouts, and despite the fact that on each of my several visits to the school in later years we made enquiries, we were always met by a tight-lipped silence or professed ignorance and unable to locate him.

In 1984, Pirkko and I visited the school and I was amazed to meet up with the master who had taken me through my Senior Cambridge way back in 1946, Bro. Morrow. He was retired, a man of 85, living at the school and said that he could trust me. I asked about “Spud” and he confided in me that “Spud” had gone to Sanawar, one of the sister schools of the Christian Brothers and where nobody knew him. He had died, a broken, silent and lonely man several years later in the 1950s. Before Mum died, I was able to tell her the last chapter of the story.


There was a remarkable secrecy about many things which happened in the school over the years and which did not become common knowledge until long after the event. One such was the story of Daley and his cave. Daley was a pupil in the 1930s and had decided that the regime was too harsh, that the punishment meted out was inhuman and that, all in all, it was too much for him to bear. He ran away and lived in a cave in the jungle for some several weeks awaiting a couple of other lads who had promised to join him when they could do so, and then the three of them were to run away and disappear from Abu completely.

Once Daley had run away, all the staff were on alert, in case any of the other boys decided “to go over the wall” too. The two other lads who were to join up with Daley had eventually decided that Daley must have been long gone because he had not given any signal that he was in the cave known only to himself and, in any case, would never have been able to survive and wait for them. Remember, that even while I was in school a decade later, there were still hordes of wild and dangerous animals roaming the jungle and it would have been a foolhardy character who tried to survive by himself.

Daley survived on wild berries, fruit and nuts and was reputed to have caught the occasional wild rabbit and devoured it. Finally, he decided to go it alone, but came back to the school very late one night and told the Brothers that he was leaving and should be left alone by them otherwise he threatened to tell his story to the press and spoil the reputation of the school. In return, he said, he would not say anything about his cave, the “deal” he was making, and the harsh treatment the boys received.

Perhaps the story would never have become common knowledge if it hadn’t been for the fact that when one of Daley’s intended companions left school, he broke the story, but with one essential piece of information still missing. Where was the bloody cave? Its whereabouts became known when, about two years later, the Bhil who had befriended Daley told the story of a “White explorer who was living in the jungle secretly and intended to demonstrate that he could kill a tiger with his bare hands.” — a fine piece of lying, that!

But, unfortunately, the Bhil said, the sahib had left his sanctuary of the cave and after such a long time was feared killed by a tiger or a panther. It was the Bhil who showed the masters the cave which happened to be only a mile or so from the school. During the 40s we were all aware of the story and the location of the cave but recent telling of it to the boys of today show that it has now passed into the forgotten history of St. Mary’s.


If you didn’t like the pumpkin, swede or other soft vegetables served at mealtimes in Abu, it was hard to get out of eating them and you would be persuaded to swallow them by being threatened with the strap if you didn’t eat them. “Monkey” Bearer was a favourite of the lads because he could spirit the mush off your plate in his “jharan [1] ” and dispose of it. One day he didn’t show up for work and word soon spread that he had been at the local “toddy” shop the night before and got drunk and into a fight with a couple of other blokes. Nobody had seen it happen, but it appeared that someone had knifed “Monkey” Bearer and left him bleeding to death on the roadside. That was a cause for alarm anyway but then, and of more importance to us at the time, we had to figure out a way of disposing of our slushy vegetables.

I can’t remember who thought of the master-plan, but it really was a good one. The idea was to scoop up a dessert spoonful of the mush and dangle the spoon handle over the edge of the table. When nobody was looking, you gave the handle a sharp hit with the heel of the hand and the contents went flying up and stuck on the ceiling of the refectory.

For some reason or another none of the masters seemed to notice the lumps of swede or cabbage or whatever, which hung from the ceiling immediately after a meal. Some time later, having dried out sufficiently to lose some of their adhesive qualities, the lumps would fall off the ceiling and on to the floor. But the culprits were long gone by then and it only remained for the mess bearer to sweep and clean up.

If the food was inedible but unlikely to stick to the ceiling, we used to sling it under one of the three 40 foot rows of tables, to one end or the other, and hope for the best. The trouble with this method was that quite often you might hit someone’s legs with the offending morsel and cause him to then try and dispose of it too. This could easily lead to a whole lot of the boys getting involved in the “disposal business” and attract the attention of the masters who would then start looking under the tables and try to catch the culprit or culprits. It certainly was not a feasible option and the reason for a possible punch-up at the back of the bogs later.

Most of the time though, we were all so damned hungry that we picked our plates clean and looked around for other things to eat. I remember that it was quite common-place to go along to “Spud’s” office and beg a loaf of bread and some butter to eat in between meal-times. If we were lucky we could also scrounge some sugar and then the feast would be near perfect because we would pull out the soft centre of the loaf, spread the butter inside and then load it up with the sugar before re-inserting the centre-plug and making pigs of ourselves.

One day, I went along to “Spud” to ask for the loaf and he must have been feeling in a genial and mischievous mood because he gave me the loaf and the butter. Then he suggested that I should raid one of the “tuck” boxes which were kept under lock and key and in which the lads, mostly the princes, kept jars of jam and pickle. He said “they have no need of the stuff, since they never eat it and are probably too well fed anyway.” “Spud” gave me several of the keys to tuck boxes and my class-mates and I went on a really heavy raid. We had one heck of a feast that day.


We used to spend the greater part of our pocket-money on stuff to eat ; “puri tack” was a favourite when we went into the market. For four annas, this consisted of about eight Indian puris, 5 inch-circular, unleavened, fried pieces and a folded leaf-container with raw mango or lime pickle in it. That was always devoured with relish by the lads.

Then there were the Indian sweets, jelabis, burfi, halwa, gulab jamuns and a host of others. If you didn’t have a lot of money — I was supposed to get Rs.2 per month, but rarely did — you would wait for the kakri [2] -wallah to appear at the school wall and buy a kakri from him for about 1 anna. In its natural state, a kakri is a bitter vegetable, but by cutting off a small portion at one end and rubbing the cut end with it to withdraw the bitter sap, it was a really nice, refreshing and almost sweet fruit.


For those without any money and many of the others too, it was a case of eating “off the land.” The dates and other fruit which I have mentioned before were consumed with glee, but later on we discovered that there were very young dwarf palms into which we could chop a hole near the base of the fronds and enjoy regular scrapings of the soft pulp which grew therein. In addition, a sugary water used to accumulate in the hole and we would drink that for refreshment. Unfortunately, some of the little sods in the school would piss into the hole and ruin the treats, but not before some other unfortunate had tasted the muck.

Palm trees were the source of many consumables. Apart from dates or coconuts, as might be the case, you could also use them to provide “toddy”. When fresh, toddy was a thirst-quenching and not unpleasant drink, but when allowed to ferment it became an inexpensive, strong, alcoholic tipple which the natives enjoyed and often made them “musthi [3] ”, as had been the case with “Monkey Bearer’s” assailants. See above.

The method of collecting the toddy was by hammering a pipe into the crown of the tree, tying a small chatti onto the end of the pipe and letting the liquid slowly drip into the pot. After a couple of weeks, a specialist in the art would climb the tree and reclaim the filled pot.

Naturally enough, we lads espying the booty while it was still on the tree, would try to hole the pot with a pellet shot from an air-gun and try to collect the toddy directly into our mouths as it dropped from the holed chatti-pot — no fear of piss in the chatti from way up on high!

Quite often we would be chased by the pot owners who might throw a couple of stones at us, but there were usually so many collection points that it was more a case of implied threat rather than a real intention to catch or harm us.


If you were fortunate enough to have been sent any pocket money, the amount was recorded against your name in an exercise book and kept in the school tuck-shop where the master in charge, usually Brother Sinnott, would record any purchase transactions and debit your account accordingly.

While “Snotty”, as we called him, weighed out the sweets or otherwise dispensed the goodies, he would constantly eat sweets, chew biscuits and, more often than not do this from the purchased amount. He was a pleasant enough fellow, but I hated his so-casual thieving. I never bought loose sweets or biscuits and thus prevented him from stealing any of my goodies.

As I mentioned before, I didn’t get pocket money regularly, but when I did I would buy “Nestle’s Sweetened Condensed Milk”, puncture two holes in the can, and then in the rest-afternoons in high summer when we went to have an afternoon siesta, I would “suck on a tin” and consume the bloody lot. I sometimes felt sick to my stomach in consuming so much sweet thick milk, but it never became a no-no to me. After sucking as much as I could out of the tin, I would use a tin-cutter to completely cut off the lid and scrape the remains out of the can, usuallt with a finger, and eat that too.

Many years later on when based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when the office was closed for the afternoon break, I would regularly buy and consume a tin of the stuff. But whereas I would have been quite happy to consume half a can rather than the whole lot at one time, I was forced by circumstances to consume a can-full at a go. In Saudi, if you put down half a can of condensed milk and had a nap for an hour, ants, million of the little blighters, would be in the can when you woke up.

Ants and cockroaches, usually almost as big as horses, I sometimes felt, are the only household insects which live in Riyadh. It is so hot and dry that most living creatures leave the town off their “to visit” lists. But that is another story.


The dormitories in St Mary’s were long halls with about ten rows of five beds each and long runs of wires above the beds. These were the mosquito netting wires onto which we tied our mosquito nets at night. Once the nets were up it was virtually impossible to see more than down a row or across a column. Naturally, this gave us ample scope for more mischief, especially once the main lights were turned off and only the small night-lights remained on.

We knew that “Punchie”— Bro. Barry’s shortened nick-name — was a coward, even though he put on a brave face. One night while he was on dormitory duty, several of the lads slung their ties across the floor under their beds and wiggled them in the half light calling from different parts of the dorm.

“Snake, snake, snake” and,

“There’s a whole family of them here.”

“Watch out we’re being invaded by snakes.”

“Punchie” was sick with terror and ran to the end of the dorm near the dorm-master’s door so that he could make a quick getaway. Then, in a quavering voice, he shouted orders to the boys to switch on the main lights and raise all the mosquito nets and…

“Get rid of those snakes, for God’s sake”.

As pre-planned, nobody moved, but disguised voices from different parts of the dorm again shouted back,

“Catch them yourself, Punchie.”

“Get rid of them yourself, you coward” and others,

“Damn it, look, one’s in my bed.”

“Help! Help! This one is one of those deadly poisonous vipers and it’s going to strike me. Please God, forgive me my sins.”

“Oh heck, I’ve been bitten and I am dying.”

Then one of the guys shouted,

“Shut up, they are only rock snakes, go to sleep and they will snuggle up close to you.” We were all holding our noses and trying to bite the insides of our cheeks so that we would not laugh out loud, but the sound of the sniggers came through.

Brother Barry was terrified out of his mind and went into the dorm-master’s room and certainly, after checking about to make sure there were no snakes there, just locked himself in and we didn’t see him for the rest of the night. The next day he looked a bit sheepish but didn’t speak of the “snake attack”. Good, that’s one up to us. Maybe we can use it again. But I don’t remember that we did.


We had two brothers in the school, Carl and Trevor McCann. Their father was the curator of the Bombay Natural History Society and he had taught the lads how to catch snakes, identify birds eggs, smoke bees out of their hives and all manner of other skills which appealed to boys. Carl was older than I, but Trevor was in the same form as I was. We became firm friends and he taught all the fellows in the class some of the skills he had acquired from his father. We learned how to catch snakes and skin them, but none of us made pets of them whereas Trevor did. It was not uncommon for somebody wanting to borrow a geometry set from Trevor, for example, to obtain his desk-keys and open the desk only to find a snake glaring fiercely from within.

Every so often it would be necessary to feed the snake and so, usually on a Sunday afternoon when we had free time and before our library session, we would get down the globe-case, remove the globe and place the snake and a lizard (gecko) inside. The snake-meal was always a gladiatorial fascination. First the snake would strike the gecko and dismember its tail which, while still wriggling, would constitute the snake’s first course. Then the snake would stalk the tail-less gecko until, with a sudden lunge, it would catch the unfortunate creature from behind.

What followed was something the sight of which has never ceased to amaze me. The snake would swallow the gecko whole. Starting from its rear legs, it would stretch its mouth wider and wider and deliberately unhinge its lower jaw thus permitting an even wider stretch.

Gradually it would envelope the whole “feast” while the wide and occasionally blinking eyes of the gecko looked helplessly out from the mouth of the snake before its head would finally disappear into the snake.

Abu is full of snakes of one sort or another. Rock snakes were common, as were crinkets, but one occasionally got sight of a cobra or one of several species of viper or more dangerously, a krait. The krait is often called a “minute snake” because of its venom which kills a victim within minutes. You will rarely, if ever, meet anyone who has been bitten by a krait ; death is virtually a foregone conclusion. I did actually meet one lady who reckoned she had been bitten by a krait when she was in Africa and lived to tell the tale, but I have never really been convinced that it was a “pukka” krait, — maybe just some snake which people had said was a krait. The krait is only about 18 inches long when full grown and is indigenous to India though, I’m not an authority and, I suppose, there could be species of the reptile in

<< Previous Page

[1] A serviette or tea-towel which the table bearers carried during mealtimes.

[2] A cucumber the size of a large vegetable marrow.

[3] Wild.


Sitemap Generator