What is the meaning of Alma Mater?
‘The school or college that one attended,’ says the dictionary.
Is that all? Is it just a simple, cold, and uncaring relationship with the school?
No, I realised, when I read this news, and a flood of memories burst out.
I joined NDA in 1978, and met a lot of course-mates from fancy schools, telling the names of their schools, Saint This and Saint That, with a lot of pride and fake English accents!
When they asked me about my school, with equal pride and an exceedingly fancy imitating accent, I said, “Oh, Saint Sainik’s Suttttarrrrrrraaaaaaaah!”
I made sure I rolled the ‘R’ and made humble Satara sound like the French Riviera or Australian Canberra.
Our English, while in school, was rather limited. Teachers always asked us to speak in English to improve our command over the language, but among ourselves, if someone tried to use too much English, we laughed at him, calling him, ‘Ingraj’ (इंग्रज) the Marathi word for English people.
Once, during the Assembly, in view of the upcoming exams, the Principal said, “Pull up your socks.”
Most of us looked down at our feet to check if the socks were sagging!
“Don’t look at your socks, you fools. It is an idiom which means to study harder.”
Did we know the meaning of the word ‘idiom’? Of course not.
I asked a friend, and he said, “It must be related to idiot.”
In December 1971, when the Bangladesh Liberation War was in its last stages, our teacher told us that the Pakistan army in the east was likely to surrender.
Such was my English then that I heard it as ‘Sir Ender’, reasoning that since the Indian forces could ‘end’ them, the Pakis were respectfully calling them ‘sir’!
In the past, understanding unfamiliar words required remembering them, going to the library, imagining the spelling, and using a dictionary.
It all seemed so laborious that we didn’t bother to.
Apart from the two Generals in the news, my school has produced many illustrious names. Unfortunately, the boards in the school’s main lobby only record the names of those who joined defence academies, because that is the primary aim of the school.
Some of them have made the supreme sacrifice in wars, and some tackling terror, while some passed away peacefully, if a bit early.
Apart from the great numbers in the armed forces, I know a lot of ex-SSS boys who went on to become renowned academicians, businessmen, professionals, engineers, and doctors.
During a class get-together, some 30 years after passing out, each of us spoke about ourselves, detailing what we had been up to since leaving school. We spoke mostly in Marathi.
One Doctor, talking about his life’s journey, stuck stubbornly to speaking in English.
“Hey, do you always talk in English?” someone yelled.
He nodded and continued his monologue.
“Arrey, he speaks to his patients also in English,” another said, “and he’s a veterinary surgeon!”
Except for a few, most of us came from small places and Marathi schools, so we were not fluent in English. I guess we’re still learning.
Without what I learnt in school, I could not have joined NDA, and could never have become a pilot in the Indian Air Force.
Our school not only taught us English, it taught us life, and made us worthy citizens.
In classes, we learnt academics, but it was in the playing fields that we bruised ourselves, learnt teamwork, and made great friends.
We learnt to use a spoon and fork in the dining hall, and we learnt public speaking in the auditorium.
We learnt to play cricket with hockey sticks and we learnt to swim in the pool.
In short, each of us became a complete, well-rounded man.
Whatever I am today, is only because of the school.
So, what is the definition of Alma Mater?
It’s a Latin phrase, which, literally translated, means a ‘generous mother’.
So true! Isn’t it?
My school has been no less than a mother to me.
How about you?
SSS 1977, Tilak House