Last week I took a journey, one that had been a long time coming. I was finally opening the curtains to a slice of my childhood that my kids had heard often about, but with youthful (dis) interest had dismissed it as adult nostalgia. The girls and I went to Lawrence School, Sanawar.
Nestled amid a canopy of pine and deodar trees on a hilltop in Himachal Pradesh’s Kasauli Hills where the winter sun chases its inhabitants is the oldest coeducational boarding in the country, some say even in the world.
It is also a place that transformed a gawky, anxious teenager too shy to even speak with relatives into a confident teenager who would one day become a prime time news anchor.
Three decades later, memories made unknowingly came gushing in like the mist from the surrounding hills, still as fresh as the day I entered those imposing gates for the first time, the same age then as my elder daughter is today.
If you haven’t been a citizen of this hilltop in the Himalayas with its slanting red roofs like dots in a forest, the 139 acres that slope up and steeply down can be daunting but nature has never preened as it has here and the hills around are as alive now as they were then.
Established by Sir Henry Lawrence and his wife Honoria in 1847 as a charitable institution, the school was initially set up for the orphans of British soldiers, “an asylum from the debilitating effects of the tropical climate and the demoralising influence of barrack-life.”
In 1920, it was rechristened ‘Lawrence Royal Military School,’ it’s focused military training sending troops directly to the battlefield from the school campus.
Rich military tradition
The rich military tradition continues with a remarkable number of alumni in the armed forces, the bravery of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, the youngest recipient of the Param Vir Chakra remains legendary.
Staying true to the school motto ‘Never Give In’ Khetarpal died in the 1971 Battle of Basantar during the Indo-Pak war, barely years after passing out from Sanawar and was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest gallantry award.
30 years later Khetarpal’s father went to Pakistan, his host an Armoured Corps officer reportedly admitted after a dinner that he had caused Arun Khetarpal’s death, adding that there were only two men left standing, one had to go.
Lawrence School, Sanawar has been a window to a rich history that evolved from the British era to modern independent India. The school has been presented the King’s Colours twice- the second time in 1922 by the King of Wales which are still trooped every October during the founders celebrations.
Its centenary celebrations in 1947 were presided by the then Governor-general Lord Mountbatten who read out a special message from King George VI. Shortly afterwards the control of the school was handed over to Indian authorities.
“Sanawar is not a school, it is an institution”, said former prime minister IK Gujral once. He couldn’t have been more accurate. It continues to count as one of the top boarding schools in the country with a heritage that is hard to emulate.
Ask any ‘Old Sanawarian’ (as those who pass out from school are called) including an abundance of notable alumni and they will tell you, it is a place that keeps its promises.
There are school campus and then there is Lawrence School, Sanawar. Perhaps nothing is as charming as the 149- year old school chapel with its ornate stained-glass windows.
Magic of the place
The war memorial, ‘Birdwood’ the old stone building housing classrooms now touched with up with modern amenities, a printing press and a quaint post office - the first my children saw - a reminder of the time when without the impersonal email we did write letters home to our parents. A reminder also of times that didn’t flirt with innocence.
Yet all this doesn’t compete with a fraternity that the school builds, of students- past and present loyal to an imaginary oath of bonding simply because of where they come from. And that bond opens all doors.
I often look at new age school buildings and wonder, how many students will come back with a desperation once they pass out? Or behind the books how many are learning that religion, caste or background are only a means to push us back. No one spoke that language, it was never important.
But that didn’t take away from the ingredients of a boarding school. Rumours, ghosts, birthday bumps, extras at lunch- everything was par for the course.
Rudyard Kipling famously wrote in Kim, “Send him to Sanawar and make a man of him,” it may be politically incorrect in today’s ‘woke’ times but the generation will appreciate how gender neutral the school has always been, with girls competing ferociously.
In 2013, 7 teenage boys from the school summited Mount Everest, not to be left behind 7 schools girls became the youngest trekkers to conquer Africa’s highest peak Mt Kilimanjaro.
And so the glory continues. Exactly a month from now the school celebrates its 175th (dodransbicentennial) anniversary.
The buildings are shining, the trees have spruced themselves up, the hotels in Kasauli town long booked out and the mist … it will come on cue as it always does, reminding us of the magic of a place that is always a step away from a homecoming.
PS: My children admitted the place was charming.