A short history, an English headmaster, a mix of many contradictions, claims to pedigree, pressures of paying high fees and the consequent pushing off the more genteel classes by the new commercial and business tycoon families make this once proud imitator of the British model into India’s own new model.
The crack of a cricket bat upon ball, a tree line furled on a sunny afternoon, the bell calling languid boys to tea etc. are some of the golden memories of the British public schoolboy. But the hills in the distance are the Himalayas and the boys are all Indian. This is the Doon School, India’s most elite boarding establishment.
The rich and powerful have been sending their sons to Doon since it was founded in 1935 on the principle of producing Indian leaders who would transcend the country’s prevalent divisions of caste and religion. Independence was then still 12 years away, but Mr. Arthur Foot, imported from Eton to be first headmaster, declared that Doon’s boys “must be those who are going to lead the nation in all departments of life. They must be representatives of all communities and all professions”.
For leaders in the making, life is as austere today at Doon as it was 60 years ago. Five hundred boys are divided into seven houses, where they sleep in dormitories on hard beds. In the noisy dining hall, they take turns to serve food to each other, and complain bitterly about its quality.
Doon forbids boys to bring money and personal possessions to school, and issues the compulsory blue and grey uniforms that include short trousers for all but senior pupils aged 17 or 18.
Boys are allowed pocket money of just Rs. 500 per term, to be spent in the school tuck shop or in fortnightly outings into the nondescript town of Dehra Dun. They are in trouble if they are caught with “home dough”-money smuggled from their parents’ houses.
Like every other institution in India, however, Doon is facing powerful new pressures that result from the liberalization of the economy. Parents are no longer typically the executives of Calcutta based tea estates and the other traditional professions of imperial India. Many of them are budding captains of industry in wealthy family businesses in Delhi or Bombay. They want their sons to succeed, which means passing exams with high marks.
Some parents do not see why their sons should have to do without the comforts of home-where they have servants, satellite television, computers, music systems and mobile telephones-particularly since annual fees are more than Rs. 60,000-beyond the reach of all but the most privileged.
“We are supposed to be egalitarian, but up pops a Rolex watch, and there flashes a Reebok shoe. We want boys to be individuals but we don’t like people using their wealth and power to upset the balance,” says Mr. John Manson, the headmaster. Mr. Manson has to balance the new competitiveness of India’s pushy commercial society with the conservatism of the board of governors and of an Old Boys’ Society that includes some of the most influential men in India.
Alumni do, however, include many leaders of the new India. Among them are: Mr. R.C. Bhargava, who was till recently the head of Maruti, the largest carmaker; the Nirula brothers, who head a leading fast food chain; Mr. Aroon Purie, founder and editor of the magazine India Today; Mr. Prannoy Roy, a top news broadcaster; Mr. Swaminathan Aiyar, former editor of the Economic Times, the largest selling leading business newspaper; Mr. Parvinder Singh, head of Ranbaxy, a leading drug company; other top industrialists such as Mr. Lalit Thapar, Mr. Dhruv Sawhney and Mr. Rajan Nanda. “The whole country is going through socio-economic change,” says Mr. Mason, who came to Doon in 1996 after spells as head of schools in Calcutta and Dubai. “We see restlessness about achievement, without regard to effort-a very sharp sense of deserving and a tendency to believe that the end is what is important.”
Doon, however, lays emphasis on the means to the end. It asks boys to take responsibility for their lives, and this is best seen in the tradition of “mid-terms” unsupervised small group expeditions into the nearby mountains where life-and-death situations can arise. “Cheating on the midterm”, which means taking short cuts from an agreed route, is a punishable offence.
“My very first mid-term, I climbed a 10,000 ft hill,” says Mr. Suman Dubey, who heads Dow Jones in India and was formerly a newspaper and magazine editor and a close adviser to the late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, the one Doon old boy who became prime minister.
Such experiences and the austere lifestyle breed close life-long friendships among “Doscos”-the term for Doon School boys. “Though there were very rich kinds, there was a great emphasis on equality and community,” says Mr. Dubey. Not all old boys have fond memories, however, “It was a lot like Lord of the Flies,” says one, likening what he describes as ritual abuse and sexual exploitation of younger pupils by their seniors to William Golding’s novel of boys’ inhumanity to boys.
Another “Dosco” writes on the School’s Internet home page, maintained by former pupils, that “the fund of stories and incidents, all memorable, overshadows the unhappy moments that one had away from family, at the mercy of some heartless ‘ruffians’, fagging for some ruddy, now forgotten senior”.
Mr. Mason says that fagging-the performance of menial tasks by junior boys for seniors-and corporal punishment are banned. “Prefects are severely enjoined not to hit boys.” But he admits that the school is concerned about individual cases of bullying and that they are difficult to handle because of “a kind of Masonic, cabalistic silence in which everyone is supposed to participate”. Nevertheless, he says: “If somebody gets beaten, it’s all over the school by the next morning and the headmaster announces it.” Mr. Mason’s primary objective is to improve teaching standards, shifting the emphasis away from sports and towards academic prowess. Responding to criticisms the author whose books include A Suitable Boy, Mr. Manson says “I’m suggesting that we should play a lot less than we do at present. Academic performance should be given more honor and prestige.”
Mr. Manson has set up a teacher centre within the school to find ways to raise quality. The aim is not specifically to improve exam results, Mr. Manson says, but to use time spent in the classroom more effectively. “I believe that in India too much time is wasted in lecturing to classes.”
For incoming pupils at the Doon School, there is even some lightening of the Spartan lifestyle. They arrived last term to find that their beds had new coir mattresses. Mr. Mason believes that the “air of austerity everywhere needs to be reviewed”. Meanwhile, the remainder of the school continues to sleep on beds that the headmaster says “are the same as you find in the villages of the humblest people in the country”.