It was August 1984 and I had just arrived in New Delhi on account of my father’s transfer from Bombay (Mumbai). The academic year had commenced, and I found myself in a new school, in a new environment that was very different to say the least. It was a school that was picked for me since my maternal uncles and others from that part of the family had studied there. “Bengali boys in our times went to Union Academy,” I remember my uncle, Jagannath Banerjee, telling me. I could sense the pride and the aura of history – his elder brother, Brindaban Banerjee and he had attended the school a generation ago. My older cousin was at the school in the senior years and a part of the Delhi under-19 cricket team.
I didn’t meet any Bengali boys the first day. Or the second day, or the first week for that matter. I did meet many teachers who were Bengali, including the Grade 8 English teacher, Manju Majumder. By the end of the first month – after the culture shock – I had concluded that students were of all hues and shapes and backgrounds and that teachers were mostly Bengali. I realised later that there were Bengali boys but they spoke in Punjabi-accented Hindi, which I quickly mimicked in a bid survive. I think it was a setback to my maternal family since they had been hoping to counter my missionary school English education with some exposure to wholesome Bengali traditional values.
Within the first week itself, I met Rajesh Chowdhury, Brijesh Chowdhury, Subroto Das and Arindam Ghosh. I was an active sports person and athlete and the first three were part of the soccer team. I hadn’t played much soccer in Bombay, but I was game to change over from cricket. By the end of the month, I had learned that Union Academy was renowned for its hockey team- we had contributed many outstanding players to the Indian national team and would continue to do so. The school had a big playground and sports days were often held at the national-level stadium nearby. Deepak Dhobhal and Shashikant Jugran caught my attention soon enough; both were gregarious, ever-smiling and witty young boys and a delight to watch.
The first student I met was Ajay Anand. The second was Mahendra Tiwari. They were my benchmates- on the last bench of the class. There were 48 students in that division of the eighth grade – I remember because my roll number was 48. The culture shock for me began on Day 1 when the Sanskrit teacher distributed test papers and scolded me (in Hindi) for not giving the exam. I just gaped at her, protesting in English. Thankfully, Anand explained to her: “Madam, aaj hi aya hai, naya student hai. (Ma’am he’s a new student, joined today)”.
In due course I met Ashish Sharma, Debashish Sarkar, Vineet Sharma, Umesh Kumar, Anurodh Tripathi, and Sandeep Khurana- the boys I came to categorise as the thinkers, debaters and action-oriented intellectuals. (Debashish’s father, Kalyan Sarkar had also attended Union Academy, with my uncles and our family relations went back two generations before us). Vineet was instrumental in getting me to the soccer team trials. For two straight years, he was my short-stop or what was called the Sweeper position: the last line of defence before the goalkeeper (that was me). Shishpal, Tapash, Amrit Pal Singh and Pranab Barua made a big impression as well. Then there was Abhijit Nayak, who was good at Maths and all subjects and so the rest of us fought for all merit positions except first.
To be honest I saw so much diversity in character and culture, that the three years I spent at Union Academy came to represent a massive database for much of my future study of people and human nature-types. It was similar to the education and upbringing I had been used to in Bombay but with a clearer insight into how the historical evolution of Delhi had shaped the social fabric of daily interaction between people who came from all parts of India. I had classmates whose families hailed from Garhwal, Assam, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, and of course Delhi among other regions. Meanwhile, I kept hearing and experiencing Bengali culture in the public space which was a novelty for me. And it wasn’t just because of the teachers (the school had a history of celebrating Saraswati Puja, which was a matter of ownership and pride for the students and teachers and non-teaching staff alike). The students had also adopted the culture to go pandal hopping during Durga Puja. The impact of the Saraswati Puja is such that even this year, my classmates were discussing meeting up at school on Saraswati Puja.
The teachers were one passionate lot. Never afraid to engage in debates and arguments with students if there was merit, happy to lay down the law and discipline, occasionally letting ,mischief slide as well. And they were icons in their own right. Tripti Dutta, NG Roy, Talukdar Sir, Chakravarthy Sir, Kalyani Bhattacharya, Deb Babu Sir, Nayak Sir, Koley Sir, Sunita Nair, Arjun Sharma, Hawa Singh, MB Bhattacharya (then principal) to name a very few.
Later while I was pursuing my journalism studies in Pune, it occurred to me to do some research into the school. It was a project that I could not complete at the time. I have stayed in touch with my friends and classmates from Union Academy and many are part of my regular life. In 2020, some of them formed a communication group and since I wasn’t one to indulge in nostalgia, I revived my interest in finding out more about the school’s past and it has been a fascinating journey. Turns out that the experiences I had as a student were actually a stated goal for the school, and the liberal yet disciplined, national yet regional, traditional yet international outlook of the educational approach was not surprising given the school’s history.
Union Academy in its present avatar had emerged in the mid-1930s as a result of new educational ideals and the new needs of an evolving society engaged in the making of a new capital city: New Delhi. At that time, India was British India governed by the British crown and formal education as a government policy was itself less than a century old. The development of the education policy is interesting since it evolved with the needs of government and the increasing employment of Indians in that government machinery. As we had learned in school history at the Union Academy, the British Crown took over direct governance of India after Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of 1858. The capital of India was Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the time. In 1864, the government adopted a two-capital approach (an approach that lasted till 1947, when India became an independent nation). Thus, between 1864 and 1911, the Indian government operated from Shimla in the summer and Calcutta in the winters. Broadly, six months in each capital. This meant that the entire government machinery including employees and their families moved between Calcutta and Shimla every six months. Imagine going to school in the plains for two seasons and then going to school at an altitude of 7400 feet (or thereabouts) for the remainder of the year. Well, apparently it wasn’t as exciting it sounds, moving lock, stock and umbrella every six months.
Most government employees came from the three presidencies (Calcutta, Bombay and Madras) during that period. As a result new schools were established around the communities and most were funded and run by the communities, who taught their vernacular language and traditional values apart from modern subjects. And so, there were several Bengali Boys High Schools and Bengali Girls High Schools established at various places wherever there was sufficient government employees of Bengali nomenclature. In many places where Bengalis settled, Kalibari temples were also established (in devotion to Goddess Kali). The Kalibari apart from being a religious icon of the community was also an integral part of the social and cultural fabric.
In 1887, the Bengali community in Shimla established a Bengali Boys High School. The 1904 Gazetteer of Shimla district lists The Bengali Boys High School as a grant-in-aid school, located on Jakhoo Hill. The Gazetteer also lists a Bengali Girls High School. In 1910, the Government of India appointed Sir Spencer Harcourt Butler as the first Member for Education with a seat on the Viceory’s Executive Council. (The council over saw the running of the country’s administration). Butler is credited with doing a lot for local education and there are several institutions names after him. In 1911, the winter capital was shifted from Calcutta to New Delhi and that meant that government employees and their families now moved between New Delhi and Shimla every six months. Like other schools in Shimla, the Bengali Boys High School also opened a branch in New Delhi to support the education. Some time in that decade the school was taken over by the government. In 1917, the school was renamed Harcourt Butler High School, with a Shimla school and a New Delhi branch.
Meanwhile, in the 1920s, new educational ideas emerged led by progressive thinkers, policy makers and intellectuals. The ideas started gaining grounds among educators and government employees who desired a different approach to their children’s education. Education matters were addressed by government as part of policy decisions and also by way of deliberations within the Viceroy’s Executive Council. Renowned lawyer, reformist and Advocate-General of Bengal, Sir Nripendra Nath Sircar was appointed the law member of the council in 1934. The Union Academy school’s documented history states that the decision to found Union Academy as a separate school was taken at a public meeting at Kalibari Shimla, under the chairmanship of N N Sircar in September 1934. But I wanted to know more. As part of my research, I eventually ended up reading this book titled A History of Educational Institutions in Delhi 1911-1961 by Ajay Kumar Sharma. And it was awesome to find reference to the founding of Union Academy. A historical reference to your school is like a treasure. Made me realise how fortunate we all were to be a part of something that emerged out of a search for a new national identity that was Indian, traditional and yet modern.
According to A History of Educational Institutions in Delhi, Union Academy, was bifurcated from Harcourt Butler School in 1934. Union Academy received enormous support from all communities in New Delhi – the school reportedly had around 300 enrolments when it opened with 80% students being Bengali and 20% non-Bengali. Most of the students were children of employees of the Government of India’s Secretariat department. According to a printed document on the history of the Academy, the school was temporarily named The Simla Bengalee Boys School but was subsequently christened as The Union Academy, to reflect the idea that the new school would be free of all denominational complexion (which was the prevailing trend – schools for Anglo-Indians, Bengalis, Tamilians, Muslims, Punjabis, Jats, Jains and so on). The school was originally housed in Simla in hired accommodations and corrugated sheet hutments, and later in 1937 the school shifted to a four-storeyed building constructed by the Simla Kalibari authorities. According to A History of Educational Institutions in Delhi, in 1936, Union Academy, along with five other schools, applied for concessional land grants in New Delhi. Eventually, in 1938, the Union Academy obtained recognition and was granted a site near Baird Square Road. The school moved into the new building in 1939, and has since been at the same site, with its official address reading Raja Bazaar. Thus, the lineage of Union Academy goes back to the 1887 Bengali Boys High School in Shimla.
Part of my family from my father’s side has been in Shimla since 1970, working with the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. That afforded me summer holidays and many winters in Simla throughout my life, including the years when I was studying at Union Academy. Many of my friends have been to visit my aunt’s house in Simla just as I have spent time in their family homes – pretty much an extension of the kind of culture we grew up and studied in. Simla Kalibari has had a strong spiritual influence in my life and is part of the cultural makeup of the life of my cousin’s from Simla. Although I found the connections much later in life, I wonder if it was coincidence that I went to Union Academy and met all the people I did, all the friends I made.
Anand is in Moscow as I write this, he is in contract management in the oil and gas industry. Sandeep is a doctor in Pennsylvania, USA. Umesh travels between India and Nepal on business. Rajesh works with the European Union based out of Delhi. Vineet continues to follow his passions through consulting in Delhi. Anurodh is senior management in digital technology. Shashi is quite the management person and mentor in the travel industry, while Ashish is a journalist in Delhi, Ghosh is chairman of a high school in Jhansi apart from being the special correspondent for Bundelkhand for a national newspaper. Debashish is a teacher and instructional designing, creating courses for aviation professionals.
We are all still connected to each other, the school, and other classmates and the broader society and the world in our own ways. Our standing in life in this place in this time was influenced by decisions taken by our families and teachers and the interaction we had with everyone. We are still in touch with our teachers. Definitely with Manju madam, the young English teacher I met in 1984 on the first day of school. She’s now principal and one of the longest running ones at that. And she carries the torch as did her great predecessors.
I think we did alright by our school. I think we turned out how they wanted us to.
This article is dedicated to all the wonderful men and women who thought ahead, worked hard and believed that they were shaping a better future: the teachers and educators of government and government-aided high schools and colleges of India. May those who follow in your footsteps be worthy of the torch they carry for they stand in the shadow of enlightened ones.