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Part 5

by Betty Dahl

Kodaikanal School, continued


All meals were served in the dining hall, and the school bell was used to notify us that a meal was about to be served. High school students were assigned to read or say a prayer before each meal. Understandably prayers these tended to be brief. Another way of having the meal's prayer was a call to sing a prayer collectively. Among our favorites were:

All good things around us are given from God above
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord, for all His love.


God is great; God is good;
Let us thank Him for our food.
By His hand we all are fed;
Give us, Lord, our daily bread. Amen.
Optional: (Pass the ammunition)

When we were young, we were in awe of those boys who would take their turn and say "Good Food. Thank God. Let's eat." Or "Rub-a-dub-dub; thanks for the grub."

Breakfast usually consisted of a hot cereal ("mush") similar to oatmeal served with milk and a banana. Occasionally we would find worms in the oatmeal but soon became accustomed to them, although we still would try to scoop them out. More disconcerting were the fuzzy poochies and other small creatures that fell into our food following the routine spraying for insects. Sunday breakfasts were special because either a cold cereal was served (mostly cornflakes) or cinnamon toast topped with whipped cream--my favorite. This meal ended with a spoonful of a dreaded concoction containing cod liver oil malt and vitamins. Much of the milk sold to the school was diluted with water so it was low in calcium. Students went through a line on their way out of the dining room to make sure they took their "medicine." Even so, a number of children got rickets, a curvature of the bones, due to lack of calcium in this critical growth stage. Joanne and I were among the victims of this condition.

Lunch was usually a tasty curry with rice or rhoti and a scoop of kulfi, which was similar to ice cream, for dessert. Dinner was usually a stew and cooked fruit. We made up names for many of these foods of unknown origin, like "grasse a la goop," "specialty of the Dish (dispensary)," and "gooey stewey fooey." We used to complain that leftover curry was used as stew and leftover stew was made into curry and that all the cooks had to do was make up one batch of food for the week and season it for curry and water it down for stew. In any case, we sure ate a lot of vegetarian curry and vegetarian stew. Tree tomatoes were often served as a dessert but were very bitter.

Flagpole in front of the dining hall

Most of the children detested the spinach. We found ways of getting the spinach out of the dining room without consuming it. I tucked it inside my cap, socks, notebook or anything to get out of eating it. Gwen would command Joanne to walk closely behind her as she squished her way out of the dining hall, shoes filled with spinach. There was a threatened penalty if we ever got caught, but we never did.

A snack was served after school--usually IJ (short for Indian Junk, a snack with curried flavor), which was a favorite of most students (see Appendix for recipe). We often were hungry after study hall, but the school did not provide any bedtime food. We had to obtain it on our own with our limited allowance. For the older students, this necessitated trips to the village vendors for samosas, jelebis, halva, bananas, pineapple and other snacks. Younger children could buy candies from a supply that Erkie made available on Saturday mornings.

First Grade

My first grade teacher, a kind, single elderly lady, was known to children of several generations as Auntie Powell, never just "Auntie" and never " Miss" or "Mrs. Powell." Auntie Powell soon realized I could read beyond the first grade level and to solve this dilemma, she sent me to check out books in the school library. She reported at Senior Honors Convocation that the first book I checked out was a book on sex. It must have been more interesting than the Dick and Jane books we had down in the first grade classroom. Auntie Powell never scolded me on my choices of books.

I spent much of my leisure time working arithmetic problems. Auntie Powell would insist that I time myself so I would become more proficient. I was allowed to take my math workbook (called a lenis pad) outside on a grassy lawn in sight of Auntie. I worked hard for this privilege. When it rained, I sat on a pillow in my favorite window well in the classroom. From this location, I could watch birds in flight and calling to each other in the trees. I learned to identify a number of birdcalls. I have pleasant memories of this very relaxed first grade.

Auntie wore thick glasses, as she was very nearsighted and could not see well. Very funny events occurred in the classroom as students tried to persuade her that their assignments were completed. Especially confusing to her were the identical twins who attended the school. They played tricks on her, and no one had the heart to tell her. It is a wonder we learned anything, but most would say Auntie Powell was among the best of teachers. She knew each of us by name and would somehow make us feel unique and special. She remembered her many students, and at graduation would tell stories about each graduate who had taken classes from her. I do not recall the name of my second grade or third grade teachers so they must not have made much an impression on me.

Monsoon Rains

We especially liked the hard rains during monsoon season. The rain made such a noise as it hit the tin roof of the school that we could not hear the teacher. We knew the rain would keep up for days so we were given a week's assignment and sent to the dorms. My three roommates and I huddled in one bed under a canopy of blankets and did our homework together, checking each other's work. When assignments were completed, we played with paper dolls (homemade, yet valued highly) or made up games to play. We shared secrets, poked fun at the boys in class, and complained about dorm food or teachers and homework. Thus it was that we would pray for a heavy downpour. The downside was that the only heat we had was from our covers and a fire that burned in the main lounge. Sometimes we went to the lounge and curled up in the musty chairs, covered with blankets, and read our books. Occasionally Erkie read a story to us while we kept warm by the fireplace. It felt homey on a very dreary gray, wet day. Older girls were assigned to monitor and help younger ones complete their work. Occasionally the teacher checked our work and explained the concepts or answered questions.

Leisuretime Activities

After school hours were filled with hopscotch, swinging on the Giant Stride, playing jacks or tops, walking on stilts, and making or playing paper dolls. A few of us did needlework, such as embroidery or knitting. We went for walks, looked for 4-leaf clovers, looked for new wild flowers, watched the tennis matches, participated in sports and practiced for school plays. Never did we seem to run out of ideas. This way we did not get homesick as often. These activities stretched our imaginations and kept us physically fit. We didn't need teachers to provide activities for us--we were always busy and active.

Paul was in the dorm called Kennedy Hall and we saw very little of him. He and the other boys spent time playing cars and marbles, and would carve wood, if I remember correctly. The penalty for rule infraction for the younger boys was marching around the quad or running laps, whereas the girls polished shoes.

The school playground had a set of "rings" called the Giant Stride. This was a unique structure. It looked like a maypole and had chains with a metal ring at the end to grip. One could cross over the person in front and by doing so help increase the rate of speed for the last person to cross over. Indeed it made it possible for that last person to become almost horizontal in flight. The problem was holding on to the rings during the lengthy return to a slower speed where one could safely let go. It was risky at best, and sometimes we had quite a fall when our arms failed us.

Swinging on the Giant Stride

I recall getting up so high that I was nearly horizontal as I flew through the air. To my chagrin, the school bell rang, and I knew there was no way to get off the rings until they slowed down. All the other children deserted me and went to class and there I was, still flying high with no option but to hang on for dear life hoping the rings would slow quickly (though there was no particular reason I could think of that would make the rings slow faster just because the bell rang). When I finally got to class, I explained the predicament to my teacher, but she was less than impressed. I felt she should have understood the "mortal danger" in which I had been placed. I could have been hurt if I had let go at that height.


Mama came up to visit in May or June; Dad came up for a shorter span of time. While folks were up at Kodai, we'd have a great time going hiking, having picnics, boating and punting on the lake. We loved having our parents with us. Each summer the adults would get involved in putting on a series of programs, including several plays. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were a favorite. Once Dad was asked to play the lead in one of these since he had such a good voice; it meant he would have to "kiss" the heroine, so he declined---much to Mom's relief.

Families would rent homes in the hill areas to escape the heat of the summer in the plains. The house our parents rented that first year I went to Kodai School was Tanglewood, which was located about three miles from school. Without any buses to transport children, we had to walk to school. On one occasion I noticed I had forgotten my workbooks and homework and turned around to walk most of the three miles back home to retrieve them. By the time I had traversed the distance back to school, I had walked about eight miles and was very tired. Auntie Powell, instead of scolding me for being late, told me to curl up in the window well and nap until I got my wind back. I fell asleep and woke up when I heard a bell ring. To my surprise, the bell was for the end of the school day. Neither Auntie nor Mama had the heart to scold me after such a long walk.

When Dad came up to Tanglewood, he set up a swing on a sloping hillside that allowed one to swing high to overlook the woods. It was awesome, but a bit scary. Mama did not like it one bit. Dad liked to play tennis, take hikes or go boating with us, or picnic somewhere. He stayed a very short time so we didn't have as much time with him.

Gwen and Joanne on the Tanglewood swing

Paul and I played cars after school and developed elaborate roadways in the gardens on the Tanglewood premise. The rose garden was a favored spot. In return for my playing cars, Paul would reluctantly play the role of shopkeeper selling goods for the dolls. Mama provided scraps from sewing projects, and we wound these scraps of cloth on cardboard pieces to simulate a fabric store. Paul and I also spent hours playing Monopoly and other board games. Paul would persuade me to have all the money in Monopoly and he would have all the land. Of course, he ended up with all the money as well as the land. He commented often about his disbelief that anyone would be that naive. Phyllis taught me how to play Mahjong. She had made a wooden set of this game, which we loved playing.

Phyl's Mahjong set

Paul was very skinny, I thought, and rather clumsy. He would not watch where he was going because he would be in deep thought, so he would trip and fall. He had a lot of bruises that way. His reflective nature kept him from being as talkative as I was, and I didn't understand why he had to think so much. I would talk to him. and he often did not respond and I would shake my head--such a busy mind.


Chicken pox. Mumps. Measles. Whooping cough. For adults, the words were a pain, but the boarders were enthused because it meant quarantine. In those days quarantining was the method used to try to stop the spread of contagious diseases. Some years we spent almost a month in quarantine. All those being quarantined were put together in a room or two, or if there were too many, the well students were placed separately. These quarantines never seemed to be very effective, but the children enjoyed the quarantine status as a respite from school. So eager to get out of school were some students that they would try to get the disease by kissing an infected person, sharing sleeping quarters or even sharing tooth brushes. This kind of plan backfired for Joanne after she tried to catch the mumps from her roommates; she came down with the disease the day folks were coming up for May vacation, and she had to stay in the Dish for the next ten days. The hardest part about quarantine for me was having to stay indoors. I was definitely an outdoor girl.


The school set up hikes for many of the weekends. Younger children or inexperienced hikers started with a three-mile hike, while older children worked their way up to hikes of 80 miles (40-miles one way). These longer hikes necessitated that students begin hiking right after school on Friday afternoon and hike through the night. We figured we could cover approximately four miles an hour on flat ground and three or less on hilly terrain.

Some of our favorite hikes included:

Dolphin's Nose: This was a flat projecting rock shaped like a nose located about 8 km from Kodai. This spot had a breathtaking view of a chasm below it. We would sit close to the edge and look out at the plains while worried parents or teachers watched and warned us we would fall and be killed. A few brave (or questionably stupid) hikers would slowly move to the very edge, even though it was often shrouded in fog.

Fairy Falls: A smaller falls that had a sheer lacy curtain of water was located about 5 km from the lake. The ease of the hike made it one of the hikes the younger or beginning hiker could take. Because it was so close to school, dad and I often walked it when he came up. It was a favorite for many of us because of the moss that hid rolly poochies and the many wild flowers to identify and catalog. Shenbaganut Museum was located close by; it was opened by the Sacred Heart College, a seminary founded in 1895. This museum was well known for its butterfly and stuffed bird collections. Archeological collections included burial urns of the Paliyans, who first inhabited the Kodai area. Our favorite was the orchidarium with over 300 species of orchids. I never tired of the view at the falls, our fun skinny dipping in the pool at the base of the falls, seeing the orchids and finding rolly poochies.

Dolphin's Nose and Fairy Falls

Pillar Rocks: This hike was by far the favorite of all ages. In any case, when people return to Kodai, they usually plan to take this hike. To get to this spot we hiked through eucylyptus woods, which was a pleasure. Three vertical stone pillars measuring about 112 meters tall stood shoulder to shoulder. The ground dropped precipitiously below, making for a perfectly awesome sight. In the afternoons the mist rolled in and made the rock formation take on an eerie look. Thus one could hike all the way out and sometimes not get a glimpse of the rocks, as they remained shrouded in fog. When the sun came out, the rock formation took on various hues. We would climb close to the edge and give our parents or hiking guides a lot of grief. We heard that people had fallen off the ledge and gone to a certain death, but I personally never knew if this were true or just a way of getting us scared enough to back off.

Mt. Perumal: An old extinct volcano, Mt. Perumal was about 11 kilometers from Kodai and could easily be seen from the school. The top of this old volcano was rocky and steep. Most of us found it harder to come down the mountain because it was difficult to keep from slipping on the large rocks when returning. If you didn't hike this once, you were called a mule; if you hiked it twice, you were considered a fool.

Berijam Lake: This lake was popular because if afforded a great view of the plains and also because it was one of two locations where the cloud formations produced brockenspecters rather reliably. Brockenspecters are a rare phenomenon where you can see your shadow reflected in clouds below you if the atmosphere is right. Berijam Lake supplied drinking water to Periyakulam, a town nearby.

Kukal Cave: This destination was 40 km from the school and was a favorite hike of the high school crowd, who liked overnight stays. Descendants of the Paliyans still lived in this region. Dad took us there to introduce us to the tribe and its customs. I recall the people being very short and to our surprise, a woman had several husbands. We girls thought that was about the right distribution of labor.

Coaker's Walk: We considered this a favorite Sunday afternoon walk. This walk was also a favorite of couples who were dating. It was only 1 km from the lake and was named after St. Coaker of the Royal Engineers. It had a fantastic view of the plains, as well as the hills and lower cloud formations. Like Berijam Lake, the conditions at Coaker's Walk occasionally spawned a brockenspecter. Mist often covered the valley and made for a mysterious feeling, much like being in Shangri-La.

Coolie Ghat: When the early missionaries learned about Kodai, a couple of them went up to see what was there. They hiked up the front face of the hills. When they decided to establish a summer retreat from the heat of the plains, they had the pathway built to bring up people and supplies. Coolies carried all the supplies; four or five coolies would also carry the missionaries up the mountain on chairs suspended on long poles. Thus this path became known as the Coolie Ghat.

The Coolie Ghat was the first choice of Kodai students wanting to hike down to the plains and back because it was the shortest and easiest path. The path started down in the valley below Kodai, at the village. It wound over a ridge and then dropped down a steep sloped hill to the plains. The path zig-zagged back and forth. Those climbing up generally took the zig-zag path because it was well graded and had a steady slope. Going down, those who were more adventuresome would try to save time by cutting down directly from one zig to the zag below. That turned out to be harder in the long run, though, since they would have to break themselves from running so they wouldn't fall. They'd have to stop often to rest and their legs would shake from the strain, because their front leg muscles were underdeveloped.

To hike the Coolie Ghat, students started out at dawn; it took several hours to get down to the plains. At the bottom of the mountain there was a stream where hikers generally stopped for late breakfast. Then most hikers would start back up the Ghat, walking up the steep slopes for four or more hours to get back to Kodai. Some students would hike down to the village of Peryakulum and catch a bus back to school, but that was considered "cheating." There were other paths down to the plains, but these were harder and took more time and effort, so the Coolie Ghat was the first real feather in the hat of a dedicated Kodai hiker.

Kodai Golf Club: This exclusive golf club was a colonial legacy from the British. Until India became independent, British officers and government agents socialized at this club. The club was located along the Green Valley View drive. Along the road are many cypress roots. A path led to the Green Valley Lookout Point, where one could see the Vaigai Dam some 1000 feet down. The mist frequently rose up from the valley, giving the place a sort of out-of-this-world feeling, similar to Coaker's Walk.

Bryant's Park: Located on the east side of Kodai Lake, this park was named for the forester who designed it. It was said that one of the eucalyptus trees dated back to 1846, and was 10 feet wide and rose 250 feet high. The gardens were well planned to give a harmony of color. The flowers included many perennial and annuals: azaleas, lilies, dahlias, stock, primulas, asters. There was also an orchid house.

Unless we were polishing shoes to get rid of demerits, Saturday morning found us girls playing games at Bendy, the athletic field, or hiking. The lower grades took short hikes of three to five miles, while high school students took hikes that included sleepovers and stretched for forty miles one way. These hikes, though not required, were very popular activities on weekends. The school packed lunches appropriate to the nature of the hike, and these were stuffed into the hikers' backpacks. On many of these walks, the hillside would be white with pear blossoms. Also one could see purple flowers of the jacaranda trees, and magnolia trees with large white flowers with a tinge of pink.

Good durable shoes were a necessity for this amount of hiking, but often hard to buy in India. Many students resorted to having them sent from the U.S. by relatives or friends. On many hikes, a student would lose a part of the shoe and try to complete the hike either barefoot or using an extra shoe someone had the wisdom to pack. I recall some wrapped their feet to walk when shoes gave out, using a torn-up old shirt or anything available for the wrap.

I had a hard time getting the need shoes for hiking since I had long feet compared to the size of women's feet in India. I wore a size eight shoe from early on. Shoes for me were simply unavailable in India so these had to be ordered from the U.S. Even then, it was difficult to get shoes that I thought were stylish. I recall that some years later when in London one of my shoes came apart and we had to buy a pair of red and white shoes simply because it was the only shoe we could find that fit me. I hated those shoes and thought they were ugly, but I had no alternative.

(To be continued)