When Fong Hsuing received a phone call from the Queen of Bhutan at her Toronto office a few years ago, the accountant did not have the faintest clue it was royalty calling.
To her, the voice on the other end belonged to Ashi Tshering Pem, her classmate from St Helen’s, her school in Kurseong, Darjeeling. They had not talked since their school leaving exams in 1975…till that phone call out of the blue.
“Actually, I was more surprised that she tracked my number in Canada after all these years,” says Fong. “Then she told me, ‘Do you remember Jigme Wangchuk? I am married to him.”
It was more than what Fong had bargained for. Was Tshering Pem talking of THE Jigme Wangchuk? That strikingly handsome young man who was coronated King of Bhutan in 1974, and who the girls of St Helen’s, as others elsewhere, had a mighty crush on?
Yes, the same, she was told.
“She’s got to be kidding,” Fong thought to herself. How can the girl she had meals with at the school refectory suddenly become a Queen?
St Helen’s held its 125th-year celebrations this October, and past students like Fong descended from all over to rejoice its past and mourn over an end – the school’s residential wing, where they spent much of their childhood, will wind up next March.
Darjeeling, more famous globally for its aromatic teas, has for years been known for its day-residential schools dating back to the British days.
But the sheen is wearing off at places; like St Helen’s, the late Vivien Leigh’s alma mater Loreto Convent shut down its boarding section a few years ago following political unrest in the hills.
Conceived on the lines of English public schools, these have attracted boys and girls from all over, including the regional nobility in the past.
Former Bhutan King Jigme Wangchuk went to St Joseph’s in Darjeeling town, just like the late King Birendra of Nepal.
And King Birendra’s late wife Queen Aishwarya went to St Helen’s, like the four Bhutanese queens of King Jigme Wangchuk – all siblings, Fong’s friend Tshering Pem being one.
Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo, the elder sister of Tshering Pem, beautifully describes everyday life at St Helen’s in her book Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan.
By the end of 1950s, “increasingly convinced of the need for educated manpower”, the Bhutan government began urging people to send their children to study at boarding schools in India, offering incentives such as scholarships.
“Paradoxically”, writes the Queen, the Bhutanese elite “used their influence’ to ensure their children “were spared of the rigours …of an alarming journey into the unknown, and it was the farmers and villagers who were the first beneficiary of this “educational revolution”.
The two sisters were among the early batches of Bhutanese children who came to India, but Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo says her father himself took the initiative; he was “a man who always saw far ahead of his times”.
The Queen describes her life at St Helen’s as a “huge change from Nobgang”, the village in Bhutan where the four sisters were born.
It was also a vast jump from Aunt Agatha’s, their spartan lodgings in Kalimpong town, which were the girls’ first accommodations after moving out of Bhutan. “Compared to Aunt Agatha’s,” she says, “the living conditions were almost luxurious.”
Her entry into St Helen’s was “quite literally, a dramatic one” as she “tried to look nonchalant and confident”.
“I skidded on the wet cement floor and landed with a thud on my backside,” which, she writes, was an “inauspicious omen” in the Bhutanese way of thinking.
“As it happened, I did not complete my high school education at St Helen’s.”
Anyone who has been to boarding school will identify with her account of life at St Helen’s – the homesickness, the food, the film nights…
“How we yearned for our parents, grandparents and our home in Nobgang. Fortunately, the highly regulated life at St Helen’s left us little time to brood,” she says of her initial days.
Then there was the food; “the unappetizing beef stew in its black, murky broth was hard to stomach”, which she surreptitiously threw away as they were not allowed to waste food. “To this day I cannot bring myself to have beef stew.”
But the sisters loved bread and butter with the pickles they bought at Kurseong town with their pocket money; Tshering Pem once had 16 slices.
She refers to meeting the boys from Goethals – my school – as “another source of great excitement in the cloistered world of St Helen’s”.
“During the annual school fete and ‘socials’, the ‘goats’ from Goethals would come to meet the ‘hens’ of St Helen’s, and there would be much excited speculation about which ‘goat’ fancied which ‘hen’.
“Though we could dance with the boys during the socials, the nuns were strict and vigilant chaperones.”
I met up with Fong at a Chinese restaurant in Kolkata that once was a tannery in Tangra, the city’s Chinatown, on the eve of her departure for the hills for the big get-together.
There was an air of festivity in the air. Fong’s sister June Ku, also an alumnus and a Toronto resident, is present with two of her school friends – Sreemanti Sen and Sudeshna Roychoudhury from Kolkata; the three are catching up after years.
Doel Biswas, an alumnus and a force behind the three-day celebrations, tells me ex-students have landed not only from Canada but also the US, Australia, the Philippines and even Iran – apart from of course Nepal.
“Two of the ex-Queens from Bhutan were very keen to be present but they go on a traditional tour of the country in October,” Doel says.
It would have been nice if they could have made it. Who knows, maybe we could have heard more royal stories – like the midnight feasts that Doel told me about.
Featured image by Uday Bhattacharya