Our parents made the decision to send my brother Colin and me to boarding school while we were preteens. We had just moved to a new neighborhood in Calcutta, and a change of schools was necessary. Our Mum and Dad both worked, with my Dad being stationed on site for months on end. At that time he was supervising the erection of the electric grid system in different locations in India
At that stage of our young lives, there were three of us kids our grandmother who we called Nana, would have to take care of. I was 11, Colin 9, and our sister Mercy, 5. It made sense for the two boys to be shipped off to boarding school.
Why? There were several expedient reasons.
Although the apartment was very comfortable, the landlord had not repaired the water system for years and had no intention of doing that for us. We had water delivered every day by the “Bisti wallah”. These were men who collected water in large leather water bags with straps and manually carried them to homes that didn’t have running water.
This situation would place undue burdens on the single bathroom we had. When we had baths, water was heated up and placed in a bucket for us to use.
Our parents wanted to limit the stress on our Nana. Mercy would not be a problem as the ayah (housemaid), would take her to Kindergarten school each day which was close by.
Boarding School Selection Process
Instead of selecting a boarding school nearby, our parents chose Goethals Memorial School in Kurseong. About 400 miles away. It was an all-boys school run by the Irish Christian Brothers. Classes ranged from Kindergarten to High School level. It was founded in 1907 in memory of Paul Goethals, a Jesuit Archbishop of Calcutta.
We had an unusual school year. School started in early March and ended at the end of November. Just like our school year was long, we had an extended holiday for three months when the weather got really cold up the mountain.
I will be sharing stories about how this all worked out in the next blog post.
Sadly I wasn’t able to take pictures of the journey. In order to avoid breaking copyright laws, I shall be using links to sources with pictures to illustrate what I will be discussing. When I can find pictures online free of copyright I will use them.
One of these sources will be Wikipedia. The other will be Google. I highly recommend checking these out to get the full picture.
A Harry Potter Travel Experience
Our journey spanned two days. It involved three trains and one ferry crossing across the Ganges river. Looking back after seeing the Harry Potter movies, I can see several similarities in the two journeys from the railway station from home to school.
Consider one fact. We made this journey several decades before the first Harry Potter book was published.
The railway station we departed from was called Howrah Station. It is in service today serving 3 million passengers daily. It was built in the mid-1800s by the British when India was part of the British Empire. The picture below shows the station close to the banks of the Hoogly river.
The construction style was similar to railway stations in London from the 19th Century using red brick. Howrah Station has evolved through several expansions and more are planned for the future. They just opened up a luxury Executive Lounge for passengers who have extended waiting times to board their train. The current fee is about 65 cents per hour.
This railway junction was located across the Hoogly River, a tributary of the Ganges. We had to go over the iconic Howrah Bridge shown below, to get to the station.
Our school chartered several compartments for the students. Hence, when our mother brought my brother and me to board the train, the hustle and bustle of students and parents were reminiscent of Harry Potter boarding his train. Minus the owl in a cage of course!
Ah ha, there were birds around. Other passengers brought birds in cages, but not owls.
Fortunately, we had friends who were also going to Goethals with us. When our mother gave the news to their parents that they were sending Colin and me to Goethals, guess what happened? They also thought it was a good idea to send their kids too.
Errol and his brother Ernie lived in an apartment across ours on Khetra Das Lane. This was where we lived before moving to our new apartment on Sandal Street. Louie came from the Barracks. And Jeff lived a little further.
By the time the train was on its journey, all the boys in the compartment became best friends. Some of these were returning students and were eager to share their experiences at Goethals.
All of these boys had sisters. And they also were shipped to a boarding school close to Goethals called St. Helens. Since that was an all-girls school, their departure was on a different date.
Our luggage was loaded into the compartments with us. From that point forward, we students were responsible to carry our luggage in transit.
I thought this was handled brilliantly. When the train stopped at a station at lunchtime, caterers would deliver meals to us in metal containers called tiffin carriers. Containers were stacked vertically with a clever mechanism for securing them together. A typical three-container tiffin carrier is shown below. You can buy these today on Amazon and Etsy among other places.
A typical arrangement is as follows. One container would contain boiled rice. Another chicken curry. And the third, some vegetable combination. In addition to this meal. we would also be given a bottle of Coke.
At the next stop about a couple of hours later, food staff would board our compartments and haul the empty tiffin carriers away.
There is one memory that is stuck in my mind forever. On one occasion, I saw plates of leftover chicken bones kept temporarily on the platform floor next to the train.
A young boy, probably about 11, sat next to the plate and started to devour whatever meat was left on these bones. Clearly, he must have been starving. I felt so sad seeing this happen. Eating the leftover food must have been a welcome meal indeed.
Three Trains And A Ferry
The journey to Goethals required three trains and a ferry. Harry Potter took one train and a boat ride across Black Lake to get to Hogwarts. We had a much longer journey of almost 400 miles.
I shall use Google Maps to discuss our journey from Howrah Station to Goethals Memorial School. We lived in Kolkata. Since this city was known as Calcutta, I shall be using this name for historical reasons. The railway station where we boarded our train was in the twin city of Howrah located across the Hoogly river. The iconic Howrah Bridge connected these two major cities.
The blue line represents the journey we took to Goethals Memorial School. The first train we boarded at Howrah Station was the Indian Broad Guage standard. These trains were and are the widest trains in the world. Each compartment was stand-alone. Meaning they didn’t have any walk-throughs to the other compartments. Hence they had their own toilets too.
Howrah To The Ferry Crossing
We departed at 11 am about the same time as Harry Potter’s train. Uncanny right? By late afternoon, we arrived at the Ganges River shown on the map. It was a struggle carrying our luggage from the train station to the ferry. After all, my brother and I were preteens.
On the other side of the ferry crossing, we hurried to get the best compartments on the meter gauge train. This journey would take us through the night, so we all wanted to bag one of the sleeper compartments. This would enable us to lay flat for the night instead of sitting in a chair.
A train bridge has since been built over the River Ganges at this location. Travelers today would not have to take a ferry. I enjoyed that ferry ride and would miss it today if I was a student traveling to Goethals.
An Overnight Train Ride
My brother and I on our first and subsequent trips, found an upper pull-down bunk to fit in. There was a small ceiling fan nearby that helped keep us cool.
I loved the rackety rack sound of the train as it glided along the train tracks. These were steam trains, so the whistle sound was an added excitement.
The journey took about eight hours which was sufficient to have a good night’s rest. Assuming one could get to sleep. I had no problem sleeping on a moving vehicle then and neither do I have today.
The Toy Train Ride To The Himalayas
We were all excited for the next train ride from New Jalpaiguri Junction. It would be on one of the smallest gauge railways in the world, just two feet tracks. The trains were so small they were called Toy Trains. Yes, they were pulled by miniature steam locomotives too! Goethals used to charter the whole train to take the students to school.
This journey up the Himalayas was so exciting as the train zigged zagged and looped its way up the side of the mountain. Our school was at an altitude of about 5.000 ft above sea level. Jalpaiguri was about 100 ft. above sea level. Hence there was a very steep climb up this mountainside. The views were spectacular.
Although the distance was about 60 miles, the journey took approximately 4 hours. The ride involved innumerable curves, zig-zags, and loops that contributed to the slow progress. Who cared, the ride was a whole lot of fun!
This railway is known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR). It is a historic line because the original Toy Trains are still used between Kurseong and Darjeeling. Unlike when we took this trip when the complete journey from Jalpaiguri to Kurseong was made in these Toy Trains. If you look north from Kurseong on the map you can see Darjeeling.
But wait, we had something special in store. Goethals had its own Toy Train Siding at the bottom of the hill where the school was located. This time around, we didn’t have to lug our luggage up this hill. The school’s two vans took care of that task. We did have to take turns loading the vans though.
By the time we arrived at the school, it was tea time. The first day of school was like another Hogwarts experience which I will share in a future blog post.
Comments And Questions
If you have any comments or questions, please leave them in the discussion area below. I will respond to you promptly.
12 thoughts on “Boarding School Here We Come – A Harry Potter Experience Starts Here!”
I enjoyed reading your story about your journey to and from boarding school, and gosh, it must have been a long journey, especially as you were so young and you didn’t have any technology to entertain you on the way. At least they kept you well fed and I see those stacked tins have come back into fashion again.
You have a remarkable memory as you have told the story of your travels in such detail. I look forward to reading about more of your adventures.
I truly enjoyed reading your reaction to my story. Sixty years ago life was significantly simpler than today. It is more difficult to remember what we did during those long train rides. It spanned two days and took about 20 hours.
To answer your question I closed my eyes and put myself inside that train compartment and felt the moment. I suddenly remembered the following details that I didn’t recall while writing this post.
There was no air conditioning. Only small fans. Hence we kept the windows open. It was hot and humid. The smell of burnt coal in the stem engine smoke was dominant.
The compartments were not connected and most had no adults in them. I had completely forgotten that we used to do something quite dangerous and thought nothing about it. We opened the door and sat on the floor with our legs resting on the ladder-like steps hanging down.
We talked, dozed off, and sang pop songs of the day. On one of these trips, Another student had a portable wind-up gramophone and some 78 bakelite records to play. Remember, this was about 60 years ago.
Thanks for edging me to dig deep to uncover these memories.
I am thrilled and excited and went through each word of the post. What a brilliant read with my mega cup of Indian spiced tea!
Wow! to all the pictures, of the travel you made decades back as a preteen. Woo Hoo. The stand-out picture is your 3-stack Tiffin carrier.
I used a 5-stack one during my Graduate school carrier in New York City. Now also I see Indians carrying their lunch in mid-Mattan in New York to their offices.
It made me feel so proud to read this blog with pictures. Howrah station was the same when I went to Calcutta for my VISA to come to the US in the mid-eighties. The bridge looks so beautiful. My mind was moving with you when you were crossing the Himalayas.
Thank you for sharing this important part of life with the world.
I look forward to your future blogs.
Thanks for talking about your trip back to Calcutta for your Visa. I loved your account about tiffin carriers being back in use. It is such an ingenious design I am not surprised.
When I was in kindergarten, the servants brought our lunch in tiffin carriers to make sure the food was hot. There were no microwave ovens then lol. Most school kids’ homes were relatively close to the school.
This was my fourth Blog on this website. If you read my response, please check those out too. You may like them as well.
I really enjoyed reading this wonderful story. It’s like I’m reading a passage from a book. The areas shown in the photos are wonderful. What year did that trip take place? It seems to me that previous times had much more charm than today. I can’t wait for the next text. Until then, best regards
Thanks for your response. This account was from the late 1950s. A different more simple time. Glad you liked it and mentioned the word book. Eventually, I would like to write one or more books about some of the more interesting periods in my life.
Hi, and thank you for the story of you and your brother going to boarding school. It sounds like a beautiful journey across many different lands. And you had tiffin boxes! I’ve never had a tiffin box, and you’ve inspired me to find one. Reading about your family made me realize that gratitude toward the little things in life is most important.
I look forward to your next post. – Shannon
I loved how you framed gratitude in your comments. You can find a wide variety of tiffin carriers on Amazon as well as Etsy. They seem to be catching on in the US now there is a growing Indian population. Thanks for commenting.
Thank you very much for this valuable detailed post about Boarding School experience. Actually, I have never been to a school like this. Reading your post reminded me of the harry potter train ride. I was created by what you said. I think that Wager is lucky to study in a school in a beautiful environment. Keep posting like this.
I loved your comment. Glad you liked my story. This was my fourth post on this new website and I will be adding much more.
What a wonderful childhood experience! I love the toy train.
It reminds of of a toy train ride we used to take as children. Once or twice a year we would take a family trip to a neighboring state and always make a stop at the park that had the train ride.
You’re an excellent storyteller! Keep up them coming!
Great to hear from you. Thanks for sharing your train ride story. I love traveling by train and so does my wife.
I wish you well.