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Suryatapa Mukherjee

I have always wondered how differently my life would turn out if I had not gone to boarding school. It is not the most common life experience. Most people don’t. And through the years of homesickness, I had always thought life would have been better if I was home. The answer was less clear after I left. I missed home terribly, yes. But I found myself in boarding school. For all its rules and restrictions, you do not have adults watching your every single move there. It simply is not possible. So, it offers a unique space for a child to make their own choices and even face their own trials and tribulations.

It forced me to mingle and make friends with my peers. Before Anthony’s, I was an introverted child who struggled to communicate with people. I relied on my family for any emotional support. That was not an option away from home. At Anthony’s, I did not just make friends. I made best friends - people I still talk to about the biggest things in my life. I love them unconditionally no matter where I go. To know that I can do that, was an important lesson for a child who believed they were incapable of truly connecting with people. These were important lessons for a child who would go back to Kolkata for the last two years of school, go abroad to the UK for university and then again return. I am constantly starting from scratch. So, connecting with people is a skill that comes in handy.

Going to school in Kolkata was a wild ride. I experienced a co-ed environment for the very first time. But more importantly, I experienced sexism within that environment. I experienced boys underestimating me repeatedly because I was a girl. A girl who embraced femininity in every form. Well, I dealt with those people. I found a strength within myself which surprised me. And I realized that when I reach within for that power, I reach into my femininity. This is not something the outside world teaches you. It teaches you that to assert yourself and be taken seriously, you must detach yourself from femininity.

So, where did this come from? I realised very slowly that it came from Ma’am. It is no secret that we found her terrifying and beautiful. We were all scared of her. We were all in awe of her. I remember vividly that as soon as we would smell perfume and hear the click-clack of heels, we would alert each other to stop everything and study. Even if we were studying, we would stare at the book extra hard and hope all goes well. Commanding respect comes to her naturally. That is a very important role model for little girls to see every day while growing up. I cannot emphasize that enough.

I went to Cardiff University in the UK for a BA and an MA in Journalism. I learned a lot. I grew exponentially as a person. But I also struggled. The weather was similar to that of Kurseong. And I realised that I would get more “homesick” in the winter because I have seasonal affective disorder. It is basically depression connected to gloomy weather. I experienced systemic racism for the first time. I had to build my identity anew from the ground up. I also, finally, faced my sexuality. But that one wasn’t too bad. At 19, I had my first interview as part of a series on bisexuality in India. It led to the UN including bisexual content in their global charter on LGBT+ rights.

I did my most fulfilling journalism work during my Master’s. I talked to Syrian refugees, the Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan, Lords of the British Parliament, Palestinian activists, and many others. I travelled to Jordan completely by myself to see my then partner and created a radio documentary about the LGBT+ icons and activists there. I say that I wanted to be a journalist since class 6. That is not entirely true. It was in class 6 at Anthony’s that the English teacher said I would make a fantastic journalist. And I reluctantly considered it for the first time.

Life after Master’s was the toughest. I made a difficult choice to try and stay in the UK to be with my partner then. With restrictive immigration rules, this meant I couldn’t work until I heard back about my visa application. So, I couldn’t work indefinitely. With no other option, I revisited the hobbies I would indulge in before university. I started to perform spoken word poetry, a long-held dream. Now, I have three of my poems published in an anthology in the UK. I went back to my love of acting and created a satirical web-series about racism. It resonated with people enough for me to shoot a few videos with the BBC. I also wrote, directed and acted in a short film with a collective of LGBT+ people of ethnic minorities in the UK. I was interviewed about it by ITV and appeared on their 6 pm news.

It was in Anthony’s that I discovered my love for acting, directing, writing and public-speaking. I won the annual prize for English every year. I was known as ‘Dr. Chinde’ - one of my popular characters on stage - for years. (Admittedly, the nickname was not my favourite part.) I was constantly encouraged by my teachers. Every time I got into trouble, which happened often, Ma’am would rebuke me first and then affirm and validate me. She would tell me how brilliant I am and how she expects a lot from me. Every little validation, affirmation and encouragement helps. It becomes a life raft when you are lost at sea.

Adulthood is hard. For all the children and teenagers reading this, yes, there is freedom. All the things you dream of and want desperately will be within your reach. Yes, it will be absolutely amazing. But as the Spiderman quote goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” You will fully realise this later. There is a plot twist, though. Those of you who struggle in class and aren’t the best students, it will be easier for you. You know what it is to work hard and face failure. That is a crucial skill for adulthood. The better students, the ones who do well in class and haven’t experienced failure in the real sense, you will struggle like I do. Adulthood doles out failure and obstacles to all. Perseverance is what counts.

Do not be too hard on yourself when that time comes. Work life is simply a different beast from academic life. You will figure it out too in due time. Meanwhile, try everything. Learn your weaknesses and strengths. What sets you apart from the rest? Discover yourself so you know who you are when your fears come to meet you.

Suryatapa Mukherjee
International Journalist
(Class of ICSE-2010)

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