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150 years of education

Friday, January 04, 2019

St Xavier’s High School Fort celebrates its sesquicentennial, honouring  Old Boys with Xavier Ratnas. ‘Old Girl’ Ronita Torcato reports

Tomorrow, the Governor of Maharashtra Vidyasagar Rao will grace the Sesquicentennial Jubilee celebrations and Alumni Reunion of the venerable St Xavier’s High School, Fort, where distinguished alumni will be honoured as Xavier Ratnas.  And what an illustrious roll call it is!  Brothers Adi  and Nadir Godrej, torch-bearers  of Godrej Industries, Ashok Chavan, ex Chief Minister of Maharashtra (Class of 1975),  former Police Commissioner and Romanian Ambassador Julio Ribeiro (Class of 1944), HDFC’s Deepak Parekh (1961 batch), Sunil Gavaskar, cricketing legend whose batting skills were honed by the Jesuits on the extensive school grounds, Homi Sethna (scientist), Soly Sohrabjbee (exAttorney General of India), Arjun Appadurai (Anthroplogist), General S F Rodrigues…The list is long and one could go on and on.

The renowned architect Charles Correa will be sorely missed. Will the Mafatlals be present? What about Rajesh Jain, cyber evangelist and CEO of Netcore Solutions?  Or ex Minister of Public Works Chhagan Bhujbal’s MLA son Pankaj?  Attendees will include Dr. Keki Turel, a neurosurgeon from 1962 batch, Dr. Milind Kirtane an ENT specialist (1963)  and Ashok and Harindra Singh, Chairman and Managing Director of Percept Limited (same batch as Mr Chavan, 1975).

Currently, St Xavier’s has almost 3,000 students on the rolls, not counting the roster on the night school. Fr Leo Meurin had started with 115 boys in 1860 in Cavel and leased a plot on Carnac Road (now Lokmanya Tilak Marg) from the government in 1866. Then, with donations from royalty, business barons and the  Christian community, the Jesuits built the sprawling structure, opening it formally in 1869 with the motto Duc in Altum which urges the students to “Go into the Deep”. Certainly, the boys have accomplished that and more.  

Duc in Altum!  The motto is everywhere. At the entrance to the neo-Gothic structure, the spacious auditorium, the Jesuit quarters on the top floor. How the timeless words ring out today as they invite the alumni to remember the past with thanksgiving, to embrace the present with vigour and to look to the future with hope. On Teacher’s Day, Old Boy Baba Ling treated the staff to a sumptuous meal at the Colaba fine dine that bears his name.  1957 batch topper Adi Godrej has sponsored a solar power plant. Installed  on October 31 last year, the  35-kilowatt plant consisting of 100 panels will generate 54,000 units annually for the school  which aims to go totally green in due course.

“This project will help us educate our boys about the importance of the environment,” said  Fr Francis Swami, manager of the government-aided school, which is possibly, the only one in Western India boasting the solar project. “This project has given our students an opportunity not only to conserve energy but also to support our eco-friendly initiatives,” said the current Principal Sharmila Sunny.

A plaque attesting the Godrej Industries’ CSR contribution is at the entrance of the heritage building. At ground level is a large piece of the propeller from the cargo vessel SS Fort Stikine. Why is it on display there?  The 7,142-ton ship had sailed from England for Karachi/Bombay carrying two million pounds worth of gold ingots, 1,400 tons of explosives, sulphur, resin, oil, fish, and 8,700 bales of cotton.  Anchored at Victoria Dock, it inexplicably caught fire on April 14, 1944. Two deafening blasts ensued, scattering debris over two square miles. The Bombay Harbour explosion resulted in 1,000  casualties and left 3,000 injured.

History stalks the  nooks, crannies and corridors of the school where this correspondent spent three delightful years, time-passing the recess, in  the high-ceilinged offices of the Vice Principal Fr Julius Gomes, Clinical Psychologist/Choirmaster Fr Berkie D’Souza who would later establish the Xavier Institute of Counselling Psychology and in the Natural History museum run by Brother Antonio Navarro, Spanish Jesuit, avid naturalist, taxidermist and researcher, who single-handedly collected and preserved its 3,000 specimens, until his death in 1987.  

On holidays and Sundays, we would go bird-watching and recording bird calls in the salt pans of Mira Road, Bhayander and Virar.  After school hours Bro Navarro would stuff, catalogue, and arrange for display flora, fauna and marine species. In 1977, he won first prize in an international competition for bird calls organised by the BBC. Bro Navarro’s museum is surpassed only by the Bombay Natural History Society which honoured the Jesuit, a Life Member, by naming a rare bird he sighted, after him.

Should you visit the school, do step into Fr Gomes’ office which houses the Alumni Association chaired by retired Vice Principal Renee Carvalho and do look under the  imposing  arches for a gorilla, a giant black turtle, a  wallaby shipped from Australia as well as  a tiger and sloth bear donated by  blue-blooded  ex-students.  There is an interesting backstory as to how the tiger was acquired.  The story goes that the tiger carcass was stolen from the original owner, the Nawab of Janjira, by thieves who ferried it in a boat, only to be intercepted by Customs officials. Apprehending arrest, the fishermen dumped the tiger into the sea, from where it was retrieved by the Customs and stored in their warehouse. Somehow, Brother Navarro learnt of the tiger and requested  an Old Boy, the Maharaja of Vanzra to help find the tiger a new home. St Xavier's School.

“I loved the school and especially the extensive playgrounds,” recalled Adi Godrej at a commemorative program very recently; his younger brother Nadir loved English and French  and is now a poet and President of the Alliance Francaise de Bombay. This ‘Old Girl ‘ looks forward to hearing more reminiscences tomorrow and sharing memories with my ex-students, of course.

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