Never the twain shall meet?

When I heard that Lt Col Chris Rego was researching a book on St. Joseph’s Boys High School, Bangalore, I was all ears. Having written a book on the alumni of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, I could relate to the enormity and thrill of the effort, particularly in the sesquicentennial year of the school.

It got me thinking about the relationship between these two great schools, their commonalties and, of course, their legendary rivalry.

 Both schools have tacitly thrived on the spirit of rivalry ‘on and off the field’, to borrow an oft-repeated cricketing phrase. But surely it is the on-field rivalry that drives the Eton-Harrowesque legend.

 Those Old Boys who have had the pleasure (and, at times, the pain) of playing the ol’ rival in cricket, hockey or football will endorse the consummate experience of representing one’s school in this do-or-die battle. While playing for school is always a matter of pride, somehow the stakes are always higher taking on Joseph’s, or Cotton’s, as the case may be. And it is this diet of intense competition — mostly fair and a few times bordering on hysterical animosity — that has not only inspired some great performances from both schools, but, also forged some unique friendships.

In that sense, the core object of schooling, that is to say, to build character, passion and fraternity, has been accentuated by the Cotton’s-Joseph’s showdown.

Rivalry and revellery

While there is no love lost between the two schools, there is common ground as well. For instance, boys from Joseph’s come across to Cotton’s for their ISC on a regular basis (though recently ISC has come to be introduced in Joseph’s and this trend may change).
And it is quite common for one to find an Old Boy of one these schools, perhaps on feeling that his alma mater isn’t as enchanting as his days in school, choosing to put his son in the other school out of a sense of affinity and respect for the old rival. Or, again, of parents ‘distributing’ their sons between the two schools and hedging their risks. Or, then again, of boys migrating to the other school for various reasons.

 One such interesting example is that of Air Marshal Trevor Osman, former Vice-Chief of the Air Staff, who started off in Cotton’s and was shifted to Joseph’s by his mum, who felt that there was far too much emphasis on sport and not enough on academics. It is another matter that at Joseph’s, Air Marshal Osman continued his sporting pursuits to the fullest as the authorities found in him great sporting talent! The loss was ours.  
One also finds Cottonians’ sisters and daughters marrying Josephites and vice versa. Here, one, resignedly, accepts the other as family.

Where tradition rules

Founded seven years apart, both schools have seen a transition from British leadership to a more Indianised style of functioning, though many quaint British traditions remain to this day.

Cotton’s draws inspiration from the English public school ‘Rugby’, of Tom Brown’s School Days fame and also where Webb Ellis, as a student, picked up a ball and ran across the football field and thereby invented the sport of rugby!

‘Rugby’ was where Bishop George Edward Lynch Cotton himself was a warden before moving to India, becoming the Bishop of Calcutta and founding Cathedral’s, Mumbai.
 In contrast, Joseph’s commenced under the supervision of French priests and switched to a Jesuit command and has continued in the watertight regimen of the Catholic Church, though changing the latter part of its name from ‘European High School’ to ‘Boys High School’ in the 1960’s.

Through a chequered history, both schools have seen their zeniths and nadirs, at times even being faced with the threat of imminent closure. Equally, the history of these schools also reveals the lives of extraordinary individuals who have steered their destinies through choppy waters to magnificent heights, be it as wardens, principals, teachers or advisors.

 Illustrious alumni

Both schools have a rich treasure of alumni that have achieved scorching success in public life, particularly in sport in the case of Joseph’s and the armed forces in the case of Cotton’s. Indeed, Joseph’s has the enviable distinction of producing close to a dozen Olympians who have represented India, Australia and Great Britain in hockey as well as swimming and badminton, apart, from three cricketers to have represented India.
Cotton’s, per contra, boasts of over a dozen Generals, Air Marshals and Admirals, including three Chiefs-of-Staff, one of whom commanded the British Army. More significantly, both schools have seen many of their alumni make the supreme sacrifice in the defence of the nation and have earned gallantry awards that do us proud.

Between Cotton’s and Joseph’s, we can boast of a Victoria Cross (Lt. William ‘Leefe’ Robinson, World War I, OC), a Maha Vir Chakra (Brig. Desmond Hayde, Indo-Pak War 1965, OJ) and two Vir Chakras (Admiral VS Shekhawat, Indo-Pak War 1971 and Col. Lalit Rai, Kargil 1999, OCs) apart from numerous Military Crosses, Distinguished Service Orders and Distinguished Flying Crosses. In fact, many of these boys fought together in combat.
 Both share an embarrassment of riches when it comes to high achievers in business, science, academia, civil, foreign and police service, law, art and music, social service and (yes, even) politics. But while we acknowledge the accomplishments of these stellar individuals, let us not forget to pay tribute to those who have passed us by, and at times, passed us by too soon. Let’s remember our Capt. Sylvester Ratnams (Capt. Sylvester, OJ, 21 Jat, died at the age of 29, most bravely, in combat at Kupwara in 2002,) and our Pankaj Sadhus (Pankaj, OC, a fine and inspiring all-rounder, died at the age of 27 in a car accident in Delhi in 2002).

Let’s also remember our David Chatterjees (‘Chat’, Biology and Chemistry master at SJBHS for over 32 years, killed by a speeding car ironically outside his beloved school) and our Hannah Sebastians (‘Sebo’, history teacher and Pakenham-Walsh House mistress who taught for over 36 years at BCBS). They are the ones who make the tapestry of our schools truly special.

New challenges

While the leg-pulling will never end, and a Cottonian and a Josephite will never cease to debate the irresolvable issue of which is the better school (though some objective yardsticks have been invented over the years, such as the winner of the Cottonian Shield or Centenary Shield being the de facto monarch) there is a deeper issue that confronts us as alumni of these schools today.

For a long period of time, Bangalore-parents preferred to admit their wards to either of these schools (with no offence meant to my friends from the other very fine schools in the city).

However, the paradigm has changed with the emergence of ‘international’ schools, and today public schools face a common threat, in terms of shortage of faculty and resources, and in terms of their credibility as institutions that can deliver in a rapidly changing milieu.
 It is no longer a matter of Cotton’s versus Joseph’s, but, in a sense, Cotton’s and Joseph’s versus the new-age challenger. While there can be no dispute with the need to modernise, there is a pressing need to reiterate and reinforce the value-systems that make public schools unique.

And this is where we the alumni of such schools fit in. While our schools will be judged by our collective accomplishments, we will be judged by how much we give back to our schools.

Therefore, we need to find concrete common ground to preserve the legacy our precious schools, lest they become things of the past and all that remains are the cobwebs of fuzzy memories.

It is in this context that Old Boys such as Chris stand tall for their selfless and significant contribution in keeping the spirit of the ol’ school well and truly alive. On my part, on behalf of the Working Committee of the General KS Thimayya Memorial Lecture series (an Old Cottonian endeavour), I  invite all Old Josephites to attend our annual lectures and fellowship.

To sign off, I warmly congratulate St. Joseph’s Boys High School, Bangalore and all its Old Boys on achieving this momentous landmark of a glorious 150 years, and wish them Godspeed.

(The writer passed out of Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in 1993  and later, from the National Law School of India University. He is an advocate practising at High Court of Karnataka and the Supreme Court. His book Unfinished Symphony, a tribute to his old school, was published with Penguin (India) in 2003.)

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