How Do You Answer?


Kitty Katzell


Kitty Katzell (Mildred Engberg) is the daughter of Headmistress, Lila Engberg.  The following is an account of her growing up and schooling in India.



How do you answer when someone who grew up in the U.S asks, “What was it like growing up in India?”  How would an American answer the question, “What was it like growing up in America?”

Only now that I’m in my 90’s have I figured out how to answer that question.  I need to show the person the ways in which growing up in India was different from growing up in America, and the ways in which it was the same.

 I had my second birthday on the Atlantic Ocean, on our way to India.  My father had died when I was 15 months old.  He and my mother were planning to be missionaries, he a medical missionary, she a teacher.  He contracted pneumonia while he was interning, so she went forward with what had been their plans.

My mother was what was called a “contract teacher” in a Methodist boarding school in Darjeeling.  She had dormitory duties, teaching duties, recreation duties, and a 2-year-old child.  Needless to say, she quickly engaged an ayah (Indian nurse-maid) to keep an eye on me.  But she also arranged for me to spend time in the school’s kindergarten – at age 2.  The school operated under the British educational system and its graduates were eligible to take Cambridge University entrance examinations.  The kindergarten’s content carried students through the American equivalent of second grade; the class levels were known as “standards”, not “grades”.

From the time I was two until we came back to America on furlough when I was five, I was enrolled in the kindergarten, so I learned to read and write and do arithmetic.

Back in the U.S. for most of a year, my mother set about enrolling me in a public school. To the principal of the school, six-year-olds went into first grade.   My mother would not hear of that; she simply would not enroll me.  The principal agreed to let me try second grade, but very soon the second-grade teacher let it be known that third grade would be more appropriate, so, at age 6, I spent several months in third grade before we returned to Darjeeling, where I entered second standard, the academic equivalent of America’s fourth grade.

The climate in Darjeeling is generally cool and damp.  It is reputed to get snow every ten years and, in fact, it snowed the year before we got there and the year after we left, which validated that reputation.  It is also reputed to get 120” of rain a year, most of it between May and October, due to the monsoons.  Because of the climate, school was open from March to November, and parents sent their children to the schools in the hills so they could escape the summer heat and humidity on the Plains.   When the weather was nice after months of monsoons, we sometimes were given a half-holiday, so we could play out in the sunshine.

At various times in my childhood, although I lived in a boarding school, I had pets. At one time, I had a dachshund named Reggie; another time there was a cat named Saraswati, an Indian goddess’s name; and later there was a pair of guinea pigs, who produced more guinea pigs.  We used to take the little ones to class with us in the pockets of our pinafores.  Being the principal’s daughter had its advantages; it also had its liabilities, like when the teacher sent me to stand in the hall for talking out of turn and “the principal” happened to walk by.

Although we lived in Darjeeling for nine years, it was only in the last year that I lived in the dormitory with other girls my age.  Before that, I roomed with my mother.  During her first term, I was too young to be in the dormitory; during her second term, she was principal of the school and had a suite of rooms, so I lived with her there.  During our last year in India, I lived in the dormitory with other girls in my age group.  This meant getting up at 6 am; washing up at a congregate wash stand; going to daily chapel services every morning; playing outdoors when it wasn’t raining, and often even when it was; kneeling on the cold cement floor with all the other girls in my dorm for bedtime prayers; and so on.

Chota hazri (little meal) was tea and toast at 6:30 am.  The tea was strong Darjeeling tea, to which plenty of sugar and milk had been added.  Breakfast was at 11 am.  It consisted of brown suji (Wheatena), white suji (Cream of Wheat), or kwakerotes (Oat Meal).  The next meal was at 3 pm.  It was a light lunch called “tiffin”.  Supper was at 6 pm and often included curry, rice, and dahl, a special preparation of yellow split peas.  For children who found curry to be too spicy, dahl and rice was a favorite meal.  Other favorites were egg curry, chicken curry, and mulligatawny soup.    

The school was situated on what was known as Mt. Hermon Estates, on a level below the main road in to Darjeeling.  Part way up the hill, there was a “tuck shop” over on the right below the roadway where we could buy things like graham crackers and sweetened condensed milk – and probably lots of other things, too, but those are what I remember.  Further up the hill, also on the right below the roadway was the North Point Post Office.  This memory is significant because 50 years later, as my husband and I neared the school, I said to him, “Around that next curve is where the post office used to be.”  And sure enough, it was still there.

As principal, my mother was responsible for the school car, which was a Whippet.  She drove it and maintained it.  She would lie down in the driveway under the car with a flashlight and the manual and do the necessary lubricating.

She had taken a transformer with her to India, so she was able to use her American sewing machine to make our clothes, her iron to press things, and her waffle iron to make waffles when she entertained.   The laundry, of course, was done by the dhobi, who picked up the things to be washed every week and delivered them the following week.  Every item in our bundle was stamped with indelible ink by the dhobi using a special symbol to identify every item as ours.  Our symbol was three dots in a triangle.  It was years before that symbol disappeared from our lives.

So that’s what it was like growing up in India.  Certainly different, now that I think of it.




            This article is prompted by comments of readers who read my earlier article about growing up in India.   They wondered about the teachers and students at the school. 

            The short answer is that most of them were English, American, Anglo-Indian and some European.  A better answer is to give some of their names and anecdotes associated with some of them.

            The most famous person who attended the school is Tom Stoppard, but he wasn’t there when I was and I never knew him

            My kindergarten teacher was Miss Balthazar.  Another KG teacher was Louise “Louie” Cox.

            My third standard teacher was Louise Humphreys.  My best friend, Evelyn MacTavish, and I had a serious crush on her.  Evelyn’s parents were Salvation Army mssionaries from Scotland.  Evelyn eventually married and lived in Canada, and we were in touch until quite recently.

            Two Salvation Army sisters who attended the school, Betty and Anna Hannevik, were Norwegian.  I later came across Anna’s name in an international Salvation Army  publication that was handed to me one time when I was waiting in Union Station in Chicago.  From that I learned that she was an international SA figure, so I contacted Anna and, when my husband and I were on a cruise that stopped in Oslo, Anna came down to the ship to see us.

            Other students whose names I remember are Reggie Stuart, Sidney Pedrick, Ardys Engel, Pali Thu, Patsy Fox, and Max Wiborg.  Mention of Max reminds me of his mother, Mrs. Wiborg, who was my arithmetic teacher  She was very strict, and she drilled us thoroughly in the times tables.   I can still hear her saying, “ I want you to know your times tables so well that if I came to the dormitory and woke you up in the middle of the night and said ‘six nines’ you’d wake up and say ’54’.”  And we did.  I got all the way up to twelve, and was working my way toward sixteen, which I never quite mastered.

            Another of my teachers was Annette Sookias.  I think she was Anglo-Indian.  She was only there for one year, as  I recall.  Miriam Scholberg was a teacher from America.  Her parents were also missionaries.

            The woman who had the title of Housekeeper was Mrs. Lottie ValDeramao. She was Scandinavian.   We called her Mrs. Val.  She was in charge of the kitchen.  The bortchi (cook) did the cooking, but she was his boss.  On one occasion, he asked for permission to plan and prepare a special dessert for the teachers’ dining room.  The permission was given, and the dessert was served.  My mother, as principal, received the first dish and tasted it, knowing it was the bortchi’s special treat.  It turned out to be a pudding composed of sweetened mashed potatoes.  She was not favorably impressed.

            The school’s business manager was Mr. Sur.  He was an Indian.  His daughter, Annapurna, was a classmate of mine.  She died of “consumption” when we were in fifth standard.

            The last year we were in India, we had two Tibetan princesses at the school, Kate and Tess Tsarong.  They came to the school before the other students, to give them time for some orientation.  They spoke virtually no English but they learned quickly.  They were members of the royal family.  I am told that Kate was killed  attempting to escape during the Chinese oppression.  There had been other Tibetan women who had attended the school earlier, and one of them, Mary Laiden-la, operated a popular hotel in Darjeeling where my husband and I stayed when we visited in 1985.

            Frances Kirby, from America, was my domestic science teacher.  That was the subject that is now called home ec.   I was not talented in that subject.  I can still hear Miss Kirby saying, sadly, “Mildred, your stitches are like crocodile’s teeth!”  And then there was the time we were cooking pancakes over kerosene stoves with a tall flue.  We were to flip the pancake so it turned over in mid air and catch it in the pan to cook the other side.  In my case,  I flipped the pancake and watched it go down the flue into the flames.  Well, now I can say,  after all, I was only 10 years old.

            We left India early in 1935, and sailed to England where we spent three months visiting my mother’s sister’s family.  They lived at 63 Oakwood Crescent, Greenford, Middlesex.  I went to school while we were there, so by the time I got to America, in the summer of 1935, I had a lovely English accent, but I soon got over that, because an American cousin told me I sounded like a duck!



Mildred Engberg aged 9





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