The struggle for freedom, mock air-raid drills, repercussions of World War II — read the reminiscences of this nonagenarian as QMC, Chennai, prepares to celebrate its centenary year.

I am 92 now and will be 93 this December. My Alma Mater, Queen Mary’s College (QMC), Chennai, is gearing up to celebrate its centenary year. I thought I would pen some memories of yesteryear when I was a student there. The years I am going to write about are 1937 - 1942, momentous years, marked with World War II, freedom struggle and the Quit India movement.

Located on the Marina, Queen Mary’s College for Women was the only women’s college at that time other than the Women’s Christian College. We used to play basketball, tennis and so on, and the bus used to take us to and fro with our singing the refrain: “Queen Marians never die, never die, they only fade away.” I joined in 1937 for intermediate first year when Sathyabhama Reddy, Grace Soans and E.K. Padma were there already in different streams.

The campus

As you entered the gates of the college, the first building was Capper House where the college originally started, named after Colonel Capper to whom it then belonged. The three main buildings on the right hand side were Pentland, Jeypore and Stone. The ground floor comprised classrooms which had galleries where the students were seated and the professors sat in a chair with a table in front on a small platform. There was a well-equipped library, a central hall with a stage where plays were performed and debates organised. We also had some small prayer rooms maintained by the students. At the QMC, B.A. Music was one of the subjects offered to students. We had a Music Association which had an orchestra comprising 25 veena players.

The ground floor central area had cane tables and chairs where students (those staying in hostels) could receive visitors. The principal had her quarters on the first floor, central portion of the Pentland, and on either side there were double rooms. Grace and Padma shared a room facing the sea, Sathya and I shared the one behind. It was the first time all of us were staying in a hostel. I could have been a day student because my parents stayed in Madras but my father insisted that I stay in the hostel, be independent and enjoy life. Looking back, I thank my father for it, because those were the most wonderful years! Our group of four friends grew to 25! Now as the ditty says, we have faded away, one by one, with just four of us left and, all will celebrate our 93rd birthday by the end of 2014.

On the left hand side of Capper House there was a group of buildings where the members of the staff stayed. In the same complex, we had a small swimming pool which was used by anyone who knew swimming or those who wanted to learn swimming. I am told it is no longer in use. Our canteen had four sections: the European section, where the cutlery comprised spoons, forks and knives. The vegetarian section was on the ground floor, where food was served on banana leaves. The non-vegetarian and Brahmin sections were in a separate building.

World War II days

During the years we were there, Ms. Myers was the principal; it was partly during World War II. When the Japanese joined the war, our college which was fully painted white was a beautiful sight and could be seen from afar, specially from planes flying high. So the college followed the government orders and painted it grey, and the windowpanes were covered with grey paper. Anti-aircraft guns were not in vogue those days and therefore, all along the Marina, coconut palm tree trunks of a particular size were cut and one was placed upright and the other split. Both types were painted black and placed in a slanting position so that planes would take it for anti-aircraft guns and keep away! Blackouts were observed. Ditches were dug behind the college. One person on each floor was armed with a torch; she was the air-raid warden. To prepare for an emergency we had mock air-raids.

Ms. Myers used to sound a siren at an unearthly hour, and the student warden with the torch would lead us down and all of us used to scramble down the stairs, jump into the ditches and wait till the ‘all-clear’ was sounded by the principal.

Captain Lakshmi

During that period, Ms. Myers held a War Fund Fete to collect money for the soldiers who were sacrificing their lives and for their families. The entire area in front of the college and also the lawns in front were made use for this event. Various stalls were put up in these areas. Going down the steps on to the lawn, there was a pond with a fountain in the centre, and it was full of water. Students were encouraged to set up whatever stalls they liked provided it made money. With Japan joining the war, the situation was getting worse. As part of the preparation, we students had to learn first-aid and home nursing. Dr. Lakshmi Swaminathan used to take classes for us. She was so beautiful. Instead of concentrating on how to tie the bandage we were lost in wonder gazing at her. She was later known as Captain Lakshmi as she had left for Singapore and joined the Indian National Army of Subhash Chandra Bose.

Freedom movement

Hitler was bombing England relentlessly. Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister holding aloft his two fingers in “V” for victory sign! Our country was going through its struggle for freedom and independence and following Gandhiji who had then launched the movement. Some of us joined the Quit India movement and were out on the streets and in front of the Egmore chief Presidency Magistrate’s Court shouting Inquilab Zindabad.

Some students were arrested. The penitentiary, a place where they kept all those arrested before sending them to various jails, was situated on the Marina and we went and visited our friends who had been arrested. We could view them through a small window which had iron bars covered with a net.

Ms. Myers, finding it difficult to control the students, would just sign the register and leave the college. All she could do was to issue an ultimatum that the gates would be locked by 6 p.m. The next step was to close the college except for those appearing for the final exams. During exam time, we faced a problem. As war was on, no lights were permitted beyond 9 p.m. Only the passage lights and bathroom lights were switched on. So we students, used to fill a flask full of coffee from the canteen and study for long hours, and this we were not supposed to do.

Around midnight or later, we would suddenly hear loud footsteps stomping and then we gathered our books and fled to our rooms.

We knew it was our benevolent Principal Myers giving us time to escape because being caught meant the end of our studies. None of us wanted to give up appearing for our final exams! So here I close with the ditty — “Queen Marians never die, never die, they only fade away.”

The writer is an alumna of Queen Mary’s College, Chennai.