Last fortnight saw many articles on R.K. Narayan, the man who put Indian writing in English on the world map. Almost all of them lamented the fact that No 1, Vellala Street, Purasawalkam, the house where he spent his childhood, is no longer standing. What flourishes, however, is the first school that R.K. Narayan went to. Located at the intersection of Purasawalkam High Road and Gangadeeswarar Koil Street is the ELM Fabricius School. Established in 1849, it was initially a tiny parish school located within the compound of the Lutheran Church on Tana Street. It soon developed and became known as the Lutheran Mission Middle School. In 1893 it was renamed the E(vangelical) L(utheran) M(ission) Fabricius School, after the German missionary of the 18th century who did such good work in Tamil Christian hymnody and the translation of the Bible into Tamil. In 1894, the school moved from the church into its present premises. The structure remains more or less what it was, with the exteriors now having been plastered over while retaining the original contours.
Narayan, however, did not take to it. In his My Days where he refers to it as the Lutheran Mission School, he reminisces as to how as a child he trailed behind his uncle on Puraswalkam High Road. “When we passed an orange-coloured school building with a green gate, my uncle promised that I would in due course find myself there. I did not welcome the idea. It was a gaunt-looking building with a crucifix on its roof. I hated it at first sight.” Narayan joined the school in 1912, weeping with fear on the first day. He was never to warm up to the institution. He disliked the masters who flourished their canes as “a medium of self-expression like a conductor’s baton”. That he was bad at clay modelling, handwork and writing on the slate did not endear him to his teachers.
This institution was clearly the inspiration for some episodes in Swami and Friends. Both the schools that Swami attends — the Albert Mission and The Board, closely resemble the ELM Fabricius. At the Albert Mission, Narayan has Swami do something he never dared to do in real life — stand up and question the Scripture master when he spoke derogatorily of Hindu gods. Similarly, like Narayan, Swami gets into trouble at the Board School for skipping drill class. And unlike Narayan who patiently suffered the Headmaster’s cane on his palm for this, Swami snatches it and throws it out of the window.
Narayan studied till middle school at the ELM Fabricius and then briefly joined in succession the CRC (now the MCtM) and the Madras Christian College schools before moving on to Mysore. Late in life he would occasionally visit Purasawalkam, trying to spot old landmarks. In his Foreword to the special edition of Swami and Friends to commemorate his 90th year, he was to note that the school stood firm, just as he “knew it as a reluctant schoolboy.”
This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 18, 2014, under the <a href="http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/stories-of-a-reluctant-schoolboy/article6510831.ece“>Hidden Histories column.