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Class Up At Doon

Once the stomping grounds of the Indian elite, Doon School now harbours the aspirations of small-town nouveau riche

Class Up At Doon
Jitender Gupta
Class Up At Doon
Traffic-choked and garbage-strewn, Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh's sugar-and-roughneck belt seems a world apart from ivy-clad buildings, chhota hazri bells and blooming magnolia at Dehradun's Doon School. It looks like the kind of place aspirational mothers and fathers would want to drive past quickly, and before nightfall, while ferrying their precious cargo from the school's 70-acre campus. But not everybody drives past. The aspirational parents are here, in this eyesore of a town which has 12 of its best in the current crop at India's premier public school.

Agra-trained physician Pankaj Singh, whose tiny clinic in the town's Sadar Bazaar is crammed with patients from Muzaffarnagar's Jat hinterland, is one of those parents. His only child, Pranjal, is a Class 9 student at the school, and for Singh, it was Doon or nothing. "It was the only boarding school I registered at," he says, between patients. "I knew Pranjal could compete, and he topped the exam." Adds wife Shefali: "Education is the best investment, and you must try for the best."

That's just one hint of the changing profile of a school most Indians still associate with a narrow but pan-Indian elite, including prime ministers, industrialists, civil servants, princelings, army brass and boxwallahs, that for several decades packed off its boys to this desi Harrow with touches of Santiniketan. Many Doscos went on to scale peaks themselves, like writers Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh, journalists B.G. Verghese and Prannoy Roy, politicians Mani Shankar Aiyar, Naveen Patnaik and Kamal Nath, assorted tycoons, civil servants and investment bankers, pillars of civil society like Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy. Even the bad eggs—think of Sanjay Gandhi, or more recently, Jagat Singh—were a class apart from the thugs ejected from lesser schools.

Doon was never just a school, though: it was widely regarded, especially by non-members, as a club of the anglicised, the well-born and the well-placed, whose members reminisced together about the eccentricities of English housemasters and helped each other network and rise. That perception grew sharper when an old boy, Rajiv Gandhi, became prime minister. 'Dosco' became the favoured term to describe—or excoriate—his inner circle. Babalog, some people called them.

Today, however, the English housemasters are pictures on walls and the stuff of fading memory. Celebrity offspring are a rarity at Doon, major business houses are not represented, except in the names of old boys and donors on notice boards, and there is barely an erstwhile royal or two around. Changing Indian realities have made their presence felt on a sequestered estate where mellow red brick stands side by side with the utilitarian architecture of a more recent era, and teachers and pupils live at a "monastic remove", as headmaster and old boy Kanti Bajpai puts it, from the hurly-burly of city life.

Only about one-fourth of Doon's 500-odd students are from the five metros, a figure that would have been closer to 60 per cent 10 years ago, according to deputy headmaster Phillip Burrett. Like other elite boarding schools, Doon is losing its pan-Indian ethos and becoming more of a regional destination. Its students may hail from an impressive 98 cities, but three-fourths of them are from a clutch of northern states, predominantly Uttaranchal, Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A minuscule three per cent of students are from south India.

There are, at the bare minimum, three reasons for these shifts.

One is a softer metropolitan ethic. It seems to take a special kind of resolve these days to send your pre-adolescent away for much of the year to be initiated into hardy manhood at a rather austere school, especially by current lifestyle standards in the metros. "Parental norms are changing, so are notions of the family. People with only two children are saying, why lose them at 11-plus?" says Bajpai. What makes it easier for the metropolitan elite to say no to a school like Doon is improved day-school education in every metro over the last decade.

Shishir & Uma Joshi: Son Agrim is Doon's outgoing music captain. Not enough, feels father, a real estate developer from Saharanpur

Secondly, changing educational values. It's hard to come away from Doon without being impressed by the range of co-curricular, sporting and other opportunities woven into the texture of student life. But for the super-competitive, that won't do: teaching shops are better launching pads for IIT or a medical college. For the seriously rich, there are more comfortable rides to favoured Ivy League destinations, from Rs 7 lakh-a-year international schools in India to Rs 20 lakh-a-year boarding schools in New England.

But the most interesting reason, by far, is the third: spreading prosperity and burgeoning aspirations in a string of cities and towns across north India over the last decade. About one-fourth of Doon's current crop is kids of old boys. But of the three-fourths who are not, a substantial number are children of first-generation achievers who went to far more modest schools than Doon. They are people whose own parents would have lacked the money or social confidence to knock on Doon's doors for their kids, had it even occurred to them to do so. "The aspirations of small-town India are being reflected in our demography," says old boy Gursharan Singh, the school's music director.

Here's an intriguing statistic: About 50 per cent of the parents spending close to Rs 2 lakh every year to educate their children at Doon own medium-sized businesses, including petrol pumps, white goods stores, Nokia and Honda dealerships, clothing retail outfits and manufacturing units. They can be found in places like Moradabad, Varanasi, Saharanpur, Bareilly, Hoshiarpur, Yamuna Nagar, Panipat and Rohtak.

That's where steely resolve has found its new home, in parents who want it all for their sons. To start with, they want the basics: from far better teaching and more activities than small towns can offer, to a safer environment than the badlands of Bihar or UP. But they also want the social skills, the "personality development", the Dosco tag, and the access to an old-boy network that is still one of the country's most influential and close-knit.

Pankaj and Shefali Singh: For this doctor, with a clinic in Muzaffarnagar, UP, it was Doon or nothing for son Pranjal

Ex-Doscos are famously big on nostalgia and some are sniffy about the school's changing profile. But for Bajpai, a former JNU academic, it helps to make a few points he's noticeably keen to stress: "Doon is not a babalog school. People think of it as a place with quaint ways. But it mirrors major changes in society—whether it's ultra-competitiveness or growing conservatism. Doon's journey is the journey of liberal India of the '40s and the '50s, which has been replaced by the more conservative small-town India of the '90s and onwards." Most of all, Bajpai sees the current mix of students as the outcome of a meritocratic admissions process.

The Doon experience is changing its new breed of students, "making Doscos of them all", as the popular refrain goes. But it's not a one-way street. It is also being changed—and challenged—by their arrival on the scene. For the new arrivals, being turned into Doscos can be a painful process in a school where children of the old elite live side by side with a new one. Vinayak Agarwal from Varanasi joined school blithely singing his favourite Bhojpuri ditty, but quickly learned it was a no-no. What he's learning, instead, is Dosco-speak—a lingo studded with expressions such as "lend" (currying favour), both a noun and a verb, "scopat" (excessively hopeful or ambitious) and myriad forms of social usage peculiar to the place, like calling your evening study time "toye time". "I am different when I am here," says Vinayak. "At home, I become the old me."

On the other hand, more Hindi is spoken on campus today than before, reversing what Gursharan Singh describes as "a built-in disrespect for your own language". "You did leave the school in the old days with the view that English was a superior language to Hindi.... Masters who taught Hindi were not made housemasters."

New pupils are also quickly initiated into the school's complex hierarchies and a system of ultra-competitive score-keeping that rewards participation and achievement with points that lead to honours. They collect them with the enthusiasm of corporates accumulating frequent-flyer miles. Chetan Agarwal, an outgoing Class 12 student from Khanna near Ludhiana, has been there, done it, and is wearing what's increasingly becoming the right blazer—a scholar's blazer—in a school where sportsmen have traditionally been idolised. Ruminating on the changes in the school, he says: "I like the fact that there are now more people here from a business background. Banias were denied this kind of education earlier. And banias have also become aware that good education helps more than sitting around counting your money."

The Batras: Father Narendra sells Honda two-wheelers in Dehradun, elder son Akshit’s already at Doon, younger to follow

A big challenge for Doon, as indeed for all public schools of its kind, seems to be balancing the demand for better exam results with the imperative to retain its unique traditions, in which extra-curricular activities like mid-term trekking expeditions, drama, debate and music play a central role.

In Saharanpur, Shishir Joshi, a real estate developer, and his wife Usha pull out photographs and certificates won by son Agrim, Doon's outgoing music captain, star vocalist and wearer of school colours, an honour reserved for a select few. But the Joshis' obvious pride in their son is laced with worry about exam results and career options, which don't seem to include music, at least for now. "Doon needs to put more emphasis on academics," says Shishir. "Padhai sabse pehli cheez hai (Studies come first)."

That's a refrain the school hears often from nervous parents across the board. Last year, it lost about one-fourth of its Class 10 batch—22 students—after the board exam, many heading for crammers after having acquired the Dosco tag. Doon, which experimented with, and abandoned, external coaching for competitive exams, is looking at other ways to meet the demands of the times.

This 70-year-old institution is clearly tightrope walking, trying to cling to the best of its past and yet meet the demands of a challenging future, in a fast-changing India. Not easy, when every now and then an old boy with a long memory will show up and say, "My god, the headmaster does not wear a gown any more!", or, "In my day, we weren't such ruts (crammers)".

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