It was a birthday party of a different kind.
Brought together often by conflict and exile and nurtured in a regime of tough love, the dozen alumni and 70 present students of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) of Kolkata were celebrating 197 years of the institution on April 2.
Amid the animated discussions on the crisis in West Asia, Razmik Hakobyan, a 24-year-old Iraqi, an alumnus of the school, said he was dispatched to the ACPA in 2007 for “safety and education,” after a bomb exploded close to his house in Baghdad’s upmarket Kembel Gilani area. Mr. Hakobyan’s father, a retired soldier, decided distant Kolkata was safer.
“A friend who studied in Kolkata told us about the school and my parents got interested,” said Mr. Hakobyan, who left Baghdad when he was just 13. He would like to visit Baghdad, he said, but only on vacations.
“Baghdad is not getting better and nor is its education,” said the young man, whose family has since shifted to Kurdistan. Close to completing his graduation at the city’s St. Xavier’s college, Mr. Hakobyan says he is indebted to the Armenian College and its teachers.
Set about 500 metres north of Park Street in the heart of the city, a plaque at the entrance of the imposing yellow building announces that “the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born on the 18th July, 1811” in the premises. Since 1821, it has housed the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy — a school for Armenian students from all over the world up to Class X.
India as home
The Armenians adopted Christianity in 301 AD and were invited “to come and settle in his dominions” by emperor Akbar in the 17th century.
They arrived in Bengal in 1645 and settled along the Hooghly’s fertile western bank like most traders of the time. Anne Basil in her seminal book Armenian settlements in India writes that the community grew in size and influence and felt the need to have its own school. An informal school was set up in 1798, which was replaced by the present Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy on April 2, 1821, at 358, Old China Bazar Street near the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth, Calcutta.
Following the genocide of more than a million Armenians in eastern Anatolia by Turkish forces in 1915, “hundreds of children of uprooted families…found shelter and a roof and received sufficient education…” at the Kolkata school, notes Basil.
Open to all Armenians
Armen Makarian, a former student and school’s coordinator, said the institution is the only Armenian school of its kind in the world.
According to Very Reverend Father Movses Sargsyan, head of the Davidian Girls’ School (DGS) — the girls’ wing — and Armenian College, the school is globally known among Armenians. “Internet, website and social pages informed the guardians,” Father Sargsyan said. While a majority of the students are from Armenia, the rest are from the Armenian disapora in Iran, Iraq and Russia and a handful of Indian-Armenians.
“We would like to have Armenian students from across the world — from Germany, Italy or France and even Syria,” Father Sargsyan said.
Like most boarding schools, the Armenian College has an intensely packed, exacting schedule. Mobile phones and laptops are a strict no-no, with the students allowed two hours out of the premises for shopping.
“But we like it,” said Vladimir Grigoryan, a ninth standard student, who was born in Russia but now stays in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
“My parents were paying $2,500 annually for my education in Armenia. But the teachers never cared if we were learning — unlike here where teachers are constantly demanding,” said Vladimir, whose father runs a chain of hotels in Russia.
For Sevak Azarian Namagardi from Iran, who just appeared for his ICSE examinations, life is a “little boring” at times. Being a trained singer and a regular at choirs, he looks forward to weekly chats with his family over Skype.
“As the summer vacation approaches, I’m making arrangements to leave for Tehran,” he said. He has more reasons to cheer. “This time the family and I will visit Armenia, our motherland,” said Sevak. He, however, is equally keen to get back to friends at the school.
Imparting education to students from such diverse backgrounds, however, is not easy. Soumitra Mallik, Principal at the Academy said the key problem was to match various levels of education.
“We do not know if the student who has studied up to Class V in her or his country is on par with what is taught here under the ICSE syllabus. So, this content mapping and matching is a problem,” he explained.
The other problem is communication as the students usually come from non-English speaking backgrounds. While Armenian teachers teach Armenian language, history, and culture, most of the around 25 faculty members at the Academy are Indian.
“So, we have six-month preparatory courses where we intensely teach English, some Mathematics and a bit of the Sciences to provide an outline of what the student will study and to hone their English language skills,” Mr. Mallik said. So far, it has worked well as many of the students are quickly able to leapfrog to reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice within a few years!
Arindrajit Saha, the English teacher, said, “Studying Shakespeare within a brief period of time can be considered an important marker.”
Though the students indeed are grateful for the free and quality education they receive, there are regrets of a lost childhood back home.
“Saddam Hussein may have been a dictator but Iraq was not doing too badly and there was peace. With his departure, the country permanently collapsed and I had to leave my incomplete childhood behind,” said Mr. Hakobyan.
The different countries that the students hail from may not share friendly diplomatic ties, but the bond that Mr. Hakobyan or Sevak develop at the Kolkata school go beyond political compulsions or geographical boundaries.
“We are from the same tree, with same roots. The branches move in different directions, but the root remains,” says Arian Makarian of Iran, an alumnus.