It was in the midst of spring, April 1980 to be precise, I was sent to a boarding school in Shillong. St Edmunds School was established by the congregation of Christian Brothers in India. It was an all boys catholic institution and the motto Facta Non Verba (Deeds Not Words) were etched on the school emblem. The Christian Brothers at that time were mostly from Irish decent and we had a few Indian brothers.
I was admitted to Class 2 Section A and vividly remember wishing our school principal Brother C.P. Gaffney outside his office chamber with a loud “Good Morning Principal”. He couldn’t stop his amusement and turned around and wished me “Good Morning Young Lad.”
The good part of the Irish Brothers were that they were dedicated teachers , firm but fair in every sense , a friend to us, not biased in their outlook and always encouraged the boys to play sports. The sad part was their Indian counterpart, not all but most were the opposite.
On the following Monday morning, sharp at 9am the school bell rang. I set my eyes on the bell man for the first time. He was medium built, had bulging eyes and he had his mouth red with chewing betel nut. To my utter surprise, he was addressed as “Silly Billy” both by the teachers and the students. Much later, we found out that this nickname had been given by an Irish brother who had appointed him. I assume he got his nickname Silly Billy derived from a clown common at fairs in England during the 19th century.
The old saying goes “actions speak louder than words”, our man Silly Billy, did not disappoint. As we got to know him better, he spoke broken English, his mouth was always red with chewing betel nut, he was foul mouthed but a gentle soul. In my 10 years of school life, I found him wearing a thick brown jacket with patches on the elbow. That was his trademark style. Silly Billy was a timekeeper and was in-charge of ringing the school bell with additional charge of the watchman. He stayed in the servant quarters and had two sons. Both his sons were day scholar students in our school. I guess their education was free as their father was an old employee of the school.
While interacting with the sons of Silly Billy, we came to know that their father had an actual name. He was Dila Ram Chetri rechristened Silly Billy. Ten long years, I saw the man absolutely the same. Big bulging eyes, red mouth, foul mouthed and the trademark thick brown jacket with patches on the elbow, goofing up at least once a month on the job. He wore big white dial wristwatch on his hand and he would follow the time like a bible, and go about his job of ringing the big gong at the start and end of school. In between, he would ring the small brass plate bell between periods.
Some student boarder over the years from different era would manage to fiddle around with his watch and the end result was amusing. Suddenly, you hear the big gong going at 2.45pm instead of 3pm, which was end of school time. On other days, you hear the small brass plate bell going at 11.50 am instead of 12pm, signifying lunch time. When you heard the sound of bell, every student would run out of the classroom. We then would see him looking ruffled waiting outside the principal’s office because of his goof up. I assume he got a mouthful every time, for the following day, he would foul mouth us with his broken English.
The best funny memories are the friendly banter between Brother Shannon and Silly Billy. Brother Shannon was a strong, bald Irishman and loved gardening on a small patch outside his room in the brother’s house. Some goat would merrily chew on the nicely trimmed hedges, on silly billy’s watch time .Brother Shannon would look out for silly billy and give him a mouthful. Both did not understand each other and it was a sight to see them arguing. Their argument would proceed from talking to showing sign languages to each other, trying to explain the situation and ultimately Brother Shannon would lift his hand in despair and give a friendly knock with his knuckle which would land on Silly Billy’s forehead. The next day Silly Billy arrived for duty with a lump on his forehead, letting out expletives on us trying to explain the situation. This incident of the unknown goat chewing on Brother Shannon’s nicely trimmed hedges and Silly Billy landing up with a lump on his forehead would repeat every now and then, year after year, and I felt his nickname Silly Billy was appropriate to his deeds. After all, he represented a school whose motto was “Facta Non Verba” meaning Deeds not Words. After each goof up, he would come back recharged giving us foul mouthed abuses, though in good humour.
The icing on the cake was a football match organised between the teachers and staff members in our school. Our man, Silly Billy, a keen footballer was always the centre forward in his team. Once he got the ball at the half line, dribbled his way forward and missed the shot near the goalkeeper, skidding away and we find Silly Billy inside the net instead of the ball. The referee would then blow a loud whistle and give in to Silly Billy’s antics and award a goal to his team, all in good humour.
I finally bid goodbye to Silly Billy, after our class 10 boards in the month of March’1989. Never met him or heard anything from my school mates for a very long time.
With time gone by, memories fade and so Silly Billy went into oblivion. With the advent of technology, especially facebook and Instagram, the world is at your fingertips. Some are able to reconnect with childhood buddies and long lost friend. Sometime in the year 2004, I got a message “guess who” from one of my old school mates with a short video clip. When I viewed the clip, I could see a man going into a cafe “Trouble Coffee”, walking up to the counter and ordering a takeaway. I could hear a firm thank you and the man would then turn around facing the camera. He looked familiar, smartly dressed in a brown tweet coat and had big bulging eyes. I could not figure out and wrote back to my friend “sorry, cannot guess?? Who? Pat came the reply “Silly Billy”.
Apparently, one of his son’s migrated to San Francisco in the United States and was well settled there. On close scrutiny, our man “Silly Billy” was walking with his grandchild, who was taking the video clip. I was elated and happy to see him after nearly 20 years.
The year 2008, I got news from the same school mate that Silly Billy passed away due to illness in his son’s home in San Francisco, USA.
Felt sad for a moment and then happy that he had a good life after his retirement. To the world he may have been Dila Ram Chetri, to us he will always remain the affable Silly Billy.
SIDDHARTHA BOROOAH is a real estate developer based in Guwahati. He did his schooling from St. Edmund’s School, Shillong and is an economics graduate from Elphinstone College, Mumbai. One of his passion is creative writing.