|The imposing cornerstone at the entrance to the gracious Birkmyre Hostel on Middleton Row in the heart of Kolkata says it all. A gift from Sir Archibald Birkmyre to the Reverend Dr. John Anderson Graham for the boys of Kalimpong, it is testimony to the gratitude and appreciation that Sir Archibald Birkmyre had for the selfless and dedicated work of Daddy Graham and his own love for the children of Dr. Graham's Homes.
Sir Archibald Birkmyre was a Senior Partner of Birkmyre Brothers, a Scottish Company engaged in the trading and manufacture of jute and jute products in India. He also served on the Viceroy of India's Legislative Council and the Bengal Legislative Council. Sir Archibald Birkmyre was knighted in 1917, appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918 and made a Baronet in the 1921 New Year Honours. The foundation stone of the Birkmyre Hostel, which reads “Sir Archibald Birkmyre's gift to the children of Kalimpong”, was laid on 8th July 1925 by Sir John Kerr, Acting Governor of Bengal. Since then, this magnificent four-storied building has been home to hundreds of boys and girls of Dr. Graham's Homes, whilst they were in Kolkata.
At that time, Daddy Graham would send boys who had completed their schooling at the Homes to live temporarily at the Birkmyre Hostel, to either study or train as apprentices in different industries and equip themselves with the qualifications and experience needed to make useful careers for themselves. Some of them would even work in our own bakery at the Hostel, popularly known as “The Kalimpong Confectionery’’. In the 18 years that I have served as Superintendent of the Birkmyre Hostel, I have had the good fortune of meeting many OGBs passing through Kolkata, most of whom have had very fond and grateful memories of the Homes and the Birkmyre.
I remember Norman Hutchinson telling me that he used to sell his drawings and paintings to the Birkmyre boys for a couple of rupees to pay his hostel bills, whilst Duncan Wadforth used to live like a king at the Birks as he was fortunate to have a good job with the License Measurers. Like the saying goes "You win some and you lose some." And these are just to name a couple.
Today things are quite different. After finishing school, the sponsored boys come to the Birkmyre under my care and the girls go to the Elliot Road Ladies’ Hostel run by Mrs. Barbara Quinn. They do not have to look for jobs as they are immediately taken under the wing of the “Extended Sponsorship Programme” that takes care of their board and lodging, college fees, stationery, pocket money, career counselling, Bible Studies as well as first aid and medicals during emergencies. The "Extended Sponsorship Programme" is painstakingly managed by Mrs. Beryl Mendes, Welfare Officer for Dr. Graham’s Homes, who deals with her wards with the firmness of a matron and the love of a mother. Her office is on the ground floor of the building. She is also Secretary to the Chairman and President of the Board of Management, and like many others, she is one amongst the unsung heroes of the Homes.
The Dr. Graham’s Homes Ladies’ Hostel is located at 36 Elliot Road and accommodates 15 students. It has been packed to capacity ever since it was inaugurated in June 2005. Getting suitable accommodation for the new girls coming out to Kolkata to pursue their graduation was becoming a big worry as the safety and security of these young girls was our top priority. The Board therefore decided to open another dormitory for 10 more girls on the first floor of the Birkmyre and the first batch came to live here on 1st July 2009. Ms. Iona Barker is currently the Warden of the girls’ dormitory.
Once every year the Birkmyre goes into overdrive with the School Choir coming down to Kolkata to perform at various venues in the city including at the magnificent St. Paul's Cathedral. The 80 strong Choir is housed at the Birkmyre for 10 to 12 days every December, with board and lodging, transportation, outing and pocket money after the programme, taken care of by us. Despite the pressure that this puts on all of us, it is an occasion we look forward to. The enthusiasm and vitality of the young boys and girls from the Homes is contagious and is for us, an invigorating experience.
Most of the children at the Homes go home to their parents for the Christmas holidays. But every year there are 8 to 10 children, sometimes even more, who have nowhere to go. Again, God bless the Birkmyre Hostel, as my wife and I open our home to these children and try our best to be good parents to them and give them a good holiday to the extent our pockets can afford. The School does take care of their toiletries and some outing money.
The Birkmyre kitchen is run under the able guidance of Mrs. Joanne Augustine. Meals are monitored strictly and served in the dining room. Breakfast on weekdays consists of 1 egg (fried or boiled), 4 slices of bread and butter, 1 banana, and tea served between 6.30 am and 9 am. Sunday is special, the menu comprising porridge, puris and bhaji, bananas and tea. Lunch is served from 12.30 pm to 1.30 pm every day and is typically very Anglo-Indian, either beef jhal frazie or pork vindaloo or beef bhooney, potato korma, vegetables, dal, rice etc. Fish or prawns are served on Tuesdays and Fridays. Sunday lunch is special – chicken korma or pork curry or beef ball curry, salad and fruit. Tea is served from 3.30 pm to 4 pm and dinner from 7.30 pm to 8.30 pm. The dinner menu comprises potato chops or pantras or pork or beef roast with baked beans, fried potatoes, salad, soup and bread. More than anything else, this sumptuous food is prepared and served with love and care, just as in anyone's home.
For daily studies after college hours, the children use the library. For entertainment, they have a television with a satellite connection. For games, they have a basketball court-cum-football-cum-cricket ground and for indoor games, the children have 2 carrom boards and 2 Scrabble word game sets. For the soul, Bible Study classes are conducted every Tuesday evening by Brother Lionel Chelappa.
I consider it a privilege to be associated with the Birkmyre Hostel for it gives me the opportunity to serve these young adults from the Homes. To look after their material and spiritual needs, to guide and mentor them, to console them when things are not going well, to motivate them and give them hope and inspiration when they think of the future. It gives me great satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment and for me, being Superintendent of the Birkmyre Hostel is not a professional occupation, it is indeed a vocation. I thank God and the Board of Management for giving me the opportunity to serve this very unique institution.
Superintendent, Birkmyre Hostel