The Pleasant Land of Counterpane

I was the giant great and still,
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane

From the Poem – The Land of Counterpane – by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894.)

It was during the year 1971, when we, as nine-year-old kids, joined the fifth grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (located in Tamil Nadu, India), that I first heard the word ‘Counterpane.’ For some of you too, it must be a Baader-Meinhof.

I have often been Baader-Meinhofed by Sashi Tharoor with his eloquent English vocabulary, many a times forcing my fingers to caress my cellphone to search for the meaning of the word.

Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one stumbles upon some obscure piece of information⁠ – often an unfamiliar word or name⁠ – and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.

On the day that we joined the school, late Mrs Mercy Mathai, our Matron, ushered us into our dormitory. We were allotted a hall with 12 beds laid out with military precision. Every bed was covered with a thick cotton sheet with our school colours – a steel grey background with four blood red lines running near its four borders in such a manner that the inner lines fell along the border of the mattress. These lines caught my attention and I presumed that the four lines represented the four houses for cadets named after the four famous Tamil Kingdoms – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava. I was assigned to the Pandya House.

Addressing her new wards, Mrs Mathai said “This is your bed and it is covered with a counterpane. Before you go to bed, each of you will fold it neatly and place it at the foot-board. You will not use it to cover yourself at night. For that there is a blanket near the foot-board.”

Was I Baader-Meinhofed?  I did not understand a word as I knew only Malayalam. 

I was introduced to the term ‘Counterpane‘ in Sainik School. I presumed that counterpane was of British origin, but, oddly, never came across the term later at the military academies, in India. I was therefore, pleasantly surprised when my colleague Major Rajib Basu in 1989 at Devlali, Baader-Meinhofed me when he referred to his bed cover as a “counterpane!” He had graduated from the residential Lawrence School, Lovedale. The term was very common with many ‘public-schools’ in and around Ooty.

Counterpane is a modification of the word Counterpoint, from Old French word Contrepointe, meaning a quilted mattress.

The humid warm sultry days all through the year at Aamaravathi Nagar was a bit tough, especially without air conditioning. Why?  There were no fans even.  Windows were thrown open in our dorm to bring in whatever breeze we could catch. The breeze brought with it fine dust particles and there was the counterpane, discharging its duty to protect my bed from this dust. 

We carried our counterpanes to our senior dorms in grade 9, where we had a cabin allotted for each cadet.

The counterpane protected the mattress and the blankets.  How often do we clean or wash our mattress and blankets?  Today the counterpane has been relegated to be an unnecessary addition that just ends up tangled at the bed’s foot-board.

Try using a counterpane to cover your bed during day and you will end up with a clean bed in the evening.  You may find yourself having the best sleep of your life!

In those days many military stations were not authorised fans.  Most military stations were established by the British and were at cooler and greener hill stations. Blame it on climate change or global warming, most military stations now are authorised air conditioners.  I have seen it all.

We had to fold our counterpane every evening prior to retreating to our bed. It was a sin to use it to cover our body at night with it – all because it may lead to skin rashes due to aberration with the dust particles it carried.

Next morning, we had to neatly spread the counterpane on our beds, tuck it in at the rear end, ensuring that the four red lines ran all along the mattress border and leave our dorms for the Physical Training (PT.)  Our mornings commenced with making our bed, spreading the counterpane and the last action before going to bed was folding the counterpane.

Veteran Colonel T Ravi (Roll No 556, 1974/Chera) reminisces:- In the late sixties and early seventies, counterpanes in school dorms came in varying colour combinations, but the patterns were pleasant and same.

Some of the nine- and ten-year-old 5th and 6th grade boys, still wetted their beds. The counterpanes were a great cover up, though sometimes the smell gave them away.  As they grew older, the counterpanes again covered the sins of some of the adolescent kids, who had adolescent dreams or indulged in porn.

Lieutenant Colonel AC Thamburaj, Principal, introduced the system of inspections. Every alternate Mondays, the dorms and cabins were inspected by the Principal, Headmaster, and the dorm staff. Dusting of closets and bookshelves, sweeping out the dirt, hanging all dresses rolled and thrown under the beds and the over mosquito nets, tight hanging of the mosquito net, washing the socks that smelt like dead rats, blancoing the canvas shoes that were white two weeks ago, changing the pillow case and bed sheet and hiding away unauthorised toys, bugs, pets that lived in the closet…the list was endless; but always ended up with the neat spreading of counterpanes over the well-made bed without any wrinkles.

There were some good wardens like Krishnaswami, Narayanaswami and Govindarajan. There was one scoundrel we feared the most: ‘Karunakaran.’ In 1967, he was with Chola House, and in 1968 became a shared one between Chera and Chola Junior houses. He always found out the exact one item we tried to hide under the mattress or at the bottom shelf of closet. In later years at the military academy, Karunakaran’s training kept me safe from the Divisional Officers during cabin cupboard inspections.

The Counterpanes in School had a tag showing it was manufactured by ‘ChenTex‘ – a cooperative at Chennimalai near Tiruppur and Kangeyam. Chentex, a Weavers Cooperative Society was established in 1941 and is leading on manufacturer of bed covers, bed sheets, bed spreads, cotton bath towels etc. The Society sells within India and also exports to European countries.

We got so used to counterpanes, that a beds without them, always looked incomplete.

Veteran General PM Hariz (Roll No 579, 1974/Pallava) writes: – The legacy of counterpane continued right through our lives I would say … just that over the years it got transformed into a bed cover with greater elegance than the one we had at School …the purpose was the same!!

To me a more important lesson was that of making the bed as one got up early morn each day – at school as Reji said we had to make our bed and cover it with the ‘Counterpane’ before even we got to get going with the morning routine. Some of us left hastily, only to return from PT to find our matron frowning upon the ‘les miserable’ who had left his bed in the same state of rest!!!!

Soon the habit of making one’s bed kicked in and it became second nature to me … and have carried it till today … my wife Zarina and kids fail to understand why I remain paranoid with an unmade bed – and why I hurry to make the bed even as the sun is only just rising!!

That is a habit with a lesson!! In that, one commenced the day with a small doable task … it made it then mentally possible to continue doing small/big tasks through the day. Also importantly, when one returned late at night from work etc – one came back to a clean and made bed – which by itself was a blessing to crawl into after a long day at work!!

It has become so ingrained that I would make the bed even in a guest room or hotel room – at least set the bed in order and place all items at its designated place…. Believe me ..even as I got up this morn at 5.30 ..I first made my bed – my side of the bed !!!

For many of us even today – Amaravathi Nagar remains The Pleasant Land of Counterpane.

Images courtesy M Balaajhi, (Roll Number 4574, 2010/Pandya) and Ashok Prabhu, (Roll Number3499, 2002/Pandya.)