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.)

Regimental Fund

On taking over command of our Regiment in June 2002, we were deployed in our operational area in Rajasthan, ready to be launched into battle any time.  The mercury tipped many days over 40°C and the Regiment had been there since the dawn of the New Year.

The entire Regiment was living in tents with the Commanding Officer (CO) provided with a much more spacious and larger tent.  The other luxury the CO enjoyed was a desert cooler in the tent and the Second-in-Command (2IC) too had this luxury.  A 5kW generator meant for the workshop powered the lights, fans and desert coolers from 9 AM to 2 PM and then from 7 PM to 10 PM.

My first day in command was spent on familiarisation of the Regiment and the area around.  It ended with my first command order.  Please click here to read https://rejinces.net/2016/04/01/first-comd-order/.

That was when I realised that the dreams and plans I had in mind to be executed on taking over command had to be kept in abeyance as there weren’t adequate funds.  The only money at my disposal was Rs 200000 from a fixed deposit that had matured.  That wasn’t my money and if I used it, I had to make it up.

After working out the power requirement, it was decided to procure three 15kW generators and fifty desert coolers to equip every tent in the Regiment.  Two Young Officers with a team of soldiers were deputed to purchase the same from Jodhpur, the nearest town.  From that evening we had a well lit and well cooled township.  My only worry was that I had spent most of the Regimental Fund.

That evening at the Officers’ Mess, I gave out my command policy.  Anything that does not have a utility value to the Regiment in our operational area or for the families of our officers and soldiers at our permanent location must be disposed offAll funds, Regimental and others must be utilised towards the war efforts.

All Officers and soldiers were asked to propose anything they needed and I found they were too contented with what I gave them the very first day and wanted no more.

We procured two desktop computers to support my automation endeavours. Now I had to conserve all that was left with our Regimental Fund.  The first step was to reduce stationary usage by automation and we succeeded to a great extent.

In November we were ordered to return to our permanent location at Devlali. I ordered that only one of the three generators to be carried along and the rest two and all fifty coolers to be sold off at 60% of their cost with the first priority for our soldiers.  The coolers and generators were of no use to the Regiment at Devlali and would have turned into junk later.  Our soldiers from Rajasthan picked up the entire lot and I recouped half the Regimental Fund I had spent.

The first project we executed was a washroom cleaning device based on the mobile cleaning unit employed by the Indian Railways to clean the toilets of the trains on the platform.  Our soldiers designed and built it.  Now every soldier could carry out janitorial duties and the Safaiwalas (Janitors) were available to accompany radar detachments, survey teams and also operate radio sets.  They turned up smartly in their combat uniforms every morning walking with a swag with the radio set on their back and the operators pad in their hand.

Most of my time in the Regiment was spent at the Computer Cell.  Whenever needed, I relieved at the soldiers’ washroom rather than using the washroom at my office. This ensured that all soldiers kept their washrooms spic and span.

Two weeks after landing at Devlali, Major General RS Jambusarwalla, our Divisional Commander visited us.  I received him at the Regiment and he walked to the rear end of his car and ordered his driver to open the boot.  There it was – a computer, a printer and a multimedia projector.  That was the only time in my military career a visit by a senior officer began with a gift to the Regiment.

Two weeks later was the inspection by Lieutenant General GS Sihota, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VM,   the Army Commander, Southern Command and his proposal for other units to procure the software we had developed for Rs 10000 was a great boon.  Now I had all the money at my disposal to implement all my ‘wild ideas.’

We were a SATA Battery being converted to a SATA Regiment.  We did not have a JCOs’ Club, an important Regimental institution.  Fighting many a battle with the Station Headquarters, we managed to get a near dilapidated building allotted as our JCOs’ Club. I summoned our SM and tasked him to get the building done up, procure furniture, crockery, cutlery, etc.  I gave him a month’s time for executing the task with my final advice “It’s got to be better than our Officers’ Mess.”  After a month our SM invited all officers for a cocktail at the JCOs’ Club for inauguration.  The above image is the testimony to that day.

The next project was to create a high-end barber shop.  Please read https://rejinces.net/2016/04/29/acgo/.

Our soldiers came up with a request for a multi-gym.  SM Thangaswamy was tasked to execute the project with the assistance of other JCOs.  They suggested procuring the equipment  from Ambala as it would a cheaper option.  I advised them to procure it locally from Nashik to ensure installation and warranty services.

Two weeks later SM Thnagswamy asked me about my availability to inaugurate the gym.  I asked him to inaugurate immediately and make it available to our soldiers.

We automated our kitchen with flour kneader, freezers and coolers for storage of milk, meat and vegetables.  We were allotted a ‘Steam Jacketed Cooking System’ for the soldiers’ kitchen procured from special funds under the Army Commander’s Special Financial Power. I did not want it to turn into an elephant’s teeth for show alone.  How we extracted its full value, please read https://rejinces.net/2019/03/31/elephantteeth/.

I was lucky that I had a great lot of officers and soldiers who accepted me, supported my ideas and worked wholeheartedly to ensure fulfilment of all my dreams.  I must sincerely thank all Officers, JCOs, NCOs and soldiers and a special high-five for our Subedar Major (SM) Thangaswamy who kept me in high spirits with his sense of humour.


Did I realise all the dreams I came with to command?  It’s an emphatic Yes and much more; all because of a great Regiment that I was lucky to command.