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.)

Movie Screening at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar

Nostalgia struck me when I read a Facebook post by a very senior alumni of our school about the movie – The Guns of Navarone.  It was the second English movie I watched in my life.  The first English movie was Mackenna’s Gold.  The next English movie was Where Eagles Dare.

When I joined the school in 1971, I knew only Malayalam and English was all alien.  The ‘scary’ scenes in all these movies ensured that I closed my eyes and slept off in 15 minutes.  I later watched all these classics.

A movie was screened every Saturday, Tamil, Hindi, English and occasionally a Malayalm movie.  The swimming pool doubled up as an open-air movie theatre with the viewers sitting on the stadium steps, and the screen placed on the opposite side of the swimming pool.  Later, the old Senior Cadets’ Mess was converted into a movie theatre.  The cadets had early dinner on Saturday at 7 PM and the screening commenced at 8 PM – after it became dark.

Mr P Gurumoorthy with our classmate Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, Param Vishisht Seva Medal, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal, Vishisht Seva Medal – Vice Chief of Naval Staff (Roll No 870)

Mr P Gurumoorthy, our Mathematics Teacher, an expert in local liaison, was responsible for procuring the movie and the late Mr PT Cherian, our Physics Teacher was responsible for the screening.  To read more about Mr PT Cherian, please click here.

Mr Gurumoorthy was better known as the Naval Officer in the National Cadets Corps.  The sight of him in his crisp white Naval uniform was the main motivating factor for many of our friends choosing to opt for the Indian Navy at the National Defence Academy.  He was instrumental in I choosing the Indian Navy as my first option, but the medical authorities decided that I was fit for the Army only.

 

The projector used then was RCA Photophone 35mm which used a carbon arc to throw the image of the celluloid film on to the big screen.  Today’s digital screening had not come in.  The movies came in reels – each reel 1000 feet long, running for about ten minutes.  The Indian movies were generally of 16 reels, running for about two and a half  hours and English movies about 10 to 12 reels, of about 90 minutes to two hours.  The reels of a movie were enclosed in steel boxes and were physically transported from theatre to theatre, often by bus or train. 

To reduce cost of production and keeping in mind commercial viability, a Tamil movie was released in about 25 cities/ towns of Tamil Nadu.  Theatres in Udumalpet (Udumalaippettai,) the closest town to Amaravathi Nagar – about 25 km away – hardly ever received a new release Tamil movie.  It featured in the ‘Second-Run’ towns – that meant that a Tamil movie was screened a month or two after its release.  English and Hindi movies came mostly six months to year, many much later, after their release. 

English and Hindi movies ran as morning shows on Saturdays and Sundays at Udumalpet theatres.  After the Saturday’s morning show, the reels were despatched by bus to Amaravathi Nagar and was screened in the evening.  Sunday morning, the first bus carried the reels back to Udumalpet, in time for the theatre to screen their Sunday morning show.

Tamil movies were screened in Udumalpet theatres as regular shows – matinee (3 to 5:30 PM), first show (6 to 8:30 PM) and second show (9:30 PM to midnight.)  Now how to get those reels to far away Amaravathi Nagar on a Saturday evening when the movie was playing its regular shows?

Illustration by Sherrin Koduvath

After the movie played its first five reels, it was loaded into the bus on its last trip at 7 PM from Udumalpet and the bus reached Amaravathi Nagar a few minutes before 8 PM.  As the swimming pool was very close to the bus-stand, the screening commenced immediately thereafter.

Mr Menon on his Bullet Motorcycle, stationed at the theatre in Udumalpet, carried the next six reels at 8 PM and reached Amaravathi Nagar by 8:30 PM.  He returned with the reels played till then to Udumalpet, in time for the theatre to commence their second show.  Then he carried the last six reels to Amaravathi Nagar and returned them after screening. What an idea Sir Ji!!!!  

How was any delay in this clock-work precise operation covered?  Mr Gurumoorthy had an answer.  The local theatre had bits and pieces of song and dance sequences and fight scenes, cut out from reels of Hindi and English movies.  These were screened to keep the viewers engaged, as Mr Menon raced to the theatre with fresh reels.

Veteran Colonel T Ravi (Roll No 556) reminisces:-Prior to 1969, the school had only a 16 mm projector. The movies were all ‘black and white’ English movies. Maybe, there were no Tamil and Hindi movies available in that format.

That time, Chera, Chola, Pandya and Bharathi Houses dined in the longish shed. Bigger strength Pallava and Valluvar Houses dined in the Boxing Arena. On Saturdays, if a movie was to be screened, we had to pick up our chairs after lunch and deposit them on the lawn that existed between the two sheds. The mess staff took out the dining tables and made seating arrangement for viewing the movie. Dinner was served outside.

90% of 5th and 6th Graders fell asleep as soon as the movie started. For one, we were tired, and the other, we could not understand the language.  Subtitles and close captioning were not heard of or seen. The film strips often broke or Mr Cherian had to change the spool with the help of his lab assistant Manuel. He switched on a lamp he had on his switch board, and wake us from the slumber. After the movie was over, we were woken up and sleep walked back to the dorms.

Sometime in 1969, a 35 mm projector was installed in the swimming pool and the first movie to be screened was Sivaji Ganesan & Jayalalitha starrer ‘Enga Mama’ – remake of Hindi Film Brahmachari) The students sat on the bleachers, while the Staff sat on the top arena. We started watching movies in Eastman color. Since it was an outdoor pool, the movie screening was dependent on weather. Some evenings the movie show was cancelled even while we were eating our early dinner of tomato rice and kaajaa. There have been occasions we had to scoot half way through the movie, due to unexpected showers.

Apparently, around 1974, the movie screening moved back to the good old ‘longish’ shed, but with a proper projection room and 180 degree change in the viewing direction – with the stage now becoming the balcony.

Some of the daring 11th Graders (senior most then) sometimes sneaked off to Udumalpet on a Saturday evening, watch a movie, sleep in the bus stand and return on Sunday morning. Not many attempted this risky business, anyway.’ 

Veteran General PM Hariz (Roll No 579) writes:-Whilst watching 16 mm movies like No Man is an Island – a 1962 war film about the exploits of George Ray Tweed, a US Navy radioman who avoided capture and execution by the Japanese during World War II;  Sinbad the Sailor – a 1947 fantasy film about the daredevil sailor Sinbad, who embarks on a voyage across the Seven Seas to find the lost riches of Alexander the Great; etc, changing of reels took some time.  This dead time was for the singing talents to pelt a few numbers.  I vividly recollect Om Prakash (Roll No 285)- our short hockey wizard – singing ‘Asman sey aaya farishta’ and using the reel cover as the dhol (drum.)

Movie watching at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar will forever linger in the minds of all its alumni.

Veteran Plate

On social-media, a friend, an Indian, now settled in UK  commented  “For Indians the mode of transport is a status symbol. When my uncle became a Sub-Lieutenant  from a Naval rating, the first thing he did was replace push bike for a scooter. In U.K. I have seen Lord Chancellor Hailsham and Prime Minister David Cameron riding bike to the Parliament.”

Indians carry the very same attitude it to the North American shores too – all riding BMW/ Mercedes/ Audi. You will hardly find Indians driving any other brand – even if their salaries are meager.

One Sunday, at the Malayalam Syrian Orthodox Church in Canada, a man told me “Why are you driving on a Honda? You can easily afford a BMW!

With Veteran General Hariz at Niagara

I’m comfortable driving a Honda, Why invest so much in a BMW?  The gasoline needed is the higher grade which is costlier and the cost of maintenance too is high,” I replied.

I was taken aback by his reply “If you want people to respect you in this church, then you must drive a BMW.

Remember – Jesus went to the church riding a poor donkey!!! No one should have valued him then!!!!

I said “My ‘VETERAN’ license plate is much more valuable than your BMW. There is many BMWs in the parking lot. Show me another car with a Veteran plate???”

The Veteran Licence plate is available to those who have honourably served in in the Canadian Armed Forces, including Reserve Forces, the forces of the Commonwealth, or its wartime allies. Indian Army Veterans too fall in this category. Indian Army fought the two World Wars alongside the Canadians as part of the Commonwealth and they respect that association.

Canada values Veterans’ contribution, dedication and commitment to serving and protecting our country. The licence plate features a Red Poppy with the word ‘VETERAN.’ The poppy has been a symbol of those who died while fighting for peace since it was first distributed in Canada in 1921. The plate can only be used by the veteran and is non-transferable. In demise of the Veteran, the plate can be held by the family as a souvenir.

Veteran licence plate holders can park for free at on-street metered parking spaces and in municipal paid parking lots in many municipalities. Some parking lots have parking lots earmarked for Veterans.

In Ontario province of Canada, a regular car licence plate consists of four alphabets and three digits with a crown in between. One can choose to include graphics such as the loon, a trillium, or the logo of your favourite professional sports team, community organisation or university on your personalised licence plate. A personalised licence plate or a Vanity Plate may contain 2 to 8 characters (letters and/or numbers) without a graphic and with a graphic, the maximum is six characters. Thus a personalised licence plate for a veteran can have only six characters as the Red Poppy graphic is to be placed. Offensive meanings or derogatory, profane, racist, sexual, religious, as well as references to a variety of subjects, drugs and alcohol, political opinions, criminal activity, etc are considered objectionable.