The Bunk Bed And Other Life Lessons

Outside of the cupboard, the steel framed bunk bed was the closest thing to ownership that I had in the dormitory.  Coated in chipped white enamel the two levels of the bed’s steel frame supported plywood planks, on top of which a knotted cotton mattress was placed.  Whatever bedding went over this was up to the student to provide.  The final piece was the bed cover.  Identical for all beds in the dorm, this was an unimaginatively designed, color appropriate striped sheet (in my case it was dark blue and white) that was used to wrap each student’s bed.  This gave the impression of an orderly environment, despite the sometimes urine stained, often unwashed sheets and sleeping bags that were underneath.

The Ajit House dorm I lived in had four rows of bunk beds, each ten bunks in length.  The two center rows were placed against each other, with a wide walkway that separated these from the outer two rows.  Every bed in a row was equally spaced, with just enough room on either side to squeeze through.  To get to a top bunk there was a bar welded just below the center of the bedframe’s head and foot, which was used as a foothold.  No handholds were given, making any attempt to scale these bunk beds, especially for the smaller kids, a dangerous endeavor.  Often kids would use the bedding of the top bunk to hold onto while climbing up.  If the bedding was not properly anchored or tucked in, it would shift or slide, causing the student to lose their balance and tumble to the ground, or worse, crack their head against the frame.

The bunk bed’s metal frame also conveniently served as the perfect instrument for waking us up, and our Dormitory Supervisor was a master at playing it.  His morning performance began with turning the lights on at 6 am, followed by a scream I imagine he perfected while fantasizing about being a soldier in the Indian Army and charging Pakistani defensive positions.

“Wake up!  Wake Uuuuup!  Waaaaake Uuuuuuuuuup!” 

Using his wooden cane, he would beat it back and forth against the metal frame of each bed until he felt the child in that bed was sufficiently awake.  Some students would play for my time, by sitting up until he passed, only to lie down again when he went on to the next row of bunk beds. 

For these hardcore sleepers, who refused to be rousted by the Supervisor’s first act, the finale was guaranteed to do the job.  The show culminated with the virtuoso ripping away the covers of any student remaining in bed, while yelling, “Saala!  Mader Chod! Waaaaaake Uuuuuup!”

Once satisfied that his work was complete, the Supervisor would vanish as quickly as he appeared, leaving the students to groggily go about their business, heading to the bathrooms or beginning to get dressed.

The first day of the school year was crucial, in that once you picked a bed, either a top or bottom bunk, this remained your spot for the rest of the year.  So getting it right was important.  If you happened to get into a fight with your neighbor, they would remain your neighbor, unless you could talk another kid into trading places.  Like much of boarding school life, you quickly learned from your mistakes. 

The choice in choosing a bed had two considerations.  The first was location.  Learning from the mistake of being too close to the dorm’s entrance the first year, as this was where the Supervisor started his wake-up routine, in following years I always chose a bed on the furthest corner away from the entrance, so that his yelling wouldn’t be so jarring and I’d have a few minutes to wake up before he got to my bed.

The second thing to consider was to make sure, no matter what, you got a bottom bunk.  The obvious reason was getting in and out of a top bunk could prove much more dangerous over the year.  Having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night when you were in a top bunk involved a much higher level of alertness and therefore less sleep.   The other reason was the ability to block out light.  Since you had no say when the overhead lights were turned off (the Dormitory Supervisor controlled this) and you wanted to go to sleep a little earlier than that time, having a bottom bunk helped.   If you had a top bunk you were at the mercy of these lights AND the rising sun on Sundays, our one day off a week where we could sleep in.

The American kids often slept in groups which helped further control the light on Sundays.  On Saturday night a group of us would push our beds together and use our bedsheets as curtains to block out the early sun, by tucking them under the top bed’s mattress and running them along the sides of the bedframe.  This also gave us the feeling of privacy, which was relished, as living in a dorm room with eighty children you were afforded little of it.

Looking back, it is interesting to see how much we rolled with the punches, doing our best to get by while making damn sure we made the right choice on things we could control. 

 Only one day off a week from school? Ok.  Living in a room with eighty students?  No problem.  Top bunk for a year?  No fucking way, I will kill you. 

Although at times I fixate on things I cannot change, I do my best to let go of these and focus my energy on fighting for the things I can.  Lord Bunk Bed has granted me this wisdom.  

Day Two, Part One: GNFC (Guru Nanak Fifth Centenary) Or Bust


The Savoy was offering a free yoga class at 7:30 am and I was trying to pull myself out of a melatonin induced fog so I could join.  Travel tip for those who suffer from jetlag and have not tried melatonin to help normalize their new sleep cycle; 3 mg per night had me sleeping like I was twenty again with no care in the world.

Holding the morning’s yoga session in an area on the hotel grounds inappropriately called the Beer Garden, I was joined by an older couple from Pune.  The yoga teacher was a middle aged Mussoorie native with a mixed Scottish and Indian background.  In between a lecture on “What is yoga?” (it’s about connection apparently) and a few stories about the debauchery that used to go on at The Savoy, we went through several asanas.  I wasn’t expecting much, considering it was being catered to the ultra-wealthy elites on Holiday, so was happy to walk away from it feeling balanced and awake.

This was followed by a complimentary breakfast buffet served at the Main Lodge, which was definitely a step above your average hotel buffet fare.

I must admit, it was slightly unnerving to have three servers constantly hovering nearby, waiting to carry out your every wish.

“More tea sir?”

“How is everything sir?

“Are you needing a new plate sir?”

“Sir, you are god-like.  Please stand on our backs so we can lift you home to heaven.”

Ok.  That last one didn’t happen.  It was me reading into the subtext of the dynamics playing out between the guests and staff.

With breakfast wrapping up, my time at The Savoy was nearing its end.  My carriage was about to turn into a pumpkin and I began to prepare for my departure to rejoin the common people.  I would be staying at the Hotel Vishnu Palace, a three-starred establishment across the street from The Savoy.  It was built down the slope of the mountain, with my room at the very bottom, on the 4th floor.

After dropping my stuff off in my room, I was anxious and ready to get on my way.  There had been intermittent thunderstorms rolling through Mussoorie starting at about the time our yoga teacher was telling us why The Savoy used to have a bell that rang at five every morning (so the pious could pray and the sinners could get back to their rooms before everyone else woke up).  As I left the hotel, rain began again and I had to duck in to a café at Library Point to avoid the downpour.  Ordering a masala chai, I nursed the tea while waiting out the storm and listened to a European woman carry out a lengthy conversation in perfect Hindi.

With the rain ending, my tea drank and the desire to continue eavesdropping diminishing, I set out on my way to find a cab to take me to Vincent Hill.  After the Picture Palace incident, I did not want not rely entirely on memory.   I figured a couple hundred rupees ($4) would be a worthy investment to get me to Vincent Hill in a timely fashion.

All taxis took The Long Way back to school.  This was a road that wrapped around the mountain, passing an Indo Tibetan Border Patrol station (ITBP for short) that demarked the halfway point from Town to GNFC-Vincent Hill.  Another way to school was The Shortcut (we were very literal with these names).  This went up and over the top of the mountain, ending with a path leading down directly to the school’s gate.  The third and rarely used way, so rare that it wasn’t given a name, was a road that wound up from Mussoorie proper, through an area called Waverly, past the girl’s school, Shangri-La, before arriving from the opposite direction of The Long Way to the gate of  Vincent Hill.

Sitting in the backseat of the taxi, I was happy I chose this option, as the road out of town that turned into The Long Way was completely unrecognizable.  That was until we reached the ITBP station.  It had the exact same sign and iron gate that I remembered, with the road making a sharp elevated turn at its entrance wrapping itself around the bend of the mountain.  This triggered the proverbial flood gates of my subconscious to open, with memories of The Long Way beginning to rush back.

I remembered Bird and I taking a horse back to school at night from Town.  Early on the journey home, we got caught in a torrential downpour that never let up, soaking us to the bone, and with thunder and lightning so fierce that any sensible person would be afraid for their life.  The thought of getting electrocuted didn’t really bother us that much.  What did, was that we had convinced ourselves that we were being stalked by a tiger.  I imagine we had never prayed as hard or chanted as loud as we did that night on top of that horse for Guru Ram Das (4th Sikh Guru) to save our asses from this creature we imagined in our minds.

I was also struck by the memory of a mandatory jog that the entire student body had to go on every afternoon, to the ITBP station and back.  That was until a Brahmin bull went berserk, probably as a result from seeing a sea of kids running directly at it.  One boy, Sri Ved, ended up getting what looked to be gored in the crotch and nearly tossed over the side of the road.  Many of us watched in horror as he held on to the railing for dear life and screamed at a pitch that sounded like he had just lost his testicles.  Once the bull finally let him go and moved on to chase other students, it was discovered that Sri Ved had escaped any serious injury other than to his shorts and his tough guy reputation.

Our arrival at the gate of Vincent Hill snapped me back into the present. Excitement with an undercurrent of melancholy flowed through me as I paid the driver and stepped out of the cab.  Just then I noticed the guard at the gate coming out to greet me.

It was too soon for me to engage with him.  I was not ready to enter.  Doing my best impersonation of a guest at The Savoy, I ignored the guard and started to walk the other way.

They changed the gate!  I thought.  And they painted the support wall on the opposite side of the road white with red GNFC logos!

I began to walk along the road that continued in the other direction towards the girl’s school.  This would give me a clear view of Vincent Hill below, while simultaneously allowing me to see the residence for the American guides, two families who had been tasked with keeping us alive.

It was about a 100 meters distance from the gate, before the school came completely into view.

They changed the fence along the road! It’s way higher than before.  Is it supposed to keep people out, or the kids in?  I wondered.

My memory may be dodgy on some things surrounding the school, but not the school itself.  You could show me a picture of the school years from now on my death bed, taken from the spot where I now stood and I’d be like, “I leave everything to my brother.  Vincent Hill.”

A storm had just passed and the sun was now shining.  Standing in its warmth, I looked down at the place I called home for five years of my childhood.  For years I dreamed about this moment and wondered how it would feel to look upon this school again.  Surprisingly, a calmness I have come to know as love and acceptance was all that was there.  Glancing briefly over at the Guide’s Residence, it looked the same, just a little worse for wear.  Kind of like me.

I was ready.