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.