As anyone who has ever lived in a government provided house will tell you, the euphoria of receiving the allotment order for a long awaited house is followed by the more serious business of formally taking over the prized dwelling, complete with its inventory of sanitary fittings, brass taps, light fixtures and so on, carefully catalogued in an inventory of fittings. For a young memsahib moving into her first home, the high of the allotment is often followed by a sense of disappointment on seeing the bulky, unwieldy furniture and whitewashed walls that assault her sense of style and visions of a cozy cottage, that is, till her natural ingenuity takes over to transform an otherwise dull, box-like indistinguishable structure, into a stylish address.
For those like me who have been raised since early childhood on a diet of government furniture, the sturdy chairs and tables served many purposes, from creating a makeshift ladder to climb into the loft, to creating a stage and seating for one of the many home production plays that we inflicted upon reluctant and somewhat embarrassed parents, as well as, stumps for our endless cricket matches, whereas the dining table could be used as a passable table-tennis table. A quarter of a century later, when I was allotted my own house, I discovered that while the furniture had remained largely the same from my parents’ time, much like elderly family retainers, the inventory list with its archaic names completely foxed me and was a source of amusement to my wife. For I discovered that, the items that I had simply referred to as the long brown table or the high square table, actually had other names that took some getting used to, like uncovering a new side to an old friend’s personality. Unknown to many of us, the sturdy if dowdy furniture provided a feeling of welcome, comfort and security to us wandering nomads who moved from mainland to island and from city to mountain top to desert like migratory herds of wild animals.
While the items issued (yes, they are actually issued) to most fauji houses across India are identical in form, fit and function, many are legacies of bygone eras and although never used, they continue to be provided simply because that has been the practice for the last half-century. The trouble would start when it was time to hand over the house and one simply could not locate a piece that had never been used and hence had remained out of sight and out of mind. To the average civilian reader, the concept of ‘furniture issue’ may seem quaint, but terms like ‘furniture issue days’ and ‘barrack damages’ have always been part of our lexicon.
Among the items issued and never used was the “Set MNF”, which had nothing to do with the Mizo National Front, and was an acronym for an unpretentious Mosquito Net Frame. To the uninitiated, this was a set of metal rods of varying lengths that could be inserted into designated slots in the “Cot Nevar” (more about that later), and assembled together into a frame to suspend a mosquito net. If dropped on the floor, a rod would emit the most horrendous, shrill and irritating clang. With eight rods to a bed, there was a sizeable collection of rods from the five beds that had to be carefully stored, till the inventory was mustered in the presence of a rep of the BSO, or the Barrack Stores Officer, and signed off on the occupant’s transfer. Rarely used for their intended purposes ever since the late sixties, the rods had other useful purposes and were handy as weapons to ward off snakes, lizards, rodents, stray dogs, monkeys and other forms of wildlife that shared our living quarters.
The Set MNF was eventually replaced by a T-shaped mosquito net support that continued to be standard issue, long after mosquito nets had been phased out by electronic mosquito repellents and the ubiquitous Kachhua chhaap agarbatti. Either through force of habit, or (I suspect) just to amuse himself, the barracks stores officer continued to issue these items, even after the windows had been reinforced with mosquito proof net. Much like our depleting wildlife, today they can occasionally be seen in pairs forming the support of a clothes-line or sticking out of the disused corner of a balcony, consigned there by the harried lady of the house. The cot nevar for the uneducated and unknowing, was the bed where you slept. In the days before 12 mm plywood became the standard support for the mattress on your bed, you turned into the cot nevar. Nevar (pro: nevaar) was the broad cotton tape that was stretched across the bed in a criss-cross manner and had to be frequently tightened lest it sag and give you a back ache. One assessed the standard of a home based on the slackness of the cot nevar, which was a good indicator of how tightly the household was managed by the lady, since the bed could never be made properly if it had a sag.
A bed fitted with ply was a prized possession and something to boast about in cocktail parties, since the only way one could get it without spending money, was by getting a doctor’s chit that said “advised hard bed”. Those who couldn’t get the medical certificate had to buy their own plywood cut to the size of the bed and they carried these pieces of plywood from station to station on their transfers. Mercifully the cot nevar has now evolved into the cot ply as the nevar had a nasty habit of attracting bed bugs and moisture during monsoons.
Another piece of furniture seen only in fauji homes, was the “Bin Soiled Linen Wooden”, where you were expected to dump your dirty linen till the next visit by the dhobi. As a budding adolescent, I was required to make a list of the clothes while the dhobi squatted on the floor and segregated the clothes emptied from the “Bin Soiled …” The bin came in two models — the horizontal one which did double duty as a settee and the vertical model, which, covered by a neat table cloth functioned as an excellent perch for that most coveted status symbol of the 60’s and 70’s — the telephone. Another unique component of fauji homes was the “Meat Storage Locker” that was clearly a throwback to the Raj. This was a lockable cabinet where the upper half was covered with fly-proof netting, while the wooden sides and door of the lower half was lined with aluminum sheet on the inside. This was where you were expected to store your meat and chicken. They hadn’t heard of fridges back then. We found an ideal use for this antiquated piece of furniture, as a place to store and ripen the freshly plucked and slightly raw papayas from our kitchen garden. Every item of furniture had its main use and alternate uses, much like the “Normal and Alternate” modes of power supply that I encountered in later life on ships.
The “Receptacle With Bucket Aluminum”, which to the ignorant was a mere dustbin, was in fact an enormous sturdy metal garbage can fitted with an outsized foot operated lid-opening lever that clearly had its origins in the firing mechanism of a howitzer. In accordance with accepted rules and practices, the lever had the dual use of tripping the unwary. The many bruises on my shins bore witness to the efficacy of its alternate role. The contraption was designed to be placed, outside the kitchen door where it stood like a bellicose sentry ready to take on all comers. The slamming of the lid in the late morning indicated that the kachrawala had emptied its contents, much like the 12 o’clock cannon fired in the old days to indicate that all was well.
If any item of furniture was found missing while returning the house to that guardian of homely values, the Barracks Stores Officer, one incurred a penalty aptly termed as “Barrack Damages”. Everyone dreaded being awarded this penalty as the amount charged for a minor infarction, was nearly twice the market price of the item. Even the most arrogant, mustachioed colonel with his swishing swagger stick, and, the most dashing destroyer captain in his Ray-Bans and Gieves peaked cap, turned to jelly when faced with Barrack Damages. However every clause in the government’s book of rules also has its own proverbial loophole and it was actually possible to pass off some broken bits and pieces of wood as furniture that needed repair.
Each bathroom was issued with a “Bath Mat Wooden”, on which you were expected to perch while under the shower. My wife, mortified that could be a snake residing under the wooden slats decreed that it should serve a higher purpose as a stand for her precious potted plants. On one occasion, having taken over a new flat, the memsahib noted that the bath mat we received was rather shabby. It was promptly thrown out with an indignant remark on junk collecting in the house. The maid’s husband, who normally couldn’t see beyond his rum fuelled haze, that day perceived it as useful firewood and proceeded to dismantle it in preparation for the evening’s cooking. Fortunately I discovered the errant item just in time and managed to save it from the fire. The item was quickly returned to the BSO as a defective bath mat and the consequent barrack damages averted.
Thus it was that life went on in the cantonments — for the lady of the house a challenge to transform a dull room into the most bright and warm home that resounded with laughter of children and guests, where boxes covered by blankets and bright rugs became settees to overcome the shortage of sofas. Trunks stacked over the other became a wall to divide a room in order to provide a grown daughter with privacy that was respected by all. Today as I wind down three decades of career I am faced with the prospect of mustering the furniture inventory one last time before I finally call it quits. I hope I am not slapped with Barrack Damages! — The author, Commodore Sanjay Tewari (Retd), is a flag officer of Electrical Branch and writes under the pen name of Kris Tee