A house set apart, cream-coloured, with red tiles on a sloping roof, a dak bungalow seen somewhere in my childhood in the 1950s and identified as such by my father — this image came to mind with the title of this book . Written by Rajika Bhandari, it takes one back in time and space to these relics of the Raj, still in use, visual signs of a history presumably dead and done with. Why dak bungalows? Did the postman, a runner in the dark night, stop there? By way of answer we are taken to 1774, to Robert Clive’s first setting up of a regular postal system in India and the first bungalows built to relay the post or ‘dak’. Quickly, we are told, they became a network for the men who ruled India as they toured the districts, sometimes en famille. Before we know it, the dak bungalow has turned into a government circuit house.
Her imagination clearly fired by our colonial past, the writer retraces the paths to these houses, comfortable or otherwise, and takes in the nature of a life that called for so much touring in remote parts of an alien land. These administrators dealt with unfamiliarity by recreating as far as possible little enclaves of British life, tea kettles, napery, and all.
The paraphernalia surrounding them and their entourage strikes one as a defence against an encroaching and threatening landscape, a way of keeping their distance from the ‘natives’ by virtue of their location in lonely recessed spots. Evolving from rudimentary dwellings into extremely comfortable, even elegant, guest houses, these bungalows carry the histories of sahibs and memsahibs who were housed and fed as they administered justice, collected revenue, supervised local projects and performed the hundreds of tasks that kept British rule going. Bhandari, who sought out these houses and stayed in them, confines herself to Madhya Pradesh (once the Central provinces and Berar); towards the end she covers, somewhat cursorily, parts of what was once Madras Presidency.
The problem this reader had is the confusion between ‘dak bungalow’ and ‘circuit house’. These are not clearly differentiated; obviously any place that offers shelter to government servants can be one or the other; or maybe, as they became larger and nearer urban centres, they became circuit houses. Or maybe dak bungalows were built before circuit houses, in which case that should have been clearly stated. If an Englishman (Charles Dickens no less) comes to stay, it is a ‘Dawk bungalow’; if Indira Gandhi visits the erstwhile city of Madras, she stays in the Chepauk Circuit House, but when exactly that morphing occurred is left somewhat hazy.
There are compensations however. A chapter on cuisine gives Anglo-Indian recipes in boxes, and offers such descriptions of how the live chicken was (and is ) chased around the yard to be killed and cooked as will make any vegetarian turn pale. We learn that caramel custard was a standard dessert as indeed chicken in various forms comprised the main course. We read of a khansamar who showed incredible delicacy and tact when the memsahib sat alone in the verandah after a letter with bad news from home, lighting a fire, arranging little comforts in silence and then asking permission respectfully to say that sometimes this is God’s will. That moment is a beautiful one in this book, sketched in and left. In these houses English women and children found refuge during the 1857 uprising; here, weary travellers sometimes died. And to these houses came Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens, and a host of other administrators who were writers, to say nothing of their wives who were sometimes writers too. Bhandari gives us interesting epigraphs from these to the chapters, and excerpts, also in boxes.
The architecture is noted in sufficient detail to give us a sense of the charm of some of these places as English preferences were adapted to Indian climate and materials. The photographs are useful. But in the end, one cannot help a sense of too much, of too many. All the dak bungalows blur into one single impression of a tiled house set back from the road or in a forest, each with a resident ghost or khansamar. Yet the modern circuit houses in Bangalore or Chennai strike a jarring new note. What are they doing here?
That about sums it up: good, but not superlatively good — a travel account with some history thrown in. A pleasant read if one is interested in vestiges of the Raj.