A known N devil is better than an unknown angel,” my friend had said, grimacing at the giant spiderweb in the bathroom of the PWD guesthouse at Rekong Peo. Tired and sunburnt, we were on our way back to Delhi after a 16-day trip in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. A massive spiderweb, and a defunct flush made us reconsider our glee at having managed to convince the caretaker to let us spend the night here instead of in one of the hotels.
Author Rajika Bhandari, however, shares none of our love for PWD guesthouses. Understandably so, as we were comparing it to assembly line hotels, while she has charismatic dak bungalows, many of which she visited in the course of her research for the book, to size them up by.
And charismatic they are, as she takes you through their history, architecture, kitchens, and even a couple of friendly ghosts. The New York-based social science researcher confesses she was greeted with confused stares when she embarked upon the project —”I was just a strange woman from the north who was interested in a bunch of buildings nobody really cared about.”
The Raj on the Move: Story of the Dak Bungalow By Rajika Bhandari Published by Lotus Roli Rs 250
In later chapters we learn why exactly they’re worth caring about. These structures, that were established in the 1840s by the British to provide rest and refuge to officers transferred across India, were a kind of anchor for to their nomadic lives, and even had a profound influence on their social interactions.
From inspiring poetry and prose — sample Edward Lear’s lines, ‘Happiness and quiet appear to me to exist nowhere in India save in Dak Bungalows: there they certainly do,”— to creating the Indo-British architectural confluences that we see in hill stations like Shimla, dak bungalows are a sort of repository of the Raj’s influence on India.
Stories emerge — of cantankerous cooks who made three excellent courses of fish on a whim, to legends of Rudyard Kipling’s ghost popping in to say hello at a dak bungalow in Meerut, where he had been the editor of a local newspaper.
Perhaps the best judges of dak bungalows were the wives of the British officers who had to endure the constant upheaval that came with such an existence, and Bhandari devotes an entire chapter to them. While some appreciated the solitude, others provided food to travellers who had fallen ill. The book concludes with the author’s visit to Madhya Pradesh, Madras and Bangalore, all centres of British interest during the time of the Raj.
Bhandari has woven together much history, and many stories of how these structures contributed to the British’s awareness of the real India. The book skilfully combines architecture, legend, and culture, to give you a glimpse of places you’ll definitely look at with a fresh eye the next time you travel across India.