Memories of Belonging: Images From the Colony and Beyond

Malavika Karlekar explores the colonial legacy of bungalows in India, their diverse functions and the experiences of travelers and officials. Dak bungalows, often associated with ghostly encounters, are a simultaneously charming, discomforting and enduring presence in post-Independence India.

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April 20, 2024 03:02 EDT

For the British rulers, whose morbidity and mortality rates were alarmingly high in an inhospitable land, trying to build homes and offices that minimised the ravages of disease and discomfort was by no means a minor preoccupation. As early as the end of the 18th century, the bungalow emerged as a distinct meld of styles.

Of abiding interest – and not without an air of mystery – were the bungalows for the itinerant in the moffusils: the sub-divisional officer on duty, the engineer on inspection and the forester out to trap poachers. Thus, irrigation, canal, forest and the generic inspection bungalows catered to these specialised personnel. The circuit houses were for the judiciary while the dak bungalow acquired a certain ubiquity – and, as we shall see, notoriety. Taken over from the Moghuls, the dak system relied on relays of runners who carried the mail. Dak bungalows marked the point where relays changed, and also where officers and other travellers could rest for the night. For inexplicable reasons, these rather basic and often uncomfortable abodes excited the imagination of the likes of traveller-informant Francis Younghusband, ICS-wallah John Beames and creative writers from Rudyard Kipling to Satyajit Ray.

In the absence of anything but tents, and maybe even the open sky, they were indispensable to many and not only those on official duty – wayfarers, Younghusband on his several trips – acknowledged or secret – or the homeless traveller in search of salvation. Deep verandas with ancient planter’s or deck chairs, old trees in the compound, a tattered but fascinating visitor’s book and the decrepit khansama, that general dogsbody whose watery matan ishtoo, no match for his cornucopia of anecdotes and fairytales, were essential components of the mise en scène. Culinary finesse or the lack of it depended upon the khansama’s virtuosity, age and mood. While the assured entry of crème caramel for dessert earned it the sobriquet of ‘365’, a few were lucky to be treated to fine Mughlai cuisine prepared by the last survivor in a line of Muslim khansamas. More often, if one was fortunate, a passable Country Captain chicken appeared within minutes of the disappearance of a squawking bird, its ‘sudden death’ more than apocryphal. Or if one was not that fortunate, one would have to stomach dished up ‘fowls [that] lay the eggs of finches, but develop the bones of vultures’. So wrote a frustrated dak bungalow inmate in that other institution of the dak bungalow, the much-thumbed visitor’s book.

Nicer dak and forest bungalows were usually situated on the banks of pristine streams, amidst deep forests or on hilltops. Even then, often, sylvan daytime surroundings were quickly transformed into the eerie and insecure when, with nightfall, the jungle’s brooding presence seemed a little too close for comfort, a howling wind keening like a wayward banshee. Nor was it difficult to mistake the hollow cough of the chowkidar for that of an ambitious panther or see the coils of a hamadryad in the dim half-light of a dying candle. Who would argue that the gnarled branches of the peepul or neem swaying in the breeze on a full-moon midsummer’s night did not harbour the shreds of a makeshift noose? Particularly if one’s by-the-wavering-light-of-the-kerosene-lantern bedtime reading had been of a selective nature. Rajika Bhandari reminds one of the chequered history of many a dak bungalow during the 19th century when cholera, malaria and other deadly fevers carried off many. Often when travellers fell ill far away from home, the dak bungalow was their only refuge – and it was not unusual for some to be found dead the following morning. Rudyard Kipling added darkly, that in the days that men drove from Calcutta to the Northwest, some of the dak bungalows along the grand Trunk road had ‘handy little cemeteries in their compounds’. Indeed stark testimony to long days and rough rides! His wry comment on the dak bungalow ghost is instructive: ‘A ghost that would voluntarily hang about a dak-bungalow would be mad of course’. Yet as so many close to madness had indeed died in these places ‘there must be a fair percentage of lunatic ghosts’.

Tea planter’s bungalow on a high plinth with wide enveloping veranda, North Bengal Photograph, c. 1940s

In ‘My Own True ghost Story’, Kipling writes of these ‘objectionable places to put up in’ where khansamas were as old as the bungalows and often ‘an excited snake’ was on the threshold to welcome the weary traveller. Hardly surprising that one such bungalow – and Kipling had lived in many, it being his ‘business’ to do so – is the locale for a spine-chilling ghost story; until, of course, the denouement. Scampering rats are the culprits, enticing a fervid brain to think of billiard balls, if not cannons, in the next room separated from his by a flimsy partition. Many decades later, Satyajit Ray noted that ‘if a place is spooky – and dak bungalows have a reputation of being so – it will be so at all times’. Thus in ‘The Indigo Terror’ (or ‘Neel Atanko’), he found the dak bungalow, with its charpoy and chair with only one arm intact, a suitable venue for the tragic end of an indigo planter who had shot his dog and then himself a hundred years ago. His restless spirit finds refuge in the protagonist, and so the tale proceeds.

Interestingly, successive post-Independence governments have seen fit to leave the musty old official British bungalow strictly alone, spookiness and all. The ramshackle dak bungalow, the eerie forest rest house, where wild animals nudge hopefully at creaky bathroom doors, or the stately Lutyensesque residence in the country’s capital are testimonies to the Raj’s eclectic architectural career. Cities and roads have been renamed, railways and the armed forces modernised, but railway colonies, stations and cantonments retain their basic colonial architecture, layout and design.

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Memories of Belonging: Images From the Colony and Beyond, Malavika Karlekar, Niyogi Books, 2015.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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