The imperial style of the British in India is enshrined in memorials, arches, gateways and grand government buildings, cast in early classicism to Victorian High Gothic and beyond. But a better sense of the daily, grimy transactions of the Raj are found in dak bungalows (many still in service of the central and state governments) that dot the country.
The vast network of dak bungalows (the name itself suggests their origin as staging posts) took shape from the 1840s onwards to host weary officials on imperial duty—mostly ics officers on an ‘upcountry’ tour, but also families on the seasonal migrations to the hills, and boxwallahs on the celebrated ‘dawk travel’. In fact, constant travel—notwithstanding the baking heat and torrential rains—so exemplified British life in India that Emma Roberts, an eighteenth century traveller, wrote: “A more unfixed, unsettled, floating community cannot be imagined”. As with most imperial institutions, dak bungalows soon acquired their own set of legends—quirky, enigmatic, atmospheric and wrapped in the landscape.
Contemporary accounts invariably describe the high-ceilinged, wide-verandahed, tiled-roof and fenced-in bungalows as terribly run-down and uncomfortable, but exuding a charm flavoured with the surrounding country.
The typical bungalow experience ranged from the ancient khansama (genial and welcoming, or surly, Mephistophelian and greedy), spartan furnishings darkened with time and polish, wild animals lurking beyond the compound and the delectations of ‘dak bungalow cuisine’ (soup, caramel custard, and “chicken for breakfast, chicken for dinner, chicken yesterday, chicken tomorrow....”).
One of the persistent relics of the Raj has been its ghosts, and it is natural that many are residents in the dak bungalows.
Not only men, dak bungalows were also central to the Indian experience of generations of memsahibs cursing and grumbling through their husbands’ tours of duty, as well as the Fishing Fleet’s rude rite of passage in a strange country as they made they way (often alone) to the stations of their intended. There were also Indophiles like Fanny Parkes and Harriet Tyler, who travelled on their own—a very bold venture at a time before the spread of the railways—and disregarded the purdah of suspicion and mistrust that descended between the British and the Indians post 1857.
One of the dourly persistent relics of the Raj has been its ghosts—and it’s but natural that many have been permanent residents in these houses of wanderers. There are tales of terrified Englishwomen and their children on the run from mutinous sepoys, enacting the last moments of their lives in bungalows around Meerut, Lucknow and Delhi. And there are visitations from hoary indigo planters gathered of a balmy evening on a cane-chaired verandah of the Bettiah dak bungalow for whisky and whist.
Bhandari drinks deeply from old travelogues and literature of the Raj. She also excerpts well. Particularly delightful are the observations, verses, stories and even recipes (from Edward Lear, Dickens, Kipling, and other chroniclers spread over a century and a half) embedded in the text.
Sadly, the last three chapters—a clumsy account of a whirlwind tour of the bungalows and circuit houses of Madhya Pradesh, Chennai and Bangalore—mars the sepia effect of the rest of the book.
In totality, The Raj On The Move justly reclaims the dak bungalow’s place in the Raj’s cultural imaginary.