Before I start with my comments on food in the Dak Bungalows let me brief you about their genesis. Ever since the early days of Raj the British used to travel far and wide for various reasons including administration, policing, revenue work, trade, hunting, trekking and photography. In those days it was not very safe to travel alone and usually they traveled in convoys. These rest houses were built along the major routes to provide night halts for the travelers. They were primarily for the government officials but also entertained tourists and civilians if the rooms were available .
If you are fond of Raj stories you will recall how the families of Burra Sahebs along with a full contingent of servants will stay in these Rest houses during their visit to some remote hill station . Civil servants and Army officers used to frequent these places. Usually built by Garrison engineers these were places sans any luxury but more suited as a halt than a tent in the open. And the glorious tradition lives till today. You can’t help staying in /passing by one such PWD Guest House if you are trekking in Uttaranchal or Himachal . Even the elite cousin Circuit Houses-elegantly standing tall in every big town of India, are serving the purpose of providing refuse to Government functionaries with much efficiency.
To be fair I must take views of these Sahibs of yesteryears about the comforts and conditions of these dak bungalows . After all they were the one who thought for this chain of rest houses which survived the test of time. So here is what Alan Shaw writes in his book “Marching on to Laffan's Plain':
“We stopped at a dak bungalow (a post house) on the first night. This was very much part of travel in rural India. It was a Government maintained bungalow usually miles from anywhere, in the sole care of a keeper and his family with a chowkidar to keep guard during the night. The dak bungalow keeper could produce simple meals like poached eggs (“sunny side up’ or “turned over” sahib? was always his prompt question) and sometimes a scrawny jungle fowl with curry and daal (lentils).
Trying to sleep in a dak bungalow bedroom could be an unnerving business. Overhead was a dirty grey ceiling cloth stretched under the rafters forming a nightly battleground for lizards, snakes and rats. A mosquito net was a necessity if only to protect against wild life falling from above.
To offset these horrors was the pleasure of awaking and walking out into the pearly light of the Indian hot weather dawn, an almost mystical experience, especially in a wooded place surrounded by the calls of jungle crows, mynahs, hoopoes, coucals, the hawk cuckoo or brain fever bird and doves. Flowering trees and shrubs abound in India even under the arid conditions of the hot weather and in the middle of the dreaded hot weather the day still commences with this magical hour. "
This fascinating pic is taken from a Gertrude Bell archive of photographs from her travels to India in 1901 and 1902 .The archive exists on the Internet: www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk
My favorite account on these guest houses is by Ruddy baba i.e. the famous (and infamous) Rudyard Kipling who informs that a good Dak Bungalow worth its name should have at least few resident ghosts and a Chaukidar to tell about them. He writes in his delightful “My own true Ghost Story" :
In these dak-bungalows, ghosts are most likely to be found, and when found, they should be made a note of. Not long ago it was my business to live in dak-bungalows. I never inhabited the same house for three nights running, and grew to be learned in the breed. I lived in Government-built ones with red brick walls and rail ceilings, an inventory of the furniture posted in every room, and an excited snake at the threshold to give welcome. I lived in "converted" ones--old houses officiating as dak-bungalows—where nothing was in its proper place and there wasn't even a fowl for dinner. I lived in second-hand palaces where the wind blew through open-work marble tracery just as uncomfortably as through a broken pane.
I lived in dak-bungalows where the last entry in the visitors' book was fifteen months old, and where they slashed off the curry-kid's head with a sword. It was my good luck to meet all sorts of men, from sober traveling missionaries and deserters flying from British Regiments, to drunken loafers who threw whisky bottles at all who passed; and my still greater good fortune just to escape a maternity case. Seeing that a fair proportion of the tragedy of our lives out here acted itself in dak-bungalows, I wondered that I had met no ghosts. A ghost that would voluntarily hang about a dak-bungalow would be mad of course; but so many men have died mad in dak-bungalows that there must be a fair percentage of lunatic ghosts.”
So in such romantic surroundings (with a lunatic ghost or two for company) when a officer in Uniform will reach with his sawar and orderlies , the chaukidar cum cook of the Dak Bungalow will hurriedly do his shopping from the nearest village and knock up something to suit sahib’s taste . Availability of ingredients, conditions of cooking and the skill of the cook were sparse and therefore the Dak-bungalow cuisine always had a easy to make factor in it. Next time when you find Chicken Dak Bungalow in a restaurant , please remember that the recipe was invented by a native cook (and not an Anglo Indian housewife-as widely believed) in some remote hilly guest house. Then there are other delicacies like Burra Memsahib's Vegetarian Seekh", "Sir Alfred's Chicken Makhni", "Havaldar's Dal Tadka" and occasionally "Dak Bungalow Lamb", "Regiment's Dal Makhni" etc. Another recipe which is associated with the Dak bungalows is of Non vegetarian cutlet. These days one can find it occasionally in military messes . The Dak Bungalow Curry was another famous dish during Colonial times. It was prepared with either meat or chicken and served with rice and vegetables or bread to the British Officers when they stayed at the various Dak Bungalows, while on official trips around the country. The recipe for preparing this dish varied with each cook at the Dak Bungalows depending on the availability of ingredients in a particular place during the war. But strangely the taste was more or less same. I can guarantee this about the Vegetarian stuff available in the numerous circuit houses, PWD guest houses and Dak bungalows ( from Shimla to Port Blair…and from Allahabad to Kanyakumari ) even today . I wonder how in each guest house you find same yellow dal, same Aloo-gobhi sabji and even salad is cut in the same manner. Tea will be served in similar cups and will taste almost same .
Talking of similarity, even the look of these buildings…. I mean that of the original buildings are more or less same. They will be usually painted in Yellow (interestingly called PWD Yellow) and Brick colour . These places usually have a neat front garden and messy back garden . Even the rooms and “not-used-for-long” fire places smell the same everywhere. Huge bathrooms with spartan décor and the keeper who will provide all stories, resources in the town and will double as a guide for the market with just a small “bakshish” .
And I bet you’ll agree that time stops in these places if you try asking directions for these dak bungalows in small towns (I can vouch for UP towns) .Most probably you will have the same experience which Thomas Stevens had in 1886 .He narrates in his book “Around the World on a Bicycle”:
"The average native, when asked for the dak bungalow, is quite as likely to direct one to the post-office, the kutcherry, or any other government building, from a seeming inability to discriminate between them. At the entrance to Umballa one of these hopeful participants in the blessings of enlightened government informs me, with sundry obsequious salaams, that the dak bungalow is four miles farther. So thoroughly has my fifty-mile ride used up my energy that even this four miles, on a most perfect road, seems utterly impossible of accomplishment; besides which, experience has taught that following the directions given would very likely bring me to the post-office and farther away from the dak bungalow than ever…….Traveling leisurely, and resting often, for thirty miles, the afternoon brings me to the small town of Peepli, where a dak bungalow provides food and shelter of a certain kind. The sleeping-accommodation of the dak bungalow may hardly be described as luxurious; ants and other insects swarm in myriads, and lizards drag their slimy length about the timber of the walls and ceiling. The wild jungle encroaches on the village, and the dak bungalow occupies an isolated position at one end. The jungle resounds with the strange noises of animals and birds, and a friendly native, who speaks a little English, confides the joyful information that the deadly cobra everywhere abounds.”
Now tell me , was I wrong in my earlier choice of title for the post? Or may be a more appropriate title will be "Time stops at the Dak Bungalow" .