Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Dangers and Delights of Dak Bungalows

If you are living in India , are fond of trekking or are part of Government service then the word Dak Bungalow will strike a note in your mind immediately. Well , in very simple terms these are the government guest houses usually in such small towns or remote localities where even today no hotels exist . They are a refuge to the trekkers and poor government servants on duty who by virtue of their passion or work have to visit these forsaken places. When I started writing this post I thought I’ll call it Government guest houses and National Integration as the inspiration came from the fact that food in all these guest houses tastes exactly the same. But I am abandoning the idea because I know a couple of scholars from the prestigious Presidency College who specialize on National Integration and " just about anything" kind of topics. Who knows they have already dealt on the subject with this title and my poor post will fall for copyrights.

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:

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" :

“Some of the dak-bungalows on the Grand Trunk Road have handy little cemeteries in their compound--witnesses to the "changes and chances of this mortal life" in the days when men drove from Calcutta to the Northwest. These bungalows are objectionable places to put up in. They are generally very old, always dirty, while the khansamah is as ancient as the bungalow. He either chatters senilely, or falls into the long trances of age. In both moods he is useless. If you get angry with him, he refers to some Sahib dead and buried these thirty years, and says that when he was in that Sahib's service not a khansamah in the Province could touch him. Then he jabbers and mows and trembles and fidgets among the dishes, and you repent of your irritation.
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" .

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Creatures of the Night

It was the year 2001 .New Delhi . I was part of a group undergoing Officers’ Training for IIS. Those were lively days and livelier nights. On a random late evening …say at about 1 am you may find some of us listening to music, chatting on net, discussing books/news/anything in a group ,writing mails, watching movies, and even washing clothes. That was the time when suddenly most of us turned to be creatures of the night. Partially due to the compulsions of busy day schedules and partially by our own choice . Some of us, who were veterans in this art of insomnia, initiated the novices and soon it was a norm. Many choose to be awake till late night just for nothing in particular.

There is a certain desperate beauty in not sleeping. To lay awake the whole night and do all kinds of vague unimportant things. To stretch time that keeps pushing down on our eyes in the form of sleep. To overcome the sleepy tiredness that grips your body at around the time the clock inches past. It is an exercise in patience. It is also, for want of a better term, an art form. Something that can only be achieved after endless nights of determination and perseverance.
You may ask -Why? I don’t know the right answer. Surely it is no apprenticeship in the Dark Arts…not for appeasing the goddess of night either.It is not even the longing for the loved ones or wait for a long distance phone call in all cases . Then why do some of us find such sinful pleasure in the art of sleeplessness? Why suddenly after a tiring busy day we find ourselves full of energy as the sun goes down? At the risk of causing great disappointment to my comrades dabbling in the occult the answer I have derived after much thought on the subject tonight , is much simpler and perhaps, depending on your perspective, mundane.

It is to celebrate the calm of night and to welcome dawn.

A perfect blue slowly brushing the blanket of night off her beautiful brow and opening her eyes of azure. It is a unique joy to stand at an open window and peer in to a world so still that your heart aches to echo it. The quiet bliss of inhaling clear crisp air, rising off the awakening trees, to purge the darkness of the night from your lungs. To stand still and listen to the birds sing with the happiness of first light tickling their feathers.

In spite of the insistent hands of sleep clawing at your eye lids, in spite of the weary creak of your tired bones it is worth it. It is worth it just to stand there as if you are the last person left on earth and welcome dawn into your open arms.
Perhaps another very valid reason is the solace given by the night in terms of silence of the maddening world around . It is the time when you are the master of your fate. No one to pry on your moods and thoughts, no one to nag you about the trivialities of material life. It is a time for confession of your innermost insecurities, fears and also to weave dreams with eyes wide open. Those moments of peace,silence and introspection in an alien (even hostile) world are precious .One need not spent these hours of delight alone…as some of us , by our volition decided to share these with friends . I can trace some of the best discussions on literature, cinema, politics and philosophy to those sleepless nights in IIMC hostel in New Delhi and then again at Yarrows,Shimla .That crazy …even childish life in the dark hours ,had some hidden charm in it…It was a wait for tomorrow. A curiocity for things yet to happen . An anxiousness for the secrets future holds for us in its folds . It was also a child's expectation of finding gifts in the socks tomorrow morning. After all , if nothing else, every night had a hope of a lovely morning.

These days, in an attempt to keep pace with the rat race of daily existence this pleasure is denied to me .Though at times I try to live back those days..err..nights of better existence during holidays and weekends..but alas ..that revolt against the closing eyelids is definitely less frequent . I may once in a while find myself working till midnight or may be engrossed in a book till late hours...but the joy of remianing awake without any reason is gone . On the contrary I have also joined the world in forcing myself to sleep. Pillow talks and midnight strolls are just sepia tinted memories now .
Tonight, when I lie awake in this unknown room of the technology guest house at IIT Kharagpur, memories of those insomniac nights are coming to me like a dream river.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Story of an Extraordinary Daughter

I read a strange book. I call it strange because it made me feel emotions I did not know exist inside me. I also call it strange because after finishing the book I was not sure whether I will classify it as a fiction, history , a spiritual book or a sufi poem. I read “Rumi’s Daughter” by Muriel Maufroy this weekend .
A delightful little book , which the cover rightly claims , is from the tradition of Paolo Coelho's 'The Alchemist' . A book which transcends the time it tells about, the people it talks of and the theme it narrates. Talking about those trivialities, it tells a story of characters which happened during the middle ages( 13th Century ) in Turkey. It is story of a girl adopted by Maulana Jalaludin Rumi in the city of Konya .
Not long back I was reading the Islam Quintet of Tariq Ali where the author discussed the love hate relationship of Islam and Christianity. It was a narration from the very macro level. Of course, there were men and women, some historical characters, some very ordinary individuals in a specific period of history, but except for the first book – Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree which was set in 1499 in al-Andulus during the time of Queen Isabella's reconquista of Spain , none of the four books could capture the beauty of that age as one finds in Rumi’s Daughter.
Throughout the series, Tariq Ali dwelt on the tolerance of medieval Muslim society and, without explicitly saying so, indicates that Islam has lost some of these qualities. I found Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree the most vibrant of the books as it is raising many issues that still confront Islam today while explaining that the religion, like any other, has its tolerant and liberal face, which has been obscured by those that preach a single-minded approach and see things only in black and white. The Quintet threads different geographies and time periods together with the idea of Islam. It was an interesting read but it will not shake you up- at least it did not impress me that much. I mean I agree that the medieval age is about clashes and Crusades. Hard-won treaties and tales of treachery- full of romantic images of knights riding forth, pennants flying high, to defend the Crown and the Cross but somewhere in the pages of history it is also about the life ,love , passion and emotions of the people.
I knew very little about Rumi that is about Rumi-the person. In fact when I started this book- Rumi’s Daughter , I was not sure if it’s about the Daughter of Rumi or the title is just a metaphor .
Well, the book is about Kimya a clever, pretty child given to mystical 'timeless moments', growing up in a tiny village in the mountains of what is now Turkey at a time when the traditional Christian families and the incoming Muslims are still living peacefully together in such remote parts. Her mother Evdokia is a Christian, her father Farokh one of the newcomers. But the tale is of days when in the tiny village a mosque could be raised in the church campus and when the Muslim farmer did not find anything wrong in the beautiful statue of the virgin. Farokh for example believed like many other villagers that Allah and Jesus must be good friends . It is about times when Evdokia can go to a witch doctor to find a cure for her husband’s fever and a Christian priest be-friend the maulavi despite the differences on spiritual matters between the two.
So our little Kimya , will go to Konya to be educated by Christian nuns at the age of seven as per the last wish of a Christian priest . However, the nuns are no longer there, and her father leaves her with Maulana (Jalal ud din Rumi) and his family when Kimya seems to recognize the philosopher (from her dreams and visions) and wishes to stay with him. Maulana’s family takes her as a daughter and his second wife Kerra becomes a friend, confide and almost a mother to the little girl. All is well in the small house of Maulana where Kimya is learning much more than Persian from the great sufi philosopher and poet till there arrives a man called Shams . A beloved friend and soul mate of the Maulana Shams will be seen as a devil-incarnate for the rest of the city and Maulana’s students . But Maulana and Kimya will believe in isDervish from Tabriz and eventuallyKimya will marry Shams . The book takes a new turn from this place. Till now, Kimya was a daughter missing Maulana who now had no time for her and others after the arrival of Shams but now Kimya is wife of a dervish who is always engrossed in his own longings for the God. Kimya is confused – both about her status of a married woman and about her spiritual self which very much like Maulana and Shams crave to seek divine bliss on its own. This strange marriage will end with Kimya’s sudden death and so will end the book. But the feeling it leaves you with will not end so soon.
It gives you a very touching account of women in that age, of what it takes to be wife/daughter of a great man and then it talks very subtly about spiritual awakening in a girl and her confusion about it. On the one hand she can feel the immense joy inside her and on the other it is a fear of breaking away from an ordinary but very familiar life. 'Rumi's Daughter' tells Kimya's story with great charm and tenderness. Well written and thought-provoking, … enchanting read .

“The drum of the realization of the promise is beating,
we are sweeping the road to the sky.
Your joy is here today, what remains for tomorrow?
The armies of the day have chased the army of the night,
Heaven and earth are filled with purity and light.
Oh! joy for he who has escaped from this world of perfumes and color!
For beyond these colors and these perfumes, these are other colors in the heart and the soul.
Oh! joy for this soul and this heart who have escaped
the earth of water and clay,
Although this water and this clay contain the hearth of the
philosophical stone.”

Monday, August 20, 2007

Television in the Time of SMS !

Don't you wish there were a knob on the TV to turn up the intelligence? There's one marked 'Brightness,' but it doesn't work.

While surfing the TV channels I found a popular reality show where a participant was crying and howling while the three judges were making nasty comments about her “ugly looks” “lack of poise” and “no potential for success” without any care .The young girl was naturally feeling that her life is worthless if these demi-god judges rate her so low. I found the entire scene so disgusting that I promptly switched channel. But I know that there are millions of TV viewers who’d be watching gleefully the ugly game of reality TV.

Later on, thinking about this I remembered a saying of Professor Morrie( from “ Tuesdays with Morrie”-by Mitch Albom)-- “ The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves.And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”

But however much we dislike it- reality TV is a hit these days. However much made up and unreal it is , it is preferred over the reality itself . So not only entertainment channels even news channels are gearing up to the mood. TV channels are flooded with programmes for selecting best singer, best icon, best supermodel, best dancer-pair etc etc. and how do they select “the best” ? The simple answer is by democracy. Hence to save so-and –so from getting eliminated in next round sms on this number and cast your vote . And I believe many around us take this bait of sms-email to make a participant win/lose . I would have appreciated this public opinion part also ….but then it is also associated with the ugly game of making participants feel bad. So you are voted out …how do you feel? What do you think was the reason that our viewers chose you to be eliminated? Your son/daughter could not make to the next round- how does it feel ? Why people like to see others getting humiliated, criticized and subject to (mostly undeserving) nasty comments ? More than that why do these young participants feel it so important to join the big bad world of competition through this short cut of humiliation. What if they win this competition…..will that make them best amongst the lot? Will that give any surety of long lasting success? Is it not for just short lived glory and so called entertainment of the viewers.

For the TV viewers the voting does not end with these “Choose the best contests” , you can always take part in the opinion polls on news channels ( whether PM should quit or not? whether the judge should pass the judgment this way or that ? …so much so last week I found a poll on a news item where a girl has left her husband’s house after getting tortured there and now the husband was pleading through the TV channel for her to come back…. “so sms us whether she should come back?” ) I find the entire drama very revolting. And this year some of us even chose the seven wonders of the earth ….who knows tomorrow by sms we will decide which celebrity should smile and which bomb should explode….who should marry whom and who should be put in or out of jail.

Theoretically however, utopian it sound is just violating the privacy and domain of individuals and institutions. Why should we vote for something that is none of our business….I know, some of us will like to argue that everything in public domain is everyone’s business but in my opinion it takes guts to say that I am not going to lower my standard for that of the world…it takes courage to say a big NO to this sort of popular culture .I find it sad that winner of these TV competitions will not even be the best in their chosen field but just the most popular ( or in many cases most pitied upon) .
In the rat race of TV contests we are loosing out on some of the most entertaining programmes of TV, quizzes for example are wiped out of the small screen . How many channels today have time for a classical recital or may be folk dances. Where are those brilliant adaptations from regional literature which prompted many in my generation to go in search of the books or their translations? The best part is that some smart companies – mobile network groups and media barons are minting money in the entire tamasha of silly contest and reality shows . I resign to this system as perhaps this is the cost of freedom- you have to deal with a lot of rubbish. The entire media is going crazy… if you find it crazy…sms “C-R-A-Z-Y” or send an email to vote