Friday, May 6, 2011

Hospitality Government Style

Few years back on this blog , I wrote a post about the Dak Bungalows. The post till date remains one of my most popular posts and received tremendous response. Many wrote to me through emails and many commented on it online. Best of all, Dr. Alan Shaw, from whose war memoir “Marching on to Laffan's Plain” I had quoted in the post , contacted me and we became friends ever since. About a month back, my dear Friend Dr. Shaw (94) died peacefully in Norfolk UK, after a long life lived to the full. In last four years through his gracious e-mails and letters , Dr. Shaw enlightened me about many things about India, the wars, and of the world 50 years before. Today when I sit to write another post of the same subject, I think of Dr. Shaw and his times and most humbly dedicate this post to my friend who reached out to me across the seas and overwhelmed me by his generosity.

Once again I got a taste of hospitality in the Government style . In my recent trip to Gujarat , I stayed in some of the well maintained circuit houses and felt terribly nostalgic about my childhood memories of Dak Bunglows. However since then, many things have changed. Government servants can now afford to stay at hotels and are also permitted to do so as per rules. Most find it very convenient and prefer them over Government maintained guest houses . Many departments have “outsourced” the guest houses by arrangements with private guest houses/hotels. The new guest houses in general lack the stately air of the old Dak bunglows. They are many times much more modern and facilities equipped and are preferred over the old austere guest houses and circuit houses. Unfortunately in many states now these old guest houses are not being maintained well. In Gujarat however, things have not changed much .

On the whole things have not changed much- as I already said in my previous post, time stops at these Dak Bunglows. But here and there, one does notice a change in courtesies of attendants, the taste (or the lack of it) in the furnishing of the rooms and the ignorance of the keepers about the historical importance of these places. Across the country, these circuit houses are located in some of the best locations and usually have an incomparable view from the rooms. But the “new” Villa circuit house of Porbandar surprised me with the lovely location is has. The rooms almost open on the beach. You come out of the rooms and you have Arabian Sea in its full glory ready to meet you on the steps. Watching a sunset from there was a treat for my senses. No wonder, these used to be the erstwhile ruler’s Guest rooms and are at a stone’s throw distance from the maharana’s palace ( now lying grossly neglected) . In fact in Saurashtra like many other parts of the country, these government Guest houses (specially circuit houses) are former properties of ex-royals. In some cases even their palaces. In Junagarh e..g. the circuit house still has its silver cutlery for special occasions and the wood carved furniture of old nawab .

View from the porbandar circuit house

This sprawling dak bunglow is a very typical compound and the sitting and dining area reminds you of the days gone by. In Dwarka by contrast, it was a plain and simple fare at circuit house. No grandeur of oil paintings or stuffed tigers in the common room. The garden was also bare . The one characteristic which marks all such places was however intact- the well informed attendant, who knew everything about the places to see, the best shop for buying things and best eatery to try. Aha, there is something in that age-old wisdom !

While staying in these places, I once again thought of other interesting guest houses I have stayed. There was a very well managed international guest house at Pantnagar University where the chef Daniel served most exotic desserts. Then there was one in Uttarakhand where I actually thought I saw a ghost. Another very bright and happy guest house at Kothi (HP) where we stayed several times on our ways to various treks . However, the weirdest place I remember staying was one in Darjeeling. I went there for some work and was forced to leave the taxi mid way. My staying arrangements were done in a guest house of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. But before I could locate the place it started raining. By the time I reached the place it was already dark and I was totally drenched. Whatever I could make out of the place at that time,it seems small but comfortable and welcoming. In the night however, I noticed some strange sounds –growls, screeches and grunts. Anyhow, I discounted these as my imagination and managed to sleep . It was only in the morning that I realized that the guest house was inside the Zoo. To top it all the animals in Darjeeling zoo are not caged but just restricted by slightly high walls. My heart skipped few beats. I could not understand why my people chose that place for me, till the morning I was about to leave and I opened the window of my room. After few days of overcast the sky was clear for the first time and I had the most majestic look of Kachanjungha in front of me . I just wowed the sight and gaped at snow-clad mountains with awe.
Junagarh Circuit house -the sitting (Baithak)

Another very peculiar memory of these circuit houses is the names of the rooms . In many places of course rooms are known only by numbers, in some older ones you may find rooms named after rivers , famous personalities of the region or even the trees in the campus. I remember staying in a guest houses where rooms were named after eminent leaders who stayed in them once upon a time.
Modern hotels may be much more comfortable but they cannot replace the charm of these old places. I do realize that they have become just a thing of past but then, we do go for heritage hotels too. These places are living testimony of the good old days of government on tour and may be still have some rational to be maintained with care and concern. I wonder how many in the government circles would agree ?

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