In India Government servants must be well acquainted with terms like Dawk bungalow, Inspection bungalows and Circuit Houses. Varying on the basis of the department they were maintained by — especially P.W.D and Forest departments, these bungalows were basically built prior to independence to cater to the traveling needs of the government officers. However, they are also often rented to travelers if vacant and not commissioned. The name of dawk bungalows and Inspection bungalows (I.B.) arouse a sense of old-world charm when the bade babus or officers came in their rickety jeeps and were received by the cook and mali of these bungalows. For the traveler, dawk bungalows were not only places of comfort and rest but also full of “adventurous possibilities”.
Thinking of Dawk bungalows and I.B.s remind me of a Kipling/ Corbett world. These bungalows were built in the European fashion — mostly situated outside the small districts/ towns, single-storied with only one or two suites having high ceiling roofs, large round-bellied fans making a scary noise with every turn, creaking beds , large black dinning table with a huge glass jug-full of water, a small-closet library with books of Hardley Chase or books having themes like “Botanical research” and “Colonial legacy”, these places could well be amazing settings for Alfred Hitchcock movies. Situated in lonely landscapes, far away from the “madding crowd”, they have a distinct charm of their own. Ah yes! The bathrooms — most of the bathrooms in such bungalows have either malfunctioning taps or huge broken bath-tubs or a single leaking tin-bucket with which you have to adjust. Usually, a bearer carried water balancing two buckets on his shoulder tied to a long bamboo pole, and once they fill up the tubs or the buckets, the guests are ready to take a bath. However, the bungalows are accessible only if you travel by road. Being situated in the “interiors”, they remain hidden from busy public communication systems especially railways. Circuit Houses as far as I remember are more towards the center of the town or the district, but Forest I.Bs and dawk-bungalows are lonely and situated far away from the town.
These bungalows had huge spaces, acres of land dotted with mango trees, jack-fruit trees, papaya trees, wild flower bushes, rose shrubs and some berry bushes. The compound walls were distant from the main bungalow and one had to walk or drive almost half a mile in order to reach the main gates. The main entrance had large wooden gates hidden from public view by creepers. Sometimes, the gates had sign boards like : “NO THOROUGHFARE” or “TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED”, written in bold letters. Basically, privacy and seclusion were the content of these bungalows. There were some out-houses little away from the main building but within the compound, famously called “servant-quarters” where the watchman-cum-cook-cum- mali usually lived with his family.The bungalow opened into a wide portico and a veranda facing the main entrance and there would be relaxing-armchairs kept on the veranda, waiting for a lazy languorous evening.
Having traveled extensively with my grandparents, I remember the thrill of staying in some of the most unusual I.B.s and dawk-bungalows. Especially, during the vacations grandpa drove us to these bungalows away from the humdrum of the city life. The dawk bungalows and I.B.s had their own kitchen and the watchman/cook/mali used to be also a government servant, who lived all his life in a particular bungalow serving the guests. The moment a guest settled in a suite, the watchman would take his cycle and drive to the town to get provisions and rations for the kitchen. Usually, in Odisha and Bengal the dawk bungalows have a supply of eggs, fresh water fish, rice and potato. These are the places where you cannot expect to get biryani or chicken tikka or palak paneer. The culinary skills of the cook/watchman is limited to humble homemade rice, pulses and curry. In some coastal places of Odisha like the bungalows closer to Behrampore or Balasore or Bhitarkanika, serve prawn and crabs for its guests.
Personally, I loved the dawk-bungalows in the hilly regions of Odisha like the Koraput dawk-bungalow. The beauty of these bungalows were their exclusivity and seclusion. Nights were especially happening in these bungalows. The croaking of frogs, tuk-tuk of the woodpecker in the large trees closer to the bungalow, crickets creaking — suddenly the nights get alive with unknown and undecipherable noises. I remember as a child I had exclaimed at the huge troop of glowworms that invaded the trees in the Rairakhol I.B. and created an illusion of thousands of small light bulbs lighting up all the trees near the bungalow.
The Gothic architecture of these buildings also add to their scary nature. I remember a story of the dawk-bungalow near Hirakud dam which my grandma had narrated to me on one of our trips. Apparently, the bungalow was haunted by the ghost of the daughter of one of the watchmen who lived prior to independence. The girl had died in the bungalow after a futile love affair with a saheb. Since that time the bungalow had been haunted and lay unused. Grandma said any officer who ever tried to stay there on their inspection trips after nightfall, would be served good food and water by the same mali and his daughter. Once grandpa’s senior colleague had to stop there and stay in the bungalow because it was late at night and the headlight of his jeep had started giving trouble. He was apparently welcomed by the mali and his daughter, who cleaned his suite, brought water for his bathroom and fed him sumptuously with rice and potato curry. Next morning the officer realized from the unkempt garden, veranda, empty outhouse and the overgrown bushes that the bungalow was not in use and there is no human presence in it. He drove to the nearby town and inquired from people and got the complete version of the story. Later he caught a fever and had to be hospitalized for many days because of his shocking experience. Whether these were merely grandma’s stories or whether there was truth in it, I can’t say because the locale and the “mood” of these bungalows were such that one cannot deny any strange eventful “event” happening with you.
There were many such stories Grandma used to narrate with either dead officers very attached to a particular bungalow revisiting them after death or dead malis tending unsuspecting guests. These bungalows had their share of ugliness — as oral tales speak — the sahebs and their Indian counterparts often indulged in physically exploiting the wives or daughters of the poor watchmen who guarded the place or ladies of the village in these lonely bungalows. Many deaths also occurred due to loot and murder of the travelers who took shelter for a night or so.
Remember movies like Bees Saal Baad or Madhumati or Khamoshi shot in such locales? Today when I see movies shot in lavish places and shot abroad, I have a passing thought what if instead of spending huge money on lavish abroad shoots, with advanced technology they could use these locations for movies. Some of my memorable destinations in I.Bs and dawk bungalows have been places like Chhatrapur, Bologarh, Koraput, Purunakot, Rairakhol in Odisha. Purunakot I.B. especially was an interesting experience. The place is a remote corner of Odisha, almost 100 kms from Angul the nearest district to Purunakot. It had a strange haunted aura, surrounded by hills and devoid of pukka roads. In Bihar, I especially remember the Ghatsila and Motihari bungalows. We had to take shelter in Ghatsila bungalow as it was getting dark and unsafe. We spent the night with the rains lashing at our faces through the broken glass shutter, without electricity. Next morning it appeared that the bungalow was abandoned and not in use. Motihari bungalow was no less than a palace, very well maintained by the sugar factory close to it. It had apparently been renovated and beautifully decorated with the antique pieces that must have been a part of its legacy. In Andhra Pradesh, I especially remember the Ankapalli dak bungalow , surrounded by huge mango trees and close to the National Highway.
In Bihar, Odisha and Bengal, dawk-bungalows and I.Bs are still in use, though some of them have been converted into tourist resorts and villas. Somehow, I still love the Kiplingsque atmosphere of those bungalows. I am not sure how they are being maintained or used in the present century, but some of my fond memories are associated with these bungalows, the food and the hot sweet tea with thick-milk from the bungalow’s own cow-pen served in old thermo-flasks. Ahh! romantic retreat at its best.
Today when I see the roadside retreats, amusement parks and motels, I still think of those dawk bungalows which were different kind of entertainment even in their austerity and scarcity of provisions and luxury. But “the times they are changing” croons Bob Dylan….
Further Reading: “Financial Times” <http://www.financialexpress.com/news/the-bungalow-bill-in-global-languages/112272/0>