The government and its associated entities are not particularly well known for their acumen in ventures that involve aesthetic design and creativity. The Rajya Sabha web page is a case in point with the most prominent element on the landing page being a big magenta “Install Antivirus” link right below the masthead. What do those members of Parliament do online, one wonders.
The Canteen Stores Department (CSD) of the ministry of defence has, however, successfully managed to buck that trend. A Cut Above The Rest is a commendable effort at bringing out a coffee-table book that does not suffer from poor content or from shoddy design. It is, on the contrary, a remarkably interesting book, only let down by a verbosity that is unbecoming of the genre.
CSD runs the famous network of stores all over the country, that provide armed forces personnel with their groceries, liquor and even their cars and bikes. And that too at prices that used to be the envy of civilians (large organized retailers have somewhat reduced the sheen of “below MRP” CSD canteens in recent times).
In 2008, CSD celebrates 60 years of establishment and the book chronicles the origins of the establishment and celebrates the role it has played in Armed Forces welfare over the last many years. Along the way, staying true to the format, the book throws up several interesting anecdotes and images from six decades of operations.
The book tracks the origins of the service back to the Canteen Contractors Syndicate Ltd (CCS) set up by Archibald Murray in August 1913. Murray organized CCS along the lines of a cooperative with canteen operators as shareholders. This structure would prevail till the World War II when the CCS system began to break down under pressure and the government took it over.
Further reorganizations would occur during the war years that both tested and strengthened the canteen services establishment. German presence in the Mediterranean and Red seas meant that supplies had to be shipped via the long route around Africa. The canteen, led by British and local managers, tided over the storm laudably. At Independence, the young nation inherited a remarkably well-organized establishment ready to serve a new master.
As the book admits, perhaps a little grudgingly, CSD was “like many institutions that were initiated by the British for their benefit and comfort but went on to help us in the long run…”
The book is full of great photographs, amusing factoids and several statistics, all of which paint a broad and rather sophisticated picture of CSD and the network of “Unit Run Canteens” that serve our soldiers.
For instance, who knew that CSD already uses a hi-tech system of smart cards to keep track of purchase history and quota limits? Or, that the CSD canteen at the army headquarters in Delhi employs a langur, managed by a salaried owner, to keep away other monkeys from bothering shoppers. And, who wouldn’t be surprised to know that the CSD headquarters in Mumbai sits on land that once belonged to Zulfikar Bhutto’s father?
The chapter on anecdotes later in the book is, indeed, its highlight. If you can overlook the slightly old-fashioned design, lazy Photoshop work, unattributed quotes and mildly overwritten prose that pepper the book, A Cut Above The Rest is a great tome that will interest not just the men in uniform, but also the civilians among us who will dearly appreciate some of that Johnnie Walker Black Label. The end product is apt testimony to the CSD’s yeoman service to the country.
A Cut Above The Rest
ARB Interactive, 211 pages, Not for sale.