I wonder sometimes about the affectionate hold that the dak bungalow and its cousins, the forest rest house, the PWD bungalow, inspection bungalow and the circuit house, have on the imagination of pre-liberalization Indians. In my case, it goes back a long way.
My earliest memory of government hospitality is a vivid image of a column of fierce black ants advancing across a bright red carpet in a musty bedroom. My mother confirms that this was in fact the first dak bungalow I ever visited. “It was in the Seoni jungles near Jhansi,” she says. In 1967. I would have been four at the time.
I love such feats of pointless memoriousness. In this case I know it was, above all, the (then) astonishing opulence of wall-to-wall carpeting that impressed itself on my labile cortex. But also, I like to think, a dawning appreciation of the absurd grandeur of the Indian state.
I could savour the full bouquet of those associations last month in the inspection bungalow of a northeastern mofussil town. It had a grand driveway with a portico, a cow-eaten garden, a reception hall festooned with the Pantheon of National Consensus (Gandhi, Netaji, Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Shastri, Indira Gandhi). It had been freshly painted in a nostalgic palette— strawberry ice cream within, pistachio without. Our room (or “lodge”) was furnished with all the props: a rexine armchair, linoleum floor, scaffolded beds, a high false ceiling and a perpetually trickling bathroom. When we complained about the unchanged bed linen, a fresh set arrived, crisply folded and unspeakably soiled.
Similar standards of hygiene and service in a private establishment would have been depressing, so why did this tableau of slovenliness make my heart sing? Well, of course, like all government property, it had the luxury of space and it was very cheap. But it wasn’t about the skinny modernism of “less is more” or the suddenly disreputable “more is more” of the day before yesterday or the penny-pinching “more for less” that your boss wants from you today. Instead, it had the comfort of stasis, the warm glow of that kinder, lazier India that has been obscured in the smog of economic growth. That sweet, lumbering otiose country, with no ambition really. Just the gentle tussle of bureaucratic order and natural entropy. True plenitude is indolence and an endless supply of chai. And a chowkidar who calls you “sarkar”.
Kai Friese, the author is editor of ‘Outlook Traveller’ and ‘GEO’