The Ghosts of Dak Bungalows and their Favorite Curries

The post-colonial nostalgia that haunts the concrete remains of the British Empire

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The rose-tinted glasses of romantic nostalgia hides the gruesome past of depravity, and rather show us the beauty in it all.

Nostalgia is a place we revisit time and again to feel a strange surreal kind of warmth. We sometimes love to escape into various avenues of our memories when reality fails us. The space between falling asleep and dreaming overlaps, giving way to a lucid transient world where shadows rise from slumber and re-enact the past. In this space, we daydream for hours, we ache with deliberation to experience it again. The longing deepens and we eventually allow ourselves to enter a hopeful trance of nostalgia. In our fevered imaginations, we not only crave for the places we knew but also for the ones we don’t. It is a psychological phenomenon with many complex emotions associated with it. Colonial nostalgia is one such complex emotion that emerged out of the previously colonialized countries. A deep urge to revisit the mysterious past of one’s ancestors and their forgotten masters. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows calls this specific feeling ‘Anemoia’.

Such profound existential longing is often tangled with the uncongenial past. A past that the new generation of these decolonized countries is unaware of. It arises from ancestral memories and handed-down stories. It awakens from the muddy rails built under the dim yellow hurricane lights, with nothing but bare brown hands. The same pair of brown hands that dug dirty trenches to bury bodies for their white masters. Anemoia arises from a complex past where the constellations that guide us, used to guide our ancestors. The only difference is that they longed for the freedom that we now take for granted. The rose-tinted glasses of romantic nostalgia hides the gruesome past of depravity, and rather show us the beauty in it all. The hybrid architectures, artifacts from other colonies (mostly stolen from the natives), a detailed glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words, and the morning and evening ritual of Tea (chai) which is now so central to Indian culture. Although there is nothing wrong with wearing rosy glasses, one should at least be aware that they are wearing one. 

Poignant Epitaphs and Crumbling Tombstones

The city secretly displays how the power of beauty always outlasts the grotesque.

The bustling city of Kolkata (earlier Calcutta), is etched with the colonial imprints of its past. At every intersection of the old city, one can still find some massive red-bricked regal buildings. (the color of power and authority). The city retains the name of its markets baptized by its ex-colonial masters. For instance, Gora Bazar (market of the white people) still bears the weight of racial indignation inflicted upon the city’s inhabitants for a couple of centuries. The city rather vehemently clings to its colonial roots for no reason at all. I would like to believe that the 1600 dead Britons who inhabit Kolkata’s South Park Cemetery still silently impose their authority. The serene burial ground is a little further from the Victoria Memorial (another edifice of the Queen’s legacy of conquests). The estate of dead spans over 8 acres, a befitting home to prominent linguists, botanists, postmasters, soldiers, barons, housewives, poets, and many more. 

Guarded by perennial banyans and colossal Peepals, here the dead lies awake whispering about the forgotten misery of battles, childbirth, tropical diseases, and melancholia. The city willfully abandoned the tombs and let them decay. With time, moss and monsonia shrubs stubbornly arrested the graves deeper into obscurity. The land is overgrown by different flowering plants, the gothic shapes conquered by vibrant flowers to perpetuate beauty. Calcutta, which was once an established capital of the East India Company, has now claimed its power back. The city secretly displays how the power of beauty always outlasts the grotesque. Now, only the Spiders and critters care deeply about the place which was once known as the Great Burial Grounds. The cuckoo birds too occasionally sing their routine melody for the desolate ghosts of the South Park Cemetery. 

After every sunset, inside the cemetery, the atmosphere gets eerie. The ghosts parole the desolate compound in search of their previous lordship, only to be disappointed by the lost essence of the Empire ideologies. However, the truth is, even in death they were treated with as much respect as they commanded in life. This is because the natives believe that the dead should be forgiven. No ill is spoken of the dead, at least not inside the cemetery. 

The mortal remains of some distinguished people like Walter Landor Dickens, an East India Company official, and son of Charles Dickens; and Richmond Thackeray, father of William Makepiece Thackeray who wrote Vanity Fair and many others rest there. The site was once plagued with untimely deaths due to reasons ranging from the Anglo-Afghan war to the dreadful Cholera epidemic. A stroll across the cemetery grounds to read the poignant epitaph of the deceased shall unveil a certain romance in melancholy. Reading would be enough to experience the heaving farewell left behind for the loved ones who scummed to the whims of time. 

Maybe one doesn’t die but move on. Maybe we flounder through misery while they are unshackled from the restraints of life. Maybe we do not know. Maybe we do not have to know. 

The dread and delicacies of the traveler’s home

The Dak Bungalows branch out sporadically across the vignette towns and picturesque hamlets of pre-independence India. These rest houses were built on the Dak (letters) or postal routes, connecting the country. These tiny organized cottages were occasionally occupied by the in-transit British officers, who were posted for short-term duties. Sometimes also used as holiday homes. The 19th-century Dak Bungalows were usually humble two to three-bedroom accommodation with terracotta tiled roofs and stretched-out verandas often on looking an unrestricted compound with palms, sal, and deodar (if you are in mountain ranges). The off-beat destinations add to the crude countryside charm. Some of these solitary houses are located adjacent to a dense forest. 

The Khansama who used to be a cook, butler, and caretaker all in one, was often stereotyped to be an old borderline-senile man who walked funny and was bent with age. He talked mostly to himself, and sometimes to his guests about the dead Sahibs and their tumultuous love lives. Although the lonesome khansamah was not the most cherished company,  he was fairly tolerable. The ghosts were more notorious. 

On any regular day, if the guests arrived unannounced they had to do with a simple supper of veg soup, egg curry, potato cutlet, and bread pudding. However, on a more fortunate day like a Sunday, the Khansama would buy a fowl and some ration from the nearest village. That day, the resident officer could expect a sumptuous meal of Roasted wings, spicy Dak Bangla chicken curry, and a hearty portion of caramel custard. Post dinner, he would retire to his room with a warm cup of fragrant Darjeeling tea, sometimes too tired to converse with his ghostly roommates.

The Khansama with his strange sense of humor and stories of several failed romances, quarrels, murders, and suicides, would set up enough context for his guest to be on the edge.

The dreary bungalows have quite the reputation for being a foreboding of desolation and deteriorating mental health. The long-term stay was believed to infuse a strange mental instability within its inmates. Many men were said to have displayed bouts of insanity during their stay. The ghosts of the places were alleged to haunt their hosts and drive them to act bizarrely. For example, no one would have suspected something was wrong with General Douglas until one fine day without any particular reason or warning he shot his wife and two children. The locals believe that it was the doing of the two unhappy ghosts of the Damoh Circuit house. Besides, General Douglas’s descent into lunacy was not the only chilling incident. There were many other reported supernatural incidents like objects flying and furniture moving across the room witnessed by many other guests. 

Living in a Dak Bungalow used to be a toiling experience. The isolation of a foreign land made an individual dreary and homesick. Most of these men hated being in an underdeveloped colony. Especially, when the deputation was imposed on them by their superiors or the Queen, as a sign of humiliation for misdeed or corruption. These men were struck by a sudden cultural shock and a hot temperate climate. By the time they reached the Dak bungalows, they would often feel disoriented. These mysterious abodes were old and often infested with bats which were potentially more dangerous than ordinary spirits. When the wind blew, the loosely hinged window panes and doors moaned and creaked. After enduring for long, the tenant eventually convinced himself that a spectral visitor is bound to appear. The Khansama with his strange sense of humor and stories of several failed romances, quarrels, murders, and suicides, would set up enough context for his guest to be on the edge. No wonder these men acted inexplicably, what else could we expect from someone under duress. In the Chirai Dongri rest house, located on a hilltop, Christmas was a specifically eerie season. It is said that the spirit of a forlorn English man, who killed himself during the holidays out of loneliness, still haunts the premises. 

The evocative atmosphere inside the bungalows, constricted by old teak furniture and embellished mirrors, speaks of this inhospitable past.

The sorrow and solitude imbued history of the Dak Bungalows are too stark to ignore. It is solid proof of the fact that colonialism was a toiling pursuit for national profits at the cost of individuals. The empire exploited its officers by ensnarling them in the disciple of duty, and its natives by plundering their resources. The Dak Bungalows scream of the madness and mayhem that the empire set loose for its selfish gains. The evocative atmosphere inside the bungalows, constricted by old teak furniture and embellished mirrors, speaks of this inhospitable past. When the last Englishman sailed to his motherland, what was left behind was a legacy of ghastly Dak Bungalows, each one haunted by its own set of angry ghosts. Like Kipling once described in his essay about his stay, “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.” 

The ivy climbing the concrete walls is the last living witness of desperation and struggle of those who lived during the dark age.

Nowadays, the focus has shifted from utility to tourism. The eerie desolation and dread are now used as an advertising tool to evoke nostalgia amongst the younger Indians who are pleasantly oblivious of its grotesque past. The Dak Bungalows are converted into Airbnbs and government guesthouses, where you can accomplish the penchant for the English lifestyle. The ones in the hills are most in-demand, like the Morgan House in Kalimpong. Although it is not a Dak Bungalow, it has a similar grim history. The owner Mr. Morgan, suffered from a long-ignored mental disorder. It is said that the spirit of Mrs. Morgan, who was tortured to death by her husband, haunts the serene property encompassed within the Kanchenjunga ranges (Himalayas). 

These days, the guests sleep unperturbed in these dainty country houses while the insatiable ghosts of the sahibs and memsahibs stuck in a limbo, haunt the premises. However, the privilege of life is for the living and the living get to decide what to do with it. So, we decided to slip into our daily routines and deliberately forget about the tormented spirits of the Dak Bungalows. The ivy climbing the concrete walls is the last living witness of desperation and struggle of those who lived during the dark age.

For more stories on Dak Bungalows, read Rajika Bhandari’s “The Raj on the move”

Look out for a photography project called “Sleeping in the forest”, undertaken by photojournalist Dileep Prakash. In his work, he captures the sadness permeating through the old and rustic hill houses and Dak Bungalows laden with memories and history - staged under the starry night sky and within open forests.

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