An Indian traveler attempts to come to terms with the complex legacy of British colonialism.
Like every Indian, I too lament the many ills inflicted upon us by the British while they held sway over our country. But, despite their wrongs, there is one remnant of the raj that I will always hold dear: the forest bungalows left by the British. Styled with charm and simplicity, the officers took great care in erecting these structures, even going as far guarding a half-built bungalow with a gun to protect its workers from the depredations of a man-eating tiger on one occasion.
Today, these bungalows, or Forest Rest Houses (FRHs), draw hordes of tourists. The Corbett Tiger Reserve, nestled in the Himalayan foothills, houses a number of these. Of the many that dot its picturesque terrain, the FRH at Dhikala, lying closest to the park’s geographical centre, is the most sought-after for an overnight stay.
The other FRHs usually end up playing second fiddle to its larger establishment, as they offer fewer rooms, cater to fewer tourists, and have lesser scope for tracking tigers in their vicinity. But given that it was not so much a glimpse of the cat that my friends and I were seeking, but the quiet of the jungle, the prospect of spending a couple of nights in less-exalted lodgings held its own appeal.
As we entered the park on a chilly winter afternoon, I noticed that the lush winter jungle had a gorgeous garb of greens, having retained its post-monsoon vitality. However, as our destination began to draw nearer, the vegetation on either side of us began to give away in curious fashion. The rich mix of trees—characterizing the floral make-up of the park—had now been replaced by a single species: shorea robusta, or Sal, as it is more commonly known. Stands of these were lined in neat, uniform rows. I soon learnt from a friend that this was no work of nature, but the handiwork of the British, who had manipulated certain sections of their surroundings to ensure a steady supply of timber for their growing industrial needs.
Our stop for the first night was the Forest Rest House at Sultan, named after the infamous “Sultana”—a dacoit of legendary exploits, who Corbett immortalized as a Robin Hood-esque figure through one of his books. The bungalow at Sultan seemed to have changed little with time, reminding me of lonely forest outposts manned by hardy men battling their wits against the machinations of the jungle. But the tourist of today needn’t muster any such pluck, for its well-furnished interiors and devoted caretakers leave one yearning for little. Sharing our grounds was a solitary cattle-egret, who, despite numerous attempts, had trouble holding on to a single morsel. As I watched its meal inexplicably tumble out of its beak time and time again, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of my own inept attempts at aping the ways of the wild.
The remaining hours of the day were spent wandering about the park in our gypsy while the setting sun cast an amber glow over of the grasslands, sprawling gold and yellow on the banks of the Ramganga. When we found ourselves back in Sultan under a fading blue sky, the bungalow bore no airs of aloofness. Grazing by its side were a trio of cheetals, who fled our approach in fright like a party of trespassers caught in the act. But one of its ruddier cousins—a barking deer, doubled up on a snug, leafy bed besides the bole of a tree—showed great temerity, despite its reputation for timidness, defiantly holding his ground until it saw greater wisdom in a retreat.
We could only make sense of this oddity in the dark, when my friend and I—having set out on a casual stroll—were rudely surprised by the startled shape of a deer materializing out of the blue only a few inches away from us. Watching it scoot away for cover, we realized that we had strayed into the same individual we had crossed paths with earlier by blundering into its nightly refuge. No sooner had we realized our folly than it came lashing out at us in the dark. “Head back to your rooms, you’re on someone else’s property!”, bellowed a man from the staff quarters located about half a furlong away. We didn’t dare loiter any longer and quickly retraced our steps, feeling chastened yet touched by the affinity on show for the hoofed tenants of Sultan.
The moon—only a day short of being full—had now draped our bungalow in a gossamer glow as its arched roofs gleamed under its wreaths of silver—a sight so serene that the impulse to intrude felt cardinally sinful.
The next morning had us bidding adieu to the sylvan charms of Sultan and heading towards our next stop, the FRH at Gairal. The first noticeable parity between the two was that the rest house at Gairal, unlike the one at Sultan, hadn’t retained its secluded aura. This may be due to the fact that the original bungalow isn’t a stand-alone bungalow anymore; it has a new, unimaginatively designed rest house accompanying it. Viewed by itself, the old FRH is finely framed by a row of trees and a solitary hill looming large against a backdrop of bracing, blue skies (though one still has to ignore the metallic solar-heating contraption placed gaudily by the side of the bungalow).
While the sobriety of Sultan is hard to surpass, Gairal boasts a far grander view. Perched on the elevated banks of the Ramganga, it commands a stunning sweep of the river as it froths and flows its way past a gorgeous swathe of grassy jungle, through which one can occasionally spot a tiger passing by in the light of day.
Gairal, however, isn’t alone in its proximity to the river. The Sarpduli Forest Rest House is also built in the vicinity of the Ramganga, which, though unavailable for a stay, begged at least a visit. Upon arrival, we found that the river is largely hidden from view by a row of closely-knit trees circumventing its premises. The larger of the two rest houses at Sarpduli was smaller in size to the one at Gairal, but, unlike the latter, wasn’t parried in its dimensions by any sizable backdrops. The smaller of the two rest houses—a comely, diminutive quarter built in the company of overarching trees—endeared itself to the eyes rather easily, offering a daintier counterpart to its dominating neighbor.
As the winter sun began to wane, we decided to wrap up our day off with a visit to FRH at Dhikala—hardly a fitting finale you might think, given my aversion to its touristy trappings. But we’d timed our arrival carefully, coinciding our entry with the hurried departure of safari-bound gypsies. The view from the front deck overlooking the floodplains of the Ramganga was riveting, but we had limited time for sight-seeing, as, oddly enough, our motivation turned us indoors.
One of Dhikala’s lesser known attractions is its in-house library, which boasts an enviable collection of rare and outdated books, which find little demand among the tourists of today. As a consequence, one is now forced to go through the formalities of permission-seeking before any access can be gained. However, once approval was granted, the bibliophiles among us were more than thrilled to have the shelves entirely to ourselves.
However, what really did catch my fancy wasn’t a book on the shelf, but—quite literally—a writing on the wall. An article written by Bittu Sahgal—the founder of India’s best-selling conservation magazine—hung on a wall, enclosed in a frame. It contained a moving tribute to Brijendra Singh, an honorary wildlife warden of the park, who had risked the wrath of influential men in the line of duty. As I read those lines aloud, I felt a sense of gratitude swell within, for not only men like Mr. Singh, but umpteen others, who, unnamed and unsung, make great sacrifices, and even lay down their lives, to safeguard a heritage far greater and far grander than any conceived by the hands of man.
Photo credit: Raza Kazmi