Rest House Chronicles — Part 1

As far as I know Himachal has one of the finest network of government rest-houses in the country: the Forest Deptt. has about 350 and the PWD and Irrigation and Public Health Deptt. probably the same number. The former are mostly functional and located so as to enable touring by foresters in remote or forested areas, away from towns. The rest-houses of the latter two departments, on the other hand, are meant to provide temporary accommodation to officials not yet allotted govt. quarters, serve as camp offices for Ministers and MLA’s at govt. expense, proclaim the status of a Minister, and at times even function as a convenient “nid d’ amour” (or love-nest for those who studied English in St. Stephen’s College) ! Earlier they were also used as venues for parties, but this function is now declining with the mushrooming of hotels all over the place with their package offers for kitty parties and what not. It is well known that the most luxurious rest houses belong to the State Electricity Board, some of them more than a match for 5 and even 7 Star hotels – just check out the ones in Dalhousie and Sangla valley. When a hydel project is sanctioned for the Board it may or may not come up, but a grand rest house most certainly will!

But let us not dwell on the reasons. The more relevant point is that the network exists and offers fascinating experiences for the officer who visits its constituent units. Regrettably, most officers nowadays (including foresters) prefer “road-head” touring and return to their homes by evening, to the familiar routine of prime time discussions on TV. I never missed an opportunity for a night out, primarily to escape from Neerja’s cooking which, to be fair to her, has taken tremendous strides during our marriage of 40 years: it has progressed from boiled eggs to fried eggs but since that milestone was achieved some years back it has plateaued out like the Doklam Plateau, and a similar stalemate now prevails. I have personally always preferred the Forest RHs because of their remote, off-road locations and the fact that the politicians generally avoid them. An additional attraction is the fact that most of them are from British times and the British certainly knew where to place a building so as to get the maximum benefit of the view and landscape. Just go to the FRH at Chask Bhaturi in Pangi, situated at the head of a magical valley, the river below and the massive Zanskar range behind, and you will not want to come back to civilisation ! Of course, its a hard two day trek to reach it. If you don’t want to toil then visit the FRH at Jalori Pass (not the new one but the original, which a capricious Chief Minister transferred to the PWD some years back), or the 1936 vintage FRH in Sangla, or even the one in Manali, cocooned in its thick deodar grove from the traffic flowing all around it.

My own experiences with rest houses began in 1976 when I, along with four colleagues from the HAS (all probationers) was dispatched to Jwalamukhi for a six week revenue field training. We arrived by bus at the PWD RH there (a much smaller version of the present one) but the Executive Engineer refused to give us any rooms, probably because he was unable to clear the General Knowledge paper for the IAS or HAS exams and bore a perpetual grudge. On the intervention of the Tehsildar (one Mr. Kainthla, who resembled a power station chimney operating at 98% PLF because he was always smoking) he grudgingly allowed all five of us to stay in the drivers’ room which had bunk beds and no fans. On the third day, while we were in a village absorbing the mysteries of a “zareb” under the guidance of a Patwari, the XEN had our luggage thrown out! Mr. Kainthla blew some more smoke in his face and the XEN allowed us in again. But when this vaudeville act was repeated again a couple of days later, Mr. Kainthla (having run out of cigarettes and the resultant smoke) had us all shifted to the RH at Ranital, about ten kms. away. It was beautifully perched on the top of a thickly forested knoll, above a small picturesque village. The only problem was that it was in the process of being demolished !- only one room and a verandah remained, which was to be our demesene for the next four weeks.

Unencumbered with futile notions of status and self importance at that nascent stage of our careers, we managed to enjoy our stay there. Those were pre-Arnab Goswami days so the evenings were spent in thrashing out our new found knowledge of laws and policies – within two weeks we had resolved just about every issue facing the country, to our complete satisfaction! There were no bathrooms, of course, so every morning the rising sun saw five potential saviours of the country squatting behind strategically located bushes. Mr. Modi may not approve of this now, but at that time it afforded me an opportunity to interact with passing monitor lizards, squirrels and snakes and engendered in me an abiding love of nature which has endured even though my squatting days are now behind me, if you’ll excuse the pun.

There was also – you guessed it!-no running water, so we used to go down to a little “baodi” or natural water tank in the village to have our bath. We soon discovered that the pretty village belles also visited the baodi at about five every evening to fill their pitchers; therefore we decided (with a unanimity that the Rajya Sabha would do well to emulate) that we all needed a second bath in the evening also. The local damsels did not mind in the least, took an unusually long time to fill their pitchers, and would no doubt have taken a few selfies with us if the damn smart phones had not taken so long to be invented.

Life proceeded swimmingly, till one evening when a delegation of village elders came calling on us. They apologised profusely for their girls interrupting us at the baodi and suggested that maybe we could change our bathing time to the mornings only. The message was as clear as a Donald Trump tweet or a “Man ki Baat” invocation (though equally unwelcome) and, therefore, not wanting to blight our promising careers, we regretfully complied. But the habit ingrained in the rest house at Ranital has stayed – I can only bathe in the mornings now.

Barot Rest House
One of my favourite rest houses is the one at Barot (pictured above). Its a genuine log hut comprising two bed rooms and a sitting room, sitting next to the pretty Uhl river and just above a trout farm. Admiral Gandhi, a former Himachal Governor was very fond of this place and used to camp here often, angling for trout in the river. Barot itself is a picturesque little hamlet dominated by the Shanan Hydel Project and its huge balancing reservoir. Behind the log-hut are beautiful walks along the tree shaded banks of the Uhl river. However, trust the philistines in the PWD to ruin everything: the Deptt. has now built a monstrous, super ugly, cement and concrete two storey additional hulk right next to the hut! (to its right as you look at the image above. I took this photo long before the new construction). It has irretrievably damaged the splendid profile and the lawns of the place. There was absolutely no need for it, but these are the ways, brick by brick, bribe by bribe, apathy by apathy in which Himachal is being destroyed – by those who should be taking care of it. Its nothing short of custodial rape.
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  1. says: Nodnat

    A pleasure to read and reflect upon!
    “It is nothing short of custodial rape”; brilliant and so honestly insightful.
    The tragedy is that though the Forest Department is so fortunate to have inherited such a rich constellation of old world rest houses in the most striking locations, it has been way-laid by the PWD (and general) misconception (or ethic?) of development which centers on cement-concrete walls and roofs, iron everywhere, Italian tiles and fancy bathroom fixtures (without water of course). This same route is taken when money comes for rest houses under ecotourism. There is no money for maintenance left.
    May be there is a need for a neo-building code in the forest department; local materials, solar passive, must have fire places and good use of wood included. Local management! Getting the Finance departments to agree though would be long drawn, high stakes battle.
    But the rest houses will really begin to bloom again when forest officers go and stay in them.
    Asking for too much?

  2. says: Michael Lidgley

    We couldn’t agree more with every word. There is a FRH half a mile from our farm in the Kalala forest, on an old forest bridle path linking Kotkhai and Hatu Peak, we believe, although much of the old path has disappeared. If you know more about this, we would be very interested. We are also cataloguing the flora and fauna in a aspirational bid to have the forest achieve sanctuary status – one can but try.

  3. says: Sandip Madan

    It’s amazing that you took your rest house (or lack thereof) woes and the XEN’s brush off during revenue field training so much in stride. I had sought the DC (and other higher ups) interventions for smaller slights in my training days. And as for places without running water and toilets (I endured a few in HP before getting senior scale, never thereafter) I’m again so much wimpier and a pathetic city slicker compared to you, Ganga Din. Thanks for this illuminating (and customarily hilarious) narration, Avay.

    On one point though I’m way ahead (along with Anita) and that is in appreciating Neerja’s cooking. You’re lucky she laughs at your unfair digs at her culinary prowess. So many times have we partaken of her lavish fare at your home and found it difficult to walk after heavy feasting. The problem dear Avay may lie in your austere sadhu ways and finicky eating habits. I remember the time Anita prepared a 15 course extravaganza including exotic meat dishes when you as “senior officer” graced our humble Kusumpti flat. All you ate despite all our pleadings was chanaas (chick peas) without even rice or roti or anything else!

  4. says: Pankaj Khullar

    I remember camping at Kalala in 1985 along with my Working Plan field staff. I had requested the territorial DFO to make the booking, fully expecting him to inform the chowkidar of our impending visit. We reached the FRH at about 8 pm after a long day’s work, only to find it locked and totally dark. It was new moon and the atmosphere was quite ghostly. The young Forest Rangers with me broke a window pane and undid the tower bolt of one of the Windows and we all clambered over the sill into the living room. There was some old furniture and no beds worth the name. We all stayed there for two nights, making ourselves comfortable on the floor. Needless to say, the chowkidar remained AWOL and we left a note and the FRH charges on the table while leaving. The FRH appeared to be quite abandoned and the deodar forest around it totally degraded. All the big trees had been hacked down and the young ones appeared like flagposts with just a tuft of leaves at the top. I wonder what is the situation now !

  5. says: Avay Shukla

    Actually, Sandip, we did spend a whole day drafting a petition to the DC Kangra ( he shall remain anonymous!) about the XEN. I still remember that we began with ” We the humble probationers….” hoping to stir his kindlier instincts. We never received a reply, and moved to Ranital, duly chastened. As regards Neerja’s cooking, the idea is to inspire her to greater heights..! About the incident involving the chick peas, I plead guilty: its a miracle I get invited to dinner at all by my friends’ wives’- couldn’t be my charming personality, could it?!

  6. says: Sumit

    It seems like XEN of that time did not bother ( as proclaimed by you ) about you , no stone seems to left unturned by you to repay word by word, year by year , file by file, noting by noting and blog by blog flogging the minutest bit the you can grab, goes on in spite of the fact that your petition found no ground with then DC.

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