The double “o” in Hindoo Holiday1 immediately signals that we are returning to another time: one that was not so long ago, but is now as antiquated as its orthography. An era that was tragic, perhaps, in its essence, but comic in its particulars; a time of unspeakable wealth and inconceivable poverty, continual cultural misunderstandings, unfettered whimsy, and cruelties large and small: the age of the British Raj and the Indian princes.
The Raj was born in the wake of the 1857 Sepoy Revolt against the Honourable East India Company, which had controlled much of the subcontinent for a hundred years. Realizing that the Company could no longer protect British interests, the British government, with some reluctance, intervened. Slightly more than half of the country fell under the direct administration of the Crown, but the rest of the land was divided into 562 states, from tiny principalities to kingdoms as large as the British Isles themselves. These states enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy in their internal affairs, but all had to pledge not to pursue independent courses of foreign policy.
This meant peace for hundreds of kingdoms that had spent centuries warring. And it meant that the princes, whose pride was based on a heritage of martial valor, had to find new ways of demonstrating their princeliness. Many found the solution in the overflowing coffers of their treasuries. With war no longer draining their time and revenues, they attacked leisure as though it were the citadel of an ancient rival.
There were palaces with seven thousand servants, and a maharani whose jewels were so heavy she could stand only when supported by two attendants. There were royal hunts on the backs of four hundred elephants, where scores of tigers or tens of thousands of birds would be slain in a single day. There were children’s toys of solid gold, nursery balls encrusted with rubies, a turban with three thousand diamonds, a carpet made only of jewels.
There was a maharajah who changed his clothes when the thermometer rose or fell by one degree, and another who sent his laundry to Paris. There was an auto enthusiast with 270 cars for his personal motoring, and a Scotophile who outfitted his idle troops in complete Highland gear (with the addition of pink tights, so that the brown knees of his men would take on a ruddy Scots complexion). There was one, unlucky in love, who checked into a Paris hotel, ordered cases of Dom Perignon, and drank until he died. And another who occupied thirty-five suites of the Savoy in London and received three thousand fresh roses a day, for he said he loved nature.
A fantastic spire atop the most hierarchical society in the East, princely India was administered or advised by the stodgy, lower-middle-class members of the military and bureaucratic castes of the most hierarchical society in the West. Transformed by colonialism into aristocrats, these sahibs and memsahibs inhabited a world of pig-sticking and costume balls, puttees and topees, tin peas and quinine, calling cards and chits. A world that was ritualized in its slightest details to preserve its newly found decorum in the vastness of an India teeming with germs and masses: a chaos to be largely ignored but strictly controlled when it entered the home or barracks or office in the form of the retinues of servants.
J.R. Ackerley wandered into this scene in 1923. The handsome son of an extravagantly nouveau riche fruiterer—the self-styled “Banana King of London”—he had gone directly from his militaristic public school into the trenches soon after war was declared. He saw action at the Somme (where a million and a half shells were fired, and sixty thousand British soldiers were killed or wounded) and in other terrible battles; lost his idolized brother; was wounded and taken prisoner; and was not returned to England until months after the peace.
He then entered Cambridge, and a homosexual world that itself now seems as remote as the Raj. Still under the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trial and the Sodomy Laws, more circumspect than closeted, it was a tiny universe of brilliant upper-class men who reveled in and suffered under a sharp class distinction between sex and friendship. As described in Peter Parker’s witty biography of Ackerley,2 they talked endlessly to each other about their sex lives, but would select their actual partners from the working class. Often heterosexual and sometimes married, their lovers—unlike themselves—had little spare time and little to say that would be of interest to Oxbridge. Romance was furtive, brief, complicated to arrange, thrilling, and boring.
In 1923, Ackerley was twenty-seven, had published a few poems, had written a play, The Prisoners of War, that was having trouble finding a producer because of its implicit homoeroticism, and was adrift. His friend E.M. Forster suggested a stint in India, from which Forster had recently returned, perhaps as the secretary to the Maharajah of Chhatarpur, a minor noble whom he called “the Prince of Muddlers, even of Indian muddlers.” The Maharajah was fifty-seven, tiny, slightly crippled, an eccentric dresser, and notoriously ugly, with the collapsed face of a Pekinese. He was also gay.3
Months of negotiation followed. The Maharajah had wanted a secretary who was exactly like Olaf, a character in H. Rider Haggard’s The Wanderer’s Necklace, and had even written to Haggard for help. He was oddly unimpressed by Ackerley’s photograph, then impressed by his poems, offered him lifetime employment leading to a cabinet post, dismissed the whole thing as impossible, and finally hired him for six months. Ackerley ended up staying less than five. His duties largely consisted of driving around with the Maharajah in one of his many cars; answering—or more exactly, avoiding answering—sudden questions on metaphysics or ethics; ogling boys with the lonely regent and commiserating with his imagined ailments and ill-starred horoscopes; entertaining insufferably dim British guests; writing letters to the Political Agent concerning the construction of a Greek temple where young men could lounge and discuss philosophy; and trying to keep his distance from the inevitable exceedingly minor palace intrigues.
Back in England, Ackerley slowly transformed his Indian diaries into Hindoo Holiday, which appeared in 1932. His publisher, fearful of libel, had insisted on cuts in the text pertaining to the Maharajah’s sexual preferences and speculations on the paternity of his heirs. Chhatarpur was jokingly changed to Chhokrapur, which means “City of Boys.” Nevertheless, it was too salacious to be broadcast on the BBC, and salacious enough to become an instant and unexpected hit. Vita Sackville-West, Evelyn Waugh, and Cyril Connolly loved it. André Gide recommended it to Gallimard, and the Aga Khan, the playboy spiritual leader of the Ismailis, not only insisted on writing a preface to the French edition but also named a race horse after the book. (Unfortunately it was a loser.) The book remained in print for decades. A new edition in 1952 restored some of the cuts, but it was not, strangely, until its first Indian edition in 1979 that readers could find a completely unexpurgated text. (This is the first Western edition of the uncut version.)
Ackerley went on to become the much-loved literary editor of The Listener from 1935 to 1959, and to write, at tortoise pace, three more books: an extraordinary portrait of his Alsatian, My Dog Tulip (1956); an autobiographical novel, We Think the World of You (1960), which was rejected by Maurice Girodias as “not nearly dirty enough” but which became a scandalous prizewinner; and the frank and pioneering memoir My Father and Myself, which Ackerley had begun in 1933 and finished just before his death in 1967.
V.S. Naipaul, recalling his first visit to India (in The Enigma of Arrival), writes:
India was special to England; for two hundred years there had been any number of English travelers’ accounts and, latterly, novels. I could not be that kind of traveler. In traveling to India I was traveling to an un-English fantasy, and a fantasy unknown to Indians of India…. There was no model for me here, in this exploration; neither Forster nor Ackerley nor Kipling could help.
It is an indication of the place that Hindoo Holiday held on the short shelf of enduring literary books produced by the Raj: preceded only by Emily Eden’s Up the Country in the mid-nineteenth century, and, of course, by Kim and A Passage to India. Later it was followed by L.H. Myers’s The Root and the Flower (also known as The Near and the Far, a tetralogy of philosophical novels set in the Mughal age, and thus a product of the Raj but not about it) and Paul Scott’s operatic The Raj Quartet with its nostalgic coda, Staying On. The literature’s final flowering was, appropriately, not written by an Englishman, but by a fiercely Anglophilic Bengali, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, in his half-Proustian, half-polemical Autobiography of an Unknown Indian.
Hindoo Holiday is the most comic of these, and the only one to avoid larger issues, eternal mysteries, or the temptation to throng with as much life as India itself. Ackerley was clearly severe in reworking his diaries, limiting himself to the creation of a handful of unforgettable characters, and eliminating anything he experienced outside of Chhatarpur itself. There is no description of his journey to the state, and none of his departure; a three-week trip to Benares and other places is discussed only in an account of the complex negotiations with the Maharajah for a leave; and there is no mention of the famed erotic temples of Khajaraho, which were nearby and which he surely visited. Instead, he essentially transplanted the comedy of manners from an English country house to an Indian palace. This may be the only travel book ever written that could easily be adapted as a play.
Abdul Haq showed me some obscene postcards to-day.
“I have brought with me some pictures, Mr. Ackerley,” he said. “Do you wish to see them?”
“What are they, Abdul?”
“Postcards,” he said, simpering. “Very bad postcards, so I do not wish to show them to you…unless you wish to see them. You understand?”…
“Where are they?” I asked.
“I have them here, in my pocket; but I do not wish you to see them. If you tell me to show them to you, then I must show them to you. You understand? In this way.”…
“Come on, Abdul,” I said, “let’s have a look at them.”
He looked up brightly, smiling with tight lips.
“You wish to see them?” I nodded. “You are sure, Mr. Ackerley?” I nodded. “You will not be angry with me?” I shook my head. “They are very bad.” I held out my hand. “But I do not show them to you, you understand?” he continued, drawing a packet from his pocket. “You have commanded me—against my wish. Look, I place them here, on the table. It is for you to decide.”
Ackerley makes no pretense that this is anything more than a holiday; he does not presume to characterize, let alone condemn, the Indian soul, based on his chance encounters. (And in fact he is often a little fuzzy or simply wrong on Indian details.) Kipling loved India, and especially the words of Anglo-India—the first half of Kim has an exuberance of language that would not be seen again until Joyce—but he still bore the white man’s burden. Ackerley, even more than Forster, has no agenda; both are extraordinarily tolerant, reserving their scorn—like many travelers—only for their fellow countrymen.
That this was due to their lives as sexual outsiders is unquestionable. Although it seems unimaginable now—given the prudishness, until quite recently, of modern India, with its covered and secluded women, and where even a kiss was forbidden on a movie screen—it was sexual licentiousness that was at the root of the Raj’s horror of the land. The biggest-selling book on India before Hindoo Holiday was Katherine Mayo’s 1927 Mother India, which claimed that the “degeneracy” of the Indian race was due not to poverty or the tyrannies of its various rulers, but rather to promiscuity:
The whole pyramid of Indians’ woes, material and spiritual—poverty, sickness, ignorance, political minority, melancholy, ineffectiveness, not forgetting that subconscious conviction of inferiority which he forever bares and advertises by his gnawing and imaginative alertness for social affronts—rests upon a rock-bottom physical base. The base is simply, his manner of getting into the world and his sex-life thenceforward.
Even worse than sex, of course, was interracial sex: it is the enigma around which A Passage to India turns, and the revulsion to it propels the violence of The Raj Quartet. In contrast, the one kiss in Hindoo Holiday—between Ackerley and one of the young men who hang around his bungalow—is merely a funny and sweet moment of no significance. The Maharajah’s pursuit of his boy actors is presented as comically as his long drives in search of good omens (turning the car around when something appears on the unlucky left so that it will be on the lucky right) or the hapless tutor Abdul’s pursuit of better employment. Ackerley’s descriptions of the beauties of the boys he sees are as relaxed and natural as his descriptions of wildlife; they are entirely without the psychodrama or the Hellenistic pretensions that were common among gay writers at the time. This offhand and funny presentation of the potentially shocking would become an Ackerley trademark. My Father and Myself famously begins: “I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919.”
No English writer had such uncomplicated fun in India; none could create such comic characters without condescension; no one, until Salman Rushdie and the current generation of Indian novelists, could write dialogue in Indian English so well. Above all, Hindoo Holiday is as perfectly constructed as A Passage to India, though because of its pose as a travel book and not a novel, few seemed to have noticed.
February 24, 2000
Hindoo Holiday by J.R. Ackerley was first published in 1932. It has just been republished by New York Review Books. This essay appears in different form as the book’s introduction. ↩
Peter Parker, Ackerley: A Life of J.R. Ackerley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989). ↩
Decades later, in The Hill of Devi, Forster would recall the Maharajah: “He was a most unusual character—mystical, and sensual, silly and shrewd. I do not think he misgoverned his kingdom, as my friend [the Maharajah of Dewas] did his. He had not the energy for that. He merely omitted to govern it, and did what the English told him, lamenting or tittering all the time. He had the vaguest attitude to external affairs: a pilgrimage to Benares was the great world, so far as he was concerned. He concentrated on his health, on philosophy and religion, and on his troupe of Krishna dancers, when he had one. People laughed at him and sponged on him and he knew it and laughed at them. He was exasperating, undignified, unreliable, but endearing, and there must be many who are grateful for his friendship, and regret his death. India will certainly never look upon his like again.” ↩