Seventy years of Hindoo Holiday

Exploring today's India with the help of a book written 70 years ago by a young homosexual man from England.

Consider this. A young Hindu boy's only objection to being kissed on the mouth by an English man is that the white man eats meat. Unbelievable as it may seem today, this is a true encounter from 1920s India, recorded in a book that is now 70 years old – JR Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday (The Viking Press, 1932). Quite expectedly then, considering its content and considering the India of today where homosexuality is still considered a perversity and is illegal to boot, in Indian bookshops Hindoo Holiday is stacked alongside tourist guides and the Kamasutra where the average Indian seldom dares to tread. With its candid approach to a subject that is largely taboo, Hindoo Holiday addresses a niche readership that is not put off by its seeming 'decadence'.

Since Katherine Mayo's Mother India (1927), a vicious trashing of Indian culture and its society's excesses, and Lajpat Rai's largely justified strident counterattack in Unhappy India (1928), it has become easy to dismiss any attempt to explore or expand on the idea of India as malicious anti-national propaganda. The far-right Hindutva brigade cheerfully disrupts the screening of films about lesbian relationships, rewrites history texts and bans books providing evidence for that well acknowledged truth that Hindus once ate cows. Four months ago, in June, when burnt bodies, lying on the ground like pieces of an art installation, shared the pages of the newspaper with the repartee of nuclear threats between India and Pakistan, I picked up Hindoo Holiday. Reading about the strange yet familiar place India was, makes you wonder, what good is it, and why even bother, evoking an ultra-bowdlerised Bharatmata, a squeaky clean Mother India, who, in all likelihood, never even existed?

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian