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?
In 1923, Joseph Randolph Ackerley, English and 27 years old, came to India at the suggestion of his friend EM Forster, and spent a little over five months in the small principality of Chhatarpur as the “English private secretary” to the maharaja there. Hindoo Holiday was the product of the journal that he maintained during his stint in India. Its people, the maharaja with his homosexual subtext, and his retinue of a prime minister, a secretary, five Englishmen and women, the ubiquitous flunkies and some off-stage conspiring relatives, make for a cast of the usual suspects, but it is Ackerley’s treatment of them that has something valuable to offer. Depending on historical and cultural contexts, a reader will take various views of and from the book. Its initial publishers found the account so scandalous, they insisted that the more risqué ponderings on the maharaja be edited out and the name of the state be fictionalised. As a result, Ackerley’s Indian holiday is located in ‘Chhokrapur’ – translated, that would mean Ladsville, or “City of Boys”. And, in India today, the book is stacked way back in the section that storekeepers think will attract only depraved and/or curious Westerners, looking for a ‘quickie’ while they travel through the Subcontinent.
The book finds the appellation ‘funny’ tagged to it by pleased readers and the knee-jerk reaction is to think that the Indians in the book are being ridiculed. Ackerley, as an Englishman, occupies a superior position: apart from the fact that he belongs to the colonising race, his personal circumstances also are much better than that of most of the characters. One knows that even the maharaja, despite his wealth and status, would have given his right arm for the Oxbridge education Ackerley carries so lightly. However, on reading through the book as opposed to merely looking at the blurbs, one funds in the patiently recorded conversations that ridicule of Indians is certainly not its aim and Indian readers suspect derision instinctively only because of their own complexes.
Ackerly’s approach is that of an anthropologist on a busman’s holiday. No clash of civilisations, no race consciousness is discernible in his book, just faithful records of sincere relationships between men from different backgrounds. How minimally racial and cultural superiority impinges on the account gives the book a contemporary feel of course, but more importantly, it highlights a neglected aspect of the British political and cultural scene in the era India gained independence. Indian independence is either attributed to the Herculean efforts of the Mahatma and his notable generals such as Nehru and Patel and the martyrdom of many foot soldiers, or to the weakening of the imperial resolve in the wake of the second world war. Few accounts of the Indian struggle for independence explain, lest British villainy and the glory of the heroes be mitigated, how the British political and social milieu had undergone a sea change in the course of the inter-war years.
The Oxford movement had put the religious faith of a whole generation on the rack; the Bloomsbury group growing ever more influential at the time had redefined the ways art and literature would react to new realities, rejecting ossified norms of a defunct Victorian society and ethos, which they held responsible for the first world war. Virginia Woolf, with her uninhibited stream of consciousness, was a product as well as the prime mover of the group. So was the iconoclastic Lytton Strachey whose Eminent Victorians, that trendsetter in the biographical oeuvre, had influence beyond literary circles. A pacifist and homosexual, Strachey seems an ideal role model for Ackerley, who was in all likelihood inspired by the group and its fresh creed. This was a time when the British left’s anti-imperialism was changing the politics of the land. India’s locally nurtured theories of independence fail to explain why and how left-liberals such as Stafford Cripps, Bernard Shaw, TE Lawrence and Maynard Keynes, whose views were anything but imperialist, came to matter so much to British politics and society.
Placed in such a context, Ackerley scarcely seems the odd man out. He does not carry the white man’s burden like the protagonist of George Orwell’s Burmese Days (who shoots a mast elephant in a bazaar impelled by fear of ridicule and native expectations). But, in the context of the Raj, Ackerley hardly jells with mainstream British society in India, which carried the torch of imperialism without apology, often even with pride and a sense of duty right until 1947. The classic outsider, he simply does not have much truck with the British who are the maharaja’s guests. He can barely tolerate their conversations about impudent but easily cowed-down natives, their pelting stones at pie dogs and septic boys. He writes, “I found this kind of conversation so remarkable that I began to note it down on the back of envelopes under cover of the table”. His amusement and keenness to take the mickey out of his kind lends a balance to the narrative and forecloses the potential for an invidious reading of the later part of the book when the Indians are the primary subjects of his narrative. Whether he is seriously trying to undermine the empire after an agenda or whether it is British self-deprecation at work, is moot. All said, while this view of the empire may sit awkwardly beside popular Kiplingesque accounts of the Raj, the modern reader appreciates its irony and perhaps even sees something redeeming in the British spirit. Ackerley never joins the society of the other English, never participates. He only observes, and records.
The slippery path
Ackerley’s account of India contrasts sharply with the preoccupation of Western media, art and literature with monuments and things Indian, making those Indians disappear, as if by the rope-trick, who are regarded as the grey, suffering mass of humanity – awkward, inarticulate, and unresolved. Rudyard Kipling’s Indians, like terracotta figurines, vessels for his set notions about the Indian character, are mere details in a frieze of contorted and wily beings suffering at their own and fate’s hands. EM Forster, incidentally homosexual like Ackerley, could have seized the opportunity missed by Kipling. Unfortunately though, in A Passage to India (1924), he chose to please European sensibilities loath to be surprised with flesh and blood natives, and content with stereotypes. Aziz, the Muslim physician who is the protagonist of A Passage to India, though based on a real person (Sir Syyed Ross), is at best a vehicle to carry the symbolism of ‘awakened self-esteem’.
Ackerley’s Indians are as cleanly and delicately etched as his accompanying pen and ink drawings in Hindoo Holiday. They are treated without condescension and with an empathy that is often, surely mistakenly, attributed to his homosexuality. Indian readers of the book come face to face with long dead ancestors and relatives whose sepia-toned photographs catch dust in a crusty album or on a mildewed wall. There is little curiosity expended on monuments or the history of Chhokrapur as Ackerley relentlessly pursues his characters.
No louche Caesar, as one would expect, the maharaja is a gentle, curious, insecure chap barely able to cope with the redundancy of his political class that has been effected by British rule. His decay and emasculation finds expression in mindless confused utterances: “‘Why are ruins beautiful?’ … ‘And what is beauty? Is it the cloak of God?” Hard times brought on by British overlordship mean that even the wings of his lightest fancy, building a section of the palace in the style of a Greek villa, must be clipped. The possibilities for the maharaja’s decadence are thus limited to a petulant lust for boys, especially one 12-year-old who plays hard to get and is known by the endearment “Napoleon the Third”. There is also Abdul Haq, Ackerley’s Hindustani tutor, the recognisable toady who projects extraordinary potency onto white skin. His pestering of Ackerley for a job he is not really qualified for or asking him to arrange for the maharaja’s car so that he can show off his prize Caucasian catch in town is behaviour not unfamiliar to Indians.
What really makes Ackerley’s account of India nonpareil though, is the moral ambiguity of Hindoo Holiday. The vagueness is achieved by mimicking recognisably Indian subterfuges and evasive tendencies in the literary style. This non-judgemental stance towards most things he witnesses is typified in the rather droll observation: “The washstand contained a little water and a drowned mouse”. Ackerley uses irrelevancies that force readers to interpretations to make the text suggestive and create faux-depth.
It is this linguistic subtlety that lets Ackerley’s sexual orientation slip into the reader’s mind unnoticed. His innocuous exposition of Brahma as “neuter” who developed “a triple personality, three masculine [italics mine] deities”, in a take on Hinduism, is a deliberate slip. The ruse is also used in a description of a temple frieze: “a long file of soldiers marching gaily along, and another smaller, more elaborate design, which was frequently repeated. They were both sodomitic [sic]”. It is only quite late into the book that the reader fully realises that the text is dotted with signals pointing out the author’s sexual preference. Nonetheless, when the real thing comes one is already subconsciously prepared for it.
As if to educate us about the laissez faire society India was, Ackerley informs the reader that Narayan, the guesthouse clerk, has already had many relationships before marrying a girl of 12, his 14-year-old wife. He then lets the cat of his own sexual preference out as he proceeds with a report of his conversation with Narayan about Sharma, the maharaja’s valet:
Ah, Sharma! I said, smiling, He is a shameful boy.
He Maharajah Sahib’s lover-boy, Narayan said.
Does he like that? I asked.
No, he does not like.
Then why does he do it?
I do not know. He is half-made.
You don’t approve either, do you?
No, I don’t like. It is bad, wrong. But what can I do?
You get much love from Sharma one time, said Narayan, after a pause, smiling at me.
What did he tell you? I asked.
He tell me “The sahib try to kiss me”.
And what did you say?
I say he must kiss you if you want.
This conversation is highly illustrative of the moral and literary tone of the book. When one reads the entries pertaining to the maharaja’s lusting after the boy, there is little for the reader to judge whether Ackerley approves or disapproves of the whole thing. Next thing we know he himself is trying to kiss, and later even manages a mouth-to-mouth with Sharma, the clerk. Ackerley chooses to be as reticent and coy as his Sub-continental company when tricky matters like homosexuality are to be dealt with, the resultant teasing effect of these incomplete revelations is familiar to Indians. All the while we are fooled into suspending our own moral judgement and fail to notice that it is not just consensual homosexual sex but also paedophilia that is being is being described in the pages. The book becomes almost the literary precursor to Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita by offering, like the later classic, the humanity of an experience rather than soliciting the reader’s judgement. Like Nabokov’s anti-hero Humbert Humbert, Ackerley too takes the reader down a path that is morally and ethically very slippery. Charmed by them, the reader empathises with them in their obsession with the nubile nymphet or lissome boy as the case may be, momentarily experiencing moral disorientation.
One could put the moral and literary ambivalence, both reflective of India, down to the repressiveness of Indian society but one realises that Ackerley’s India was less hung-up about sex than India today. India used to be the place that represented the morality of amorality. Unsurprisingly then, the first uncut version of Hindoo Holiday to be published was the Indian edition in 1979. In fact, an unexpurgated version of the book did not come out in the West till the New York Review of Books brought out an edition in 2000.
Many social trends noticeable in today’s India were current in Ackerley’s India: the continuing preference for ‘Indian treatment’ (ayurvedic) over the ‘Western/ European system’ (allopathic), or the pragmatism that makes Babaji Rao, a strict vegetarian, put aside his qualms and administer “Brand’s Essence of Chicken” (his “face puckered with disgust as he uttered these dreadful words”) to his ailing son. Even the disregard for the caste system among the liberal elite, though that has become suspect post-Mandal (1990), is reflected in the book, as is the desire for self-improvement and hunger for education, which are still seen as a means of material and spiritual uplift.
On the flip side, on view are the warped Indian sense of judgement, a morality easily inveigled by expedience and an exaggerated sense of dignity marked by an inclination to servility. Women were the inconsequential gender in the Indian scheme of things, hardly visible. “Don’t notice them! They don’t exist”, an Englishwoman cautions the debutant Ackerley against seeking the company of Indian women. India may be the land of cohabiting opposites: sex with abstinence, snake with mongoose, deification with desecration, modernity with orthodoxy. Hardly an easy picture to understand, but, nonetheless, a true one. Ignoring the evidence of who we Indians are and how we once were impoverishes and diminishes our humanity – perhaps our only significant contribution to the world.