When J. R. Ackerley’s diary of his five-month sojourn in India first appeared, it was reviewed by Evelyn Waugh, then at the height of his waspish powers as a satirical novelist and occasional travel writer. “Radiantly delightful,” he called it, adding that “the difficulty is to contain one’s enthusiasm and praise it temperately.” Other critics of the day soon chimed in. The writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten pointed to the book’s “charm and glamour and humour and madness,” as well as its “bitter sting of truth.” Popular novelist J. B. Priestley spoke of Ackerley’s “sureness and ease.” That exquisite stylist Peter Quennell dubbed its prose “remarkably vivacious.” In general, reviews quite rightly found Hindoo Holiday deeply amusing — “there is a laugh on every page,” said The (London) Times — but, rather more problematically, also thought it a mirror to modern India.
I know about the book’s enthusiastic reception, in part because I own three copies of Hindoo Holiday: a second impression in brown cloth of the English first edition, issued by Chatto and Windus in 1932; the Viking U.S. first edition of that same year, in a near fine dust wrapper that boasts a dozen laudatory quotes; and the New York Review Books paperback, published in 2000, which finally makes available an unexpurgated text, reinstating several short passages that Ackerley had been forced to delete out of fear of prosecution for either libel or obscenity. He was, moreover, also obliged to make a small effort to disguise some people and places, and so the actual city-state he visited — Chhatarpur — was slyly renamed Chhokrapur, which means “City of Boys.”
I first read Hindoo Holiday 25 years ago because of Waugh’s atypical rave, which I came across in the massive, and massively enjoyable, volume of his collected essays and journalism. In those pre-Internet days it took a while to turn up a copy of Ackerley’s onetime best seller, and I can still remember my glee in finally unearthing that worn Chatto and Windus edition in Heffer’s bookstore during a short visit to Cambridge, England. I started on it once I got home to Washington and found its pages, as promised, both funny and poignant. The homosexual undercurrent — considerable talk of special “friends” and dancing boys, as well as scenes of hand holding and kissing — struck me as surprisingly frank for the time. Later on, I learned from Peter Parker’s enormously entertaining life of J. R. Ackerley that the original text had been even more explicit, though — as I know now, having read that version — quite tame by today’s standards.
Like many of the books I like best, Hindoo Holiday feels inconsequential: nothing much happens. Ackerley travels to Chhokrapur, upon the recommendation of his friend E. M. Forster, because the maharajah ostensibly requires an English private secretary. In fact, this absurd ruler — he reminds me of the roly-poly, toy-crazy sultan in the 1940s film of The Thief of Baghdad — simply wants someone to love. No doubt it was Forster — then writing A Passage to India and himself a former guest of His Highness –who informed Ackerley that the maharajah “possessed a pronounced sense of the theatre, and used to send on ahead of him, to herald his approach, a naked warrior armed with a spear.”
Once in Chhokrapur, the sensitive and somewhat naïve Ackerley interacts with various locals, both British and Indian, and gradually begins to learn more about the customs of the country. He acquires a wonderfully comic “Mohammedan” tutor named Abdul, who increasingly interrupts their Hindi lessons with oily, toadying remarks, like a dark-skinned Uriah Heep. Ackerley also spends much of his time with the fat but shrewd dewan (or prime minister), with the kind, bridge-playing secretary Babaji Rao, and with two intimate friends, the guest house clerk Narayan, who is a devout Brahman, and Sharma, the handsome lower-caste valet to His Highness.
The diary itself mainly consists of bantering conversations, descriptions of the landscape, and some striking vignettes: an account of an evening at the maharajah’s special theater, in which young boys portray Krishna, Vishnu, and the other Indian gods; awkward visits to the humble — indeed pitiable — abodes of Abdul and Narayan; and, finally, a several-days’ excursion to a local fair. That’s really just about it. What remains is, roughly speaking, as artfully silly as an all-male Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: will the indecisive and superstitious maharajah make an important religious pilgrimage, or will he put it off for another year? Will this giggling monarch succeed in winning the affection of a spoiled boy actor nicknamed Napoleon III? Life should be so undramatic.
In truth, where Hindoo Holiday excels is in just what the 1932 reviewers said: its humor, occasional pathos, and engaging style. When Ackerley is shown round his new quarters, he finds that “the outhouse contained a bath-tub on a wooden platform, some large earthenware water-vessels. . . and a washstand. The washstand contained a little water and a drowned mouse.”
He then meets “an imposing figure, very old, with a patriarchal grey beard and a network of wrinkles on his handsome brown face. He was barefoot, and clad in airy white draperies, and a bunch of keys dangling from his waist identified him among the Apostles.”
It isn’t, in fact, St. Peter, but one of the palace’s servants.
Finally, the young Englishman is nonplussed by his first encounter with the maharajah, who immediately begins to question him:
How old was I? So old? He had been under the impression that I was only twenty-two. Did I come from London? Of whom did my family consist? Could I speak Latin and Greek? Did I know Rider Haggard? Had I read his books? Was I religious? Did I believe that the tragedy of Jesus Christ was the greatest tragedy that had ever happened? Was I a pragmatist? Had I read Hall Caine? Had I read Darwin, Huxley, and Marie Corelli?. . .
Of course, Ackerley hasn’t read any of these writers and thinkers, and hasn’t a clue what pragmatism is all about. His Highness is most disappointed, but determines that his new secretary must immediately borrow the royal copies of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles and George Henry Lewes’s Problems of Life and Mind:
”Is there a God or is there no God?’ rapped out His Highness impatiently. ‘That is the question. That is what I want to know. Spencer says there is a God, Lewes says no. So you must read them, Mr. Ackerley, and tell me which of them is right.’
The next day Ackerley is introduced to a half dozen other English guests, as they return from a jackal hunt. The formidable Mrs. Montgomery fixes him with her lorgnette: ” ‘Look here, young man, I’ll give you a word of advice. Keep clear of Indian women! Do you understand me? Don’t look at them! Don’t notice them! They don’t exist!’ ” Of course, some Indian women can be as formidable as Mrs. Montgomery herself. When Ackerley casually mentions the maharajah’s grandfather, he is told that the former sovereign was murdered; quite naturally shocked, he asks how it happened. His Highness offhandedly replies, “My great grandmother. They quarreled and she poisoned him.” The Maharajah goes on to add that “a king could never trust his relatives, they were always scheming and giving trouble of some sort; in fact, he said gravely, he had just received a report that some of his kinsmen were plotting together in a neighboring State to destroy his son by Black Magic.”
All this happens in just the first three days of Ackerley’s five-month “holiday.”
In due course, we learn that His Highness hopes to build a Greek villa, so that he can romp around in a toga. While a sign saying “Welcome” is now displayed in the entrance hall of the palace, there was at first “a slight misunderstanding as to its intended destination, and it was hung originally over the jail.” When Ackerley is badgered into visiting the toady Abdul’s home, he is presented with a tray of repulsive sweetmeats:
They were chiefly mustard-coloured or pale grey, and looked rather like bread pellets moulded by grubby schoolboy fingers into various sizes for flipping at other schoolboys across the table. A little sugar clung to them, and a thin adhesive tissue (also edible, said Abdul) which fluttered in the slight breeze. He handed me a spoon, and with his own attempted to beat off the flies which swarmed so obstinately upon the food that they appeared to prefer death to separation from it. Personally I could not pretend to their enthusiasm, but gingerly digging with my spoon to the center of one of the piles, I selected, with a care which may have seemed rather rude, three of the smallest pellets I could find.
These, which were no larger than peas, I swallowed, and had little doubt but that in a very short space of time I should be dead of dysentery.
Instead, before long, Ackerley takes to chewing betel nut like a native, starts to flirt regularly with Narayan (in one of the restored passages he gives him a kiss), and comes to truly admire Babaji Rao. He is nonetheless taken aback by some Hindu customs — untouchable food and people, the cruel loneliness imposed on widows, the religious obligation to drink “the five products” of the cow: urine, dung, milk, curd, butter. When the maharajah asks, “Do people in England drink the urine of the cow or any animal?” Ackerley writes: “I said I’d never heard of any one doing so there, though I couldn’t say what they did in America.” Interestingly, this passage reveals a bit of reverse censorship: the gibe at the U.S. appears in the original 1932 text but was deleted from the later revised version.
Eventually, Ackerley discovers that the apparently inseparable Narayan and Sharma aren’t really quite what they seem, and that the former engages in intercourse with his 14-year-old wife several times a week and the latter may actually be the father of the maharajah’s heir. Apparently, His Highness likes to watch his wife couple with this handsome boy — by whom he himself enjoys being sodomized. Sometimes such peccadilloes trouble His Highness, who is constantly searching for truth and wisdom. At one point he asks Ackerley what he should say to God about his sins:
If you’ve got to say anything I should say, ‘You sent us forth into the world incomplete and therefore weak. With my own life, in these circumstances, and according to my own nature, I did what I could to secure happiness. But I did not know what happiness was, or where to look for it, and it was whilst I was in search of it that I dare say I got a little muddled.
This seems to me wise advice. Ackerley then adds an apposite Indian proverb (which I long ago copied into my own commonplace book): ” ‘Four days of moonlight — then darkness,’ say the Hindoos, sadly contemplating life.”
Hindoo Holiday was J. R. Ackerley’s third book, following a youthful collection of poems and a play about World War I (in which he served in the trenches). There would be just a few others, and “each in its different way is a masterpiece,” according to Christopher Isherwood. The posthumous My Father and My Self describes Ackerley’s friends, family, and homosexual love life, and especially the shocking discovery that his father was a bigamist, with a complete second family. Tellingly, however, this scandalous autobiography — one of Truman Capote’s favorite books — never mentions that its author spent 30 year as the influential and much esteemed literary editor of The Listener, the BBC’s cultural magazine. Ackerley’s other famous book is My Dog Tulip, a memoir of his besotted passion for his German shepherd. It includes a chapter entitled “Liquids and Solids,” which is about just what you think. These later memoirs, as well as Ackerley’s novel We Think the World of You, are also available in paperback from New York Review Books.
While Hindoo Holiday remains a slightly campy delight, some of its cultural attitudes are embarrassingly dated, and the book can hardly be regarded — if it ever could have been — as an accurate depiction of typical Indian life. Nonetheless, Ackerley’s holiday journal deserves an honored place in that literary subgenre of witty, opinionated travel books by sandy-haired young Englishmen. It belongs on the same shelf with such delicious armchair escapes as Alexander Kinglake’s Eothen, Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.
Michael Dirda is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His feature, “Library Without Walls,” appears each month in the Barnes & Noble Review.