Monday, June 27, 2011

{review} hindoo holiday

J. R. Ackerley Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal (1932)

Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal (New York Review Books Classics)

Park your political correctness at the door. 

In 1923 J. R. Ackerley took the advice of a Cambridge friend - E. M. Forster - and got himself a job in India as secretary to the Maharajah of Chhatarpur. Hindoo Holiday - a striking example of the travel-memoir genre - was the result. When it first appeared it was in a form expurgated of the Maharajah's homosexuality, among other things, and it wasn't until the 1970s that the full text became available. 
He wanted some one to love him - His Highness, I mean; that was his real need, I think. He alleged other reasons, of course - an English private secretary, a tutor for his son; for he wasn't really a bit like the Roman Emperors, and had to make excuses.
As a matter of fact he had a private secretary already, though an Indian one, and his son was only two years old; but no doubt he felt that the British Raj, in the person of the Political Agent who kept an eye on the State expenditure and other things, would prefer a label - any of the tidy buff labels that the official mind is trained to recognize and understand - to being told, "I want some one to love me." But that, I believe, was his real reason nevertheless.
He wanted a friend. He wanted understanding, and sympathy, and philosophic comfort; and he sent to England for them. This will seem strange to many people who have always understood that Wisdom dwells in the East; but he believed that it abode in the West - and perhaps I should add that he had never been there.
The Maharajah - an exceedingly camp figure in Ackerley's portrayal - wants to discuss philosophical questions with his Cambridge-educated secretary, who he assumes will be the fount of all knowledge:
"Is there a God or is there no God?" rapped out His Highness impatiently. "That is the questions. 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."
Ackerley soon finds himself quite out of his depth: he is bewildered by India - the filth and strange customs; he is alarmed by his fellow English visitors in the region (almost caricatures); he is troubled by the problem of how he can seduce a nice looking boy; he is totally at sea with the Maharajah whose life is governed by his interpretations of omens and by his 'cupidity' (as he himself terms it); and he soon realises that the palace contains a number of enemies who would like to see his tenure with the Maharajah cut short.

Verdict? I love Ackerley's style; I could read his writing forever - so conversational yet so perfectly structured and nuanced. His subject matter sometimes made me uneasy, but this is a memoir of another era - one just accepts that.

Rating: 9/10.

If you liked this: in terms of books about India this was, for me, right up there with Kipling's Kim and Scott's Raj Quartet. I have Ackerley's My Dog Tulip - a memoir of his dog - on the TBR, as his writing is such a delight.

Kim (Penguin Classics)  The Jewel in the Crown (The Raj Quartet) My Dog Tulip

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