“Certainly I am a philanthropist…for I have helped one person in this world-even though he does happen to be myself.”
This is the response of the Dewan of Chhokrapur (town of boys, literally: a fictional place) to a question at the end of a long discussion on hatred. It makes me happy, for I now know we are a philanthropic democracy, even if our only choices sometimes are the frying-pan and the fire.
My copy of J R Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday carries a recommendation from Evelyn Waugh himself on its cover. “Radiantly delightful,” it says- and indeed, there is very little of the clearly patronising air that marked the works of colonial writers who ever dealt with India even fleetingly (think Kipling, Burnett). There are no lascars or heathens, and Ackerley does not feel a moral responsibility to civilise the whole country in one fell swoop. He displays a remarkable curiosity for the unknown customs, gods, and “beautiful” boys- a clear current of homosexuality running throughout the book.
On first reading the blurb, I had expected the story to be a light-hearted account of an Englishman’s travails in a hot, dusty, entirely alien country. A bit like the short episode of Uncle Ken’s adventures with the Maharaja (cue Ruskin Bond)- driving a car through the palace wall, trying to lose tennis matches on purpose so as not to offend him etc. However, Hindoo Holiday goes deeper than that. While retaining a healthy sense of wonder, he makes keen observations on the social customs that dictate the society he interacts with.
Ackerley arrives as secretary-cum-companion to the Maharajah of Chhokrapur, a prematurely wizened, superstitious fifty-eight-year old man with fantastic ambitions and an inordinate fondness for boys. He has a starchy relationship with the Political Agent of the British who will not let him build a gorgeous Greek monument, putting it down as an unnecessary expense for a man with one foot in the grave. He admires English ladies and likes having his fortune told. In Ackerley, he looks forward to a secretary of eclectic tastes and diverse reading habits.
When Ackerley arrives, he finds himself thrown in the company of the Maharajah’s Dewan (Prime Minister), Babaji Rao (another secretary), Narayan (a clerk) and Sharma (the barber‘s son)- but this isn’t just an innocuous mix of people from diverse backgrounds. The differences of caste emerge clearly in their everyday dealings, as do those of religion, pointed out by Abdul, the wily Hindi tutor who sees Ackerley as a source of funds and prestige. There is an air of resignation about the way these differences are accepted: though Babaji Rao is optimistic that change is setting in. Signs? “[A] Hindoo was now able to receive betel from the hands of a Mohammedan.” This isn’t to say that, since the book was first published in 1932, these differences have been completely done away with. Caste and religion remain thorny subjects, as do several entrenched customs. It doesn’t help that political parties continue to play them to their advantage, as did the British with divide-and-rule, and continue to follow laws from the colonial rulebook.
The patronising British set is to be met with in the Maharajah’s Guest House, in the women who turn up their delicate noses at the “natives’” refusal to make ready slaves of themselves. They warn Ackerley not to turn “Indian”. Any attempts at philanthropy by Christian women are also treated with caution. An American lady’s offer to set up a dispensary for women (who wouldn’t readily turn up at a male doctor’s dispensary in full public view) hangs in the balance, as such ventures often end up in mission houses and conversion.
Ackerley also dwells on the hardships women were subjected to. Child marriages were the norm, and men who were unhappy with their young wives (often forced into intercourse at an age as young as eleven) had several affairs. Many widows did not have a chance to rebuild their lives. The birth of a girl child was mostly viewed with extreme disappointment and treated as an occasion for condolence, not celebration. How little some things have changed over the years!
The book is perhaps extremely funny for those not entirely acquainted with ways of life in India- I found bits of it hilarious, but knowing the depths to which the problems Ackerley observed continue to plague the country, I found it more thought-provoking than delightful. On the surface, it is an entertaining journal of an Englishman’s sojourn in India: look deeper, and it is a carefully observed, well-written commentary of some of Indian society’s glaring flaws, not to be dismissed as instances of nitpicking or ignorance.
That it is a true, honest account of our society and the political class is proved by this quote of the Maharajah’s:
“How does one make a decision? How does one make up one’s mind?”
We don’t know, our leaders don’t know, and we trundle on.