J. R. Ackerley
J. R. Ackerley was born in England. His father was a business tycoon and secretly maintained two separate households. Ackerley himself was no less unconventional and was certainly franker about his homosexuality and the greatest love of his life: his dog Tulip, who was brilliantly commemorated by Ackerley in My Dog Tulip
(1956). He fought at Somme in World War I and saw his brother killed there. After serving eight months as prisoner of war in a German camp, he studied at Cambridge University where he met, among other furtive gay men, E. M. Forster, who had visited India in 1922 and had spent some time at the court of a campy Maharajah. As it turned out, the Maharajah was then looking for a secretary and had even written to H Rider Haggard for help in locating someone who resembled Olaf, a character in Haggard's The Wanderer's Necklace
. The Maharajah wasn't impressed by Ackerley's good looks but fell for his poems. Ackerley later described his five months at Chhokrapur ("City of Boys"), his jokey name for the Maharajah's capital, in Hindoo Holiday
(1932), which is one of the more witty products of the Anglo-Indian encounter. Ackerley shared none of the racial and political prejudices of the Englishmen of his class; the five months were, on the whole, great fun. As this excerpt shows, he and the Maharajah were perfectly matched as eccentrics.
from HINDOO HOLIDAYJanuary 7th
I spoke to His Highness yesterday about a tutor for myself (he is very anxious for me to learn to speak Hindi), and taking advantage of some remark of his on Zeus and Ganymede, asked whether I might not have his valet to teach me.
"I suppose he is indispensable to you?" I asked.
"No, he is not indispensable to me. I will send him to you if you wish. I will send him to you tomorrow morning."
"Do you think he will be pleased to come?"
"Oh, he will be very pleased-especially if you pay him two or three rupees a month."
After this neither of us said anything for some time, and then His Highness remarked with finality:
"No, he is not at all indispensable to me."
But this morning a tonga arrived at the Guest House bearing two men I had never seen before, with a letter from His Highness. It ran as follows:
"Dear Mr. Ackerley
,-Here are two men who know English and Hindi very well. The bearer of this is called Gupta, he is my assistant librarian of Hindi books; and the other called Champa Lal, he is my icemaker. You can choose any one of them, and they will do for preliminary work well. Perhaps they might ask for some wages, and I think two rupees per month will do. Excuse pencil and paper."
To which I replied:
"Dear Maharajah Sahib
,-Your messengers have arrived, but I do not know quite what to do. Indeed they have both uttered remarks in English, but neither of them appears to understand my replies. I thought to myself, there is nothing to choose between them in looks; I will take the one who is the sharper in wits. So I returned to them and said:
'I only want one of you. Which of you speaks the better English, for I will engage him?'
The silence was at last broken by the icemaker, who said:-
'I do not understand.'
-and then by the assistant librarian, who said:
'Your English is very high.'
I return them both, and hope I may still be allowed to have the dispensable valet, this morning or at 2:30 p.m., for even if he cannot teach me Hindi, I should like to make a drawing of him."
The valet came this afternoon. I was lying on my sofa reading, when the light flicked across the page, and looking up I saw him standing in the curtained doorway. He bobbed a nervous salaam; I beckoned him inside, and throwing a rapid glance over his shoulder, he shuffled his laceless European shoes from his bare feet, pulled the curtain right back so that the open doorway was unveiled, and came a few paces further into the room. I indicated a chair, but it was too near me; he took the first at hand, and moved it back so that it stood in the doorway.
I had already learnt a few Hindi phrases by heart: "Good day," "How are you?" "It is a nice day," "Don't talk so fast"; but I found I did not now believe in their pronunciation as much as when I had addressed them to myself; and since he only nodded to the first three, or uttered a throaty monosyllabic sound, I had no opportunity to air my "Don't talk so fast" composition, which therefore remains in my memory as the only phrase I got right. He was clearly very ill at ease, and anxious to please; but I soon realized that he did not really understand anything I said and was trying to guess from my expression what his response should be, so that most of the time a timid smile trembled on his lips and eyes, ready to vanish at the slightest sign of severity. And whenever I looked for a moment to consult my dictionary, his head went round at once, I noticed, to the open door, through which he could see across the gravel space the usual crowd of servants drowsing in the shade of the neem tree in front of the kitchen. So I gave it up at last and said I was going to draw him, but the moment I rose to get my sketchbook he was out of his chair and watching me in apparent alarm. I tried to convey with smiles and gestures that my intention was quite harmless, but although I got him to sit down again, I could not get him to sit still, and at length, in despair, told him to close the doors, for I could not go on if he kept turning round to look out of them. He began immediately to talk to me very rapidly, and since I did not know what he was saying, I got up to close them myself; but again he sprang up and barred my way, still chattering and gazing at me in what seemed to be a pleading manner. I stood still, wondering what was the trouble, and he at once began beckoning, in great agitation, to one of his friends outside, throwing me, at the same time, nervous, placating smiles. Soon the friend arrived, the young clerk who called on me the other day.
"What is the matter with your friend?" I asked.
"He say I must stay with him," said the clerk.
"He is much frightened."
This was all I could get. He did not know why his friend was frightened, or if he did know he would not say. But at any rate it was clear enough that I must have both or neither, so I told the clerk he had better stay, though I did not want him-being a shy and, as will perhaps already have been noticed, a rather inexpert artist.
A little later, forgetting the valet's fear, I asked his friend, who had access to the storeroom, if he would get me some more cigarettes, for I had run out of them; but the moment he moved the valet caught hold of his hand, and, even when the mission was explained, would not let him go.
The drawing was indeed not good, and Narayan did not scruple to say so. Narayan is the name of the clerk; his friend, the valet, being called Sharma.January 8th
Tom-tom Hill is my favorite walk because of the view. There is a ruined shrine with a fallen idol on its summit, and it is called Tom-tom Hill because a drum used to be beaten there years ago to assemble the people or to notify them of certain times and events. From the backyard of my house the stony slope climbs steadily up to a pretty white temple in its cluster of cypresses. The temple is dedicated to Hanuman, the Monkey-headed God of Physical Power, and the worshippers are often to be seen and heard on its terrace; but I have not yet found courage to enter it, being still ignorant of customs and observances, and afraid of making mistakes. Indeed I have never even ventured close to it, but, at a discreet distance, have always dropped down the western slope of the ridge, and clambered round through the brambles beneath its walls and up again on the other side.
As a matter of fact, this also is the only way of getting on, for the temple occupies the whole breadth of the ridge's back and cannot be otherwise passed.
It overlooks the town and is reached from that side by means of a long straight staircase of wooden steps which runs steeply up the eastern slope from the Rajgarh-Deori road.
Having skirted the temple in this way, walking becomes more difficult, for the ridge continues in a long narrow arête, scattered with huge boulders, many of which have to be clambered over; but beyond this it widens and rises gently to the foot of Tom-tom Hill, and the walk up to the ruined shrine is easy, though the gradient is rather steep. Usually I sit there and rest on one of the stones of the shrine, looking down upon the white town, thickly planted with trees; the Palace, imposing at this distance, in its center, the Sirdar tank immediately below. But today I saw smoke rising again from among the trees and bushes at the base of the hill on the far side, and descended to verify His Highness's information that this was a crematorium. This slope of the hill had an even steeper gradient, and as I zigzagged down I was able to keep the fires in sight, and took no precautions against observation, believing myself to be the only person about. But soon I perceived two Indians squatting on their heels by the nearer fire, apparently extinguishing the last embers and collecting some of the grey ashes in a metal pot. Realizing now that the King had probably been right, and fearing that I might be intruding upon sacred ground, I took cover behind a large boulder and watched them for a little from this shelter. Then I noticed that the other fire, which was a little further down, seemed unattended, so, as quietly as I could, I made a detour and approached it.
It was clearly a funeral pyre. The charred skull of the corpse, which was toward me, was split open, for it is customary, I believe, to break the skull of the dead when the body is being consumed, so that the soul may have its exit; and curving out of the center of the pile, like wings, were the blackened ribs which, released by the heat, had sprung away from the vertebrae. In all directions I noticed the remains of earlier cremations. As I returned home I passed the other fire and saw that the two Indians had just finished and were disappearing among the bushes; but their place had already been taken by two evil-looking vultures with yellow beaks which were picking scraps from among the extinct and smokeless ashes.
His Highness sent the carriage for me again this evening to bring me to the Palace. He was extremely interested in my meeting with his valet, Sharma, the barber's son, and put me through such a cross-examination about him that I began to feel rather uncomfortable. I had been quite expecting such questions as to how I had liked him, and what had occurred, and how long he had stayed, but could not understand why he should require such accuracy as to the time of the boy's arrival and the manner of his dress, or why, when I replied to this last question that Sharma had worn a very becoming long-skirted blue serge coat with velveteen cuffs and collar, he should have said "Ah!" with an appearance of such immense satisfaction.
I had brought my drawing with me, but he did not look at it. He was untouchable again, and bade me leave it on the table by my chair. Narayan's name was apparently known to him, and evoked another volley of questions the significance of which I was unable to understand; but, remembering Narayan's request a few days previously not to repeat something he had said, I answered with cautious vagueness, in case I should unintentionally get either of the two young men into trouble, and, as soon as I could, diverted his attention a little by remarking on Sharma's timidity.
"Yes, he spoke to me," said His Highness. "He told me he was frightened. He saw you closing the doors and thought you were going to confine him."
"But frightened of what?" I asked.
"That you would beat him."
"Beat him!" Nothing had been further from my thoughts, and it took me some moments to get hold of this.
"Do you beat him much?" I asked.
"Oh yes! I have to. I beat him very much!"
"But, Maharajah Sahib, didn't you explain to him that, apart from anything else, your guests were hardly in a position to beat your servants?"
"Yes, I did, I did, and he said, of his own accord, that he would come and see you tomorrow."
He went on to speak of some friend of his, the wife of an English officer, who had told him that she was convinced, after long experience of India, that no servant could be expected to be faithful to his employers until he had cuts on his back two fingers deep; and, from her, passed on to another English friend of his-this time a man. I do not now remember the connection between the two friends, but cannot refrain from expressing a hope that it was matrimonial.
"He was a very strange man," said he. "He used to say to me, 'Maharajah! do you see those clouds together up there?' 'Yes, I see those clouds.' 'Do you see my dead wife's face looking down from them?' 'No, I don't.' 'Damn!'
"Then again, when we were sitting together here, he said to me, 'Maharajah, do you see this wall over here by me?' 'Yes, I see that wall.' 'Well, it is talking to me. All the stones are talking. They are telling me everything that has passed in this room. Put your ear here. Do you hear them?' 'No, I don't hear them.' 'Damn!'"
For a few moments His Highness was shaken with laughter, then-"He suicided himself," he concluded.January 9th
"And how are the Gods this morning, Maharajah Sahib?"
Copyright © 2005 by Pankaj Mishra. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.