Monday, March 01, 2010

[Books] Book Look: Hindoo Holiday, by J.R. Ackerley

Book Look: Hindoo Holiday, by J.R. Ackerley: I doubt you could find a travel memoir more loaded down in local color. Ackerley, and English writer, accepts a position as the private secretary to an Indian Maharaja in the 1920s, then under British rule. The bulk of the book consists of Ackerley's description of interactions with the people he encounters regularly and his semi-comic attempts to come to terms with the confusions of a way of life bizarre to an Englishman.

It is not clear to me that Ackerley is deeply affected by his time in India, he ends the memoir as roughly the same person he started. In that sense, Hindoo Holiday is almost ephemeral -- an amalgam of brief reminisces. It's all about the characters. And they are quite a set.

Ackerley has little use for the Anglo-Indians (English in permanent residence in India). They are uniformly described as horrible, ill-mannered racists (although they are the source of some comic moments). Perhaps true in general, but certainly not all of them. Could Ackerley find no shades of gray? The single-mindedness of this stereotype caused me, at first, to questions Ackerley's honesty. But encounters with these folks fade fast.

The primary personality he deals with is the Maharaja himself. He constantly peppers Ackerley with philosophic and spiritual questions. As with many of the Indians he encounters, there seems to be a supposition that, as a European, he is the bearer of some sort of wisdom. The Maharaja is indecisive, ineffectual, child-like, and outright silly -- but not unsympathetic. Ackerley realizes that his value as a private secretary was secondary to the status the Maharaja gained from having an Englishman in his employ. He also realizes that what the Maharaja really wanted was someone to love him. I mean that platonically and it is important to make that distinction.

At this point I should pause to mention that this memoir is intimate with respect to sexuality, to the point of being grotesquely lurid in parts. Ackerley is openly homosexual and he and the Maharaja share an appreciation for beautiful young boys. The Maharaja maintains a stable of entertainers and on at least once occasion purchases an attractive boy to join his troupe. It is not clear whether the boy has bedroom duties, but it stinks of sexual slavery to the contemporary mind. Ackerley himself makes erotic connections with a couple of young men in his personal service, again it's unclear the extent to which this is carried, but at least in Ackerley's case it appears to be consensual.

This is as off-putting as it sounds, but it is probably important to remember that in Edwardian England, homosexual attraction to young boys was viewed more as a kind of eccentricity, rather than with the level of moral approbation we assign to it today. Also, with respect to Indian customs, it is just one of many instances of culture shock.

Ackerley spends a good deal of time trying to come to an understanding of the labyrinthine ethnic, religious, and caste relationships among his acquaintances. In many interactions he has to start with an explanation of why there are complications in doing what comes most naturally to him, generally because the expected interactions are not possible because of the conflicting stature of the parties. Simple courtesies like offering food or drink to guests are awkward since only certain castes can accept certain types of food from certain other castes, a process that grows more complicated once religion and ethnic differences come into play. As a European, despite the assumption of his wisdom, he is considered unclean in some respects.

Although most Indians are quite patient with his cultural awkwardness, his main guide in this topic is Babaji Rao, a Muslim who acts as the Maharaja's chauffeur and general assistant. Calm and thoughtful, Babaji Rao seems to be the only one who appreciates how complex and contradictory are the culture and customs, often defying them himself in small ways. Ackerley comes to trust and admire him greatly. Indeed, it is through his discussions with Babaji Rao and his more intimate observations of other Indians that one gets the sense that (as in any culture) many of the sacred rules and laws are , pace Jack Sparrow, more like guidelines.

Much of the humor originates with Abdul, Ackerley's Hindi tutor. He is a shameless, manipulative toady who does little to try to hide the fact that his aim is to use Ackerley's stature as leverage for personal gain. He is also the single most passive-aggressive character I have ever read of. At first Ackerley attempts to help Abdul out of simple politeness, but again and again he finds himself put in embarrassing situations by doing so. He grows increasingly intolerant of Abdul, and finally, in defiance of civilized manners, takes to briskly ordering him to leave when he tires of him, something Abdul only does after extensive blubbering.

Should you read Hindoo Holiday? Sure. Provided the distastefully intimate portions won't bother you too much. You'll need to have the right expectations, though. This is, as I said, a series of lighthearted remembrances, not really much of a narrative in the sense of a man going on a journey with a clear beginning and end. Think of entries in a diary. No plot is built, it is just a series of events in temporal order. The writing is mostly quite taut, although on occasion Ackerley gets a little carried away with descriptions of the plants and birds and such. You may come away at the end thinking it was entertaining, but you're really not sure what it was all about. That's OK. I don't think Ackerley was either.