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Passages to India | The Nation

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Passages to India

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In the early 1920s, E.M. Forster was in India, engaged as the secretary to a royal personage, a minor Maharajah, whom he called "the Prince of Muddlers, even among Indian muddlers." In a manuscript dating to that period, Forster writes about guiltily confessing to his employer--His Highness, or H.H., as he is called in the text--that he had "tried to have carnal intercourse with one of the coolies."

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Amitava Kumar
Amitava Kumar is the editor of World Bank Literature (Minnesota) and the author of Bombay-London-New York (Routledge)...

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In the largest exodus in recorded history, millions of refugees migrated across the brand new border after India was partitioned in 1947.

The Indian nobleman was unfazed and felt quite assured when he learned that Forster had not "copulated" with the boy. He advised the writer to put all worry out of his mind. H.H. then added: "Only always come to me when you are in difficulties like this. I would have found you someone reliable among the hereditary servants and you could have had him quietly in your room--yes, yes, it's true I don't encourage those people, but it's entirely different in your case, and you must not masturbate--that's awful."

When Forster left India, he suggested the name of a friend, J.R. Ackerley, for his job. The Maharajah acquiesced, although he had desired "a secretary who was exactly like Olaf, a character in H. Rider Haggard's The Wanderer's Necklace, and had even written to Haggard for help." We are offered this last bit of engaging literary detail in Eliot Weinberger's sympathetic introduction to Hindoo Holiday, the book that Ackerley wrote from the journal he kept in India.

Hindoo Holiday was published in 1932 and has now been republished as a part of New York Review Books' Classics series. It is presented to us as it was written, a journal, its entries coinciding with the writer's five-month stay in Chhatarpur. (In the book, Ackerley changed Chhatarpur to Chhokrapur; the latter would translate loosely as "City of Boys.") Ackerley's diary entries are a delightful mixture of nearly novelistic observations about a small group of characters that surround the Englishman in the small Indian town. There is the hilariously eccentric Maharajah, the Maharajah's Dewan, Ackerley's Hindustani instructor, Abdul, several Britishers whom Ackerley pillories, and two youths, Narayan and Sharma. Even the book's obvious datedness--the double "o" in the title being an immediate giveaway--becomes a part of its charm.

Ackerley's writing is strewn with wildly comic observations. Unlike Forster's obsessive, even oppressive, adventures with sex in India, Ackerley's physical encounters share very little of that air of "conscious racial superiority which Anglo-Indians exhale." Forster, for instance, noted in his journal: "What relation beyond carnality could one establish with such people? He hadn't even the initiative to cut my throat." Ackerley is unable to occupy this position with any seriousness. For him, a kiss doesn't carry the white man's burden, although it might offer a quick, unanxious glimpse of cultural difference. Here is Ackerley's account of his conversation with the young vegetarian Narayan while they are out on a walk:

And in the dark roadway, overshadowed by trees, he put up his face and kissed me on the cheek. I returned his kiss; but he at once drew back, crying out:
      "Not the mouth! You eat meat! You eat meat!"
      "Yes, and I will eat you in a minute," I said, and kissed him on the lips again, and this time he did not draw away.

This isn't a portrait of the gentler face of imperialism. Instead, Hindoo Holiday is a witty travelogue, endearingly free of any pretense and condescension. It presents ordinary Indians as complex interlocutors in the colonial drama, and while they are often contradictory, they also remain wholly individual. Even Ackerley's anthropological gaze, which is never willfully distorting, is rich and charged with a delicate frisson. At one point, he explains the popular myth behind the four-tier Hindu caste system: "The Brahmans are the Lips of God; the Kshatriyas the Arms; the Vaishyas the Loins; and the Sudras the Feet. I believe that Rabindranath Tagore in one of his poems says: 'How can I worship my God better than by kissing His Feet?'"

Radical and original as this picture might be in the Indian context, in its shadow lurks another, seemingly more distant, meaning--it is an attempt, at once heroic and pathetic, to justify sex across classes. We see shades of Forster's Maurice. We see Oxbridge homosexuals, the history of the Oscar Wilde trial and the Sodomy Laws still fresh in their minds, finding a flawed fulfillment in the colonies. Even at its best, it could not have been an experience unembittered with all kinds of inequalities. It is to Ackerley's credit that this book neither gives in to that bitterness nor seeks to hide behind reassuring inequalities. Thus, without being explicitly political, Ackerley offers a politics, especially a politics that eschews escape through either an easy acceptance or the imposition of guilt.

One of my earliest lessons in guilt was imparted in childhood through the story of the death of Mahatma Gandhi's father. Gandhi was only 16 then, married to Kasturba, who was pregnant at that time. He notes in his autobiography that although he loved to nurse his father as he lay on his deathbed, his "mind was hovering about the bedroom."

Late one night, Gandhi was massaging his father's legs when his uncle came in to relieve him. Gandhi writes that he was tired and went to his room: "My wife, poor thing, was asleep. But how could she sleep when I was there? I woke her up." A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was a servant. Gandhi's father had died.

"I saw that...animal passion had... blinded me," Gandhi wrote. The "shame of my carnal desire," he added, "is a blot I have never been able to efface or forget."

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