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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Book Review

Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal
By J. R. Ackerley. Introduction by Eliot Weinberger. First published in 1932. New York Review of Books Classics, 2000, 320 pp.

As a fan of My Dog Tulip, J. R Ackerley’s offbeat account of his relationship with his German Shepherd Queenie, I’m not sure why I’ve come so late to Hindoo Holiday. First published in 1932, this delightful book chronicles the author's months in India as private secretary to the eccentric, insecure, indecisive, and endearing Maharajah of Chhatarpur , or Chhokrapur, as the Indian state is called in the book.

In his excellent introduction, Eliot Weinberger describes the circumstances that drew Ackerley to India in 1923 at the age of 27. He had fought in WWI, returned to attend Cambridge, published some poems, and written a play. But finding no producer for the play, with its “implicit homoeroticism,” he was “adrift,” and took up his friend E. M. Forster’s suggestion to seek the post with the Maharajah, who, like Ackerley, was gay. Hindoo Holiday itself is explicitly homoerotic and the text was cut when the book first appeared. Indeed, this is the first unexpurgated edition to be published in the West.

Based on Ackerley’s journals, Hindoo Holiday is presented as a diary of daily life as he interacts with a small, colorful cast of characters. There is no great drama here; the heart of the book is conversation—vividly recreated and often hilarious—which brings characters and scenes to life.

Ackerley recounts meetings with the Maharajah, who prods him with impossible questions. “Is there a God or is there no God?” “Why must we die?” asks the Prince, as if he actually expects his secretary to answer. Ackerley captures the irritating personality of his toadying, manipulative tutor, who says repeatedly, “I do not wish to bore upon your time,” as he “bores” endlessly upon his time, demanding favor after favor. The author shares the vibrant disquisitions of the fat, shrewd, outspoken prime minister, the thoughtful ruminations of the Maharajah’s Indian secretary, and the bigotry of the Anglo-Indians whom he occasionally meets in the Guest House: “Look here, young man, I’ll give you a word of advice,” says one woman of the Raj. “Keep clear of Indian women! Do you understand me? Don’t look at them! Don’t notice them! They don’t exist!”

The Maharajah himself is a comic figure, a small, ungainly man of 58, always prepared to fret, constantly on the lookout for beautiful boys, and unable to decide upon anything. “How does one make a decision?” he cries. “How does one make up one’s mind?” For all the humor, though, Ackerley doesn’t deny the Prince his complexity. He may drive out seeking a mongoose, a good omen for the new year, and feel gloomy when they find only a jackal, “a very bad omen,” but then he begins to “shake with laughter.” “Am I very silly?” he asks.

Focusing on this small group of people in this small state of India, Ackerley creates marvelous characters. Their distinctive quirks and foibles, matched with the author’s own quirks and foibles, give Hindoo Holiday its discerning cross-cultural charm.

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