A review of Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal by Joe Ackerley, (expurgated edition 1932; unexpurgated edition, Penguin Modern Classics, 2009).
The Dance of the Gods
Late in 1923 a young and strikingly handsome BBC talk-show producer by the name of Joe Ackerley left England for the obscure Indian state of Chatarpur to become, for six months, secretary-companion to its Maharajah.
Ackerley was by gifts, background and temperament well suited for what he was destined to find there. His guardsman father had been bought out of the Army twice, at ages 16 and 21, by older men who had fallen in love with him. Ackerley père soon grew out of this, however, and became a solid heterosexual bigamist, fathering and supporting two familes, neither of which knew of the existence of the other.
"I was a cherubic little boy," Joe Ackerley wrote in his autobiography, My Father and Myself, "with large blue starry eyes, and at the public school older boys soon began to make advances to me. In my very first term there the head of my house, who seemed to me more like a man than a boy, used to sit on my bed in the darkness, night after night, begging to be allowed in."
Ackerley rejected these advances, but fell in love with a boy called Snook and published an unequivocal poem about his feelings in the school magazine (he forestalled official wrath by slyly entitling it Millstones!) He went on to Cambridge and thence to the War, in which he was seriously wounded and which provided background for his successful stage drama of 1925, The Prisoners of War. In a foreshadowing of coming literary themes the hero of this play reacts when someone says he does not care for the fair sex by snapping, "The fair sex. Which is that?"
Three years earlier he had met the novelist E.M. Forster. Forster himself had spent a half-year as secretary-companion to one Indian Maharajah and wrote a book about his experiences (The Hills of Devi, Arnold, 1953). After a long and confused correspondence Ackerley's application was accepted and he arrived in Chatarpur in December, 1923.
The Maharajah proved to be a strange man who looked every one of his fifty-eight years. Forster's biographer P.N. Furbank described him as a little hobbling figure "excessively ugly with a face like a Pekinese, his nose being completely bridgeless and his tongue a nasturtium-colour from habitual betel-chewing." Forster himself described him as "incompetent, rusé, exasperating, endearing" but acknowledged his innocence and charm. It was Ackerley, however, who was to immortalize him.
It soon became clear to Ackerley that the Maharajah was a boy-lover who had set up a private theatre for which he composed miracle plays, little dance-dramas of endlessly repeated incidents performed by beautiful young boys. In one respect these productions were remarkably original: they arose from his own mind entirely, for there was no genuine Indian tradition out of which they could have grown. He called the boys his "gods" and his recruitment and training of them were a great delight to him, and a great trial.
Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday, published 8 years later in 1932, is a whimsical and loving portrait of this wonderful man (called in the book the Mahajarah of Chokrapur), a major comic figure presiding over an anarchic Gilbertian court.
"He wanted someone to love him," the book begins, and it chronicles as it unfolds the Maharajah's confusion over his feelings about boys. When a British lady shows enthusiasm for the beauty of his robes he says, "I do not like them. I like people." He complains to Ackerley that he needs "a good, wise and beautiful friend", and when the two of them sit watching the colours of the setting sun he waves a regretful hand: "I want a friend like that."
His "gods" offer the Maharajah his principal consolation. At the time of Ackerley's employment there are five, ranging in age from 12 to 16 (17 is considered retirement age). The Maharajah takes Ackerley to his private room, all gauze and cushions, from which they can watch the dancers unobserved. "And you must tell me which you like best," the Maharajah says.
Krishna was dressed in bright green and wore bells around his ankles, which indicated that he was not a lily of the field like Rama, but was able, at any rate, to spin; he began his performance by singing from his throne in a pleasant, rather monotonous voice, gesticulating awkwardly from side to side with stiff brown hands. Then he rose to his feet and performed a fine exhilarating dance, beginning with heel taps and slow, stiff, dignified gyrations, which got faster and faster until he sank to the carpet and whirled like a top on his knees."
The Maharajah's greatest infatuation, however, is with a twelve-year-old boy called Napoleon the Third. The Maharajah first sees him dancing in a travelling company of players. "Thirty years I have dreamed of that face," he exclaims. "It is entangled in my heart." The boy's uncle asks an outrageous price and the boy is sold instead to another dancing company in Calcutta, whence the Maharajah arranges to have him kidnapped.
He was diminutive and dark, with very large eyes and an air of self-possession. A streak of white paint decorated his forehead, a single pearl his nose, and his cheeks were vividly coloured with vermilion. After a time he danced, and danced very prettily, with tremulous, almost imperceptible movements of his head and hands, like a bird fluttering its wings, and the gold tissue, shaken from his whirling skirt, filled the air around him with glittering dust.
The British Political Agent is, not surprisingly, somewhat disturbed by the Maharajah's hobby. When he is disinclined to pay its costs with public funds the Maharajah accuses him of "political interference with my luxuries".
Ackerley, meanwhile, is amusing himself with the Maharajah's slightly older teenage entourage and, despite a number of excisions he made in the Hindoo Holiday manuscript before it was published, Ackerley's friend Forster felt that, in these descriptions, "Joe went too far". Told that the Brahman caste are the lips of God, just as the lowly Sudra caste are the feet of God, Ackerley asks, "How can I worship my God better than by kissing his feet?" And certainly before the end of the book a good number of feet have been kissed.
The two principal objects of Ackerley's interest are the Maharajah's valet and clerk. Sharma, the slim young valet, is first encountered bringing a hookah for his master to smoke. His face is handsome,
fairer than usual and lighted by large glowing dark eyes, which every now and then rested curiously upon me.
Sharma is "the Maharajah's lover-boy" and Ackerley judges it impolitic to ask of him any more than the occasional kiss.
Narayan, the clerk, is just as handsome, "with very gentle eyes" (Ackerley always mentions the eyes) and his demeanour is reserved, thoughtful, attentive. He falls in love with Ackerley, and towards the end of the book there is the kind of exchange travelling boy-lovers have been having with their boys since the beginning of time:
"I want to love you very much," he said.
"You mean you do love me very much."
"I want to."
"Then why not?"
"You will go to England and I shall be sorry. But you will not be sorry. I am only a boy and I shall be sorry."
Ackerley writes that he kissed Narayan on the lips again, "and this time he did not draw away".
There is also Ackerley's stocky little servant-boy Habib,
a dusky boy of about twelve, with thick brown lips, eyes like wet toffee, and very dirty feet.
Most boy-lovers will agree with Norman Douglas's assessment: Hindoo Holiday "might with advantage have been lengthened to twice its size." Evelyn Waugh said it was a book difficult to praise temperately. The Aga Kahn wrote that it showed "more understanding of India than any other book by an Englishman, including Kipling". He even named one of his race-horses after it.
In the last years before his death in 1967 Joe Ackerley took a number of trips in Europe and Asia which, according to his published letters, convinced him that his sexual preference was changing; he was drawn now to boys rather than men. In them we can read of his attempts to smuggle Athenian boys into his hotel, seduce Japanese boys in Tokyo bars. There is a feeling of exuberance and gratitude in them which puts one in mind of Wilde's letters from his post-prison exile. He complains to a friend,
I don't think you ever took me to a Secondary or even a Public School or Borstal. My tastes, I now realise, lie in that direction.
Whatever his sexual regrets, however, he was by all accounts a charming and loveable man, and posthumously we can honour him for having penned one of the undisputed modern masterpieces of boy-love.
Hindoo Holiday was published by Chatto and Windus in 1932 and My Father and Myself by The Bodley Head in 1968. Both were also Penguin paperbacks. Ackerley's Letters were published by Duckworth in 1975.
Reviewed by David James in Pan: a magazine about boy-love, XIII (Oct. 1982) pp. 20-22.
 Chokkrapur, as Ackerley actually spelt it, was his private joke, since it means “City of Boys”.