When I was sent on the trail of an obscure English writer to an obscure Indian place, my heart leapt for I, like my honourable ed., have a penchant for the road less travelled.
J.R. Ackerley (Joe, to his friends) is no E.M. Forster, and Chhatarpur is not Kajuraho. But neither writer nor place is any the less for being off the literary or physical track. It was thanks to Forster’s prompting, that Ackerley travelled from London to India in 1923 to take up a post as private secretary to the Maharaja of Chhatarpur. The journal he kept during the course of his five month stay grew into the comic memoir, Hindoo Holiday, one of the most charming and perceptive books on life in India during the last days of the Raj as well as one of the classics of gay literature.
I set out on the trail of this maverick figure, a well-thumbed copy of the book under my arm, wondering if I would find any trace of him or the characters who populate his book. It was a long shot. For a start, Ackerley used fictional place names in the book – perhaps to deflect negative comments that might arise from its openly – nay, happily – gay contents. Chhatarpur appears as ‘Chhokrapur’ in the book (‘Boytown’, as Ackerley playfully hints), and the Maharaja is simply called ‘His Highness’ or ‘Prince’ throughout. The nearest railhead, Harpalpur, is rechristened ‘Dipra’, and his description of the temples clearly indicates that ‘Garha’ is Kajuraho.
We stayed not at Chhatarpur Palace, but at the residence of another Maharaja – the ground round here seems to be fairly thick with them, so bear with me – at Alipura close to the UP border in northern Madhya Pradesh. The Palace has only recently, and only partially, been converted into a hotel and, for all its magnificence, had a slightly down-at-heel charm. The guard outside could have stepped straight out of one of Ackerley’s sketches. A wizened face, nose and chin leaning towards each other as though trying to share a secret, huge twisted turban, white dhoti, imposing handlebar moustache and fat, opaque sunglasses, no socks, and dusty shoes with turned-up toes.
Ackerley admits at the outset that all he knew of India “was what I was able to recollect from my schooldays – that there had been a mutiny there, for instance, and that it looked rather like an inverted Matterhorn on the map, pink because we governed it. My knowledge, in short, was not exhaustive…”
His fellow compatriots considered Indians, when they considered them at all, to be ‘lethal’ and ‘septic’.
“‘Do you like India?’ Mrs Bristow asked me.
‘Oh yes. I think it’s marvellous.’
‘And what do you think of the people?’
‘I like them very much, and think them most interesting.’
‘Oo, aren’t you a fibber! What was it you said the other day about “awful Anglo-Indian chatter”?’
‘But I thought you were speaking of the Indians just now, not the Anglo-Indians.’
‘The Indians! I never think of them.’
‘Well, you said “the people,” you know.’
‘I mean us people, stupid!’
‘I see. Well now, let’s start again.’”
There is an English couple taking tea in the palace courtyard. I decide to check whether attitudes have changed.
“The rest of our group’s gone to Goa,” explains Mrs Stephenson. “But we like places that are a bit, you know…”
“…off the beaten track,” continues her husband. “And this,” he gestures around the courtyard, somehow taking in the whole, wide, dusty countryside, “this is just the icing…”
“…on the cake. It really is,” she enthuses. “This is the real India. We love it.”
They both nod enthusiastically, promising, next time, that they’d start their holiday right there in Alipura.
I show them my copy of Hindoo Holiday, and ask if they’d ever come across it. They shake their heads. The hotel manager, Brijmohan, is equally at a loss.
From the terrace, I look down on a small cluster of houses below. The tiles are spade-shaped slabs of baked mud, overlapping like the scales of a stegosaur. The walls and floors are made of cowdung mixed with mud, as though the earth has risen up to shelter the people, and the people in return patted and smoothed it to suit their needs. A small boy, squatting with his father in a courtyard looks up and spots me standing on the ramparts. He waves enthusiastically. I wave back. Others notice, and join in. Soon everyone is standing outside their houses, squinting up at me, waving and laughing.
“One! Two! Three! Four! Fife! Seex! Seven! Et! Nine! Ten!” the boy shouts up.
“Arrey wah,” I shout back. “Bahut khub.”
“Elefen!” yells another tot, not to be outdone.
“Eleven bhi hai, wah wah.”
“Fifteen! Ninety five! Forty three!”
I retreat on a wave of random English numbers hurled up into the hot air.
That afternoon we head off to Joran, about 20kms away. Ours is the only motor vehicle on the smooth, single-track road. On either side are fields of dal, mustard and peas dotted with spiky date palms (kajur, I realized, from whence ‘Kajuraho’). It hasn’t rained here for three years, and the ground is tinderbox dry. Russet-beige hills rise up in the distance like the backs of sleeping dragons. Atop one, a brick and stone fortress lies in splendid ruin, split by peepal tree roots and shaggy with grasses. Within minutes of arriving we are surrounded by a troupe of bright-eyed village children, eager to show us around. They scamper, nimble as squirrels, up and over the blasted building, pointing out the treacherous drop where criminals were hanged, while I pick my way along behind them.
A large part of the fortress had been dynamited by the British. Brijmohan explained that the Maharaja stayed to face the music, while his wife and entourage escaped down an underground passage and away to safety. This didn’t sound like Joe’s Maharaja: a kindly enough old geezer, but far too fond of his own creature comforts for such heroics. Standing on the ramparts, I imagine him beside me, a bent, wizened figure with a wheezy cough, and a paan-stained tongue, saying: “Why are ruins beautiful? And what is beauty? Is it the cloak of God?”
Ackerley’s employer was an eccentric elderly gent, with a penchant for theological and philosophical enquiry and beautiful young boys. He was also extremely superstitious, and spent many hours, with his bemused and amused private secretary, driving around the countryside hopping to spot a mongoose (a very good omen). As we were returning, we spotted a jackal – apparently a very bad omen. But this was cancelled out a little while later when I spotted a beautiful blue bird, sitting on a fence post.
“‘And this blue bird of yours is a good omen?’
‘A very good omen! A very goon omen!’ he answered gravely.”
Encouraged, we set off the next morning, off for Chhatarpur itself. A few miles out of Alipura, is the cantonment of Nowgong. In the 1920s each bungalow would have had a little box inscribed ‘Not at home’ outside its front gates for, as Ackerley informs us, “in British India no one is ever at home to a first caller.” There is definitely no one at home in Nowgong church: only the sparrows, swooping in and out of the empty rose window, pecking out strands from the cane-backed pews to build their nests high up in the eaves. I ask the silent chowkidaar if he’d ever heard of a British writer called Ackerley. He looks blank. We leave.
A few miles further on, and down a bumpy village track, we halt at the Chhatrasal Memorial: a huge, brick monument that lowers over a small village at its base. Here, one of the Maharajas of Chhatrasal (after whom Chhatarpur was named), came to a mysterious end. Apparently, he rode to a nearby temple, dismounted from his horse, and was never seen again. It was picturesque, but an empty tomb and an absent ghost hard on the heels of an abandoned church seemed like a particularly bad clutch of omens for our quest to find another forgotten figure. It was beginning to look likely that my article would end up as a short photo-essay.
Our driver hadn’t heard of Ackerley either, but he knew the Maharaja’s palace well. “There’s nothing to see,” he intoned gloomily, “all gone.” In the 1920s Chhatarpur was little more than a village, with a population of just over 10,000. It’s now ten times that size, abristle with satellite dishes and transmission towers. We wended our way along roads jammed with cars, lorries and buses, adding our own beep-beeps to the honking and shrieking, until we finally drew up at the palace gates.
Unlike Joran Fort or the Chhatrasal Memorial, Chhatarpur Palace is not a beautiful ruin. It’s just going to pieces, bit by bit. A sign on the front says “Rajeev Gandhi Computer Sakshatra Mission” and offers ‘Computer Aducation’. Other aducational institutions abound: the palace now plays host to a nursery school, high school, and several colleges and training institutes, not to mention a court of law, a homeopathic hospital, and a supari warehouse.
Opposite the palace’s main gate is an ornate box-like building with elaborately carved columns and huge wooden doors with brass elephant’s head knockers. This used to be the Maharaja’s personal temple but it, too, has been turned into a school. There were no children inside, but there were blackboards set into the walls at intervals. The shrine stood at the back of the central hall, padlocked, like a child in detention.
One of the lecturers, Mr D.S. Upadhyay, happily showed us around, once he knew our purpose. An underground tunnel – he indicated an evil-looking corner, shrouded with cobwebs and muck – led from the Mandir to the main palace, and from there to the bathing tank behind, so that the Maharani could pray and wash away from prying eyes. Then we climbed the dark staircase up to the terrace, and from there up an even smaller, vertiginous set of stairs up on to the roof from which commanded a 360 degree view of the town.
“Have you ever heard of Joe Ackerley?” I asked, holding out the book. He shook his head.
We stood surveying the palace in all its broken-down glory. Mr Upadhyay patted a broken column sadly where the iron bone was poking through. “It has been destructed,” he said. The last Maharaja was “a luxurious person,” he explained. “All properties sell out for enjoy.”
Our host, the Maharaja of Alipura was away but had called to say that the Maharaja of Bijawar would be happy to meet us. That meeting did not work out, and with the Maharaja of Chhatarpur also away, the whole quest seemed to be taking on a slightly Quixotic air. [I did, in the end, get to meet a real live Raja – Manvendra Singh, the 19th Maharaja of Alipura, in the less than luxurious surroundings of Jhansi railway station, where he – with a great deal of old world courtly charm – filled us in on how the Maharaja of Chhattarpur gained his playboy reputation. It involved two sisters called Joy and Betty, and a café in Kajuraho, but that’s another story…]
“Did the Maharaja have a guesthouse?” I took a final tilt.
“Of course! There!” Mr Upadhyay pointed to a low white-washed bungalow on the spur of the opposite hill. Bingo.
Here’s how Joe describes it:
“A sudden turn from the main road, which seemed to skirt the town, brought us through white gates up a long red-gravel drive on to this small conical hill. The hill is flattened at the top to form a plateau, and is appended, like the full-stop in an exclamation mark, to the long rocky ridge which rises in a gradual incline to the south.”
The topography checked out, and it was with mounting excitement that I and my camera-wielding Sancho Panza drew closer to what must have been Joe Ackerley’s home all those years ago.
The formerly splendid guesthouse (on arriving, Ackerley mistook it for the Maharaja’s palace, much to the latter’s amusement) has been converted into a PWD bungalow and thoroughly ‘Sarkarified’; all potentially pleasing aspects of the place having been obliterated with a toxic combination of rexine, formica and white bathroom tiles. I trudged past the portraits of political leaders all looking into the middle-distance and out the back door.
According to the book, Joe lived not in the main guesthouse but in another, much smaller, building set to one side:
“an oblong, one-storeyed building with thick walls whitewashed inside and out. There were two communicating rooms, two verandahs (no longer there)… There were no windows, but five doorways, one from each room to each verandah, and one between the two rooms.”
Check. Check. Check. This was definitely the place.
I did a little jig, standing in the main room – now a kitchen – with a slightly bemused cook. Had he ever heard of Joe Ackerley? I asked him. He had not. Could I see the other rooms? I couldn’t. They were locked and full of rubbish. I didn’t care. I knew I’d found it: a godown full of toota-phoota samaan the perfect Indian echo of W.B. Yeats’s ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, where all ladders start.
At sunset, the returning goats and buffaloes kick up a soft golden dust, and a new moon is on the rise: like a sliver of light escaping from a partially closed keyhole. I stand there perhaps in the very place where, eighty-five years ago, a young man had gazed up:
“the sky was pale green and of curious depth, like the eyes of a lover into which we hungrily gaze, believing that here at last, where the light seems so clear, we shall find truth.”
Oh, Joe, I want to say, did you find what you were looking for? Did the temporary affection of two Indian boys, and the philosophical meanderings of an eccentric maharaja ease your scarred heart? What would you think, seeing your house now? Would you feel sad? Somehow, I doubt it. Not for you the grand memorial, the commemorative plaque. Nothing, in short, to dull the truth that we are no more than random molecules and scattered ash, and soon enough will be stardust again.
Published as CHHOKRAPUR REVISITED
Outlook Traveller, April 2008