Madhya Pradesh Revisiting Chhatarpur

Visit a palace, a church and the locale of J.R. Ackerley's Hindoo Holiday in Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh Revisiting Chhatarpur

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 Khajuraho. But neither writer nor place is any the less for being off the literary or physical track. It was thanks to Forster&rsquos 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 &mdash perhaps to deflect negative comments that might arise from its openly &mdash nay, happily &mdash gay contents. Chhatarpur appears as &lsquoChhokrapur&rsquo in the book (&lsquoBoytown&rsquo, as Ackerley playfully hints), and the Maharaja is simply called &lsquoHis Highness&rsquo or &lsquoPrince&rsquo throughout. The nearest railhead, Harpalpur, is rechristened &lsquoDipra&rsquo, and his description of the temples clearly indicates that &lsquoGarha&rsquo is Khajuraho.

We stayed not at Chhatarpur Palace, but at the residence of another Maharaja &mdash the ground round here seems to be fairly thick with them, so bear with me &mdash 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&rsquos 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 &ldquowas what I was able to recollect from my schooldays &mdash 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...&rdquo

His fellow compatriots considered Indians, when they considered them at all, to be &lsquolethal&rsquo and &lsquoseptic&rsquo.  

&ldquo&lsquoDo you like India&rsquo Mrs Bristow asked me.
Oh yes. I think it&rsquos marvellous.&rsquo&lsquo
&lsquoAnd what do you think of the people&rsquo
&lsquoI like them very much, and think them most interesting.&rsquo&lsquo
&lsquoOo, aren&rsquot you a fibber What was it you said the other day about &ldquoawful Anglo-Indian chatter&rdquo&rsquo
&lsquoBut I thought you were speaking of the Indians just now, not the Anglo-Indians.&rsquo&lsquo
&lsquoThe Indians I never think of them.&rsquo&lsquo
&lsquoWell, you said &ldquothe people,&rdquo you know.&rsquo
&lsquoI mean us people, stupid&rsquo&lsquo
&lsquoI see. Well now, let&rsquos start again.&rsquo&rdquo

There is an English couple taking tea in the palace courtyard. I decide to check whether attitudes have changed. &ldquoThe rest of our group&rsquos gone to Goa,&rdquo explains Mrs Stephenson. &ldquoBut we like places that are a bit, you know...&rdquo & the beaten track,&rdquo continues her husband. &ldquoAnd this,&rdquo he gestures around the courtyard, somehow taking in the whole, wide, dusty countryside, &ldquothis is just the icing...&rdquo &ldquo...on the cake. It really is,&rdquo she enthuses. &ldquoThis is the real India. We love it.&rdquo

They both nod enthusiastically, promising, next time, that they&rsquod start their holiday right there in Alipura.

I show them my copy of Hindoo Holiday, and ask if they&rsquove 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 cow-dung 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.

&ldquoOne Two Three Four Fife Seex Seven Et Nine Ten&rdquo the boy shouts up.
&ldquoArrey wah,&rdquo I shout back.&ldquo
&ldquoElefen&rdquo yells another, not to be outdone.
&ldquoEleven bhi hai, wah wah.&rdquo
&ldquoFifteen Ninety-five Forty-three&rdquoI retreat on a wave of random English numbers hurled up into the hot air.
I retreat on a wave of random English numbers hurled up into the hot air.

That afternoon we head off to Joran, about 20km 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. It hasn&rsquot 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.

Standing on the ramparts, I imagine Joe&rsquos Maharaja beside me, a bent, wizened figure with a wheezy cough, and a paan-stained tongue, saying &ldquoWhy are ruins beautiful And what is beauty Is it the cloak of God&rdquo

Ackerley&rsquos employer was an eccentric elderly gent, with a penchant for theological 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 hoping to spot a mongoose (a very good omen). As we were returning, we spotted a jackal &mdash 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.

&ldquo&lsquoAnd this blue bird of yours is a good omen&rsquo &lsquoA very good omen A very good omen&rsquo he answered gravely.&rdquo 

Encouraged, we set off the next morning, 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 &lsquoNot at home&rsquo outside its front gates for, as Ackerley informs us, &ldquoin British India no one is ever at home to a first caller.&rdquo 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 chowkidar if he&rsquos 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.

Our driver hadn&rsquot heard of Ackerley either, but he knew the Maharaja&rsquos palace well. &ldquoThere&rsquos nothing to see,&rdquo he intoned gloomily, &ldquoall gone.&rdquo In the 1920s Chhatarpur was little more than a village, with a population of just over 10,000. It&rsquos now 10 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&rsquos just going to pieces, bit by bit. A sign on the front offers &lsquoComputer Aducation&rsquo. 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&rsquos main gate is an ornate box-like building with elaborately carved columns and huge wooden doors with brass elephant head knockers. This used to be the Maharaja&rsquos personal temple but it, too, has been turned into a school. There were blackboards set into the walls at intervals, while the shrine stood at the back of the central hall, padlocked, like a child in detention.

One of the lecturers, D.S. Upadhyay, happily showed us around, once he knew our purpose. An underground tunnel &mdash he indicated an evil-looking corner, shrouded with cobwebs and muck &mdash 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 to the roof from which we commanded a 360-degree view of the town. &ldquoHave you ever heard of Joe Ackerley&rdquo I asked. 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. &ldquoIt has been destructed,&rdquo he said.  The last Maharaja was &ldquoa luxurious person,&rdquo he explained. &ldquoAll properties sell out for enjoy.&rdquo The whole quest seemed to be taking on a slightly Quixotic air but I took a final tilt &ldquoDid the Maharaja have a guesthouse&rdquo

&ldquoOf course There&rdquo Mr Upadhyay pointed to a low, whitewashed bungalow on the spur of the opposite hill. Bingo. 

Here&rsquos how Joe describes it &ldquoA 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.&rdquo

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&rsquos home all those years ago.

The formerly splendid guesthouse (on arriving, Ackerley mistook it for the Maharaja&rsquos palace, much to the latter&rsquos 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, smaller, building set to one side &ldquoan 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.&rdquo Check. Check. Check. This was definitely the place.

I did a little jig, standing in the main room &mdash now a kitchen &mdash 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&rsquot. They were locked and full of rubbish. I didn&rsquot care. I knew I&rsquod found it a godown full of toota-phoota saamaan, the perfect Indian echo of W.B. Yeats&rsquos &lsquofoul rag-and-bone shop of the heart&rsquo, 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, 85 years ago, a young man had gazed up &ldquothe 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.&rdquo

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.

The information

Getting there
Harpalpur (55km) is the railhead closest to Chhatarpur. But the most convenient way to travel from Delhi is by the Bhopal Shatabdi to Jhansi (leaves 6.15am, arrives 10.58am Rs 545 on CC). From Jhansi, it&rsquos 119km to Chhatarpur and 95km to Alipura.

 Where to stay
Accommodation options are poor in Chhatarpur. It&rsquos best to stay at the Alipura Palace, 24km away, and make a day visit to Chhatarpur. The heritage hotel, which offers 10 AC rooms with attached bathrooms, is situated on NH-75, poised perfectly between Orchha and Khajuraho. Contact 011-25885709, 25889516 Alternatively, you could combine Chhatarpur with a visit to Khajuraho (55km away), which of course has a range of accommodation options.

What to see & do
Basing yourself in Alipura also gives you the opportunity to visit the village of Sarsed. Located 20km north of Alipura, this is one of the few places in the state where cloth is spun and made by hand. There are 12 looms, and visitors can watch as the thread is first spun, on rudimentary charkhas, made of bicycle wheels, and then woven into lengths of khadi. You can buy from the weavers. Perched on a hill here is a Shiv Mandir. Legend has it that when the natural stone lingam first appeared, it could only be accessed through a crack in the rock face. Due to the power of their prayers, the hill has been rising &mdash at a rate of one rice grain per year &mdash ever since, to allow worshippers in. Khajuraho with its temples is, of course, a big attraction. It&rsquos also possible to visit Orchha, in the other direction, and Panna National Park, beyond Khajuraho.

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