To the unacquainted eye, he looks like the royal miscellany of colonial India. In many ways he was. His name was Vishwanath Singh Bahadur. To his name he had Chhatarpur, a princely state in the Bundelkhand Agency, which he helmed between 1867 and his death in 1932.

Like most princes of the British Raj, he was an adjunct to the Crown. He enjoyed some sovereignty over his fiefdom. But he had his title and his office so that, through him, the British could maintain their suzerainty over Chhatarpur. He was not so much a remnant of a bygone Indian authority, whose stock fell soon after the Sepoy Mutiny, as he was a delegate, repurposed by and for the Raj.

Studio portrait of HH Vishwanath Singh Bahadur, the Maharajah of Chattarpur, dispatched to EM Forster on December 8, 1912. Photography by GW Lawrie & Co. Courtesy of King’s College, Cambridge.| Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

Vishwanath Singh is not canonical. Of the two assets, fabulous wealth and fabulous beauty, which keep custodians of princely states alive in the annals – assets that print journalism and social media invoke constantly to keep the wheel of neo-Oriental tourism spinning today – he possessed neither. Doomed to obscurity from the word go, his name and his state have little heft in Indian history.

Canon is often denied to those who lack capital. Canon has also been, for many aeons, to put it bluntly: straight.

I never went searching for Vishwanath Singh because the name meant nothing to me. I had no prior knowledge of who he was or of his significance to Indian letters. This discovery was more accidental.

History may not have skipped Vishwanath Singh altogether. But he was, in many ways, a hidden figure, his profile encoded and stowed away in a crucial piece of queer literature that came out of 20th-century colonial India. In 2021, I read Hindoo Holiday, a travel memoir by a minor British writer, Joe Randolph Ackerley, for the first time. I was introduced to Vishwanath Singh there.

Passage to India

Ackerley was a young man in 1923. He had weathered World War I, in which he had served, and was a fresh Cambridge graduate. That year, he was encouraged to go to India by a new friend he had made in London. This friend was a writer of some renown.

EM Forster read Ackerley’s poem “Ghosts” in the London Mercury in 1922. He was drawn in by its “distinct homosexual aura,” according to Ackerley’s biographer, Peter Parker. Forster sent Ackerley a piece of fan mail. Soon, Morgan and Joe, as they knew each other, struck a friendship that would last Ackerley’s lifetime. Whilst lunching at the 1917 Club, a haunt in Soho popular with the Bloomsbury Group, Forster suggested that Ackerley apply for a position with a Maharajah in a minor Indian state whom he knew from his two trips to India, one in 1912-’13 and the other more recently, in 1921. His name was Vishwanath Singh.

Forster was put in touch with His Highness through his neighbour in London, a man named Sir Theodore Morison. Morison had lived in India between 1885 and 1905 working as an educationist. He had been the Maharajah’s private tutor and eventually became principal of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which we know today as Aligarh Muslim University, the epicentre of the 2010 trial where Dr Ramchandra Srinivas Siras contested his wrongful suspension from the University after he was ambushed in his own home and recorded in a same-sex encounter without his consent. Another queer sidebar: Syed Ross Masood, who was the grandson of the University’s founder and Morison’s ward for a while, was Forster’s great unrequited love to whom he dedicated A Passage to India.

After several months of negotiating Ackerley’s role and salary with the Maharajah, Forster was able to persuade Vishwanath Singh to take on his friend. Ackerley shipped himself to India, arriving in Chhatarpur on December 22, 1923.

Out of his residency in India, memories of which were distilled into a notebook, Ackerley fashioned Hindoo Holiday, which was first published by Chatto & Windus in 1932. Presented as diary entries that span five months, from December 1923 to May 1924, Ackerley offers up prose that may seem unremarkable upon first read. But his interactions with the Maharajah and the native personnel on his staff, most of whom were orthodox brahmin men, reveal the notions they hold on dirt, gastronomy, and sex for what they truly are: inconsistent and absurd. It is at times comic, at times racist, at times both.

Most importantly, however, Hindoo Holiday works as a kind of queer exposé, not only of Vishwanath Singh but of Joe Ackerley himself. There is an entry in the text, dated January 3, in which the Maharajah invites Ackerley to a private open-air nautch. As a troupe of young boys file in, all dressed in masc and femme guises of gods and mortals from Hindu mythology, and perform a dance which, from Ackerley’s description could be surmised as Kathak, he asks Ackerley which of the “gods” he finds “beautiful.” With this question, he not only sets up the gradual unveiling of his own sexual persuasion but coaxes Ackerley to treat Chhatarpur as his very own locus amoenus, divorced from the surveillance of London where Ackerley would indulge in the underground pursuit of sex with men.

Queer prison, queer palace

To read Hindoo Holiday today is to confront the drama of Ackerley wishing to take up the Maharajah on his offer. He wanted to be intimate with two young boys on the Maharajah’s payroll: Narayan, the clerk at his Guest House, a brahmin man, and, Sharma, the Maharajah’s valet, a young boy from the nai caste. But those desires were thwarted repeatedly, and at times successfully, by brahmin paranoia around contamination wrought by food, flesh, sex, or, if you’ll allow me a convenient portmanteau: the gastroerotic.

Photographs and caricatures of the characters in Hindoo Holiday taken or drawn by Ackerley, from Peter Parker’s biography (1989). “Narayan” appears on the top left corner and “Sharma” on the bottom right. These images were reproduced from Ackerley’s uncatalogued papers in the New York Public Library. They are now lost. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

Hindoo Holiday was not introduced to readers in 1932 with its scandalous morsels of queer indiscretions, both of author and of his subject, that we are privy to today. The delivery was piecemeal. In 1932, several obscenity and libel laws that were corollaries of Britain’s buggery statutes dating all the way back to the Tudor Era were in place. Renderings of same-sex desire in Ackerley’s non-fictional work would have incriminated the author at home and the Maharajah in the colony to which Britain had exported a version of its buggery statute – a precursor to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – in 1828.

Copy of the first edition of Ackerley’s play, The Prisoners of War (1925) which is now out of print. Author’s personal collection. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

But Hindoo Holiday was not Ackerley’s first hand at portraying homosexual intimacy on the page. In 1925, a year after he had returned from India and settled in London, Ackerley wrote a play, The Prisoners of War. Set in a hotel in Mürren which was converted into an internment camp, Ackerley drew from his own convalescent days at this very camp to set up a dramatis personae of British soldiers. An intense, but implicit, same-sex desire that a character named Captain Jim Conrad nursed for a young Royal Flying Corps observer named Allan Grayle became nuclear to the play. The Prisoners of War had a brief run in London, first staged at the Court Theatre in Sloane Square before transferring to the Playhouse Theatre in Charing Cross. To coincide with the run, C&W published the script of Ackerley’s play, which is now out of print.

Emboldened by any legal issues Ackerley had swerved with his gay play, he might have decided to preserve the queer vignettes in Hindoo Holiday. But, unlike the fictionalisation of his Swiss convalescence, Ackerley’s travel memoir was a work of non-fiction: a tattle and confession. To insure the book, and himself, against any legal run-ins, several passages had to be excised from the final draft.

By 1932, Vishwanath Singh was dead, several months shy of seeing Hindoo Holiday in print. But, there was a possibility that his heirs could sue Ackerley for defamation. One means to counter this was to excise passages that were trouble. Another coat of insurance: the Maharajah is never named in Hindoo Holiday. Chhatarpur is renamed “Chhokrapur,” a cheeky transliteration from Hindi which means “The Land of the Lads.” In fact, in a prefatory note to Hindoo Holiday, Ackerley doubles down on dissuading readers from precisely geolocating “Chhokrapur”: “since I have just invented [the name], it will be idle to explore the map.” If blurring Chhatarpur’s coordinates was not enough, he installs noms de plume on every member on the Maharajah’s payroll. “Narayan” was really a man named Mahadeo Nayak and “Sharma” was Raghunandi.

I was interested in what Hindoo Holiday looked like in 1932, with its excised passages, and how the text would have affected readers differently when an “unexpurgated” edition was brought out twenty years later by C&W in 1952. Neither edition was the complete text. As I learned recently from Parker, Ackerley’s biographer who now serves as his literary executor, the text of Hindoo Holiday in circulation today is not an offset of the 1952 edition. Not surprisingly, both the 1932 text and the 1952 edition are extinct from our modern market.

In the summer of 2022, I travelled to the UK to trace prior renditions of Hindoo Holiday. I located and acquired a copy of the 1932 edition from Skoob Books at Charing Cross Road in London and a copy of the 1952 edition from Hawthorn Books in Bristol. I spent several weeks scanning the 1932 edition, collating niches within the text where Ackerley withheld the fullness of his account. Ackerley comes across as a fly-on-the-wall British ethnographer of the cultural eccentricities of “Chhokrapur” and its sexual excesses. In this first edition, he is a mere colonial reporter, observing from a distance, never partaking in the queer allure of the Maharajah’s court. A proper thing to do for a British emissary in the colony. In 1952, by which time India becomes a postcolony, Ackerley revisits his role, revising himself as a British queer man seduced by the beauty of younger Indian men on the Maharajah’s roster, making moves even: some rebuffed, some reciprocated, and some obtained through violence.

Copy of the first “expanded” edition of Hindoo Holiday (1952) sourced from Hawthorn Books, Bristol. Author’s personal copy. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

Double role

In an early vignette in Hindoo Holiday, Chhokrapur’s fresh arrival is given an early warning. In an entry dated January 15, a memsahib named Mrs Bristow makes an appearance. She belongs to a cohort of Anglo-Indians (or Anglos in India: as an older, more capacious version of the term, which we use today for India’s biracial citizens, once referred as). They were visiting the Maharajah from the nearby Shikaripur, the chief military station of Chhatarpur state. Of the two Guest Houses, this cohort occupied the larger House. On January 15, Ackerley goes up to their Guest House. There, Mrs Bristow finds him chewing clove. She takes umbrage. “Go on, spit it out,” she orders him. When he dismisses her, she forewarns him: “Let me give you a word of advice,” and ends the entry, thus, “Don’t go Indian.”

This link between foreign food and foreign flesh is not new to the Europeans. Medieval European spice trade turned clove into an oriental aphrodisiac, even a synecdoche of the foreign body. Chewing clove dissolved “narrow local borders” for the Europeans, letting them gastronomically conjure the “exotic” without travel. Clove was also rendered in European literature as a romantic motif. It helped set an ambience for lovers and friends who exchanged spices, like clove, as “pledges” of their relationship. Cloves “existed like foreign bodies” in the mediaeval European imagination. They became a passport out of, and an erotic tenor imported into, England.

A memsahib like Mrs Bristow, who like any Anglo-Indian of her time desperately wanted to preserve her British identity after colonialism displaced her, refused to roll deep with the native. One route was to stay away from their food, which, true to medieval European fashion, she saw as an extension of their bodies. In a passage which does not appear in the 1932 edition, which Ackerley adds 20 years later, perhaps to add more context to her warning, Mrs Bristow says: “Indians […] Never mind what filth they put into their stomach. That’s a very different matter. They’re pretty inoculated by now. I should imagine. But what they can eat will kill you.” In other words, if Ackerley survives a gastronomic tour of India, his ethnic conversion is complete. He will have relinquished Britannia.

But Ackerley was an Anglo who wanted to be Indian. In the memoir’s February 13 entry, retained in both editions, Narayan brings him paan, which Ackerley tries. In Abinger Harvest (1935), an assortment of non-fiction miscellany, Forster dedicates a tiny paean to paan. He writes about Anglo-Indians who are tormented by its taste; even more tormented when they go up to the looking glass and see “bloody saliva,” making them so “un-British” that they have to cancel their visit to the club. Just like his friend’s description of paan’s effect on the English tongue, its “sickly flavour” throws Ackerley off-kilter. But then Narayan laughs, points at Ackerley’s mouth, then at his own – is he trying to establish some similitude right there, on the mouth? So, Ackerley goes up to the looking glass, just like the Anglo-Indians in Forster’s book. Unlike his more Indophobic countrymen, however, he is delighted by his kath-smeared mouth. When Babaji Rao, Vishwanath Singh’s Private Secretary, the native (and more permanent) counterpart of Ackerley, walks in, he gleefully shows off his red teeth and says: “I am becoming Indian indeed!” And then he wishes Mrs Bristow were there, to flip her off with this spectacle.

Here, Ackerley mines the danger of ethnic conversion contained in food. He invites its glorious onset. Perhaps because it will lead to sex. Mrs Bristow uses not any food but specifically an aphrodisiac like the clove is telling. Food is a route to racial similitude with Indians, yes. But once vittles establish a kind of sameness, perhaps, that sameness can sanction sex.

In Hindoo Holiday, sex won’t be found in the body’s nether locales. It is pinned to the mouth. Kissing, where mouths meet, represents “a completed sexual act” in India, according to the Dewan, the Prime Minister of “Chhokrapur,” who tells Ackerley so in an entry dated March 30. To kiss is therefore to consummate: to have the other is to be the other, or vice versa, as Mrs Bristow insinuates with the clove.

Ackerley’s line drawing of the Dewan which was reproduced, among several other illustrations, in the first and subsequent editions. Courtesy of the Berg Collection, NYPL. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

The Dewan makes this comment whilst a curious Ackerley is quizzing him on “ultra-hygienic notions” a brahmin has around food, based on which they organise whom they can socialise with, whom they can touch. As the Dewan lectures him on how the Muslim and the European’s touch taints the brahmin, owing to their diet, Ackerley’s immediate follow up is: “What about kissing?” Why this sudden pivot from food to – as the Dewan would see it – sex?

The day before, Narayan, who has grown affectionate towards Ackerley, plants a kiss on him. He steers clear of his mouth, however. When Ackerley tries to return the kiss, Narayan says: “Not the mouth! You eat meat! You eat meat!” This is how the March 29 entry in the 1932 version of Hindoo Holiday ends. Ackerley seems respectful of Narayan’s request. He even saves his own face in the colonial-era edition of his memoirs. By averting the mouth, the Briton and the brahmin seem to conserve their mutual purity. But, in 1952, the entry ends differently. “Yes, and I will eat you in a minute,” Ackerley says. With this, he turns Narayan’s body into meat, making his flesh continuous with his own diet, sanctioning the act of “eating” of Narayan that includes ideas of sex “completed” with the kiss.

Brahmin characters in Hindoo Holiday play fast and loose with the Dharmashastras without ever citing from or debating interpretations of it. If the Dharmashastras will not allow Ackerley to ascend the food chain and will only allow the descent of the brahmin if he eats with or sleeps with the Shudra, to whose body the brahmin lumped the British during the third “anti-Brahman phase” of British colonialism, then Ackerley will drag Narayan down to his own “caste,” to satisfy his own sexual desire. With a kiss, forcibly taken from the brown body by the queer Caucasian, Narayan loses his caste and Ackerley loses his nationality.

To read these passages side-by-side is to see Ackerley cast in a double role. On the one hand, you have a dutiful Englishman in the 1932 edition, who checks his sexual and national transgressions at the mouth in the 1932 edition. On the other hand: a cruel imperialist, who asserts his racial upper hand with a kiss, to which Narayan does not consent, embodying a colonial style that feels several years past due date in the postcolonial 1952 version.

Expanding the ‘avuncular’

In July 2022, I spent a few afternoons toasting in a reading room at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, England. I was sifting through the Chatto & Windus archives there, aspiring to find, catalogue, and replay all the edits Ackerley had made to Hindoo Holiday prior to publishing the first edition. I was naively hoping that his papers would just hand me an itemised list of every excision from the text. I was exhausted by how “empty” the archive felt to me. The correspondence was mostly business: figuring out royalties, translation rights, print run, badmouthing terrible literary agents, etc. But then, I came across a letter he had written to his editor, Charles Prentice, at Chatto & Windus on December 9, 1931, suggesting an amendment to the text proper. “I want Narayan to be presented with a kiss,” Ackerley writes of the March 29 entry which he had retained in its fullness in his initial manuscript submission, “but I’ll make it more of an avuncular peck,” thus plucking out the detail of the kiss he violently returns upon Narayan’s mouth.

This was the only edit I found explicitly spelled out among Ackerley’s correspondence. To me, the “avuncular” nugget read like a clue which Ackerley had implanted in the archive. Not to hide the kiss, but to encode it, anticipating, through that word, a future in which the fullness of this scene would be revealed. I surmise that “avuncular” was Ackerley’s appropriation of a popular literary trope in 19th century British fiction that aligned with his “hidden” desire, c. 1932, for sameness with the Indian and the homosexual drive accenting this desire.

The avunculate was the uncle in the colony who supplied capital to an ailing British family. But he generated this capital through intimacies, sometimes corporate, sometimes corporeal, sometimes both, and always with the native. He became an in-between figure: his colonial intimacy diluted his Britishness. Yet, he was that familial adjunct that helped the family in the metropole keep up middle-class appearances and preserve a semblance of legitimacy in English society. Interestingly, many novelists of that time also lent homosexual traits to the avunculate. Perhaps, Ackerley chose “avuncular” to wrap up not one but several instances of his “loss” as a Briton with one neat trope, one keyword. Perhaps he also wanted this loss to signal his homosexuality, a hint with which the “avuncular” was already braided in English literary history.

The avunculate somehow also haunts how Chhokrapur got its homosexual Maharajah. Vishwanath Singh’s father, Jagat Singh did not inherit Chhatarpur from his own father but from his grand-uncle, Pratap Singh, whose father, Kaur Sone Shah, had sold Chhatarpur and four chokees to the British East India Company in return for his partial rule over the domain, but at the cost of “obedience and submission to the British government”.

Reading backwards

I returned to this specific entry Ackerley wanted to amend, and decided to use “avuncular” as my “prompt,” a docket to find absences in the 1932 text which Ackerley eventually fills out. I was working backwards. The full picture of Hindoo Holiday is already known to readers: the uncut edition is the version in circulation today. But what if, instead of looking for hard evidence in the archive, I went to the extinct edition (which might as well be the archive – an archived version of the text, pulled from the market) to look for absences that could tell us something? What was the common denominator to those first set of absences Ackerley had installed?

Like Narayan’s entry, I began to compile passages in the 1952 edition where the mouth was the stage for “gastroerotic” encounters, where sex and diet intersect. I went back to the 1932 text to find out if those passages were presented differently, if that “avuncular” edit might have been applied there, to filter out any interracial intimacy that diet forbade.

Readers of the current edition will know that Narayan is not the only native Ackerley solicits a kiss from. Sharma is another young Indian from whom Ackerley demands a kiss in the January 16 entry. Recalling this, I went back to my copy of the 1932 edition and retraced the passage. There it was: Ackerley’s sanitisation.

In the 1932 text, he has removed a piece of dialogue we now find in the modern edition, where he asks Sharma a rhetorical question as a way of coming on to him: “Who is more beautiful than the Gods?” By “Gods,” Ackerley is obviously referring to the boy-players in the nautch where the Maharajah had asked him earlier to elect the most beautiful. He removes another dialogue where he asks the native if he is frightened of the Brit, which the boy denies, after which Ackerley slyly asks: “Then we are friends?” To this, Sharma nods yes. Then the most brazen demand: “Then give me a kiss,” to which Sharma shakes his denial. All of this is expunged from the 1932 text, in which the two of them merely sit together and after “idly turning” a book on Indian architecture, Sharma bids Ackerley goodbye in “childish English.” These absences made the 1932 version of the passage colonially appropriate.

Three days later, Ackerley sits with the Maharajah who complains what a “very bad boy” Sharma is. The matter was left there in 1932. Ackerley is merely a patient listener. But in 1952, Ackerley intervenes. He defends Sharma as a good boy who is “only a child.” Hearing this, the Maharajah coyly confronts Ackerley. Sharma has tattled on Ackerley and claimed he “threw him down and tried to cling to him,” to which Ackerley protests, and says that he only wanted a kiss. “But you must not do such things, Mr. Ackerley,” the Maharajah says and this is where the author airs his sexual frustration: “But good Lord […] I must kiss somebody.” Again, expunged from the 1932 text.

Surprising though it may seem to read the Maharajah forbidding Ackerley from soliciting a kiss, when he had encouraged his English guest to mimic his own queer erotics earlier, I turned to the March 29th entry, the vignette of Narayan’s kiss, and my clue lay there: diet. Sharma is Hindu and is susceptible to the polluting touch of Others, which often crops up in Hindoo Holiday through dietary motifs. In the January 14 entry, Ackerley tells Babaji Rao he wants to gift Sharma pan, which he always chews, to which Babaji suggests that he stick to cardamom seeds or cloves because the betel leaf contains water, which can act as a carrier, even a memory-keeper, of Ackerley’s own diet, and pollute.

The term “Hindoo” is sometimes expansive enough to enfold Sharma but, at the convenience of the brahmins, contracts and cast(e)s him out. As a member of the nai caste, Sharma is considered as infectious to brahmin purity as Ackerley, the meat-eating Christian. Narayan tells Ackerley that he is allowed no food from Sharma but pan, which Babaji Rao says signals a “modern” India because the exchange of pan was made permissible as time went on, and has ushered in a “reconciliation between Mohammedans and Hindoos.”

And then comes the Dewan, refuting their take, and reinforcing a Brahmanical paranoia of inter-caste and inter-faith bodily transmission, food, sex, whatever is on the menu. This internal incoherence among the brahmins is preserved in the 1932 edition.

Caught in this tug of war between the Dewan’s archaic, and Narayan and Babaji’s neoclassical take on bodies with disparate diets that exchange touch (and sex), Ackerley loses his mind. Earlier, in response to why brahmins are so touchy about touch, the Dewan reverses a trope of the dirty Oriental to call the European dirty. He hates how they reuse cups during afternoon tea, wear leather shoes, eat beef, never wash, and if they do, only use soap with animal fat. He even hates their custom of the loving-cup.

This tirade remains in the 1932 edition, to which Ackerley offers no protest. Quite well for the colonial edition, because any protest would mean Ackerley wanted to cross borders – drawn by the British or the brahmin – which no self-respecting Anglicist would do. But as the clue in Ackerley’s letter claimed, he was truly the “avuncular” aspiring to have native intimacy that could only be had by being native, which was constantly thwarted. This all fed his sexual frustration, which culminated in a racist explosion on April 23, a styling that would make Kipling proud. He ends his tirade so: “Give me the unhygienic customs of Europe! Give me the loving-cup! Give me the kiss!”

Unveiling Vishwanath

Much of the drama surrounding the 1952 edition of Hindoo Holiday is about unveiling Ackerley’s queer pursuit of Narayan and Sharma in “Chhokrapur.” But, in the 1952 edition, he still stays his pen on a crucial tidbit about the Maharajah, for whom Ackerley’s book serves as a plump character study (alongside an excerpt in Forster’s The Hill of Devi (1953), where he recounts his short visit to Chhatarpur).

When the New York Review of Books edition of Hindoo Holiday was published in 2000, Eliot Weinberger introduced it as the first uncut edition of Ackerley’s memoirs in the West. He also attributes a heavy loan for this version on Saros Cowasjee, a professor at the University of Regina who had snuck a copy of the memoir from his university library and shipped it to India. Cowasjee implored publishers to bring out the first Indian edition of the book, which Arnold-Heinemann did in 1979. Emory, where I presently work as an instructor and researcher, carries a copy of the Indian edition. I was surprised to find that, despite Weinberger’s claim of fullness, the 1979 Indian edition was merely an offset of the 1952 UK text. And in the 1952 text, a vignette from the April 25th entry is missing.

Among the several expansions Ackerley was planning to make to the 1952 edition, the April 25th vignette did not make the final cut. In June of 2023, I travelled to the New York Public Collection, where the Berg Collection holds an uncatalogued notebook in which Ackerley had collated passages to be added to the forthcoming edition. When I opened the notebook, I found an entry note.

Entry note to Ackerley’s notebook where he expresses his concern for Lothian’s “Vanished Kingdoms” that outs Vishwanath Singh. Courtesy of the Berg Collection, NYPL. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

In this note, Ackerley writes of a review copy that arrived at his desk at the BBC, where he had been working as literary editor of their magazine, The Listener. This was Vanished Kingdoms (a book Ackerley mistitles in the note) by Sir Arthur Lothian in which he names not only Vishwanath Singh and Chhatarpur, but even names Ackerley and admonishes him for “poking fun” at the Maharajah. Lothian even claims that the Maharajah’s son was not his own.

I turned to the March 25 vignette in which Narayan basically corroborates Lothian’s tattle. Narayan reveals to Ackerley that the Maharajah’s son was sired by Sharma who lay with the Maharani while Vishwanath Singh watched. “Yes, Maharajah Sahib make him do this work. He take Sharma to Garha Palace and say him, ‘Love her. I wish to see.’” When Ackerley asks why the Maharajah cannot engage in sex himself with his wife, Narayan outing Maharajah (at least to the reader) is explicit: “He not like. He like boys. He like Sharma.” This was not a surprising find after being introduced to Hindoo Holiday through the NYRB edition, which includes this vignette. But it is unsure (even Parker was baffled when I brought this up with him over email) as to how and when, and in which edition, this vignette made its debut.

When I entered “Vanished Kingdoms” on eBay, I was not able to find it, but the search yielded a copy of Kingdoms of Yesterday (1951) by Sir Arthur Lothian. When it arrived at my doorstep, I cracked it open to pages 46 and 47. There was no trace of the name Vishwanath Singh. But Lothian talked about the Maharajah of Chattarpur, a ward of Theodore Morison who was “very fond of the society of individual Englishmen.” He came round to Lothian’s place “almost too much so, but one could not help feeling sorry for him, and he was extremely kind.”

He had wanted Lothian to scout him a second wife (which eventually became the Maharani who was the little Rajah’s mother) after his first wife had passed and he had a preference for a Bengali woman. Lothian had asked him to get “vetted” as fit for marriage by a doctor, which he did. A Sir Henry Gidney examined him and awarded him “a certificate of potency.” Then Lothian remarks that this was “just as well” because after he had his son and claims were made that he could not have fathered a child because he might have been impotent due to a congenital disease, he could hold up this certificate.

A copy of Sir Arthur Lothian’s Kingdoms of Yesterday (1951). In an early draft of the manuscript, Lothian names the Maharajah and connects Hindoo Holiday with Vishawanath Singh, essentially outing him as homosexual. After Ackerley’s intervention, it was modified. Author’s personal collection. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

Of course, Lothian’s sly defence did not account for the Maharajah’s homosexuality, which Ackerley’s memoir, since the first edition, supplied abundantly. As Lothian acknowledges the Maharajah as a character “dealt with” in a “book of memoirs,” I was intrigued by the namelessness. I recalled the phrase “Kingdoms of Yesterday” passing me as I sat at Reading’s Special Collections in 2022, and I found a letter, dated October 8, 1951, in which Lothian finds Ackerley’s book to be “unpleasing and unkind” which in many ways it is. Apparently Ackerley and Lothian had at some negotiated a compromise. Out of this compromise, Ackerley dropped the March 25 entry, and like Ackerley, Lothian dropped names, although he did claim that “no one familiar with Bundalkhand [sic] at that time could possibly be mistaken as to the identity of the ruler in Hindoo Holiday.” Copies were recalled for both books, and publication dates were pushed. All to avoid libel, even though the Maharajah was dead.


In late 2022, whilst scrolling through Instagram, I came across a portrait of Bhawani Singh, the Maharaja’s illegitimate heir (allegedly), photographed by Robert Huber who runs safedhaathi. In an email, Robert wrote to me saying he took the picture of him holding a portrait of himself as a child shortly before he died in 2006. He had dropped in at the “former clubhouse where he was living with an old retainer in abject poverty”.

I am not entirely sure why I was so immersed in rehearsing Vishwanath Singh’s story over the past two years, devoting myself to this minor prince, and trying to piece together every ill-kept historical morsel I could find. The halo of uncertainty that surrounds Bhawani Singh’s illegitimacy is crowned by the giant accent of his father’s (whoever it is) homosexual liaisons. To find a queer elder so melodramatically revealed, yet still hidden, in a piece of English literature (which is otherwise not very remarkable from an aesthetic perspective) signals how many queer Indian writers such as myself aspire to seek resonant bodies in history, or the religions, or the architecture of our subcontinent. We do this to establish a queer continuity to the way back that colonialism and the vernacular of global politics and even nationalism and religious fundamentalism can sometimes interrupt. It is a way to lend provenance, and legitimacy, to our “wayward” bodies, feelings, and persuasions, that statutes and lawmakers, saints and dictators can write off as imported, unhistoric, anti-national, and unscientific.

“He wanted some one to love him,” Ackerley begins Hindoo Holiday. The Maharajah was a lonely man, always seeking intellectual, romantic, and sexual companionship, especially from Englishmen. This note, from Vishwanath Singh to R. C. Trevelyan, which bears the insignia of Chhatarpur State, is full of yearning. “Expecting to hear from you. Having not heard from you for long. I’m anxious,” His Highness writes on December 3,1920. Courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

Vishwanath Singh’s loneliness, amidst the carnival of intimacy he had set up around himself, was something that spoke to me. It will be apparent as you read Hindoo Holiday. Ackerley begins his memoirs so: “He wanted some one to love him.” To see that yearning saturating little notes he sent to EM Forster and RC Trevelyan in various archives at Cambridge, only compounds Ackerley’s thesis.

The afternoon in 2022 that I spent in Cambridge colleges reading Vishwanath Singh’s hand, I made a point to make my long journey to his penmanship count: I used my fingertips to trace his pen’s depressions and the emboss it left on the other side of the page. I was trying to memorise his hand, hoping, even, for our haptic alignment, as a way of saying: you have left a resonance with a queer kid a hundred years later; you have not slipped through the cracks of history just yet.

Postcard of Vishwanath Singh (from a 1910s studio portrait), c. 1920s, bearing a British India stamp of King George V. Author’s personal collection. Image courtesy: Rohit Chakraborty.

Author’s acknowledgements: Extracts from the writings of JR Ackerley are © the Estate of JR Ackerley, 2023, and are reproduced by kind permission of the Estate’s representative. My thanks to Peter Parker and Ackerley’s estate, archives at King’s College and Trinity College, University of Cambridge, Special Collections at University of Reading, and the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library for permissions, and the James T Laney Graduate School at Emory University for funding. I am also grateful for a travel grant from the James T Laney Graduate School at Emory University and the Edward Guiliano Global Fellowship awarded by the MLA.