J. R. Ackerley
And Habib. He cannot be ignored, excluded from this picture. Looking back, I see that he has already introduced himself at the beginning of a process of obstinate attachment which has ended in his becoming my personal servant. I didn't engage him. I didn't want him. And I don't know whether he just took me over of his own accord, or was detailed to do so, or, being denser than the other dozen or so servants, was left behind by them as a piece of wood is left by an ebbing tide upon the shore, in their languid withdrawal, after the first fuss and excitement of my arrival had subsided, from an unaccustomed life of action to their interrupted slumbers under the neem tree. At any rate it is very clear that he now belongs to me. The first occasion on which I remember noticing him as something more than an obstruction of the line of vision was one morning about a month ago. I had just got out of bed and was brushing my hair at the dressing-table when I heard the sound of heavy breathing behind me, and saw in the looking-glass a small, dusky boy of about twelve, with thick brown lips, eyes like wet toffee, and very dirty feet.

He was making the bed. That is to say, that after patting the pillow with a hand which, I was surprised to see, left no stain upon it, he drew up and tucked in the clothes I had just thrown back; then, picking up a clean pair of shoes, he made off with them. But I called him back by the only name which, as far as I then knew, he possessed --- Boy! --- and taking hold of the mattress by one corner I turned the whole caboodle on to the floor.

It wasn't a very good thing to have done. I knew that, as soon as I perceived, from the blankness of his face, that I should now have to explain, if I could, why I had done it.

And why had I, anyway? What did it matter whether the bed was aired or not, or the mattress turned? No doubt my bed had been made after that fashion ever since I had been here, and I had slept in it without the least discomfort. But so accustomed was I at home to having my bedding turned and aired every morning, that I had come to think that such procedure was an indispensable part of bed-making, whereas in fact it made no difference to me at all. However, some explanation of my mysterious conduct was now clearly necessary, and the best way seemed to be to pick up the clothes and remake the bed myself. When I had finished, it did 'not look anything like as tidy as before; but I gazed hopefully at Habib. He presented an appearance wholly devoid of intelligence.

'Do you understand?' I asked in Hindi.

His thick lips unstuck a little and then cohered again.

'Oh, never mind!' I said irritably feeling rather ridiculous; 'Go away! Jao!' and I turned back to the dressing table. But he stood there as though rooted to the spot, looking inquiringly from me to the bed, and I had at last to open the curtains and point his exit before he went, still gazing at me over his shoulder.

After this I began to observe that, among all the servants, he was the one upon whom chiefly I was depending; that what little was done for me was done by him.

Whenever I ran out of cigarettes and drew attention to this, which would otherwise not have been noticed, by placing the Gold Flake tin in the centre of the verandah, it was always Habib who, apparently suspecting some connection between the emptiness and the exposure of the object, brought it back to me to elicit, by gesture, the reason for its having been placed where he found it. At the end of a month I gave him two rupees.

And now he haunts me. In a long, dingy, plum-coloured coat buttoned up to the throat, and a dusty black skull-cap tied under the chin, he tidies the room from morning till night. I was never so much looked after in my life.

If I put a match in my ash-tray he patters in at once, picks it out, and bears it off to the rubbish-heap. But not, of course, without my permission. He never does anything without first getting my nod of assent. He holds the match towards me, almost under my nose. I am trying very hard to learn my lesson for Abdul, so I pretend not to notice. But it is no good. 'Sahib!' he urges confidingly, or sometimes 'Huzoor!' --- a very respectful form of address, usually reserved, I believe, for royalty.

I glance crossly at him. He waves the match towards the door. The gesture is expressive:

'Are you willing that this match shall be thrown away and for ever lost?'

'Yes, yes --- for Heaven's sake!'

He departs happily, and I go on with my lesson, writing down the new words on a sheet of paper and learning them off by heart. Perhaps if that match had been Abdul's, I think to myself, he would not have permitted it to be thrown away. Or, at any rate, he would have given the question more careful consideration. Might not the match be put to other uses, as a toothpick, a nail in the wall for light articles such as pretty empty match-boxes, or to dangle before the cat at the end of a piece of string? No doubt, I think to myself, Abdul has a tin box in which he collects his matchsticks. Having learned my words, I tear up the sheet of paper, and since there is no wastepaper-basket, drop the pieces absentmindedly on the floor beside my chair. In patters Habib, and carefully collecting them, holds them under my nose.


'Oh, do go away!'

But it is all of no use. I have begged and commanded him, both through Narayan and Babaji Rao, to leave my ashtray alone, but it is all of no use. It is still emptied about thirty times a day, and wiped on the door-curtains afterwards, so that I myself now hastily take out again anything which I inadvertently put into it. The bed is still made according to his original plan, and for a whole month the house has not been swept or dusted, so that when I walk about my rooms little puffs of dust rise up from under my feet. Lampblack and cigarette-ash lie thick on my books and papers, and rat-droppings all over the dressing-table; and while I dismally survey dreary scene of dust and desolation, in patters the devoted Habib to pick the latest match out of the ash-tray. I gaze mournfully at him. Then I smile; he looks so absurd; and the thick brown lips part to disclose dazzling teeth in response while he holds out the offensive, untidy match:


--- From Hindoo Holiday
© 1932
Chatto & Windus

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