A House
In India
J. R. Ackerley

The major part of Abdul's house, a low, one storeyed building with two doors, faced me. One of the doors was curtained and must have been the room into which the women had just been herded --- the room whose window was veiled with sacking. The other door was open and probably led to the kitchen.

The minor part of the house was a tiny compartment about five feet square sprouting all by itself from a corner of the roof. It looked like a box, without its cover, standing on end. It was Abdul's private bed-stitting-room. The doorway was open, and a tongue of stained and faded purple cloth protruded across the threshold.

Behind this box, balancing a similar structure on the other corner, rose a low open turret approached by very narrow ladder-like steps. These turrets, said Abdul, were used either as storerooms or as sleeping-out places in summer --- each being just large enough to take a charpai.

It was very hot standing on the roof in the full glare of the sun, and I was glad when he invited me to enter his room. I shuffled off my shoes and crawled like a fly over the purple tongue. There was no furniture in the room. It was so small that one could neither stand up nor lie down in it at full length. There was a white sheet spread upon the floor, and on this, copying as nearly as I could Abdul's attitude, I squatted beside him. We filled the room. And yet, in spite of its smallness, it contained all Abdul's worldly goods. These either hung from innumerable nails in the walls, or were neatly piled along the sides; and I never saw such a remarkable collection. One would have thought that never in his life had he thrown anything away, however worthless or useless. Empty tins and boxes; worn-out shoes; remnants of socks and other articles of clothing; books and bits of books --- these were neatly stacked and surmounted by a small cotton-tree in a pot; while on the wall were hanging almanacs and photos, a hat, a bladeless knife, a glove, some broken pieces of glass and metal, and all manner of quite useless and unornamental things. It was, somehow, very like Abdul himself, this room of his: very like his mind, small, mean, tidy, uncomfortable, and full of rubbishy things. There was a smell of mould.

"Your tree looks dead," I said.

"Yes," said Abdul, "it is dead."

I was then introduced to his son, who was brought by the brother-in-law and placed on the purple cloth in front of us. He was a sturdy and rather pretty little chap of about five, with a very large head and tarbush and a distended stomach.

Abdul offered me cigarettes, spices, and scent upon a tray. There were three scent-bottles, one containing a brown, gummy Indian scent and another a cheap French perfume bought in Calcutta. The third bottle was shaped like a slender sausage and contained a little transparent fluid. I took it up curiously.

"Is this good?" I asked.

"Not very," said Abdul.

"How does it open?"

"No one can open," he replied. "Only my father, who is dead."

His father had been dead for two years, but I was not discouraged until I perceived that in the small brass neck at either end the glass stopper had been broken off short. I handed it back to him, wondering why, since it could only be opened by his father who was dead, he continued to offer the scent in it to his guests. No doubt --- it looked mysterious and important on the tray with the others.

After I had rubbed a little of the Indian scent upon my hands, he showedme some of his treasures: cheap, highly coloured plates of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, and some "holy books" which were tied up with string and suspended from nails in the roof. He also showed me an early family group, so faded as to be scarcely discernible, in which he figured as a little boy. "That is me in my lovelyhood," he said.

Then, when the attractions of the room were exhausted, he sent his brother-in-law, who, with Abdul's son and two other idle spectators, was hanging about outside, to bring the sweetmeats. In a few moments these arrived, in saucers, on a tray, preceded and accompanied by a cloud of flies and followed by a cat of the most mangy and sinister appearance. It was covered with half-concealed sores, and its almost hairless tail was rigid and twisted like a stiff piece of rope.

Abdul greeted it affectionately.

"I told you I had a cat," he said.

I gazed with disgust at this wretched object, which, I am thankful to say, did not come into the room. It sat just outside on the purple cloth and peered shortsightedly, from beneath drooping pink lids, at the sweetmeats,which were set before us. These were chiefly mustard-coloured or pale grey, and looked rather like bread pellets moulded by grubby schoolboy fingers into various sizes for flipping at other schoolboys across the table. A little sugar clung to them, and a thin, adhesive silver tissue (also edible, said Abdul) which fluttered in the slight breeze. He handed me a spoon, and with his own attempted to beat off the flies which swarmed so obstinately upon the food that they appeared to prefer death to separation from it. Personally I could not pretend to their enthusiasm. but gingerly digging with my spoon to the centre of one of the piles, I selected, with a care which may have seemed rather rude, three of the smallest pellets I could find.

These, which were no larger than peas, I swallowed, and, recollecting Mrs. Bristow's dire prophecy of a month ago, had little doubt but that in a very short space of time I should be dead of cholera.

But Abdul was watching me, and, protesting loudly against my modesty and politeness, pressed other and larger sweetmeats upon me, which I firmly refused. He seemed very upset. If I did not care for Indian sweetmeats, he said, he had some English cakes he had bought, in Calcutta; but I pleaded a recent lunch, remembering that he had not been in Calcutta for over six months. He gazed unhappily at the loaded tray. He had hoped, he said, that we would share it between us. It was a great disappointment. Indeed, so depressed did he look that I suggested that, since I did not feel inclined for food at present, I might be allowed to carry some back with me to my house to eat another time.

This seemed to him an excellent plan; his spirits revived at once, and he sent his son with the sweetmeats to make up a bundle for me to take away. But in a few moments the little boy returned to say that unfortunately nothing could be found in which to tie up the food; whereupon Abdul, never at a loss, drew from his pocket a soiled handkerchief which he tossed over to his son. Then, in spite of my refusal, he ordered tea, which was brought, already mixed with milk and sugar, in a kettle; but owing no doubt to its not having been made with boiling water it was found to be so thick with tea-leaves that it could scarcely trickle through the spout, and was sent back to be strained. I accepted a glass when at last it returned to make up for my refusal of the food; but it was sickly sweet and tepid, and I did not drink much. Shortly afterwards I left, carrying with me the sweetmeats tied up in Abdul's handkerchief.

For a day or two I shall keep them exposed to view on a plate in my sitting-room, throwing away a few from time to time, so that he may think they arc being steadily consumed. He said he couldn't express his pride and satisfaction that I had visited his house, which, he added, cost him two rupees a month in rent.


--- from Hindoo Holiday
©1932 Chatto & Windus

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