Going doolally in Delhi with a cushy number, a glass of simkin and a plate of rumble tumble

Peter Popham takes a literary ride into Eastern culture with an old India hand

Fifty years after Independence, the human relics of the British Raj, those who have hung on in India ever since, are few.

For all its dazzling human variety, India had no natural space for permanent white residents: their connection to the colonial power was so close that, once the Raj had gone, most British people soon followed. The only group with an ostensibly closer bond to the country, the Anglo-Indians, also migrated en masse after Independence, many of them to Australia.

So Nigel Hankin, who has been living in Delhi since 1945, is an exceptional figure. A tall, bony, immensely vigorous man, Hankin was born in Sussex in 1920. He spent the war in the Army in Britain and North Africa, and first arrived in India in July 1945, en route to Burma. The war ended before he could get there, however, and instead he settled in Delhi, working for 10 years in private business, and for the subsequent 20 in the British High Commission, "which is near enough Britain", he says. "Through all those formative years I was completely sheltered from India."

But, one day, during his years at the High Commission, a seed was planted. A doctor, Sidney Hamilton, newly arrived in Delhi to work at the High Commission, gave Hankin a list of some 20 words which he had encountered in Delhi's English newspapers: what did they mean?

"His problem," Hankin writes in the Preface of his book Hanklyn-Janklyn, which has just been published in its third edition, "was nothing new: almost 150 years ago Sir Charles Napier had a similar difficulty:

`1844, Headquarters, Kurrachee, 12th February.

The Governor unfortunately does not understand Hindostanee, nor Persian, nor Mahratta, nor any other eastern dialect. He, therefore, will feel particularly obliged to ... officers ... to indite their various papers in English, larded with as small a portion of the to him unknown tongues as they conveniently can, instead of those he generally receives - namely Hindostanee larded with occasional words in English'."

Hankin set out to answer Dr Hamilton's questions, and ended up with a life's work. Hanklyn-Janklyn, inspired by Sir Henry Yule's mid-Victorian Hobson-Jobson, is a glossary of words, some Hindi or Urdu, some English, some hybrids, some Indian coinages, which the British visitor will meet if he stays long enough.

For this purpose the book is invaluable. Non-English terms spatter the pages of India's English newspapers. Entire front-page stories can hinge on a term that leaves the visitor completely blank: the application by Bihar's notoriously corrupt chief minister, Laloo Yadav, for "anticipatory bail", for example. Hankin gets to the meat of the matter at once. "A provision unique in the world's judicial codes, whereby in anticipation of a criminal accusation, a person may apply to a court for bail: if granted and the charge is made, he will be exempt from police custody."

But Hanklyn-Janklyn is much more than just a glossary. Hankin is not an academic, and is answerable to no one but himself, and his book is a picaresque collection of rambles through the British experience of the subcontinent. So we learn about the thugees, the gangs of brigands whose deeds of ritual strangulation horrified Victorian readers, and who were put down through the efforts of Major General Sir William Sleeman. But we also learn that one village in the heart of Thug country renamed itself Sleemanbad in gratitude, and that as recently as 1989 that was still its name. Hankin tells us the origin of pariah - an outcast group of drummers in the south - but also describes the pariah-kite, "the bazaar-scavenging raptor and scourge of New Delhi's winter garden luncheon parties".

Hankin has mined a fabulously rich seam. He tells us about the origins of chit, loofah, bungalow and kedgeree. He takes us through such miseries of the subcontinent as the "brainfever bird", the hawk cuckoo "whose loud screaming call, said by the British to be `brain-fever, brain-fever' is repeated all day ... during the hot weather", and the bandicoot, the "large and destructive rat ... almost a metre in length, which can get through a brick wall", and "doolally" from the place above Bombay where "those due for repatriation on medical grounds awaited the troopship", and which became British soldier slang for insanity. But he also gives us nice words: cushy, for example, from the Urdu khush, meaning "happy", rumble tumble (scrambled eggs) and simkin (Indian servants' pronunciation of "champagne").

Long residence here has left Hankin not jaded but scrupulously fair: he even has a good word for the pi-dogs that skulk around this country: "if cared for, loyal, hardy and excellent as a watch-dog."

In every respect, Hanklyn-Janklyn is the essential companion for a griffin ("a newly arrived European unused to the ways of the East"). Hankin also conducts fascinating tours around Delhi, but if you can't enjoy one of those, the book is a good second best.

The only thing wrong with the book, in fact, is that it is published by Banyan Books in Delhi - a problem for potential readers in Britain. But it is even more of a problem for Hankin himself, who says that he has not received a statement or a single paise ("the smallest unit of today's currency") in royalties from the company for the second edition (published 1994, and now sold out).

Picey ("mean, miserly") is the only word for this behaviour. Since a bandh ("total shut-down of work") is probably out of the question, a gherao ("the coercion of an official by so encircling his office with a cordon of workers that he is unable to leave") is probably in order. Unfortunately there are not enough British people left in Delhi to carry it out.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living