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
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The Independent Online
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.