I heard about Nigel Hankin’s death in an unusual way – when an obituary reference in the BBC programme Brief Lives was reported to me by an old friend. It was bad news but could not have been described as a personal tragedy. I had not seen Nigel for twenty years and had thought of him only occasionally during that time, usually in connection with his magnum opus (of which more below). But my mind immediately went back to the time in New Delhi when I had worked for the British Council and Nigel had managed the High Commission Club. The club had comprised a restaurant, a bar, a swimming pool and various sporting facilities. Nigel was given basic accommodation in the ‘other ranks’ block of the High Commission compound and worked from a tiny office amongst a piled-up paraphernalia of junk, amongst which the head of a pantomime horse was prominent.
The horse was an appropriate touch because Nigel had a theatrical streak. One of his duties was organising the club’s traditional Christmas dinner – a considerable task involving some hundred staff and family members sitting at three long tables in the big hall. He came into his own with the arrival of the Christmas puddings. In a trice the electric lights were extinguished and a dozen waiters paraded through the hall bearing flaming puddings on their heads. Anyone who had worked in India had to feel admiration for the organisation needed to bring about this coup de théatre.
Being English but working exclusively with Indians, Nigel fell betwixt and between the layers of High Commission hierarchy. As the possessor of a white face he was set apart by the Indians, the Brahmins even according him a certain status. To the diplomats, on the other hand, and the mass of English immigration officers, security guards, secretaries and dog-catchers (only kidding) ranged below them – all of whom obsessed with their position in the scheme of things – Nigel bore the status of a ghost. In my time the Naval Attaché (usually one of the more civilised High Commission people) took the trouble to know him, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Nigel used to say that he found British Council people more interesting than diplomats. He often came to dinners at our house and joined us for Christmas lunch three years in a row.
In reporting coolness between Nigel and the diplomats it would not be right to suggest that faults were all on one side. Nigel was a man of decided views. To be fair, he could be cantankerous. At the time he was approaching sixty years old, well over six feet tall, lean and still vigorous in movement, striding about his empire and barking out orders at the Indian staff. He had a mop of white hair and a beaky nose supporting a pair of square spectacles which never dimmed the piercing eyes behind them. One could say he did not suffer fools gladly. His discourse was littered with dismissive snorts.
Something else set Nigel apart from both sets of colleagues: he was gay. This would have been more or less acceptable in the British service. There were gay diplomats though they tended not to reach the highest ranks. But Nigel had a long-standing arrangement with an Indian colleague twenty years his junior who did work for the compound; a much harder proposition to swallow. And for Indians in the 1980s gayness was a daring concept that even the liberated few struggled to grasp – subject matter for dark hints and whispers in corners.
In giving their club manager the cold shoulder the diplomats missed out because Nigel knew about India. He had been there, after all, for forty years. He was born in 1920 and brought up in Sussex by a grandmother following the early death of his father. He got to India with the army in 1945 supposedly on the way to Burma except that the war ended as they reached Bombay. Something about the country had appealed to him: the climate or the hurly-burly or – well, not even he could quite explain it. Whatever it was, he decided to stay. He did time as a captain in the New Indian Army, then struck out on his own running an (ultimately unsuccessful) mobile cinema unit. He used to tell a story of having almost dropped the screen on the young Nehru and his daughter Indira as they picnicked nearby (reflecting an India so politically relaxed that it is hard now to imagine it); then came the twenty years managing the High Commission club.
The feature that distinguished Nigel Hankin from any other army captain or club manager emerged early on, during his service with the diplomats. In his own words: ‘a newly-arrived doctor to the British High Commission, Sidney Hamilton, gave me a list of some twenty Indian words he said he had read in his local English newspaper, and what did they mean?’ Hankin was able to satisfy the man from his own experience of India, and from this small incident his interest in ‘Indian English’ began to grow. He became known on the compound as a man who could answer enquiries on this theme. But he also started systematically to collect information. He was not an academic but something much better: a man who had lived at ground level in both England and India, spoke English and Hindi, had a strong curiosity, and had time to explore a subject for which there were no set rules or limitations.
When I first met Nigel his researches had already grown to quite a size. He showed them to me: two large folders of A4 sheets containing hundreds of typescript cuttings, all bashed out on an ancient typewriter kept in the pantomime-horse office. As the British Council’s books man, he asked my advice about possible publication in India. We had a young book trade officer, a very bright Bengali chap, who immediately poured cold water on the project. There could have been several reasons why: the low caste of the club manager and the gayness; the unprepossessing appearance of the original; as well as, perhaps, the sense of hopelessness that attends any unpublished manuscript. When we left India Nigel had got no further forward with finding a publisher.
Before we left, Nigel reached sixty and had to retire from the club manager post. This was handled both well and badly by the High Commission. The High Commissioner at that time was a decent bloke, and arranged for Hankin sahib to receive an MBE in recognition of services rendered. We attended a pleasant gathering at the Residence, where the gong was handed over (and at one point dropped on the floor by Nigel). On the other hand the High Commission’s premises section managed Nigel’s departure from his small flat with bureaucratic hamfistedness. He received a peremptory letter requiring his rapid departure from the place he had lived in for twenty years. ‘But will you be able to find somewhere else that you like?’ my wife asked him. ‘Not that I like,’ he replied briskly and without self- pity. Visiting him at the new address shortly before we left the country, my wife noted the desolate area of Delhi, the cramped couple of rooms and their sweltering heat (no air-conditioning, naturally). The Indian friend sat cross-legged in one corner; Nigel, in dishevelled Indian dress, was cross- legged in another.
We saw him once more when he called at our house to say goodbye. It was an unsentimental occasion, of course. I knew Nigel did not regard me as a friend, because he had told me so. ‘Don’t get me wrong, you’re a nice chap,’ he had said. ‘My brother’s a nice chap too, but we’ve no shared experience between us.’ We knew that he had returned to Britain in the early eighties intending to stay with his brother for three months, but only lasting three weeks. He had missed the chaos of India. For better of worse, he was never to go back again. As his familiar frame strode away from our front gate, I wondered if some small morsel of regret might be passing through his mind; a thought about the whereabouts of his next Christmas day; a reflection – familiar to all those who have ‘stayed on’ in India – about the inevitable departures of those countrymen they had been unguarded enough to cultivate.
For our part it was not so easy to expunge Nigel Hankin’s name completely from the memory. Four years after we left India a former colleague arrived back from the sub-continent with an unexpected present for us. Nigel’s work had found its way into print, and in a rather handsome volume too. It was published by Banyan Books, New Delhi, and sported an extraordinary, rambling title: Hanklyn-Janklin: or a stranger’s rumble- tumble guide to some words, customs and quiddities Indian and Indo- British. The ‘Hanklyn-Janklin’ business derived from a renowned earlier guide to Indian English: Hobson-Jobson, which was an expression used by British soldiers in India during the nineteenth century for the Muharram festival (a corruption of the Shi’ites’ cry: Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!).
Nigel had admired Hobson-Jobson, but I found his own work more readable. It was more precise, more up-to-date, subtler and more explicit. It was also shot through with a delightfully sly, ‘Hankin’ humour. ‘To travel WT is to use public transport without ticket. The antibody to the practice, produced by the authorities, being the TTI (Travelling Ticket Inspector)’. On ‘Harijan or one close to God’: ‘In spite of the generally used designation given by the Mahatma in the early 1930s, many caste
Hindus do not accept that the harijan is close to God; in fact, his position may be thought to be one of considerable distance.’ There were many similar examples.
On receiving Hanklyn-Janklin I sat down and wrote a review of it, which I sent to the Times Literary Supplement. A few weeks later the editor sent me, without comment, some proofs of the amended review, from which procedure I judged that they were going to publish. In due course I posted off a copy of the relevant TLS issue to Nigel. I like to think that he received it sitting cross-legged in his down-market flat, and that he was pleased.
In the following twenty years up to Nigel’s death, I only had two further glimpses of his existence, both connected with the Old Delhi tours that he conducted for visiting tourists to supplement his exiguous pension. A friend – quite trenchant himself – to whom I had recommended the service, came back with a good report of it, at the same time commenting on Nigel’s sharpness of tongue. Not long after this my wife went back to India to revise a book she had written on Old Delhi. She arranged to meet Nigel in a restaurant but he failed to turn up, to her annoyance. Succeeding at a second attempt, she wrote to me that she forgave him because he looked so unwell. He had been having prostate trouble, and was taking people on his Old Delhi tours fitted with a catheter. In the crush and extreme heat of Old Delhi streets these trips must have been a torment to him. Sickness was a problem for those who ‘stayed on’ in India; when funding ran short, there was no NHS safety net.
As biographers often observe, the endings of their subjects tend, in the nature of things, to be downbeat. But if Nigel is looking down on us from a great height he may permit himself one of those famous sardonic smiles. He had cast off the mantle of Victorian misfit, the snubs and whispers bestowed upon the caste-less club manager, to attract a BBC Brief Lives biography and the authority conferred by book publication. More than this, his quirky, unusual case attracted – on 2 January 2008 – a generous obituary in no less a newspaper than The Times; the sort of accolade conferred upon few of the diplomats who had looked down their noses at him.
However, The Times, despite its reputation as ‘the newspaper of record’ could not stomach his relationship with the Indian colleague. The obituary’s closing paragraph mentioned that Hankin, notwithstanding his enthusiasm for the sub-continent, had never assimilated into the Indian way of life: ‘Even after more than sixty years in India his breakfast consisted of cornflakes, eggs and bacon; dinner always began with soup. This was brought to him by the same servant for forty years.’