Indian Summer, British Winter – and many seasons in between

Sooni – Image: PBS.org. (Can’t believe the show got canceled…)

So, I went on a binge….watching “Indian Summers” Seasons 1 and 2. This period in history represents a veritable lacuna in my learning. Somewhere in between the spinning jennies, Isambard Kingdom Brunel; spanning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and incitement of the First World War; the Weimar Republic, the Munich putsch – I don’t remember studying the British Raj. There were plenty of revolutions in France, Russia and Germany, but no jewel, no crown, no Gandhi.

It was a whole new learning experience and I was forced to Wikipedia my way to gaining a background understanding of the historical backdrop.

The series is a visual treat from the glorious costumes to the stunning characters and imposing landscape. We see the swagger of the Savile Rowe suit and the swan-like elegance of the swish of long silken skirts and palazzo pants. No less elegant and delicious are the serenade of the sumptuous saris and the vibrance of the extensive tea-fields.

What is evident however is that while the characters are elegantly articulate, confidently articulated and delightfully complex, there is a sense that they are somewhat…lost.

The times they are a-changing – across the country, the empire and our characters’ worlds.

We see Cynthia, the owner of the exclusive “club”, losing her hold as colonial puppeteer. We hear Ralph Whelan acknowledge his past passions and subsequent abandonment of a beautiful woman raised in a different background than his own. We experience Alice Whelan’s understatedly expressed longing for the comfort and security of the embrace of Aafrin, who paradoxically struggles with loyalty to his country and family and loyalty to his employer and lover. Internally and externally, he is indeed an “Indian in a British suit” as an eyewitness describes his appearance on one particular occasion.

Modulating boundaries between the British and Indian-born is what we would indeed expect given the proximity and connection of the human beings involved. Confusion is what we might also expect, given the differences in cultural rituals and expectations on both sides.

The ultimate complication though is illustrated by Aafrin’s sister, Sooni, and her suitors amongst which are the Scottish bonnie prince, the Parsi “ eyebrow”, who is also the family approved contender and the intellectually challenging and charmingly cheeky Muslim reporter. When she decides to marry the Muslim, this involves a change of name to Leyla, a change of religion to be accepted into marriage and even a change in the type of food consumed. The reaction of her family is the biggest blow. All of this proves too much for Sooni’s mother, who decides that all these criteria determine her identity and her place in the family.

Sooni’s mind and soul have not changed. And yet she is perceived differently.

In general, change was afoot in 1930s India and what resulted was confusion as best, violent rebellion at worst. The question arises: this may be the 1930s and somewhat extreme, yet how is it any different from how we are perceived today and how we view our own cultural roots?

Personally I’m with Sooni:

  • Married for love and intellectual compatibility.
  • Adopted new traditions.
  • Remained true to herself.