Thoughts from Watching “Indian Summer”

  “Indian Summer” is a BBC TV series aired on PBS.  It depicts the British colonial life in the northern India Himalaya foothills in the 1930’s.  The plot revolves around several main characters.  Through their dreams and ambitions, desires and struggles, interactions and conflicts, the complex and multifarious landscape of the Indian national independence movement and British Raj decline is painted.

  The protagonist is a villain named Ralph Whelan.  He is a member of the British ruling elite descending from a line that has been living in the India subcontinent for many generations.  In essence, he is totally assimilated into the native culture and habits.  He swats on mats, eats with his fingers, shuns roast beef, speaks local tongue, even falls madly in love with a Bengal girl and sired an illegitimate son.  He regards the girl’s father as his own, and he treats his male servant as his brother.  By nature, he is not unkind or uncaring, cherishing a soft spot for indigenous people and their desire for self-rule.  However, being a member of the ruling British colonialism, he is driven by his ambition to ascend on the Raj bureaucratic career ladder.  This ambition is further fueled by his ally, matriarch Cynthia, who untiringly plots and conspires to get Ralph to succeed the British governor.  Outwardly, he also exhibits ruthlessness, overweening arrogance and callousness toward his Indian subordinates and servants.  Thus he is constantly conflicted between his true indigenous self and his social image of a glorious ruling British colonist.  This conflict renders him a more complicated and multifaceted character than a mere villain, with humanity and goodness shining through him from time to time.

  The villainess is Cynthia, a domineering matron character widowed by a British officer whose memory she so often revels in.  She is as cunning as a fox and as ruthless as a tigress, plotting one intrigue after another.  She is as prejudiced as prejudice can ever get.  She despises and mistreats the local people with no qualms whatsoever, sucking them like a leech, whereas insulting them in various ways, such as putting up a sign reading “Indians and dogs not allowed” outside her Simla Club.  On the other hand, she has an inexplicable tenderness and vulnerability toward Ralph Whelan, enduring much abuse and bruise from him.  As the plot unfolds, it is revealed that she is not quite what she appears to be.  Her beloved dead husband turns out to be a philanderer, betraying her behind her back while she was suffering miscarriages, in trysts with another colonist’s wife.  As it turns out, this other woman was none other than Ralph’s mother-Ralph is in reality the son of her husband.  She lives in humiliation, resentment and heartbrokenness.  Instead of adoring her dead husband, as she publically professes, she has grown her hatred toward him in years.  This hatred and desire for revenge, however, manifests perversely in her relentless pursuit to push Ralph to the pinnacle of British Raj hierarchy.  Thus this female villain is not as powerful and strong as her façade lets out.  Instead, she is also victim herself, suffering in bitterness and disillusion behind her brazen face.

  The hero and heroine are less contradictory but equally fascinating.  Aafrin Dalal -the counter part of Ralph, is an Indian civil servant who gets his coveted job in the British Raj government by going through rigorous education and competitive exams.  However, unlike Ralph, who enjoys a luxurious and prestigious life and has all the privilege and entitlement that come along with being a white colonist, this outstanding native son can only afford a meagre life, which his family regards as a lucky bestowment from his government job.  To his bad luck (or luck), he took a bullet for Ralph and survived.  Consequently, Aafrin gained Ralph’s favor and got a promotion from him, who did so out of gratitude and as a cover-up for his unspeakable past.  Aafrin is torn between his true love for Alice Whelan (Ralph’s sister) and his family duty (marrying into a Farsi family), his true patriotic sentiment of Indian independence and his clinging to the comfortable Indian middle class life as a result of his appointment in the British government, his abhorrence against the British injustice and his loyalty to Ralph.  

  Alice Whelan is a free spirited young English woman with a loving heart and an innate sense of justice.  She stands in stark contrast with her brother, with her honesty against his hypocrisy.  After fleeing from her cruel, perverted husband, she finds the soul mate in Aafrin.  Surprisingly, notwithstanding his ruthlessness and ambition, Ralph’s tenderness and love for his sister eventually triumph over his objection to the couple’s relationship, even though it carries a big social stigma in the British society at that time.

  There are a few very interesting supporting characters as well, all with their own colors and struggles.  Aafrin’s sister Sooni is a fervent idealist actively participating in the Indian independence movement, whereas Aafrin’s father is a traditionalist having a more favorable view of the British rule.  Dougie Raworth is a missionary teacher who devotes all his energy and eventually his life to the caring and education of the deprived native children as atonement for British sin, whereas his wife Sarah is a snob and social climber, who looks down her nose at natives but ingratiating herself with her British superiors.  Bhupinder is Ralph’s lifelong loyal servant.  Growing up with Ralph, he perceives himself to be treated like a family member, and regards Ralph as a brother in return.  In order to protect Ralph’s reputation and career, Bhupinder commits murder, only to find out later that Ralph is willing to sacrifice Bhupinder’s son for his own illegitimate son with a Bengalese woman.  Ramu Sood is an enterprising Indian tea plantation owner.  With his hard work and cleverness, he took over white colonists’ plantation to eventually establish himself as the most prominent business man in the region.  Just when he thinks himself an equal with any white colonists, he is falsely convicted of murder by a grossly corrupt and unjust legal system which acts to protect and cover up for Ralph Whelan’s scandalous past.  Moreover, this conviction is the ultimate white revenge on an Indian’s business success over the colonists, and proves once again the white dominance over the indigenous people.  Ian McLeod is a care-free Irish adventurer seeking out opportunities in the British colony only to have his conscience awakened by the corruption and injustice of British rule and the suffering and struggle of the Indian people.  He subsequently lends his sympathy and help to the independence movement.

  The two season series are full of suspense and animation, with plots unfolding in one twist-and-turn after another.  The characters are complicated and multi-faceted, ever evolving and contradictory, reflecting the complex human nature and its condition.  Through the stories of the intertwined lives of the characters, the social-political background and historical events leading up to Indian independence is vividly presented before the audience.  And this is what makes this production stand out amidst countless touchy-feely feel-good TV soap operas.

  “Indian Summer” induces people to reflect more deeply on life and human condition as a whole.  There are truly no villains in the series.  Everyone has his/her grievance in life, be it the poor brutalized native Indian or the privileged white colonist.  The perpetrators are themselves victims of their own circumstance and illusions.  Each and everyone in the story weaves his/her own cocoon and lives in it, while mistaking his/her circumstance as externally imposed.  As a spectator, one can easily see Ralph’s dilemma as self-created, since all the troubles and agonies he endures stem from his over-arching ambition to become the British Raj governor in order to fulfill his father’s dream for him.  Not only this ambition is not his own and he has to act against his own heart and desire to achieve it, but his real father turns out to be someone whom he never suspects to be his father in the first place.  Cynthia mis-identifies herself with Ralph’s political pursuit as a way out of her own suffering and humiliation, only to finally find it totally unwarranted.  Two young couples, Alice and Aafrin, Sooni and Ali, are able to achieve their dreams through being honest to themselves and following their own heart.  Also, there are no pure evils.  Everyone has a good side and a bad side in him/her, and the bad side is mostly the result of his/her illusion and his/her fixation on it. 

  “Indian Summer” teaches us to step aside and inspect our own lives as an independent observer.  By doing that, we will find what is truly that we want in life vs. what is society’s expectation of us, what is extraneous and none essential to our core being vs. what is our heart’s desire and true passion.  This allows us to shed unnecessary pain and burden in life, smashing illusion and erroneous ideas, so that we can live our true life-path, which doesn’t have to be like everyone else’s.  By awakening to one’s true inner self can one overcome one’s own blind spot.  By realizing we are all perpetrators ourselves can we transcend our victimhood.  By looking into the others’ eyes can we see ourselves.   By understanding each other’s human condition and cultivating our compassion toward each other can we end our own misfortune and suffering.


  This is a human saga, not just that of the characters in the TV series.

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