With the second season of Indian Summers, the colonial-era drama on Britain’s Channel 4, well underway, this is as good a time as any to review the show, which mixes excellent cinematography (it is set in the British summer capital of Shimla, but was shot in Malaysia’s Penang island) with a House of Cards-like plot about political machinations and unfettered ambitions. The series is not yet available in India.
The Jewel in the Crown it is not, and not merely because it is set in the 1930s, with the rumblings of the demise of the Empire still in the faint distance. Indian Summers is a more nuanced take on the depredations of colonialism refracted, primarily, through the characters of Ralph Whelan, Private Secretary to the Viceroy of India, and bureaucrat Aafrin Dalal, who quickly rises through the ranks of the Indian Civil Services. Henry Lloyd-Hughes and Nikesh Patel play the respective parts, both dreamy men who will give queer viewers plenty of material to base slash fiction on.
In fiction about the Raj, the reader’s knowledge of its history and eventual demise colours perceptions, varying from the nostalgic (as in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust) to the ominous (EM Forster’s A Passage to India). Indian Summers, with its dainty tea parties and alcohol-fuelled soirees, can easily be mistaken for the former, until it bares its fangs and skeletons begin tumbling out of closets.
The series has enough drama to keep a Game of Thrones fan happy. Barely had it begun than an assassination attempt was made on Ralph, for whom Aafrin took the bullet (he survived, naturally). Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress party is blamed but the reason turns out to be more disturbingly personal. Native women impregnated by white men and illegitimate children born out of wedlock give the series a sinister, but realistic, twist.
Cynthia Coffin, played by the incomparable Julie Walters, is Ralph’s guide through the maelstrom. The series does not make their connection explicit (she is matriarch to his peculiar combination of a lost soul hiding beneath a steely veneer), but it is clear that she derives as much power from working the back channels for him as he does fronting her many menacing plots.
There are other strands: a British missionary runs a school for the “half-castes”, children of British men and Indian women as he battles a failing marriage and his “unChristian” attraction towards his Indian assistant; an Indian landowner is framed for a murder he did not commit; a young Indian woman is deeply attracted to the independence movement even as her brother works for the Raj.
Given its theme, it would have been easy for Indian Summers to isolate its characters into clear territories of black and white. Thankfully, it does no such thing. Ralph may be an unmitigated villain at work but is a devoted brother to Alice (Jemima West) who has escaped her marriage to spend the summer in Shimla. Her brief intense love affair with Aafrin has all the markers of a forbidden liaison, but the series presents even its darkness with an understated elegance, as if the bleeding of boundaries is only natural when outsiders settle as a population’s rulers.
By the end of the first season, both Ralph and Aafrin had cemented their positions, but it is Aafrin’s arc that is the more interesting. Torn between his ambitions and the love of his country, his dilemma is guided less by ideology than circumstance, but its effects are no less noble. By the second season, he is already committed to taking down the Empire by working from within and passing secrets to the revolutionaries.
So why watch Indian Summers? Part of the worry about any such series is the question of viewpoint. There is the danger that even when the series is showing the good side of the white man-gone-native, it is presenting only his story and bolstering his credentials. Indian Summers is better than that, never judging, never eulogising, even as it makes clear how wrong and morally vacant the whole enterprise called the white man’s burden was.