A Suitable Boy – BBC 1

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I really enjoyed this. OK, it was all a bit cheesy and obvious – you just knew from the title that any boy our heroine met would be anything other than suitable – but it’s Sunday night drama, not a documentary.  Sunday night drama is meant to be entertaining, and this was.

Andrew Davies, adapting Vikram Seth’s book, appears to have rediscovered some measure of self control, so we didn’t get any bare bottoms bobbing along a beach.  Instead, we got wonderful Indian architecture, scenery and music, and an amusing if rather unoriginal storyline about Lata, a spirited young woman whose mother was determined to find her a suitable husband, and who met someone thoroughly *un*suitable instead (although I gather that more suitors will turn up in later episodes).  There was also an unsuitable woman, with whom Lata’s brother-in-law became involved.  And the background (I refuse to describe the 1950s as “history”) was very much there too, with the Hindu-Muslim tensions, this being set in Northern India only a few years after partition, much in evidence.

Northern India is the land of princes and rajas and, whilst our characters weren’t in that league, they were still from the wealthier echelons of society, and close to the powers that were, although we were told that they’d come down in the world a little.  So a lot of the scenes were rather glossy and glamorous, which always works well in the Sunday 9pm slot 🙂 .   Escapism.  I need escapism.  I definitely need escapism!

It began with the wedding of Lata’s sister.  We saw Lata chatting away to her new brother-in-law’s brother, and I did wonder if they’d get together; but, instead, he took up with a much older singer.  Lata’s mother was desperate to find her a suitable husband; but she, being a thoroughly modern miss at university, was determined that she wasn’t being pushed into an arranged marriage.  Yes, OK, it was a bit cliched, but it was a drama, and they usually are a bit cliched.  Lata duly met a handsome young chap at university … but, needless to say, it turned out that he was a Muslim, whereas she was a Hindu.

The aftermath of partition was always there, with a lot of talk about building a temple next to a mosque, and riots breaking out towards the end of the episode.  Without wanting to get political, these are issues which still haven’t been resolved – and how I wish they could be.  The juxtaposition of the tensions and the unrest with the rather soapy storylines about the meddling mother and the unsuitable romance might not have worked, but it did.

I thought it was a very good first episode.  Yes, it was kind of obvious, but Sunday night dramas are!

Just a bit of a rant, though.  You’d think that the Whinge Brigade would be pleased that the BBC were showing a drama with an entirely South Asian cast; but no, they are whingeing about everything.  It doesn’t show the lives of poor people. Well, that’s because it’s about two wealthy families.  Pride and Prejudice does not show the lives of poor people.  Coronation Street and EastEnders do not show the lives of the aristocracy.  Things are about what they’re about.  The characters are speaking English.  That’s because it’s a BBC drama.  Did the characters in the adaptation of War and Peace speak Russian?  No.  Did the characters in the adaptation of Les Miserables speak French?  No.  And, the piece de resistance, it’s “Orientalist”, because characters are wearing saris and playing sitars.  WTF?  Would they prefer characters in 1950s India to be wearing Dior’s New Look and listening to Frank Sinatra?  What is it with these people?  If you show an interest in Indian culture, in the lovely clothes and lovely music, it’s “Orientalist” and “cultural appropriation”.  If you don’t, you’re a white supremacist.  Put a sock in it, FFS!  What on earth is wrong with appreciating a different culture?  Surely it’s good that we can appreciate different cultures.  I know these people moan about anything, but what on earth is the problem with Indian characters in a series set in India wearing Indian clothes and playing Indian music?

Oh well.  Let’s ignore the moaners.  I really enjoyed this, and I’m sure that a lot of other people did too!  And we need all the enjoyable telly we can get at the moment!!

Absolutely India: Mancs in Mumbai – ITV

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Now there’s something I missed doing when I went to India – teaching a class of very cute primary school kids, all in smart uniforms, to say “Hello, our kid”.  Why did I not think of that?!  This half-hour programme, the first in a series of six, was a strange combination of Who Do You Think You Are?, Long Lost Family, The Jeremy Kyle Show and a travel programme, but it worked pretty well, probably because the three lads and their dad all came across as such likeable characters.  I’m extremely sad that none of us will be travelling to Mumbai, or even to Muncaster, Malham, Matlock or Morecambe, any time soon, and am actually still struggling to take that in; but we can look at film of the Gateway of India, which I’ve always wanted to see, and of wonderful, colourful, crowded Indian food markets, and hope that better times come again soon.  Meanwhile, this programme was genuinely entertaining.

The idea of this programme was that the three lookalike Thomas brothers, Ryan (Jason from Coronation Street), Adam (Adam from Emmerdale and Donte from Waterloo Road) and Scott (who was in Love Island), along with their dad Dougie (whom they all look like!) were visiting Mumbai, where Dougie’s dad Nolan came from.  Nolan Thomas moved to Manchester around the time of Indian independence, and seemed to have lost touch with his family back in Bombay/Mumbai.

None of the three lads had ever been to India before, and they didn’t really seem to know much about it, so it was partly a connecting-with-your-heritage trip.  Inevitably, there were a load of jokes about not being able to cope with the hot curries, but they also enjoyed seeing the sights, especially the gorgeous markets.  It was also partly a family bonding trip.  Dougie had split from the boys’ mother when they were young, and had very little contact with them for several years after that, and they were very open about the fact that they’d effectively grown up without a dad, and that Ryan had been more like a dad to his younger brothers than Dougie had.  They all seemed to be getting on pretty well, but there were obviously some wounds that ran deep there.

However, the main aim was to try to find out more about Nolan Thomas, who’d been very close to Dougie but had died when the three lads were very small, and to see if they could find any relatives still living in Mumbai.  I’d really like to have known more about the family background, and am hoping that that’s coming in the later episodes.  It was clear from what they said that he was ethnically Indian, but “Nolan Thomas” is hardly a typical Mumbai name, and (being nosy!) I’m hoping we’ll find out more about his family history.

They found out that he’d worked at the Times of India, which sounded exciting.  And they found out which school he’d gone to, and that one of the teachers there had known his brother.  So they went to visit the school … and that was where the lesson in Mancunian dialect came in!   They also met a little girl there whose surname was also Thomas, and whom they assumed was a relative.  But they didn’t go into how they might be related, and we haven’t yet really found out very much about Nolan Thomas and his Mumbai family at all …  but, with five more episodes to come, hopefully we will.

This was really good fun.  I didn’t know if it might end up being a bit too stag party-ish or Jeremy Kyle-ish, but they all came across very well and it was genuinely entertaining.  I’m hoping we learn more about both Mumbai and the family history in the episodes to come, and I’ll certainly be tuning in to find out.

 

The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan (Facebook group reading challenge)

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It’s the final ball of the cricket World Cup final. Can our hero score the winning runs and take India to victory? Of course he can … oh, hang on, it’s gone to VAR. *Please* tell me that this is not going to become a thing in books?! Imagine all those school story scenes in which our hero/our heroine/a hitherto much-maligned character about to win acceptance at last scores the winning goal/try/run in the final seconds, and is triumphantly carried off the pitch on their team-mates’ shoulders, to be mobbed by cheering friends/wannabe friends, being reduced to everyone standing around waiting for a VAR decision. No. Just no!

I don’t usually read books set in the present day, but the October reading challenge was to read a book set in 21st century India, and, having an anxious-obsessive brain, I have to complete challenges or else I get stressed and feel like a failure. And I like reading books about India. I just wasn’t quite bargaining for the big moment being decided by VAR.

Our hero is Nikhil Khoda, the fictional captain of the Indian cricket team, but the main character is our heroine, Zoya Solanki, a young woman who inadvertently becomes seen as the team’s lucky mascot. She lives with her widowed father and their maid, in New Delhi, and she’s a bit of a young Bridget Jones, with neither her career nor her love life going very well, and constant worries about her weight and her hair. As part of her job at an advertising agency, she has to work with the underperforming Indian cricket team. After she’s had breakfast with them, they win a match. She was born on the day that India won the 1983 cricket World Cup, and her dad and brother have always been convinced that this was some sort of lucky omen. The media get hold of this, and it all becomes a big story. More breakfasts, more matches, more wins.

Along comes the 2011 World Cup. This was actually played in India, but, for the purposes of the book – in which all the players are fictional, incidentally – it’s played in Australia and New Zealand. The Indian cricket board offer Zoya an all expenses paid trip (for herself and a chaperone, an older, married lady from the agency), along with a substantial salary, to go to the World Cup and bring the team luck. There’s a suggestion of politics being involved – is the chairman of the selectors, who doesn’t get on with Khoda, trying to ensure that it’s only Zoya who gets the credit for any success? – but, by now, the Zoya Factor story is all over the news. And, as the team’s World Cup campaign gets off to a winning start, the talk intensifies.

Sports fans are superstitious. People have lucky pants, lucky socks, pre-match rituals, and so on. I solemnly waved my hand over a picture of David Beckham’s foot in order to help his broken metatarsals heal before the 2002 World Cup. I have been known to sit in ridiculously uncomfortable positions for ages whilst watching tennis matches, in case moving them is bad luck for “my” player. Remember when Oxford United had their stadium exorcised?!  And I wrote about the curse of Benfica only last week – The Greatest Comeback . So it’s actually not hard to imagine this happening anywhere, but it’s something that would probably particularly strike a chord in India.

I’ve got an Indian lucky charm in my car, which I brought back from India last year. It’s supposed to protect you on the roads. I’m not sure that I particularly believe it will, but, hey, it’s worth a try. Belief in the supernatural is particularly strong in India, as the author makes clear. Before long, Zoya’s being referred to as Zoya Devi (goddess), and a huge debate has broken out between people who believe wholeheartedly in her powers and people who say that India needs to move away from putting so much emphasis on spirituality – and even that it’s all a marketing ploy and she’s only in it for the money. Unfortunately, there have been cases of people taking advantage of other people’s beliefs – and sometimes it’s resulted in something a lot worse than organisations being ripped off financially.  But poor old Zoya’s just been cast into the spotlight completely unintentionally, and now the situation’s running away with itself.

All of a sudden, this ordinary young woman is at the centre of a very emotive national debate. It gets so far out of hand that her supernatural powers are blamed for a pizza delivery boy being knocked over, and even for skirmishes on the border between India and Pakistan.  It’s a particularly Indian take on the modern phenomenon of someone suddenly becoming famous for being famous, and how everyone then has an opinion about this person whom they’ve never even met.  It then goes even further, becoming, an international debate, with TV talk shows in other cricketing nations asking whether people believe in the Zoya Factor, and whether, if there is indeed something in it, it’s cheating and Zoya should be banned from contact with the Indian team.

Also, needless to say, a romance develops between Zoya and Nikhil, but the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly. The tabloids keep publishing stories linking him to a string of Bollywood babes, and claiming that he’s fathered an actress’s baby, and linking her with other members of the team. And she gets it into her head that he’s only after her because he thinks she’s lucky. However, he’s in fact very upset about the whole Zoya Factor story, because it means that the team’s success is being put down to her, rather than to their own talent, hard work and application.

Eventually, it all gets too much, and Zoya returns home before the final. She’s offered a big money advertising deal, based on the idea of herself as a goddess, and, unwilling to turn down a chance to make more money than she could ever have dreamed of, she takes it. And everyone turns on her. This is so typical of what happens – the media build someone up, and then knock then right back down again. She’s let down the team. She’s let down her country. She was only ever interested in the money. She’s conned everyone. From being seen as a national heroine, and indeed a goddess, she’s now being vilified everywhere.  One minute you’re the nation’s sweetheart, the next minute everyone’s slagging you off.  How often do we see this sort of thing happen?

Of course, it all ends happily, with India winning the World Cup, after Nikhil scores the winning runs off the final ball (complete with VAR) and then he and Zoya getting together.  But it wasn’t just a common or garden romance, or a common or garden sporting novel – it did make some very interesting points about Indian culture, about the conflict between traditional ideas and new ideas, and about the cult of celebrity in general. It wasn’t the greatest book ever, but I did rather enjoy it.

Trevor McDonald’s Indian Train Adventure – ITV

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From plastic recycling plants to maharajas’ palaces, and a visit to the lovely city of Udaipur (where my Facebook profile photo was taken!), travelling on a train which was carrying four tonnes of food (for eating, not selling) and provided passengers with TVs. Fruit, spices, camels, elephants … and Trevor McDonald’s got more charisma than John Beecham will ever have! What’s not to like? Oh, and apparently you can travel the entire length of India by rail for the equivalent of £12. But not on the Maharajas’ Express, which Trevor was on. That’s a seriously luxurious train. And it stops at some seriously exciting places. How can I get a job presenting programmes like this?!

Next week, we’re getting the Taj Mahal and the rats’ temple. Been to both 🙂 . Let’s just say that the Taj Mahal was the better of the two! Even the rats’ temple was fascinating in its way, though. Everything about India is fascinating, and Trevor’s trying to show a lot of different aspects of it in this two-part railway journey series.

He started off in Mumbai, visiting a plastic recycling plant. It doesn’t sound that interesting, but it actually was – India recycles far more plastic than we do, and it was indicative of how fast the Indian economy is growing and developing.

There’s been a huge population shift from the countryside to the cities in recent years, but much of the economy is still agriculture-based, and it was sad to see, on the next stop, in Pachora, how badly the farmers there have been affected by drought. We tend to associate drought with Africa, and India with monsoons; but things are really bad there, after several years with below average rainfall. It was a stark reminder of just how dependent we all are on weather conditions, and how all the industrial and technological development in the world can’t, at present, really do anything to bring relief from drought: there are just no irrigation systems powerful enough to give the land there the water it needs. It’s not good.

After that, it was on to Udaipur – with Trevor reminding us that the princely states of India were never part of the British Raj. In 1947, the year of independence, there were well over 500 princely states, some big, some small, covering over 40% of the sub-continent. They all became part of either India or Pakistan. The princes were originally supposed to get an annual payment and be entitled to keep their private property and titles, but later governments didn’t stick to that agreement. Trevor met one of the sons of the present Maharana of Udaipur (although I seem to remember that there’s some sort of succession dispute between two brothers there?), and later met the present Mahajara of Jodhpur, and it was clear that neither of them were overly happy with the way things had gone.

Having said that, they’ve still got their wonderful palaces, many of which are now heritage hotels. The one which Trevor visited in Jodhpur is said to be the most luxurious hotel in the world. He was welcomed by dancers, and had rose petals strewn at his feet! Sadly, places like that are a bit out of my price range , but some of the hotels we went to did give us some very pretty garlands when we arrived, and the security guards were very good about posing in their glamorous uniforms with sad female tourists like me! Incredible palaces – so big, and imposing, and beautiful. The Maharaja of Jodhpur’s even got his own train, although sadly it doesn’t run any more.

There was lots of food in the programme, as well. Those wonderful fruit and spice stalls you see everywhere in India. Such glorious colours! And the food on the train looked amazing. Apparently the train driver will even slow down if the chef asks him to, so that nothing gets spilt! It’s the most expensive luxury train in the world. Two restaurants and a bar. Plates containing real gold. The price wasn’t mentioned, but I’m guessing that this journey costs just a bit more than £12. And tea with maharajas and princes to boot. As I said, how can I get a job presenting programmes like this?!  A brilliant hour’s TV, and another episode to come!

Beecham House – ITV

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Finally, a period drama set in India before 1857/58, and indeed even before 1803!   But, so far, it’s not really living up to the hype.  On the plus side, we got all the glorious colour of India – elephants, camels, lush gardens, and the wonderful colourful clothes and amber and pink buildings of beautiful Rajasthan (except that it was supposedly set in Delhi!).  We got mystery, and we got political and romantic intrigue.  On the minus side, I’d had a horrible feeling that Gurinder Chadha and William Dalrymple would badly mishandle the history, and they did – it gave a very misleading impression of what was going on.  Also, the characters’ behaviour didn’t ring true – a respectable young single woman going round to a strange bloke’s house for tea, and touching his arm?!  – and the bare-chested scything scene was such a rip-off of Poldark that I just had to laugh.  Mixed feelings about this – but it was only the first episode, so let’s see how it goes.

The scenery and the sets were stunning.  Was the City Palace in Jaipur used for the scenes with the emperor?  It certainly looked like it.  Such an amazing place!  The French mercenary bloke who used to be in Mr Selfridge was based at the glorious Amber Fort, near Jaipur, and Beecham House and the neighbouring home owned by the bloke who used to be in Ackley Bridge were filmed at two of the beautiful Rajasthani palaces which are how heritage hotels.  And the hills, the lakes, the gardens, the animals, the gorgeous clothes … it was definitely a feast for the eyes.  It was supposed to be in Delhi, though, not Rajasthan!   Well, OK, we did get to see a bit of the Red Fort!

The basic idea is that John Beecham has left the East India Company because he doesn’t approve of it, and has bought himself a palace in India, where he intends to settle down and earn his living by trading (although he presumably has plenty of money already), and be part of the local community.   Now, this sort of idea can work very well – think Dances With Wolves.   Admittedly that was made before the days of snowflakes screeching about “cultural appropriation” and “white saviours” and so on, but, in the 18th century, British attitudes towards India and relationships between the British and the Indians were very different from how they were in the days of the Raj, and I was hoping that this was going to show that, in a positive way.  However, given that Gurinder Chadha ruined Viceroy’s House by bizarrely claiming that Britain partitioned India as some sort of anti-Soviet plot, and William Dalrymple, however detailed his research and in-depth his knowledge may have been, ruined The Last Mughal by claiming that evangelical Christians were responsible for all the evils of the world, I should have known I was being over-optimistic!

Back to John Beecham, first.  One big difference between India in the 1790s and India in the days of A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown etc was that relationships between white British men and Indian women were much more acceptable in earlier times – and John B turned up with his mixed race baby.  What an absolutely gorgeous baby!  Well, twins, playing him.  Big smiles for the camera!  But no sign of the mother.  So this was all meant to be very mysterious.   There’s also a mysterious brother whom we haven’t met yet, but the preview of the second episode showed him smoking opium and surrounded by half-naked girls.  Two brothers who are completely different – nothing like a good cliché!  The cliché of “nabobs” at this time – think Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair – was that they were all complete prats, whereas John is supposed to be all brooding and into Indian culture and generally a big hero.  Who can cut down trees without having his shirt on, like Ross Poldark.

And, by the end of the first episode, two women were after him.  The first one was his neighbour’s daughter’s governess.  He asked her round for tea.  On her own.  She went.  Touched his arm.  Used his first name.  I know these are Georgians rather than Victorians, but even so!   The other one was a childhood friend, who’d travelled out there with his mother, apparently purely in the hope of bagging him because his mother had told her he was a good catch.  I was hoping that Lesley Nicol, as the mother, would have a good part, maybe a bit of battleaxe; but she was a real trope, dressed entirely in black (if she’s in mourning, we weren’t told) and whingeing about the weather. An old pal of John’s had also travelled out with them, reasons unknown.

I was assuming that the household staff’d play a big part in it all – although maybe that was all the “Delhi Downton” talk in the media – but they haven’t had much to do yet.  Nor have the neighbours: we barely saw them.  However, we did see a lot of the aforementioned French mercenary – who looks even better in military uniform than he did dressing Mr Selfridge’s windows.  Now, to be fair, he is a mercenary, but the programme definitely gave the impression that the French were allied with the Mughal emperor against the East India Company.   Rubbish.  The French were barely involved in India after the Seven Years’ War.  And they did have rather a lot else on their minds in 1795!

Furthermore, there wasn’t a single mention of the Marathas, who’d been fighting the Mughals for years.  By this stage, the emperor was only really a client king under their protection.  Nor was there any mention of the recent wars between the Mughals and the Sikhs.  Nor did they raise the fact that Mughal rule meant that an Islamic dynasty was ruling over a mainly Hindu population.  It was quite ironic, really – Chadha and Dalrymple were so busy being anti-British that they ended up demeaning Indian history instead, with this Eurocentric impression of events as being all about the French trying to help the Indians keep the British East India Company out of Delhi, instead of showing the relationships and conflicts between different groups of Indians.

Incidentally, Delhi is full of stunning buildings dating from both the British Raj and the Mughal era.  It does not have snowflakes wanting to show how politically correct they are by campaigning for them to be pulled down.  Just a thought.

I’m not defending the East India Company.   In fact, as the programme mentioned, Governor-General Warren Hastings had just been impeached on a number of charges – although he was acquitted.  I first got into Indian history in the late 1980s, when two of Britain’s best-known sports personalities were Scottish rugby union players Gavin and Scott Hastings, and I still want to call Warren Hastings either “Gavin” or “Scott” because the names got a bit mixed up in my head, but that’s beside the point!   But making out that 18th century Indian history was all about the Mughals versus the British East India Company is nonsense, and rather insulting to India.

Oh well.  There’s more to come.  We haven’t met the brother yet.  And I believe that there’s also an Indian princess, who may be the mother of the cute baby.  It was only the first episode – and it had been so hyped up that it would have been very difficult for it to have lived up to expectations.   I do very much hope it gets better, because this is a period of history that, because there’s so much focus on the Raj era, tends to be overlooked.  It deserves better.    Maybe the series will get better!

 

The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresun

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Everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal. Most people will know the term Mughal/Moghul/Mogul, but probably in connection with either a local takeaway or as a term for a successful businessperson.  Not many people, even in the Indian subcontinent, will have heard of the Empress Nur Jahan.  And I’m not sure how familiar most people in the UK are with the history of the Moghul Empire, because no-one teaches us much about pre-colonial Asian history.  Novels about royal families are a brilliant place to start learning about an unfamiliar period in history – especially when they involve such an interesting character as the Empress Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa.  If you want something to learn about Northern India, or even if you just want a good read about something different, give Indu Sundaresun’s books a go.

The main character in these two books is, as I said, Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa (1577-1645), the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Her niece Arjumand, known as Mumtaz Mahal, married Jahangir’s son, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, who famously had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s mausoleum after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  It’s ironic that the publishers are marketing these books, along with Shadow Princess, which is about Jahan and Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, as “the Taj Mahal trilogy”, because Indu Sundaresun is keen to make the extremely good point that Mehrunnissa, who exercised political power and was a patron of the arts, at a time when it was very rare for a woman to do so, is all but forgotten, whereas Mumtaz, who didn’t actually do very much other than repeatedly conceive and give birth, has achieved immortality because of a beautiful building.

Shadow Princess is well worth a read as well.  It shows, amongst other things, the battles between several brothers, resulting in one brother having the others murdered, and also makes the point that, romantic as the Taj Mahal seems now, people at the time weren’t actually all that thrilled about vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being spent on an elaborate royal tomb.  It also shows the shift in attitudes from Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s keenness to incorporate elements of different religions into the life of an Islamic court to Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s successor’s, destruction of Hindu temples and fiscal discrimination against his Hindu subjects.

Just to go off the point slightly, on a recent trip to Northern India I found it interesting that most of the major buildings in older parts of Delhi, and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra, were built by the Islamic rulers of a predominantly Hindu state, and that most of the newer buildings in Delhi were built under the British Raj, but that there’s absolutely no thought of pulling them down or complaining that they’re symbols of oppression or discrimination.

Anyway, to get back to the point, Mehrunnissa is the star of the first two books. They’re written in a way that makes them very easy to get into but at the same time conveys a huge amount of information about the Mughal court and the Mughal Empire, everything from life in the harem/zenana, including the rivalries between the various different wives, to political machinations within the court, to wars with rival powers.  And the romance between Mehrunnissa and Salim/Jahangir, of course!

In brief, Mehrunnissa is born, on the road in what’s now Afghanistan, to a Persian noble family fleeing to Hindustan. They’ve got so little at the time that she’s almost abandoned at birth, but her father rises to become one of Emperor Akbar’s Grand Viziers, and Mehrunnissa goes to live at court.  The romantic version of events, which is the one shown in these books, is that she and Jahangir took a shine to each other from early on.  Spoilsports now say that this never actually happened.  Oh well.  Whatever, she was married off, unhappily, to a Persian soldier, by whom she had one daughter – whom she later married off to one of Jahangir’s sons, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) that her daughter would become Empress in turn.  After he died, she married Jahangir.

By that point, she was in her thirties. Women at the Mughal court were generally considered past their sell-by date by then, but she was the one who had the Emperor’s affection when there were plenty of younger models he could have gone for instead.  Go Mehrunnissa!   And, at a time when women were not expected to exercise power, and bearing in mind that she was only part of the royal family by marriage, she was pretty much the power behind the throne.  Jahangir was a little too fond of booze and opium.  She sat with him when he held court, issued coinage in her own name, dealt with the various Western powers looking to establish or increase their influence in what’s now India, was involved in consultations with ministers, and raised an army to fight a rebellion – even riding into the thick of things on a war elephant.

She is brilliant!   Rags to riches.  Well, OK, not quite, but her family were in dire straits when she was born.  Bagging the emperor when everyone would have expected him to be more interested in some silly young thing.  Wielding political power at a time when women weren’t supposed to.  And commissioning a tomb for her father which is generally agreed to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Not to mention taking care of hundreds of orphans, mostly girls.  She should be right up there amongst the female icons of history.

But she isn’t. Her story ended rather sadly – confined to effective house arrest by her stepson.  As many other strong women have been, she’s been painted by those historians who have written about her as – well, a conniving bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.  And her name isn’t really known much now, even in India and Pakistan.  Whereas the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, arguably the symbol of India.  I loved the Taj Mahal, and I’m so glad I’ve seen it, and I agree that it’s quite romantic that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he wanted to build such a splendid tomb for her, but … well, it’s a bit strange that the Mughal Empire has been immortalised by the symbol of a marriage and a death.  I suppose it makes a change from triumphal arches and grand palaces, eh?  Anyway, these books shouldn’t be being marketed as “the Taj Mahal trilogy” at all, and it’s rather insulting to Mehrunnissa that they are!

I wasn’t actually looking for a “strong women of history” novel. I just wanted to find out more about the Mughal Empire.  And this book really is a good starting point for that.  But I really did like the character.  And I liked the author’s writing, and will be looking for more of her books if I ever get through my existing book mountain.  We aren’t generally taught much Asian history in British schools and universities, and these books make the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century seem very accessible.  Read and enjoy!

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

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According to William Dalrymple, all the problems of the world are due to Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists. And no, he wasn’t talking about today – he was talking about the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.  Let’s say that this isn’t the most balanced and unbiased view of events that I’ve ever read!  He makes some good points, though, and a lot of the writing is quite gripping – not always easy to achieve when writing about military events.  And he’s used some previously unpublished information which he came across whilst doing his research.

Dalrymple is also the author of White Mughals, about a relationship (a true story) between a British man and an Indian noblewoman, and he clearly feels very strongly about the changes in British attitudes towards Indian people as the 19th century went on, and links that closely to changes in religious culture.  This was something I also mentioned when I was waffling about the Who Do You Think You Are? Episode about Olivia Colman’s mixed race ancestor – welcomed into the family and British society, in the early 19th century, in a way which she sadly wouldn’t have been a few decades later.   There was definitely a change in attitudes, and it certainly wasn’t for the better.

The book’s actually supposed to be about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor – as the title suggests. Also an Urdu poet and a Sufi mystic.  You associate the Mughal Empire with the 16th and 17th centuries, and tend almost to forget that there was still a Mughal Emperor, even if his rule was confined just to parts of Delhi, until the Mutiny.  Popular amongst both Hindus and Muslims, he was, at the age of 81, proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan by the mutineers … and he dithered whilst 52 Westerners were murdered at his palace, and then pretty much took the blame.  A British major then executed two of his sons and one of his grandsons.  Many other male members of his family were also executed by the British – it reads a bit like the Bolsheviks wiping out the Romanovs – and, according to Dalrymple, many of the women ended up working as prostitutes.  Zafar was exiled to Burma.  And Delhi was wrecked.

It was not the British Empire’s finest hour – although an amnesty was proclaimed for all mutineers not actually involved in murder.  It should also be noted that the press didn’t help, by exaggerating what had gone on, particularly with false claims about mutineers sexually assaulting British women.  The press in the second half of the 19th century seem to have been very good at whipping up hysteria: they did the same in the 1870s, during the Russo-Turkish War.

And, as we all know, the rule of the East India Company was then replaced by the British Raj – although it should be pointed out that large areas of India remained under the control of local rulers, and also that a royal proclamation was issued, promising Indians under British rule the rights of British subjects.

The Mutiny’s covered in two of my all-time favourite books, God is an Englishman (retrospectively) by R F Delderfield and A Dark and Distant Shore by Reay Tannahill.   Both make it clear that there was horrific violence on both sides – and that’s where I think Dalrymple could do with seeing both sides a little more clearly.  He does follow the experiences of a number of British people, men and women, in Delhi during the Mutiny, and he does make it clear that some of them were murdered, but he doesn’t seem to express the same horror about that as he does about the atrocities committed by the British forces.  Two wrongs, especially two such horrific wrongs, do not in any way make a right; but it is important to recognise that there was wrong on both sides.  His view doesn’t seem particularly balanced, and a lot of that seems due to his conviction that relations between the British and the Indians went wrong because of Evangelical Christianity.

He does also deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, so maybe he has it in for religious extremism in general. It’s hard to argue with anyone on that score!   But his argument seems to be everything that was going wrong revolved around cultural changes in British attitudes towards India, associated with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, whereas there were all sorts of different reasons for the Mutiny.  And, yes, I know that not everyone uses the term “Mutiny”, but it’s the one I’m used to.

Going back to God is an Englishman and A Dark and Distant Shore, neither of them – and obviously they’re novels, not academic books – focus on Delhi.  Books by British authors do usually focus on Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow and the sufferings of British civilians there, but this one does very much focus on Delhi, and the Indian viewpoint.  I’m saying “Indian”, but obviously we’re talking about a subcontinent of three major religions and many different ethnic groups, and that needs to be borne in mind.

The cause I first remember reading about was the use of beef and pork fat on cartridges used to grease guns. Soldiers had to bite the cartridges open.  What a stupid, insensitive thing to do – upsetting both Hindus and Muslims, and it could so easily have been avoided by using goat or mutton fat.  But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  There was so much else going on.  Interference in religion and culture, yes.  Fears that attempts would be made to make mass conversions to Christianity, yes.  Economic policy – free trade is a wonderful thing, but not when it interferes with local traditional ways of doing things.  The Doctrine of Lapse, by which the British authorities helped themselves to princely states with no direct heir, refusing to recognise the traditional practice of adopting an heir in such circumstances.  And it wasn’t called the Mutiny for nothing – there was widespread discontent in the Army, over pay, lack of opportunities for promotion, and, as British holdings in India expanded, men being sent further and further afield.

So it was hardly all about religious/cultural ideas.  And it’s pushing it to suggest, as Dalrymple does, that Evangelical Christians were making all the decisions about British policy in India, and I also think it’s pushing it to say that Evangelical Christians were to blame for all the negative aspects of imperialism … even if it does make a change from the often-made suggestion that British attitudes towards Indians changed for the worse when more British women began going to India, which is very objectionable!  A lot of the trouble in China was caused by Catholic missionaries, rather than Evangelicals, incidentally.  And the people who did look at expansion and imperialism as some sort of religious thing were part of a wider culture of Western-centrism, which was about race and industrialisation as much as it was about religion.  It’s the whole “White Man’s Burden” thing.  And the American term “Manifest Destiny” goes right back to just before the Mexican War.  It’s horrible, and it’s frightening, but it went way beyond religious activism.

These people did actually mean well, I suppose. And, as much as it’s easy to criticise their ideas of cultural superiority, you can see why they thought that, for example, trying to end the practice of widows committing suicide was a good thing.   This still goes on today.  Should people be criticised for trying to end Female Genital Mutilation, which is a traditional practice in some areas? And David Cameron was accused of cultural imperialism when he quite rightly criticised the very poor record of some Commonwealth countries on LGBT rights – ironically, a subject on which Evangelical Christians would probably oppose change in the countries concerned.   All cultures can learn from other cultures. Look how many English words have come from Urdu and Hindi. We use some of them every day. Shampoo. Pyjamas. But that has to come in the right way, and that wasn’t what was happening in 19th century India.

I can’t abide preachy people who think they have the right to tell other people what to do, and who think that they’re morally and culturally superior to others. Thinking about missionaries in India always makes me think about St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, one of the most annoying characters in classic literature – and that says a lot!  And some of the stuff coming out of the US at the moment is genuinely frightening.  But I do think Dalrymple’s a bit hard on them.  It’s worth remembering that Evangelicals played an important role in Abolitionism … although don’t get me started on the subject of William Wilberforce opposing holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  And the negative side of colonialism and imperialism was scarcely all their fault.  There were a lot of other factors at play.  Power politics.  The Mutiny broke out the year after the end of the Crimean War: the two things weren’t linked, but there was always “the Great Game” to be thought about.  Money – let’s never forget money!    Well, trade.  If only everyone had stuck to thinking about trade!

We do all need to try harder to see different sides of everything.  That’s becoming more and more of a rarity: increasingly, people will shout down anyone whose views differ from theirs, and hurl insults at them.  I recently read an obituary of Senator John McCain which referred to the respect that he and Barack Obama showed for each other.  Fewer and fewer politicians show that respect towards opponents now, and it’s the same with the press, and, in many cases, with people in general.

Back to the Mutiny. Was it Niall Ferguson who said that Britain somehow ended up with “the wrong empire”?  We were supposed to be after trade, not colonies and certainly not all this “white man’s burden” stuff.  There’d been criticism in Britain for years of Spanish behaviour in Latin America, all the “Black Legend” stuff.  Was the Mutiny the point at which it changed?

There’s a lot to think about, in this book, beyond the actual events of 1857-58. Poor old Zafar himself.  The final end of the Mughal period – that great Empire, the Empire of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and, for so many years, religious harmony.  What happens to emperors after their empires have gone?  Zafar only lived a few years afterwards, and the senior Romanovs were wiped out, but spare a thought for the various Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns and others still dotted around the world.  And, finally, back to the question of Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists – and add the religious right-wing elements of Judaism, Hinduism and other religions into that as well.   One of the few good things that Oliver Cromwell did for this country was to show people that religious extremism is best kept out of politics.  It usually is, here.  It’s a great shame that that isn’t the case everywhere.

Nobody can agree on the Indian Mutiny.  Mutiny?  War of independence?  Either way, you can’t argue that it wasn’t a big deal.  However, that’s usually seen in terms of the change from the rule of the East India Company to the rule of the British Crown – and, yes, that was the main effect, but the fact that it did finally end the Mughal Empire, even if the “Mughal Empire” was by then only one part of one city, deserves recognition too, and that’s what this book was about.  Even if it did go on rather too much about religious attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Passage to Britain II, Polish refugees in India – BBC 2

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There’s been a sizeable Polish community in Manchester, as in many other parts of the UK, since the war. I’ve always been aware of that, right back to when I was at primary school and some of the other kids there had Polish names.  And I knew that there’d been Polish Displaced Persons camps in the UK, one of the largest being at Delamere Park near my mum’s home town of Northwich.  But I have to say that I knew very little about Polish wartime refugees coming to the UK via India; and I don’t think that the makers of this rather interesting series did either, until they came across this sad but fascinating story whilst looking into immigration from India to Britain in the immediate post-war era.

I got the impression that Yasmin Khan – who would be a good presenter if she didn’t seem so keen to present Britain in as negative a light as possible – was expecting to find that most of those sailing on the Asturias, the ship featured in the second programme, in late 1947 were fleeing the horrific violence associated with Partition.  That’s what I’d have been expecting too.  (I did also think we might get a few British people/families who’d spent their entire working lives in India returning to the UK to make a new start in a “home” that they didn’t really know, but we didn’t.)

There were certainly people leaving because of Independence and or Partition. Some of those featured were Sikhs: Partition was about Hindus and Muslims but, especially with most of the violence being in the north, so many Sikhs suffered terribly.  There was a rather nice reference by one Sikh man to his father having previously spent time in Britain in the 1930s and having worked as a market trader alongside Jewish market traders in the East End of London, two religious minority groups together.

There were also a number of Anglo-Indians, a community which tends to be overlooked when discussing this period of history. It’s a confusing term, because “Anglo-Indian” originally meant white British people living in India, with people of mixed heritage being descrived as “Eurasian” – but then, somehow, the meanings changed, and “Anglo-Indian” came to mean people of mixed heritage.  As with so many stories of immigration over the years, there were some sad tales of skilled workers having to take whatever work they could get, often with little relevance to the skills and experience they’d brought with them – but, alongside that, inspiring tales of building up successful businesses.

The part of the programme that most caught the attention, though, was the part focussing on the Polish people travelling on the ship, because it just wasn’t what either the presenter or the viewers would have been expecting.

After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union led to the Soviets joining the war on the Allied side, the Soviets deported large numbers of people, possibly as many as a million, from Soviet-occupied parts of Poland to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. During a temporary amnesty in mid to late 1942, many of those people were able to leave, but it was a long and arduous journey, through Persia.  Some of the young men went into the Polish Armed Forces in Exile.  Civilians, mostly women and children, were taken to various places, mostly parts of the British Empire and the Dominions; and India played a large part in this.

Within India, various authorities were involved – the British colonial authorities, the Polish consul general in Bombay/Mumbai and his wife, and the royal families of some of the princely state. The Maharajah of Nawanagar played a particularly important role: he unfortunately didn’t get a mention in this programme, but I’ve been reading a bit about him.  He set up a camp for Polish refugee children, and there’s a school named after him in Warsaw, and also a “Good Maharajah Square”.  The Maharajah of Kolhapur also set up a camp for Polish refugee children.

We didn’t hear about the maharajahs’ camps, but we did hear how Polish communities were established in India, and we saw pictures of Polish shops and Polish dancing there. Some of the Polish refugees settled in India and spent the rest of their lives there, but the programme was about people coming from India to Britain and, along with many other Poles – there seem to have been about 250,000 in all – who ended up in Britain after the war, the people interviewed had settled here, not wanting to go back to a Poland which by then was under communist rule.

There are so many little-known stories about groups of people displaced during or after the Second World War. Even now, the stories of Stalin’s deportations of the Chechens and the Crimean Tatars aren’t well-known in the West.  Then there were the Germans forced to leave the Breslau area, now Polish Wroclaw … and the repopulation of Wroclaw by Poles who left Lviv/Lvov/Lviv/Lemberg when it became part of Soviet Ukraine.  Just a few examples.  It’s thought that around 1,000 Poles came to Britain via India.

This programme’s hopefully drawn attention to their story – and it’s fascinating how historical research can lead you down paths that you hadn’t set off to go down, and teach you about something that you hadn’t been looking for. You look for stories about people fleeing the violence of Partition between India and Pakistan, and stumble across stories of people deported from Soviet-occupied Poland.  And, amid all the evils of those times, there were wonderful people like those two maharajahs who set up camps for refugee children from a faraway land.  I feel quite bad that I didn’t know about the history of Polish wartime refugees in India.  I’m glad that I do now.

A Passage to Britain – BBC 2

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It’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about historical immigration to the UK and, with the upsurge in interest in genealogy making personalised history very appealing at the moment, the idea of tracing the lives of passengers on ships travelling from India to Britain in three different decades sounded fascinating. It would have been a lot better had it concentrated more on telling their stories and less on trying to score socio-political points; but it certainly had its moments and was well worth watching.

The first episode used the passenger lists from the voyages of the P&O ship Viceroy of India, a rather luxurious liner, in 1933 and 1935.  Immigration from India to the UK is generally associated with the post Second World War era, so this sounded like it might throw up some particularly interesting stories.  At least, Yasmin Khan, the presenter, said that she was looking for stories about Indian (which at the time would obviously have included people from the areas which are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) people settling in the UK; but only three of the six people whose stories were explored actually fitted that category, so I’m not quite sure why she said it.

Maybe she said it because, at the beginning of the programme, it was a convenient way of dismissing the many schoolchildren and university students who were amongst the passengers. Students at schools, universities and other further education institutions made up a third of the Indian population of the UK in the 1930s, and – as an avid reader of school stories! – I’d like to have heard about the experiences of some of them.  Especially the girls, given that four of the five passengers we did hear about were male.

But they were ignored on the grounds that most of them went home afterwards –which would have been fair enough had the programme actually been all about Indian people staying in the UK. Maybe I’m being unduly cynical, but it was hard not to feel that they didn’t get a look-in because most of them would have been from the royal families of the princely Indian states, which weren’t under British rule, and that the BBC didn’t think that the avocado-eaters of Islington, or whoever it is that they try to appeal to these days, wanted to hear about them.  On a posh ship like that, you’d think there’d also have been plenty of adults from princely families, heading off to enjoy a whirl of glamorous social engagements in London and maybe then the French Riviera, and (I read Hello! magazine as well as school stories) I’d rather have like to have heard about them too … but nary a mention did they get.

Oh well!   The one student we did hear about had a very interesting story, as it happened.  The idea of the programme was to trace the passengers’ surviving relatives and follow the stories with them, and the son of this man was under the impression that his dad had come to London to take the Indian Civil Service exams, failed them, and not returned to India because of the shame.  Instead, it turned out that he’d become involved with the independence movement and that his parents had sent him away because they thought they were keeping him out of trouble.  He was so angry that he never spoke to them again.  You wonder why he never told his family about this, but evidently he didn’t.

The BBC tried to make out that this was all about the evils of empire, but I don’t think that that was entirely the right angle to come at. Clearly it was about the Indian independence movement, but it was also part of a wider pattern – a story, and you can find so many similar stories in the history of pretty much every country in the world, about the people who are involved in trying to overthrow a foreign and or tyrannical regime, or to work for change within that regime; and the people, generally the older generations, who either don’t want change or are frightened of the possible consequences of working against the powers that be.  What an intriguing story – and what a shame that this man’s relatives had thought all these years that the reason he’d stayed in Britain was because he was ashamed of failing some exams.  I hope they were really pleased to learn the real story.

Next up was Mulk Raj Anand, the writer. Of course, the BBC had to make out that the focus of his writings was, you guessed it, the evils of empire, whereas he also wrote a lot of important works about the sufferings of the Untouchables under the Indian caste system.  They also ignored his journalistic work during the Spanish Civil War.  Now there is a subject that deserves a documentary series – the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War!   He was someone who was in favour of change in many ways and many places – yes, Indian independence, but a lot more than that.  We heard a bit about his unsuccessful marriage to a British woman, and there was a nice personal touch with his niece talking about his recipes for curry!

The third person discussed was the only woman of the five – an ayah to a British family. They didn’t seem to have been able to find any of her relatives, but the baby of the family for whom she’d worked was still alive.  He’d been on the ship as well, possibly the only passenger from either of those voyages still alive.  The poor ayah had had to travel third class, whilst the family had been in the posh part.  There wasn’t much information about her, though: the family had paid for her to return to India once the children were older, and the BBC tried to make out that she’d been hard done by, but surely, unless she’d worked for someone like the Earl of Grantham, a nanny would have expected her employment to be terminated once the children were all at school?   It was pretty horrible that they’d refused to pay for her to have a decent cabin on the ship, but, sadly, par for the course, whether the servants were Indian or British.

The family themselves were very interesting. I got the impression that the BBC had hoped they’d be some very snooty types, the way people usually envisage the British in India – think all those people at the club in A Passage to India – and very definitely coming from British India, but it transpired that the dad was a jockey who’d been working for a maharajah.  So we got to hear a bit about the glamorous lives of princely families after all, hooray!  (Sorry, too much Hello! magazine!)  The surviving passenger had some lovely stories to tell about the relationship between his family and his father’s employers, and the good times they’d had there.

None of this really had much to do with the establishment of Indian communities in Britain, though. No problem with that – it was all very interesting – but why make out that that was what the programme was about, when it wasn’t?!   And the next passenger certainly wasn’t Indian: he was the gloriously named Sir Lancelot Graham, the first governor of Sind.  And his grandson lives in Altrincham!  The BBC seemed keen to push the snooty angle, going on about how Sir Lancelot had been to a public school and then to Oxford, but his grandson made a point about how hard the exams were and how hard his grandfather had had to work to pass them.

I think a lot of us are guilty of thinking of the imperial service in general, not just in India, as some sort of old boys’ club where getting a top job wasn’t so much what you knew as who you knew, but it’s probably not very fair to think like that, certainly by the 1930s. Er, yes, and the last viceroy was the king’s second cousin and the uncle of the future queen’s intended!   OK, OK!

It moved into Children of the Raj territory then, with the Altrincham-dwelling grandson explaining that his father hadn’t been on the ship because he had at that time been at boarding school in Britain, and talking about the difficulties faced by families because of the system of sending children to school in Britain whilst their parents remained in India.  That possibly wasn’t what the BBC had been after, but it was a fair point.  It can be hard now to sympathise with adults who made that choice, although it’s very easy to sympathise with the children, who weren’t given any choice; but times were different then, and the separation can’t have been easy for anyone.

Finally, we did actually get back to what was supposed to be the point, Indian immigration to Britain – with the life of a man, a lawyer, who’d come from India and settled, not in an urban area of the UK, as might have been expected, but in a rural area of Essex, and had married a white British woman. We were told that there were around three thousand marriages between Indian men and white British women in the 1930s, probably more than might have been expected.  At a time when levels of racial tolerance left a lot to be desired, and when religious intermarriage even between Protestants and Catholics was frowned on, this marriage hadn’t gone down very well with either family.  Even now, there are so many cases of families being unwilling to accept someone’s choice of partner: we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.

It was also sad to hear, from one of the couple’s descendants, about the abuse that the children had suffered at school, from the teachers as well as the other kids. In that area, at that time, the man who’d travelled on the ship was the only Asian person, and that must have been very difficult.  The idea was mooted last year about every council in the country being asked to take a small number of Syrian immigrants, rather than large groups of people settling in a small number of areas, and you can see where the authorities were coming from from a financial and practical viewpoint, but that sort of thing just doesn’t work.  It must have been so hard to have been the only Indian person, the only non-white person, in a community that doesn’t seem to have been overly welcoming.

Also, the family’s surname had been changed, to something that sounded English. That, in my experience, is very unusual for a family with Indian sub-continental heritage: it happens more with surnames associated with other parts of Europe. I doubt we’ll be seeing that again in the later episodes.

All in all, quite a mixed bag of stories. I’m not sure what the programme was actually hoping to show – the BBC always seems to have to have an agenda with everything these days, and it’s rather annoying –  and I’m not sure that it showed what it hoped to, but it was certainly interesting.  I suppose they don’t want to overlap too much with Who Do You Think You Are?, but I wonder if this could be done with other groups of immigrants to the UK as well – maybe go back to the 1680s (possibly not with ships’ passenger lists, but there’ll be some records available), when there were Huguenots moving to the British Isles (I can’t really say “Britain” pre-1707!) from France, and both Protestants and Jews from the United Provinces (the Netherlands), and work forward from there?

As I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about immigration to the UK – and I’m talking history, not current affairs and certainly not politics.   And this personalised history does seem to be very popular at the moment.   Great idea for a documentary series.

Who Do You Think You Are? (Olivia Colman) – BBC 1

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Some episodes of this are better than others; and this, kicking off the new series, was a particularly good one. OK, technically the series started with the Michelle Keegan episode, which was also interesting, but that was shown weeks ago!   The Olivia Colman episode not only included some fascinating “human interest” stories, about the eventful lives of the ancestors of someone who’d said that she hadn’t expected to find too much drama in her family tree, but took us back to the lives of the British in pre-Mutiny India, something we don’t hear nearly enough about.

The Victorians cast a very long shadow, and, given their achievements, rightly so. But that does mean that the attitudes of Georgian times aren’t given enough attention: there can be the idea that the views of “the past” mean the views of the mid to late Victorians.  And Georgian times were very different.  Take Jane Austen’s novels.  Lydia Bennet runs off with Mr Wickham, and lives with him before they’re married.  Maria Rushworth, nee Bertram, leaves her husband and runs off with Henry Crawford.  We hear all about Willoughby’s history of seducing young women – and Wickham wasn’t behind the door in that department either.  Emma’s friend Harriet is “the natural daughter of Someone”.  It’s a long way from the Victorians covering piano legs because even pianos weren’t allowed to show their legs in public!

Then there were attitudes on race and colonialism. It’s a controversial area, and one which it would take hours to go into properly.  But, in the second half of the 19th century, it probably wasn’t very likely that a well-to-do British family would have taken in the mixed race daughter of one of its scions.  The illegitimate mixed race daughter.  Whereas that’s exactly what happened with Olivia Colman’s great-great-great-grandmother, Harriot Slessor – born in a remote part of India in 1807, half a century before the Mutiny, to a British officer and his Indian mistress.

Sadly, her father died when she was only three, and we don’t know what happened to her mother, but Olivia learnt that Harriot’s grandmother had sent for her, paid for her passage to Britain, and given her everything she could. She was nicknamed “India Harriot”: there seems to have been no attempt to cover up her mixed heritage, as there perhaps would have been later on.  Think Anna Leonowens of “The King and I” fame.  OK, what happened to Harriot was only one person’s experience, but it was … well, I was going to say a lovely one, but it was actually rather sad in parts.  Although she was going to a loving family, it was to a strange country and people she didn’t know.  And then her first husband, whom she met on board a ship going back to India, died shortly after their marriage.

It was suggested that her mixed heritage made it difficult for her to find a husband in England, so not everyone was as open-minded as the Slessor family were, but she did marry twice, both to white British men. She and her second husband remained in India for many years, and then retired to the Home Counties, where they lived a comfortable life.  He presumably made money in India and was from a comfortable background anyway, and she inherited a considerable sum of money from a great-aunt.  It doesn’t seem to have bothered her family in the slightest that she was illegitimate or that she was of mixed race.  OK, this was only one person’s experience, and doesn’t necessarily typify the attitudes of the time, but I think it’s a very Georgian/early Victorian story, and I think Harriot’s upbringing may well have been very different had she been born sixty years later.   Thankfully for her, she wasn’t.

I’m not knocking the Victorians, but the image we have of the British in India tends to be that of the later Victorians, and of the first half of the 20th century, and it’s not always very positive, especially in today’s socio-political climate. Books like E M Forster’s A Passage to India perhaps have a lot to do with that.  And the pre-Mutiny British in India tend to be seen as idiots, like Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair.  Stories like that of Harriot Slessor can tell us a lot, and show us that maybe we need to rethink some of the common ideas and images about the British in India.  As the lady who showed Olivia round the area where Harriot was born pointed out, there were many relationships between British men and Indian women back then. Obviously there are books like White Mughals, about mixed race romances, about the 18th century, but it’s still the image of the clubs and the hill stations in late Victorian and early 20th century times that dominate.

There was a lot more in this programme, too. Harriot’s second husband’s father, Olivia’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, had accused his first wife of adultery, and then been granted not only a legal separation but the right to remarry – to a woman with whom he already had two children.  The two children born before their marriage were treated exactly the same as those born after their marriage – and this was in a very middle-class family.  Again, very Georgian!

We also heard about Harriot’s grandmother, also Harriot, and how she’d spent a lot of time in Porto, where her soldier husband was based.   From a human interest viewpoint, we heard – how wonderful to be able to read your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s letters! – about her sadness at leaving her elderly mother behind in Britain, and her sons at British boarding schools … something else we associate with Victorian and early twentieth century times, and which we need to remember went back well before that.  It was also a reminder of the longstanding bond between England/Britain and the very lovely city of Porto, and the very lovely country of Portugal generally.  Harriot’s husband was in the army, whereas a lot of the Brits based in Porto were there because of the port wine, but that’s another story!

Finally, we learnt that the elder Harriot’s mother had been born in Paris and come to Britain as a Huguenot refugee. That was well into the 18th century, so long after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the main wave of Huguenot emigration from France to the British Isles and elsewhere, but that just went to show that the issue of religion in France continued to be an issue even into the 1720s/1730s.  The distant relative who told Olivia about their common ancestor made the point that the Huguenots were the first group of people to be termed “refugees”.  This was right at the end of the programme, and we didn’t hear very much about this lady, but the whole subject of people moving around between England, Scotland, Ireland, France  and Low Countries, over a long period from the middle of the 16th century to the start of the 18th century – in fact, the middle of the 18th  century, if you include the people who left Scotland after Culloden – for religious and political reasons, often linked, is fascinating, and something we don’t hear enough about.

Mostly it was fairly small groups of people, but around 50,000 Huguenots came to the British Isles. Their influence on the textile and cutlery-making industries here, and the watch-making industry in Switzerland, was just immense.  Britain and Switzerland’s gain, and France’s loss.  There was quite a lot of immigration at that time – people moved from the Netherlands to Britain with William of Orange, and they included Jews as well as Protestants.  And, in 1709, 13,000 migrants from Germany – dubbed “the Palatines” as some of them came from the Palatinate – arrived in Britain, claiming that they were refugees, but it turned out that a lot of them were economic migrants, and there were social issues because most of them were poor and unskilled, many of them were Catholics when they’d claimed to be Protestants fleeing persecution.  There was a big row over immigration policy, and the difference between refugees and economic migrants …  some things don’t change!

But the Huguenot immigration does generally seem to have gone really well, and it would’ve been interesting to hear more about Olivia’s Huguenot ancestor.  However, you can only fit so much into an hour’s episode, and the story of her Eurasian (Anglo-Indian originally meant “British living in India”, with “Eurasian” being the term for someone of mixed heritage) great-great-great-grandmother and how well her life turned out was absolutely fascinating.  And Olivia had had no idea that her family had any connection with India at all.  Who knows what there might be in anyone’s family history that they have no idea about?  It’s just great when this programme can uncover something completely unexpected like that.  Wonderful episode.