Indian Summer is Always in Season -- Dr. Anwesha Arya

Indian Summer is Always in Season  --  Dr. Anwesha Arya

‘India never gets old’--in colloquial terms, it just means that India is always in fashion, on trend, evergreen. For a three-thousand- (some may say thirty, we still await documentary evidence) something-year-old culture, that’s wicked. Again, I use ‘wicked’ in its nineties street sense, which in the noughties was ‘sick’, what is it now? Let me try and elaborate.

 

At present, Channel Four is broadcasting the vastly popular Indian Summers, in its third and final season now. This television drama set in the summer of 1932, when an unborn India dreams of independence, but the British cling to power. It focusses on families that spent summers away from the unpredictable English weather, in India. Curiously, it is filmed in Malaysia (some parts of Malaysia look a little like Goa)! And, although May is still chilly, as the days get longer, with each spin of the globe, summer really is getting closer, in the northern hemisphere. The very term ‘Indian summer’ means something immediately to those who hear it, here, in the UK. A certain spell, of a certain kind of heat.
 
Many might find the near obsession of inhabitants of this island with the weather quite futile. I did too, till I began to live here. The very fact that the UK is an island nation determines the weird weekly pattern of weather. You may need a brolly (chhaata umbrella, only smaller and sometimes even pocket-sized) on Monday, a light jacket on Tuesday, a muffler on Wednesday, two sweaters on Thursday, a vest on Friday and thermal underwear on Saturday. Sunday, well all of the above, I’d rather not plan that far ahead. It is impossible. There is constant banter on radio-station breakfast programmes, on whether you need to arm yourself with a hat, coat, brolly or boat. And they aren’t joking.
 
In the 1946 George Mikes (pronounced Mikesh) wrote a charming observation on the English and their ways (How to be an alien). He was a recent Hungarian-born émigré (immigrant) and meant the book to be an insult to the English. This not particularly gentle parody became a runaway best-seller, and having remained in print constantly, today, is something of a cult read, like many Penguin discoveries. There is an entire chapter on the weather, in which it recounts (an imaginary) conversation between strangers, waiting at a bus stop. They begin with a benign enough comment on the day, and soon begin comparing notes on storms and floods, from the past. Including the radio presenters beginning their broadcasts as such, this illustrates my point. 
 
 
Uniform seasons
 
So vital is an observation on the weather, it becomes a required ice-breaker. And the author notes that, in a few months, when a visiting relative meets him in a London city Park, rather than the European greeting, he begins his conversation saying “Spring in the air”; to which his relative replies ‘Why should I?” Mikes was even more acerbic in 'How to be a Brit.' These islanders love laughing at themselves, thankfully. 
 
More recently, Kate Fox highlights the dos and don’ts of weather-speak in her incisively observed Watching the English- The hidden rules of English behaviour (2004). Weather is clearly quite an obsessive conversation starter. The BBC channel, BBC 1 closes broadcast with a comprehensive weather-watch segment around midnight, sometimes later. I must say I watch religiously, I need to plan our childrens’ uniforms. Don’t let the word fool you. There is nothing uniform about these outfits. For girls, there are skirts with T-shirts and/or a jumper, a lightweight cardigan, or trousers and thick fleece, or a gingham summer dress; each outfit must have socks to match. Boys have many variations too, and the knee-high socks for shorts, or ankle socks for trousers, all of these depend on the weather.
 
Fascinatingly, I imagined India has but two seasons: Summer and Monsoon. Then I remembered Hindi lessons, and the distinct seasons, and how we memorised all six Sanskrit names and meanings for Grisham/Grishm (summer), Sisira/Shishir or Sheet(winter), Basant/Vasant (spring), Varsha (monsoon), Hemanta (pre-winter), Sharad or Pat-jhad (autumn). We were taught that these six spread in a careful spread of approximately two months each, neatly cutting the climatic calendar in exact sections. Although it varies from north to south across the sub-continent, like Kerala experiencing a stunning double helping of monsoon, mostly, these six seasons are like well-trained spies. They are too subtle to notice. And here I am, constantly saying “Ah, in India we always have unbroken sunshine”. 
 
 
I’m having an Indian
 
Yes, our days spread more similar than others, but geography and climatic conditions smear a pattern of behaviour as well.
 
During the Bombay (Mumbai) deluge, one notices the smiles on taxi-drivers’ faces, in spite of them being stuck in snaking queues of cars. The Times carried an incredible photograph of a taxi-driver, hugging his knees, guffawing into the overcast sky, as he perched on top of his nearly submerged car. The tempers cool with the south-west winds, as do the road rage incidents. In the UK, rain means trouble. Here, they think me mad, because I love the rain, the unpredictability of the weekly weather, the strange seasonal flutter. I like change. Some don’t. It comforts me. 
 
Indian summers are rare here still, in spite of the threat of global warming. One day, the temperature hits 30 degrees Celsius, and no one can cope. Conversations are fixed on how cold Christmas will be, or how wonderful the BBQ grill got an outing. The fact is, although it is no longer the colonial way for the English to ‘summer’ in India, flights are much more affordable to the Spanish Al Garve, or another Mediterranean destination. But bring on a hot day, and it is still called an ‘Indian’ summer.
 
So, the love affair with India is endless, whether the cuisine, largely created by the job-seeking Bangladeshi immigrants, escaping the threat of war in the then East Pakistan, the Chicken Tikka Masala might be replaced in popular culture by Chicken Madras/Chettinad, with a side dish of Bombay Aloo. But none of these culinary catastrophes bears any resemblance to those cooked-up in the places these dishes name. Nevertheless,  there is a misty-eyed fondness for the staple Friday night feast, “I’m having an Indian”.
 
Even if Selfridges, the London Art Deco department store, created waves by celebrating India in the late 1990s, Indian food, fashion, dance and culture are throbbing in neon lights across this curious island. 
 
 Bombay Dreams
 
Oddly though, the immigrant Indian community is relatively recent. When we authentic Indians brush up against the British Asian population, it is a bit of a culture shock. Racially we look similar, but our routes to this island have been so diverse. A large Gujarati conglomerate arrived via Uganda when the thunderous tumble of Britain-educated dictator Idi Amin ‘Dada’ began. Then, there’s the lot who came via Kenya, via Trinidad, like Naipaul, famously. Of course, the brave Punjab brigade, who fought in the wars and remained here, are one contingent, then the Sikhs, who were co-opted to build the massive railways across Africa, were given free passes through the Commonwealth, to arrive and stay.
 
These first communities faced the same wave of terror unleashed by Enoch Powell’s April 1968, ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. There was havoc in then primarily black-Brixton, the echoes of which still haunt. Racism was terrifying. It has always been so, no matter who perpetrates it, or who is at the receiving end of this demonic behaviour. Paradoxically, racism had a fascinating impact on cultural growth, though. It has driven the true roots of Indian communities in this country underground. 
 
Believe me, it is always preferable to be from India, even if you’ve never been there, or you don’t speak a single language linked to Sanskrit DNA. Even the hugely successful West-end (equivalent to the NY Broadway) play, Bombay Dreams, based on the Bombay film industry and life in the infamous largest slum in Asia, is written by someone who has never lived there. (Meera Syal, MBE, CBE. Meera's parents come from Punjab, in north-west India. Her father, Surendra Syal, was a journalist at Milap, an Urdu newspaper, at the vanguard of the Indian independence movement. In 1960, Surendra left India for England, to pursue his education. Meera was born in 1963, near Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands, and was educated at Manchester University, where she read English and Drama. She co-wrote the script for 'My Sister Wife', a three-part BBC TV series, and wrote the film Bhaji on the Beach). Amazingly, she gets it right, but it makes one wonder. What is Indian? What is it to be Indian…whether at home or abroad?
 
Brolly good
 
Watching Tim Supple’s bizarre 2006 multi-lingual adaptation of Midsummer Nights’ Dream, I was struck by the fact that we, as a human race, celebrate commonality much less than we distinguish and demarcate difference. Since the characters spoke, apart from English, six Indian languages, including Kannada, Malayalam, Bangla (Bengali) and Urdu, even Shakespeare would have struggled to understand a large part of the dialogue.
 
Being Indian in Britain is brilliant. I find myself hugging tight to my Bombay accent. Yes, Bombay! Were I to be writing this article in Hindi I’d say Bumbai; or, in Marathi, I’d say Mumbai. Bombay is where I was born, I celebrate it. (More another time, on the meandering mission of nomenclature that our city, sewn from seven islands, has faced). It is primarily a phonetic preoccupation, or should be. 
 
Anyway, as I was saying, Bombay identifies the way I speak, and I wear something that distinguishes me immediately as Indian, wherever I go. Whether a paisley patterned pashmina, or an ikkat weave dupatta, over my customary jeans and denim jacket. I am Indian. The onlookers here I have found embrace you with their eyes and conversation, immediately seeking some common thread. It was not so when I first came in the 1980s. 
 
I remember walking down to the Italian Embassy in arty Chelsea in London’s fashionable and oh-so-desirable southwest quarter, when a woman holding a brolly on a bright day made a point to cross over to the other side of the road. She then walked on the parallel pavement glaring our way, because the woman I was walking with wore a saree. Today, on the London tube, you rarely hear English spoken among the passengers. So multi-racial is it. 
 
Curry queen
 
Being Indian, whether first generation or not, is almost always of course equated with an assumption that one is an excellent cook. You must hand out recipés, if not a home-cooked curry, often. But never more so than in the face of the cowardly July 7th bombings. We were the only Indians on our street in Camden Town that day, and, if anything, we got more head nods and smiles than I’d noticed before. I do day-dream when I walk, though. 
 
And now that we live out in the isolated countryside, with a 97% white population, our children are the only non-white children at their school. They are quite popular I’m the local ‘curry’ queen, constantly handing out home-ground turmeric from Bombay, because it is better than Tesco’s. Last week the BBC weatherman said we may expect an Indian Summer. It’s quite extraordinary, but India remains on trend. Or, maybe, that’s just how I see it!  
 
 
Dr. Anwesha Arya works and lives in the one place she has felt at home in the world: London. Along with her background as a historian and anthropologist, she has 15 years of experience in research and film-making, in the fields of gender, human rights and women’s empowerment. Anwesha has undertaken her doctoral research at the University of London, where, in 2008, she pioneered AWARE (Awareness of Women’s Active Rights Empowerment), an advocacy group on human rights. Her doctoral research tackled the intersection of ancient religion, law, society and culture, through a case study of dowry murder in contemporary India. She lives with her partner of twenty years, and their young family, in Camden. 
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