Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Beautiful Indian Summers - But to What End?

A little while ago my wife and I began watching Indian Summers, a show about the British Raj's annual move to Simla, in the foothills of the Himalaya, where it sheltered from Delhi's summer heat. The show is visually stunning, marked by the natural beauty of the landscape (actually shot in Malaysia) and the pomp of the Raj. For a historian of the British Empire, the draw is obvious. But we've been on an Indian Summers hiatus of late. By tacit agreement, we just started doing other things in the evening.

The show's characters, though interesting, may have missed a certain je ne sais quoi. The plot, though intriguing, was not quite compelling. But my disquiet about the show was something else. Something more fundamental.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life, described three kinds of history. Monumental history glorifies the past; it holds up the heroes of yesteryear as models to be imitated. Critical history highlights all that was wrong in the past, and in so doing spurs us on to do better today. Antiquarian history is less dynamic: it describes the past as essentially the same as the present. It takes comfort in the great continuity of human society.

Viewed through this lens, Indian Summers is puzzling. It is not monumental. Although the splendor of the Raj is on display, the show clearly conveys that the Raj was oppressive, dishonest, and generally out of touch with the people it governed. And yet I would hesitate to describe the show as critical. The Indian nationalist movement - at least in the episodes we watched - comes off as morally justified, but not dramatically so, not enough to decisively turn our sympathies against the British characters. Given the enormity of the questions at stake, there is a surprising amount of moral ambivalence.

So Indian Summers must be antiquarian, right? Here we come to the crux of my complaint. At first glance, the show would not seem to fit the basic antiquarian mold: its power struggles, deceptions, and unbridled lust for power and the pleasures of the flesh bear little resemblance to my own life. Is this essentially the same as the present day?

Indian Summers is a mirror reflecting many of the worst qualities of 21st century America. The quest for power is taken as a given. Fornication and adultery are essentially no different from a good meal: if the cost is not unreasonable, well worth enjoying. Truth and justice, though not entirely banished, have become moral garnishes. For those who live in this version of modern society, Indian Summers conveys the message that the Raj looked much like the present. That which is enjoyed or feared, valued or despised today was held in similar regard in every age, was it not?

But for those of us who still inhabit those corners of contemporary society where desires are subordinated to duties, where power has value only in relation to the ends it accomplishes, where fidelity is not merely a burden to be carried but a virtue to be celebrated, Indian Summers is a depressing scene. That these shortcomings are not even recognized is more depressing still.