Title: An Indian Summer
Author: James Cameron
First Published: 1974
A middle-aged man, in love with and married to someone much younger and of a different nationality. After being in a head-on collision with a truck, making his way to the newly formed Bangladesh border in pouring rain, in the opposite direction of the refugees pouring in from the east, recovering from an open heart and his teeth being pulled out (to avoid any infection), Cameron wrote “Indian Summer”. Somewhat of a memoir, something of his observations about India (and Britain) and sketches about cities, our people and personalities that we are familiar with, or not or have been expected to revere.
If you do not like writing which is frank and provides honest feedback, this book isn’t for you. Especially, if you are Indian or British and if you are “liberal” minded. James Cameron, working for a “lightish” journalistic assignment, is back in India as he had been a few times, in the last three decades. It is clear from his writing, his relationship with the nation is like that with a feisty mistress who loves, hates, gives tremendous heart ache, is vengeful and yet sets the bed aflame in the night, in the morning and in the afternoon. All without notice, unpredictably. And the marks (of all those) remain.
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What was serendipitous for me was discovering that his young bride Monisha Cameron (later married Denis Forman, after Cameron’s passing away) was from Bangalore and that he spent some time here, working and musing over the way people around were. Her father was a police officer (then retired) and had taken residence in a bungalow, with a retinue of servants right here in Richards Town, in Bangalore where I currently live. Cameron mentions many things which are familiar in this neighbourhood, and also other places and local institutions of the city that we Bangaloreans have grown to be fond of, like the Westend Hotel (now a Taj).
With Moni (fondly referred to thus), he goes through journeys and much else. He speaks of his arrival at Bombay airport only to realise that the hotel where his reservations were supposed to be, have not received the telegram. While he tries to resurrect the reservation or get accommodation in a different hotel. He writes “…they looked back at us with patient, courteous indifference, hoping we would go away. They had all the time in the world and we had not; They could afford to wait.
In this situation, India will always win. There is no purpose in being right if one is powerless …”
His humour is beyond cheeky, and style of writing almost gleeful. His observations, as the newly married couple travel through Calcutta, Madras, Delhi, Bombay and parts of Rajasthan, are nothing short of merciless and scathing, but polite. His admiration open and honest. Consider these.
He had spent some time with Nehru, even riding together every morning in Simla, and were much more than acquaintances. Apart from much else, he describes Nehru as a “purposeless tyrant”. Similarly, he finds Jinnah to be more concerned about his attire than even what was to be Pakistan. He recounts that Jinnah had run away from an interview upon noticing that his servant had dressed him in a pair of not matching cufflinks.
One senses faint but mixed admiration for Mrs. Gandhi and absolute disgust for Attlee, and the then British government during India’s independence and cleaving.
He comments on the corruption, the filth, rows of Indians doing their morning number two, facing away from railway tracks. Cameron, towards the beginning, uses verbiage from Naipaul “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate mostly by the railway tracks…”. Naipaul gives much consideration to this phenomenon in An Area of Darkness as does Cameron. But, then again if you are unable to appreciate Naipaul’s jabs about India, you won’t Cameron’s either.
He shows sympathy for the thousands of Hindu refugees coming in from East Pakistan, spends time with the then Maharana of Jodhpur. Jodhpur, he was young then, speaks about the removal of the privy purse, but with less hurt than the rubbing of the nose in dirt that Mrs. Gandhi deliberately gave all the erstwhile princely states.
His admiration, for Nirad Choudhuri, the latter used to live somewhere near Asaf Ali Road in Delhi those days, is sky high and unadulterated; but mixed with some sympathy. “…Choudhuri was for me by far and away the most interesting and complicated English writer in contemporary India”. “I greatly wish I could read as much, and remember as much, as that little Nirad Choudhuri. I know I shall never be able to do that”. Of the Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which was dedicated “To the British Empire…”, he describes the Indian intelligentsia immediately swallowing the bait and twittering with indignation. “Having read no more than the dedication they did not appreciate that it was a monstrous tease…”. Not much, sadly, has changed in India even now. The intelligentsia is the same, their malaises likewise.
His views of some of our cities seem rather relevant and astute. Of Madras, he writes “Madras has not the second hand self importance of New Delhi nor the hysterical ugliness of Bombay, it is a million miles from the despairing horrors of Calcutta. It is an agreeable, rather boring place; it is the sort of place I would be if I were a town.”
Cameron’s writing in a way is something like that of Malcom Muggeridge, rather stylish in a literary sense, but autobiographical and yet journalistic in nature. With the backdrop of his recent marriage, perhaps makes his story more compassionate than just plain journalistic essay in long form. He is self-deprecating often, slightly morose about his age, the accident, the surgeries, and his ill-health.
By the way, those of you know only James Cameron the movie director might want to look up the journalist (also author of more than a dozen books). He was good enough for a prize to be instituted in his name, for journalism. Since 2017, the University of London kept the memorial lecture, but the prize was replaced by the Eric Robbins prize.
His prose is tight, observations beautiful and the book, slim and deceptively delightful, superbly entertaining and honest.