OK, so I promised you a review of some of the travel books I have read and here is the first of a comparative review of three books on India. Second and third to follow......
First up, Will Randall's Indian Summer.
This is a memoir written about an adventure Will Randall had during a summer he spent in India. A secondary school teacher in London, Randall takes out his class of thirteen year olds on a field trip to a London Art Gallery, one day and by chance, bumps into a elderly retired school teacher who is a docent at the gallery. They get to chatting and she asks him if he has ever been to India. When he says no she urges him to go and offers to pay for a return ticket for him if he will accompany her on an upcoming trip she is planning. In return for the free ticket he will carry her baggage, accompany her to dinner and be available for any assistance she might require during the journey. He thinks about this for some time and decides to take the chance, so he gives up his job. They head first to Bombay for a few days then onto Pune. After they arrive in Pune she heads off to visit a long time friend and Will is free to return home or stay, as he chooses. He decides to stay for a while.
What ensues is an story of compassion and determination. Randall becomes enchanted with a local ashram which is run by the kindly Chavurat and his wife Harshada and he begins to help them and the children who live there. The ashram acts as home to several adopted orphans and a day school for all comers from the nearby slum. Amongst the children there are many notable characters which Randal describes with great clarity. The ashram and the slum becomes threatened by some local developers who use strong arm tactics to scare the residents in the hope that they will move away, after which the developers plan to clear the land and build an office complex. Eventually the children get an opportunity to showcase the work of the ashram in the hope that it will be saved from demolition. They do this by putting on a play and Randall becomes the producer, director and orchestrates the final performance.
"Learning as much as he is teaching, Will finds his life transformed by this remarkable class of orphans: Dulabesh, the head-standing joker who lost his parents on a crowded railway platform: Prakask, who learned self-sufficiency the hard way by scavenging through skips: the nutty yet charming Tanushri, fan of the singer 'Maradona'. When the slum barons threaten to level the school, Will hits upon the idea of a fund raising play to save it: the 24,000 verse Ramayana, ever so slightly condensed...."
It is a lovely story and the characters are very well drawn. I particularly like the description of an outing Randall arranged for the children as a surprise and the sense of wonder they all felt whilst taking the bus journey. I couldn't help but compare the British children's reaction to the school trip we had previously encountered in London. Of course, these two events are purposely included to draw the reader into making a comparison between 'have's and have not's' and he himself comes to conclusions that are not very flattering about the sense of entitlement the British children demonstrate in their daily life as opposed to that of gratitude in the Indian children's lives.
If there is one negative thing about this book it is that I was left with a sense that Randall (or maybe the marketers of the book) were somewhat conceited and gloated a little too much about the good work he had done with the children. It annoyed me to see the sub title "A Good Man in Asia" and the blurb on the back page which said "Will Randall thought teaching in an inner London comprehensive was a difficult job. But that was nothing compared to his next assignment: saving a slum school in the Indian city of Pune". Saving the school and putting on the play was by no means a solo effort. Even the dedication at the beginning of the book stung me a little "This is a book for anyone who thinks it might be worth adding their drop to the ocean". For me, the story was about children who have to live a challenging life each and every day and survive against all odds and was not about someone who drops into their world for a month or so, thinks that they have fixed everything, basks in glory for a while after which they dash of to another awaiting adventure. It was this lack of modesty that just took the edge off what was otherwise a lovely book.
What do you think, am I being over sensitive about this?