Let Them Eat Cake
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The phrase “Let them eat cake” became infamous as a quote reportedly uttered by Queen Marie Antoinette when she was informed of the grave hunger being experienced by the majority of the French populace. There is, however, no historical construct that would support her utterance of such a phrase. It first appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, whose first six stories were written in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was approximately nine years old. Noted as being a relatively unreliable narrative to begin with, Confessions’s phrase nevertheless struck a chord and became a key facet of language used to describe the pain of economic disparity. The same language could easily be applied to the British Raj in India on multiple levels and you wouldn’t even have to replace “cake” with a traditional Indian dessert like rasmalai (which is delicious, by the way, and you should eat it). There’s a small privileged line of aristocracy, divided by hierarchies just as much as their colonial subjects. In every aspect of a social cycle, there is stratification, a belief in a specific hierarchical morality ironically void of all of it to begin with. Ralph and Madeleine, dressed for their engagement as the two doomed French monarchs (which came as a bit of a surprise, considering that he is British) do more than present a potential metaphorical piece of foreshadowing. They’re personifying that divide even within their own walls, let alone against all who are outside those privileged walls.
The Imperial powers would never have been able to have existent Imperial roots without the exploitation of divides within the colonial lands to begin with. That’s not an excuse for Imperial behavior in any context (I’m Indian, myself, if “Akash” wasn’t a giveaway), but it does provide for a more complex and realistic outlook on the realities of the era. Divide and conquer is the name of such a principle, whereupon it became much easier for every colonial power to entrench itself into a land and brutally exploit it. India may have made the caste system illegal but its vestiges remain so powerful one could only imagine how powerful it was when it had the legality of the justice system on its side. The British were able to not just exploit the vast regional alliances and enemies but also the caste system brutally. Their relationship with the Maharajas, as the Viceroy points out, is what helps keep the British as firmly in power as they are in that moment. Ralph’s appeal to the untouchables through the ingenious Dr. Kamble (with an Emmy-worthy performance from Sanjeev Bhaskar) could have put that in danger, but his gamble to undercut Gandhi’s Congress by supporting Dr. Kamble pays off for the moment at least. If the British were able to form an alliance with the vastly numerous untouchables, the power of the Congress Party would inevitably be cut and the flower of rebellion would wither and die more quickly than its root could entrench themselves in the soil. And thereupon lied the whole tragedy of the affair, where overcoming a despicable prejudice proved more difficult than the right to a dignified self-determination.
The most taxing part of Indian Summers so far was not necessarily the pacing (although complaints about that have been heard of) but the characterizations. Bits and pieces were dropped off so the characters became engaging, but few of them were truly relatable until this batch of episodes arrives. Ralph, Alice, and Aafrin are a handful of examples where increased screen time and authentic engagement have given them multiple shadings that simultaneously manage to advance the plot. Ralph’s ambitious viceroyship was intriguing enough but his story simply couldn’t move forward on the aspect of his political career alone. His doomed romance with Jaya that produced a child is easily the most riveting aspect of his personal story yet, adding multiple shades to a man who was having a traditional Indian meal yet represented the British bureaucracy. At last the audience becomes privy to what truly ties Ralph to India and why he hesitates at every chance to go back to his nominal home. Sarah had been doggedly suggesting that she would expose the truth about Alice’s husband and here Alice’s truth is revealed and it’s thankfully not as melodramatic as one would expect. Alice simply fell out of love with her husband, a love that was ephemeral but under societal pressure she kept herself bound to it until it became too much. She took her child and left. Aafrin’s desire to keep himself bound to his job was understandable considering how much his family depended on his ascending fortunes. But his resentment at being that crux is firmly justified. He wants to be his own individual and chart his own path forward but he’s stuck.
On a thrilling plot level alone, this batch of Summers was fantastic. The garden of debauchery was a great touch as is the continuing motif of all the Brits getting it on right before their servants uncomfortably shift towards the other side. By far the greatest kiss, however, arrived right in the midst of a barrage of rain streaming through the garden, its hazy mist obscuring so much in its path. Aafrin’s father spoke to his wife of his time in the Great War, when he had formed a relationship with the most loyal of mules. He had to stand by as they were shot down, one by one, wondering why they didn’t run or scream. They trusted him, the man with whom they had formed a bond of compassion and love so deep that when that moment of truth arrived, their trust was stronger than their fear. There is, despite all of the clichés surrounding this concept, very little that is more powerful than love. Alice and Aafrin’s attachment had always simmered in the summer breeze but it caught fire in the monsoon in a sudden moment. The smoking guns both are harboring between one another, however, could catch fire just as quickly and the monsoon may not arrive in time to put those fires out.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above (Episode Five):
+“Do you know what it is to be born untouchable?”
+“That day will come.”
+“My father always said it would be my undoing.” Foreshadowing, perhaps?
+Kamble’s father was hung for drawing water out of the local tank and their home was burned
+“You can’t live outside the club.”
+“I’m a queen. Not a princess.”
+“I have the horrible feeling that she wants to save you.”
+“You sound like a waiter.”
+Leela’s scenes were quiet but wonderfully crafted
+The Maharaja and Dr. Kamble shake hands
+“This isn’t more divide and rule?”
+“Stop making stupid speeches you don’t even mean.” Preach, Sooni. Preach.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above (Episode Six):
+“Maybe one day he will Viceroy himself.”
+“I’m running away. Can’t you tell?”
+“No one speaks for me, Captain Farquhar.”
+“I taught them to love me.”
+The framing of a dichotomy between Alice and Aafrin
+“I realized I didn’t love him.…I tried to be unhappy. Other people seem to manage it, don’t they?”
+“And did you find what you were looking for?”
“Yes. For a moment.”
+“It can be our secret.”
+“The only thing he’ll be invited to participate in is a hasty exit.”
+“I didn’t take to him, either.”
+Has Ralph does anything as satisfying as throw Captain Farquhar down the stairs?
+“Get hold of the horse chappie. He’s had a few, but I dare say he can stitch.”
+“I don’t need rescuing.”
+Damn you, Aafrin, for leaving right before Alice introduced Percy to him.
+The thematic ideals of “Spectemur agendo”, meaning “Let us be judged by our acts” were fantastically sprinkled throughout and indeed, the deeds were many, few, and always damning.
Episode Title: Episode 5
Alternative Title: The Monsoon
Written by: Paul Rutman
Directed by: Jamie Payne
Episode Title: Episode 6
Alternative Title: Spectemur agendo
Written by: Paul Rutman
Directed by: Jamie Payne
Image Courtesy: Masterpiece PBS