Joanna Lumley loves India but she also knows her limits. Asked to front a new three-part series about the country, she wondered whether she could do it justice. “You could spend six million years and you wouldn’t get anywhere near really understanding India,” she says. “It’s elusive, forever changing.”
The actress is better placed than many to understand this: she was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, in the last days of the Raj and her family ties go back several generations.
It allows her to bring a personal touch to a series in which, criss-crossing this vast nation, she explores India’s extraordinary diversity and contradictions in the year it marks the 70th anniversary of its independence.
Joanna and her older sister Aelene were largely raised in rural Kent – to which the Lumley family returned from India just after partition – but grew up listening to stories of their parents’ colonial life amid the mountains and clear air of Kashmir.
Their father, Major James Lumley, had served with the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and while his memories were coloured by his experiences in Burma during the war, there were many happy, colourful expat tales of polo, dogs and horses.
“There were these heavenly stories, like the one about a parade where suddenly the General’s horse decided to go backwards through the marching troops,” Lumley, 71, recalls. “Daddy would cry with laughter telling it.”
Meanwhile, her mother Thya had grown up enjoying life as a diplomat’s daughter in Sikkim, in the north east, where Joanna’s maternal grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel James Weir, was political officer. While she was educated in England, Thya spent her formative years at the Governer’s Lodge in Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok.
While filming, Lumley was able to visit her mother’s childhood home, catching a glimpse of the exact spot where the eight-year-old Thya is captured astride her beloved pony in a treasured black and white photograph.
“Some things have changed – the trees have grown, there are more buildings – but in essence it was the same,” she says now. “It was very, very touching. There was something special about being there with the memory of my mother as a little girl. You get a glimpse into another life.”
It is a life that is not viewed, of course, altogether kindly through the prism of history. And while the programme stays away from partition itself, Lumley acknowledges that the legacy of British rule is equally tricky territory.
“First of all we must start by saying that I don’t think there’s a country in the world who would relish being ruled by outsiders,” she says. “But at the same time there were obvious things that the British did in India, too: railways, schooling, law courts. They brought in a kind of civil service and the bureaucracy, which Indians have taken to like ducks to water. These are the good stories. The bad stories are, in essence, that nobody wants to be ruled by somebody else.”
For all that, what she discovered on her travels is that, for most Indians, India’s colonial past is now largely an irrelevance.
“Most of the population today never knew India under British rule, so it’s a part of history for them, they don’t talk about it any more than we sit here talking about the Second World War,” Lumley says. “We know about it, but it doesn’t affect us. So those we met were always thrilled to hear that we were from Britain, but there was no overweening sense of either curiosity or shame or anger or resentment.”
It was, instead, less the legacy of occupation but India’s contradictions that struck her most: the vast gulf between rich and poor, the curious mix of modern and medieval thinking. Today, the maharajahs Lumley’s parents described to her, with their sacks of uncut emeralds and dinner services of solid gold, have been replaced with tech billionaires. But in both cases there is a common thread, their lives playing out just whiskers away from what Lumley calls “unbelievable squalor and poverty”.
One homeless community she visited in Delhi lies under a newly built multimillion-pound flyover. “Overhead, there is this city of unimaginable wealth going about its business. Below, there were rats the size of cats just running over our feet and sewage and filth, dogs scavenging. For these people there is no work, no hope at all. Some people have lived there for decades,” she says. “It’s terribly hard to reconcile.”
Meeting the country’s Dalit community – the untouchables – was also heart-breaking for her. “One of Gandhi’s tenets was that there should be no such thing as an untouchable caste. And everybody adores Gandhi, but time passes and suddenly it’s a case of, ‘Oh, well, he probably meant they should do the sweeping and the cleaning.’ So actually the untouchables have not disappeared at all.”
And while India has proved forward-thinking enough to become the first in the world to recognise transgender people as a third gender, in reality it has given them little in the way of status. On camera, Lumley meets three transgender girls who tell her they are only accepted by their family because of the money they bring in through dancing and sex work.
“You can see the complications for families – they are poor people, desperate, and what good is a transgender creature, because they want either a hardworking man or a marriageable girl, but God, I felt for those girls,” she says. “One of them was going off to turn a few tricks that night. They charge nothing, ten rupees [about 12p].”
The counterpoint to these poignant stories was both the country’s physical beauty and the spirit of its people. Lumley recalls the ethereal, gold and peach “cow-dust light” of Gujarat’s Aravalli hills, created by the soft clouds of dust sent into the air by returning livestock as the sun sets. “You think, is there anything lovelier than this?”
More than anything, it is the warmth of the many Indians she met, particularly the poor, that has stayed with her since her return. “The thing I hold in my heart is the generosity of people who’ve got absolutely nothing: their courtesy. There’s a kind of extraordinary grace, I’ve noticed. It is an honour for you to visit their house and to sit on their special seat. It touched me enormously.”
She hopes the series will inspire viewers to discover this for themselves. “I want people not to be afraid,” she says. “There’s a kind of nervousness among people who like to have a hot shower every day in the same place. And I want to say, sometimes you might have to wash in a bucket but that’s OK, we’re only people. Be a little bit brave and bold. You will experience something wonderful.”
Joanna Lumley’s India is on Wednesday at 9pm on ITV
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