Having recently returned from the idyllic Solomon Islands, Will Randall is having terrible time teaching in an inner-city comprehensive. During a class visit to an art gallery a chance encounter with an eccentric Dutchwoman presents an opportunity to escape. The woman is Maria-Helena von Würfelwerfer and Randall agrees to be her chaperone as she travels to India to join her elderly Maharaja lover. Once Maria-Helena is safely delivered, Will finds himself in the unusual position of having nowhere in particular to go and nothing in particular to do - until he is charmed by the children of an ashram for orphans and agrees to become their English teacher. When pressure mounts from local developers the school faces the threat of closure and Randall and the other volunteers come up with a plan to raise the money required to save it.
"Indian Summer" is a thoroughly engaging biographical account of Randall's time in Poona; he writes well and comes across as a very likeable chap. Although he was clearly touched by the experience he isn't over sentimental and despite his obvious love for the school and the children, he doesn't use the book as a means of ranting about the injustice of it all. That said, there's still a lot of personality evident; Will Randall is a perceptive and witty guy with a good sense of humour who can't say no. However I have to say that I wasn't sure about him at first. In the opening section that covers his time in the British comprehensive school, I felt that he was a bit unfair towards some of the characters and trying too hard to be funny. However, when he gets to India we see a softer side to him and this appears to be a result of him taking the time to get to know people. As relationships become deeper, Will often re-evaluates his initial perceptions of people and changes his opinion. Initially he made me think of writers like Bill Bryson and perhaps this is the sort of stuff Bryson might produce had he more time to get to know people and places. Bryson's views are usually created from brief visits and his immediate reaction can often seem harsh and critical but Randall's were tempered with the experience that comes with time.
If there is one aspect that stands out above any other it is the brilliant way Randall points out just how much India is a country of contrasts; we see the poverty of the slums where the ashram is situated and, on the other hand, the wealth and glitz of Bollywood and the Indian film industry when the sudden re-appearance of the Dutchwoman presents Randall with another offer he can't refuse. But it's the descriptions of the poorer areas that really stand out, the areas that most western visitors don't get to see (or strategically avoid) and with Randall's talent I could easily picture the squalor of the slums, feel the hunger of beggars and smell the stench of raw sewage.
He is also very skilled at describing the people and "Indian Summer" is full of colourful portraits. Who couldn't fall for these wonderful children? There's little Tanushri who's obsessed with the popstar "Maradonna" and poor, tragic Dulabesh who, like many of India's street children is classed as an orphan because he simply became lost from his parents, in his case he let go of his mother's hand at a crowded train station. It would have been easy, though, to focus on the sad plight of these children. However, Randall paints a picture of resilience, life must go on and in "Indian Summer" he shows how vibrant and full of joy life can be, too. There's a wonderful account of a cricket match which is so exciting that it might nearly convince me to go to watch some, though I am sure no match in England could be as fun as this one.
If there's one thing that I don't like about this book it's that I find Will Randall a bit too good to be true, perhaps a little too earnest at times. Of course, this is just a personality thing. The truth is that in spite of the more tragic moments "Indian Summer" is an enjoyable feel good read. If you are the sort of person who has longed to go off and do something useful in the world, this may well be the book to persuade you to do it!