Well-travelled Joanna Lumley retraces her roots in an exploration of modern India.
Why is India so special to you on a personal level?
I was born in India and lived there until I was nearly a year old. My parents were brought up in India and they had family on both sides going back to the 18th century. They said that, no matter how long you live there, you will never really know India, because it’s too big and too complex. This was quite a challenge for us making the programme – where to start? I just wanted to show things and places which were not the obvious tourist spots.
Was it emotional at times?
My father and my sister were both born in what is now Pakistan but was India at the time. We didn’t visit there, and some chunks of my family history are missing, but yes, it is a bit of a personal journey. It’s lovely when I can say my grandfather lived here or that picture is my uncle over there. It was quite something going back to Kashmir; I’ve been back before, but each time I think, this is where I drew my first breath, and it was in India, and it was here in Srinagar. It made me feel very humble.
How did you feel about seeing the British Residency, where your mother grew up?
It was lovely in Sikkim. I come from an unsentimental family because we moved all the time. It was home to us for a bit, but it wasn’t our home, it was where the political officer (my grandfather) lived at the time. It was special to see, but we come from a travelling tribe. That said, I felt a strange feeling of sudden happiness knowing my mother, as a little girl, rode her pony across the ground I was standing on.
You experienced both extremes of India, the excess and the poverty. Were you surprised by anything you saw?
I think what surprised me this time was how much India has changed since my last visit, about six years ago. It seems much cleaner. Also, I was shocked by how many plastic bags they use – 10 million a day are thrown away. I was taken aback by the progress of India: Mumbai and Delhi are supercities now. Gurugram, next to Delhi, is called a cyber city; it’s like something from a science-fiction film, the buildings they have created and the progress they have made. India really is a sensational country.
What were the highlights from this series for you?
It’s impossible to pick – so, so many. The beauty of the Ellora Caves in Aurangabad, which are temples carved in great detail out of rock; the excavation is as deep as the height of St Paul’s Cathedral. Also, meeting the Dalai Lama; seeing elephants in the wild; filming tigers; visiting some of the poorest people in the world; staying with a [modernday] maharaja – I haven’t got a favourite, except every day waking up in India was special.
JOANNA LUMLEY’S INDIA, Living, Sky 017, Sunday, 8.30pm.
This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.