In the canon of imperial literature, The Rains Came is quite an unusual book. At first, it appears to be a fairly run of the mill book about an Indian outpost in the declining years of the Indian Raj. But just as you think that this is a very predictable book about a small group of inward looking, back-biting and not particularly nice characters all trying to get one up on one another, the book suddenly takes a number of drastic turns as a series of disasters strike the arch-typical Indian town of Ranchipur. The way that the characters deal with earthquake, floods and fires forms the keystone of what becomes a surprisingly interesting take on British India in the 1930s.
The author, Louis Bromfield, was actually an American who was familiar with India and indeed started writing the book whilst visiting the country in 1933. As an American, he does have a different perspective on the India struggling to gain independence from Britain in the 1930s. He also adds some American characters, some of whom bring some folksy Mid-Western wisdom of which he obviously approves. In fact, one of the most important characters is the daughter of American missionaries whose maturation and love life form an increasingly important focal point for the book. Not that all of the American characters are a beacon of enlightenment, the mother is shown to be one of the most hollow and shallow of characters who seems to learn little from dealing with the disasters and setbacks.
The other key characters are jaded aristocrat and World War One veteran, Tom Ransome and the conniving and selfish Lady Esketh who arrives in town with her fabulously rich husband to visit the local Maharajah on business. These two characters have a history between each other that shapes the first part of the book as they are both drawn and repelled by one another's character and the opportunities before them. Meanwhile, many of the other inhabitants of the town, of lesser standing, are in awe of the titles and wealth of the Eskeths in particular and mostly fall over one another to impress them or be noticed by them. This book actually does a far better job at fleshing out the foibles of its characters than the 1939 Hollywood film was able to do. But at nearly 600 pages, it has plenty of room to develop character.
One of the interesting aspects of reading a book written during the period that it depicts is that it fully understands and portrays a lot of the contemporary ideas, politics and hinterland of the era. So when one Indian character is keen on developing India using Western technology and methods, he is reminded that merely copying the West could lead to the same self-destructive path that Japan of the 1930s was heading down. A comment like that might not be fully understood by post-Second World War generations used to a positive spin on Japanese development. But in the 1930s, fascism and military dictatorship were very real threats and this book hints at those dark clouds in places. There is also the Russian emigre who had fled the Communist revolution in her own country and had become a stateless person seeking companionship and solace wherever she could. Again, the 1930s World was full of Russian emigres from Shanghai to Paris to New York and would have been familiar and appreciated by readers in the 1930s. The book also notes some of the tensions even between Indians on how much they should rely on their own history and culture and how much they should borrow from the West - again very real concerns even in the Indian Independence movements of the 1930s.
Not that Western development is portrayed as an entirely beneficial force in this book. Indeed, the earthquake and heavy rains by themselves are amplified in destructive power by the shoddy work on the dam that was supposed to provide irrigation and fresh water. But unscrupulous contractors and middle men are shifting contracts and companies around the World in all too familiar financial shenanigans designed to deflect responsibility and accountability - something that we may have considered as being an exclusively modern phenomenon!
How the characters deal and react to the series of disasters is where the book's soul lies. Some of the, hitherto, pillars of society turn to alcohol, panic or fall to pieces. Others become numb to the death and destruction around them and meekly and fatalistically accept whatever fate has in store for them. Yet more seem find a heroism and a new strength and vigour that they had been unaware existed within them. The key characters in particular re-evaluate their lives and relationships as they begin to re-prioritise what, and who, is important to them. The fact that Ranchipur is cut off from aid by destroyed bridges, trains tracks and roads gives the characters the necessary time and space to have to organise themselves and deal with the after effects of the disasters as diseases like cholera and typhoid add to the misery. Ultimately, the modern World does intrude by sending a suitably modern plane to investigate. Although it transpires that even this meagre effort seems to confirm the prejudices of the era by the fact that its mission was actually in seeking only to rescue Lord and Lady Esketh. However, the fate and reaction of Lord and Lady Esketh challenges at least some of these prejudices and more nurses, doctors and soldiers eventually get through to aid and rebuild the shattered community - with the help of some of the reformed characters who look at the town with new and fresh eyes after the disasters that befell it.
The book is written very clearly and there are numerous sub-plots that take surprising deviations. I am sure that the portrayal of some of the Indians, especially the Maharajah and Maharani, might be considered 'Orientalist', but this would be too simplistic. In fact, the Indian doctor is a surprisingly complex character and the Maharajah's advisers take a spectrum of attitudes to India and its future. What allows this book to get away with some stereotyping is that it is a contemporary account and would have been regarded as remarkably modern in its portrayal of Indian and European relationships in the 1930s. It is sometimes hard for modern readers to grasp the eras portrayed in novels but it is often easier doing so through the prism of an author who actually lived, worked and understood that World - with its political realities, its hinterland and its prejudices. I for one prefer reading contemporary authors writing about their own era than to read modern authors attempting to write about someone else's past. The contemporary author does not always even know when he is shining light on his own World as he takes it so much for granted! But he often lets light get through on the most surprising of subjects.