Events in India of nearly 40 years ago are in the news all at once. The television series, The Jewel in the Crown, has touched the public’s nerve—not necessarily the raw nerve. The reaction has been so strong that the chemistry of success deserves close scrutiny.

The exploitation of India’s resources is an old story. The litany of complaints about colonial times are best left to the annals of pedantry. As an American put it, “In 1947, the Raj went into the garage.” Unlike the English who have established, for better or for worse, a love-hate relationship with India, Americans are newcomers to the scene. Their enthusiasm for The Jewel in the Crown has more to do with the quality of acting than any innate curiosity about the Raj. Civilized acting, nurtured in the British theater since Elizabethan times, is still to be found in the very blood of good English actors. Americans are always impressed with a British accent—even a bad one. Walter Lippmann took it upon himself to remind Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador to the Court of St. James during World War II, that there was more to the English than their accent.

In any event, good books make fine television. The Jewel in the Crown is not fast-paced. Though there are scenes both sensuous and sexual, these never cater to “prurient interests”—a far cry from the lurid display of wealth, power, and sex available on Dallas and Dynasty, as well as others of more recent vintage, like Berringer’s and Falcon Crest. There is nothing snobbish about watching a television series or not seeing it. President Mitterrand is hooked on Dallas. And a significant symposium of French and American intellectuals tried to iron out the Gallic criticism that their culture was being Americanized. (In an intriguing verbal showdown, novelist William Styron lashed out at his French counterparts. No one, Styron argued, was forced to watch Dallas, a television hit in France as well.) But in its level of achievement, The Jewel in the Crown is in a class by itself.

Its success does not depend on the popularity of its subject. With few exceptions, Americans have had it with the Indian export syndrome of gurus, meditation, and incense. Gone are the days of Gunga Din, too. Life pulsates in America and whether it is fair or not the pundits can decide, but what succeeds on television is some indication of popular taste. The Jewel in the Crown has reached a wide audience because it has aroused the public’s imagination. Unfortunately, very little is left to the imagination in most television series. It is one thing to be on edge, anxious to know, well, what’s   next?   It   is quite   another feat when a viewer begins to wonder at the world around him, even events which preceded him. It is a remarkable tribute to The Jewel in the Crown that we think, repeatedly, about the whys of people’s actions. Sadly enough, so few television series make us at all philosophical. It is good to enjoy, no doubt, even to be enthralled, and let forget one’s cares. But only a daring television series, after entertaining us, “Vibrates in the memory.” A few of the characters assume a life so real that we begin to wonder about the author’s real-life associations. Now, here for a change, is an exciting doctoral thesis. Pure detective work. Upon whom did Paul Scott base his cast of characters that they have left us spellbound by their lives in The Raj Quartet?

Born in London in 1920, Paul Scott served in the army from 1940 to 1946, in India and what is now Malaysia. He did a stint as a literary agent for four years. Then, during the last 18 years of his life, he devoted himself to writing. The 13 novels he wrote are usually described as “distinguished,” but he made his living reviewing books for The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, and Country Life. Scottdied in 1978.

The 14 episodes (15 hours) of The Jewel in the Crown are set in an India no longer content with British rule, at the time of the riots and discontent preceding the granting of independence in 1947. It is the story of the men and women of both backgrounds (English and Indian), whose lives were irrevocably affected by the great changes taking place around them.

The series has become a sort of ritual in New York, where it is aired at 9 p.m. on Sundays.  Viewers have begun to reschedule their evenings. A German writer, now living in Manhattan, said, “I gave my dinner guests a choice. Eat before or after The Jewel in the Crown.  I shall not be disturbed during its broadcast.” Her guests went along with her suggestion.

The Jewel in the Crown is not cinema verité; it does not provide an immediate understanding of India, or the Raj. But to its credit each hour episode exposes us to a different India. In each episode, we are led through doors opening onto other worlds, each so different that we begin to comprehend what   motivated   the   rulers   and the ruled. The world, say, of a club frequented only by the English is a far cry from the world of even a middle-class Indian family.

Sir Dennis Forman, chairman of Granada Television, who was based in India as a British officer during World War II, conceived The Jewel in the Crown. Scott’s Quartet,” he said, “is an epic story on the scale of War and Peace. It introduces a gallery of characters every bit as real as those in Tolstoy’s novel and like them, playing out their parts within a greater plot concerned with national politics and world war.”

British critics, normally reticent, hailed the television series with rare superlatives- “powerful,” “admirable”-and compared its hold on viewers to that of (Waugh’s) Brideshead Revisited. Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Tim Pigott-Smith, Geraldine James, and Judy Parfitt head the huge cast. Art Malik gives a splendid performance as Bari Kumar. Veteran Indian actors Saeed Jaffrey and Zia Mohyeddin provided the series with a touch it might otherwise have lacked. They, as well as the British actors, created an era in transition that is bound to remain haunting whenever any viewer, in the future, will turn to see The Jewel in the Crown.

Myapore, India, where Scott’s phenomenal saga begins in 1942, is bound to be compared with E. M. Forster’s Chandrapore. Rape is also at the heart of both Forster’s A Passage to India and Scott’s The Raj Quartet. There is yet another temptation for literary sleuths to review Scott’s Quartet with Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Mary Renault’s quartet based on Alexander the Great and his age.

Beyond that, readers and viewers are inevitably struck by the imagination which summoned up these melancholy experiences, real and imagined, which could only be the result of a profound understanding and love of India.