A few months ago, my friend Gavin’s mum Pat very kindly sent me a book through the post that she thought I’d enjoy. It was Will Randall’s Botswana Time. I liked it immensely, and told her so – and then, a few weeks later, another book dropped through the letterbox and onto the mat: Indian Summer by the same author. So given the many happy hours I've been spending on the sofa with Will Randall, so to speak, those are the two books that I’m reviewing this month.
Will Randall, an affable British schoolteacher who’s chucked in the chalk and taken to globetrotting instead, travels to South Africa for a friend’s wedding. At the reception dinner, the man sitting next to him tells him that, if he’s a teacher, he’d better go and see his mate Graham in Kasane, Botswana; Graham runs a little school in the bush. An overland bus journey and a car crash later, and it’s in Kasane that Randall finds himself. And when Graham, the headmaster, and his pregnant wife take off for the maternity units of Cape Town, Randall finds himself in charge. Botswana Time is an easy, amiable read, full of larger-than-life characters and perpetually smiling children. Randall touches on the issues – AIDS, racism and their ilk – but this book’s charm lies in its almost childlike simplicity and happiness. Inter-schools football matches assume terrific importance, as does Randall and his charges’ slightly hairy trip into the African bush: on the way home Randall takes a wrong turn down a remote track, darkness falls and – thank goodness – they are rescued by the manager of a game-hunting camp. But even then, the children grin and their parents don’t grumble when they return home a day late. It’s a delightfully contented story, and one that leaves readers wondering if they, too, wouldn’t do better to pack their bags and run from the woes of the world into the refuge of a small school in Africa.
Same theme, different continent. This time Randall is asked by a wealthy elderly woman to carry her bags as she travels to meet an old lover in India. She’ll pay for his ticket and, once he’s there, he can do as he pleases. As apples fall to the earth, so Randall gravitates towards a classroom full of cheerful children. This time, they live in an ashram in one of India’s countless slums – this one happens to be in the city of Poona. There are some truly heartbreaking realities here, especially in the stories that brought the children to the ashram. That two of them have watched their father murder their mother, and seen her burst into flames after being doused in kerosene, is horrific enough, but the tale that I found, somehow, to the most breathtakingly dreadful was that of the child from a loving family who, at the age of four, simply lost his parents in a crowded Calcutta railway station. Trying to get home, he boarded the wrong train and ended up on entirely the opposite side of this vast, confusing country. And that was that. He had never been reunited with his family but lived as an orphan in a city slum.
This is a Will Randall story, however, so goodness and warmth shine through, even in the nasty bits. There’s a smattering of glamour – Randall is given a role in a Bollywood movie – but, as in Botswana Time, it’s not the film stars but the children that steal the show. This they do quite literally, in the end, when they stage a fundraising performance to save the ashram from the vicious goondas. And does everyone live happily ever after? Well, probably not. The challenges, realistically, are too great. But with Indian Summer, a brief shaft of tenderness shines on a tiny fraction of India’s slum society, and it’s heartwarming stuff.