I have recently set myself the task of watching as many soaps and serials on Indian TV as possible, both in Gujarati and Hindi, and sometimes if I am feeling very cool, in other languages. I am doing this as homework, as someone who wants to produce something different, more real. The last time I saw so many programmes was a few years ago and then they were way over the top. Had anything changed, I wondered.
Looking at our serials, we would be convinced that all Indians lived in homes the size of football fields. That all Indian women wore thirty carat gems to bed and that their eye make-up collection must take a full cupboard. That bad Bollywood had entered the small screen. The stories, though some with a couple of good ideas, are unbelievable, unrealistic.
The characters remain “good” or “bad”, “sati” or “vamp”. The scheming women are ever present as are the Thakurs of UP and Rajasthan and the ‘ki gal hai ji’ of Punjab. And yes of course now there are some mock Gujju families too, dressed and behaving similarly. Who could think these were real? Or was our aspirational nature driving us to wanting this. Men pulling out guns and sabres and women making strange faces to show they were plotting revenge?
Luckily for me, a few weeks ago I was a speaker at a translation conference called Tarjuma, where English language publishers had put up tables of new translations from various Indian languages. Being an inveterate reader and non kindle book lover, I pounced on all the authors I had not read, on Dalit literature from the South and North East, and much more beside. And what a wealth of real India is on display there! There are characters who are people, not parodies, situations which come out of our lives and those around us and not out of script writers’ dreams to make our nightmares.
Asokamitran is a Tamil author I have read before. Sarah Joseph from Kerala opens up the world of Kottayam Christians, the domineering and oppressive presence of the church and the need of every family to give up one child to that holy institution, however disinclined she or he might be.
And then I discovered another Tamil writer, Sundara Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy wrote short stories in two bursts, between 1951 and 1966, and then in the 1970s. And his characters are unforgettable; you can see them, smell them, hear their thoughts. In a story titled ‘Our Teacher’, two lady teachers in an otherwise male-dominated school become close friends and the best of maths teachers.
Till their students get pitted against one another, and the new teacher’s student wins a prize always won by a student of the old one. The story, seen from the view point of a young student ardently admiring the new teacher, takes us through the politics of pettiness even in the great, the single error that can ruin a career charted for brilliance.
In another story, The Heifer, there are two pregnant females in the house – the young daughter, mother of four girls, and the prized cow, being looked after by the grandfather. The story builds up on the birth pains of the two, the screams of the woman and the restlessness of the cow, the anticipation of the other children to both births, expecting a brother from their Amma, and a heifer from the cow. And the consternation of a fifth girl being born to the household and the jubilation of a female born to the cow. The tragedy for one and the victory for the other, both having given birth to females.
Without making any political comments, Ramaswamy opens up a poignant world of the society we live in, the contradictions, the unfairness, the idiosyncrasies, the injustices, the prejudices.
How wonderful it is, that all this amazing literature, hitherto locked from us by language, is now available. What a richly coloured and nuanced world it opens up to us! Won’t anyone use this as material for serials and films?