Friday, October 16, 2009

Previously, On This Episode . . .

I now get television because for the first time in my life, I am paying for it. Long ago, I did watch a lot of television as a fresh immigrant, drinking in the accents, the jokes, and the horrors. But that didn't last long and I found very little to interest me on the small screen, and so gave it up and returned to voracious devouring of the written word, a comfortable hobby that afforded the much-needed quiet time from the hectic cacophony of my routine.

However, now, my routine seems not so cacophonous; actually, it seems that the only noise I hear for long hours is the one I make. My days also demand that I translate everything I say to almost everyone, into English, which often exhausts me; at any rate, I crave the flowing vowels and soft consonants of, from Des, easy voices that demand no translations, musical scores as familiar to me as rickshaw horns, blaring to move complacent, lowing cattle away from traffic junctions. As the theme from the serial spills out, it rushes into my silent corners and fills them with soothing warmth, like a painful knot easing away to a hot compress. I confess I crave noise from a different world than the one I inhabit.

What has especially caught my fancy are Hindi soap shows, predictable, cliched, exotic. The sets are ostentatious; palaces are rented to shoot these episodes that depict joint families occupying spatial mansions. Sitting rooms have ten-feet fountains, sparkling algae-free, although no one ever seems to tend to them; windows are higher than chandeliers that sketch exclamation points exactly half way between winding staircases wide enough for five people to walk abreast; the room itself has split levels, with interesting alcoves and inviting sitting arrangements.

The kitchens are enviable to anyone who remembers or fantasizes about conjuring up, brewing faultless chai, sheera, and parathas. These kitchens are occupied by several women of the household, yet manage to remain uncrowded. The tasks themselves seem cleaned up for television: the fenugreek or methi never leaves smudges of black earth on characters' fingers; the cream of wheat or sooji never sticks, brown and useless, to the stirring utensil, even when the flame under the vessel can be seen merrily dancing blue and orange; not a single hair from well-coiffed heads strays as these characters stir indubitably perfect crushed rice or poha concoctions, so perfect that one can almost taste the lemon redolent with fresh coriander and crushed ginger.

The costumes and furnishings are opulent and colorful. Deep cobalts and parrot-greens, dancing oranges and sparkling reds gracefully drape characters, hiding all bodily flaws beneath fabric folds, or coyly suggesting mysteries. Often, the motifs on these sarees seem to echo the normal sarees one can actually spend days in, but these patterns, coupled with the rich textures, only serve to highlight how removed these sarees are from the recognizable, real, everyday fabrics. The accessories do not look like the paste they must be obviously constructed out of, but sway heavily, convincingly along the characters' temples, ears, throats, arms, waists, feet. As though to reinforce the incongruity between the real and fictional, these characters often sleep in these costumes, their pillows un-dented by their undisturbed, heavy and bejeweled hairdos.

What these serials channel, then, are stylized fantasies of a collective, and the nostalgia they evoke is for things that could never happen, never did happen. How, then, can they remind us of home when the world they depict is so unrealistic?

For the answer, one must re-visit the Rasa Theory and Natya Shastra, attend some folk theatre and festivals, watch old Hindi movies, and re-live the undying songs from those movies. What is evoked in these serials are feelings, values, fables, and guiding metaphors peculiar to those that belong to both, the Indian subcontinent, as well as the adopted countries they now call home. They remind us of what our languages sound like, make us feel clued in to the latest trends and slang of "back home," and provide us with navigational tools for our psyche.

When I visit India, I don't want to seem like a visitor incapable of sharing any jokes or horrors. So I watch these Hindi serials avidly, very much like the fresh immigrant watching local and national television shows to familiarize herself with her home, so she won't be left out, so she'd fit in gracefully.


  1. The hindi 'soapy operas' (translated as લપસણી સિરિયલો ) are very educational... they show you exactly what India (or for that matter, any other place on the earth) is NOT !

  2. As an immigrant, I know that our tarnished television (especailly soap opera's) degrades out cultures. Most of the time decribing an alternate reality based on stereotypical lies that the media and other countries feed the outside world.


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