Thats what Indian soap operas do


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Category: Reflections 02 Aug 09

It was becoming an embarrassing obsession, this disappearing into my bedroom from 7.30 to 9.30 every evening. It’s difficult to explain. Innovative ways have to be found to refuse evening invitations. Going to the movies was almost always out; phone calls were rushed; visitors not encouraged. The obsession began when I was desperate for some type of diversion from studying for my law finals. It began with a half-an-hour and then escalated to two-and-a-half hours. It was affecting my family life. Indian soap operas do that. They draw you in, with beautiful clothes, dramatic dialogue, gripping plots where the protagonist, usually a young beautiful girl, is terrorised by some evil force.

Indian society sifts through its traditions, the ones that terrorise, and the ones that honour human beings and families. In one, a poor village girl is sold off (under the delusion that she was going to her husband’s home to whom she was married as a child) to a rich landowner’s son to bear a son for the family. She is enslaved; escapes; hunted down like an animal, trapped in a prostitution ring; discovers that her parents needed to sell her to make the lives of the other children. She lands back in the home of the landowner, acknowledging to him and herself that she has re-entered the home as a paid-for object, without soul and dead childhood dreams. A mistress. In another, a young girl’s parents find that because they failed to educate their eldest daughter (a source of shame even among India’s relatively poor middle class), it is difficult to find a suitable boy for her.

Their son and daughter-in-law live with them. Education is promoted in this oblique way. So is a “joint family” where the elders are respected as the heads of the family, supporting young couples and their children. Everyone is expected to take care of everyone else. Then there is the soap where a couple’s life is changed forever, after the husband’s one night of adultery in an otherwise happy five-year marriage leaves him caring for an autistic child after the child’s mother dies in a car crash. Here we see an Indian hero in a seldom-seen avatar: that of a husband who atones for his infidelity by sleeping on the floor; who takes care of his autistic daughter while trying to mend his marriage; educates himself on autism; organises his sister’s wedding, and holds down a job in a bank with integrity, despite pressures to take bribes.

The wife works. She drives, she being the daughter of wealthy parents, leaves and returns at her will. She puts her adulterous husband out of their marital bedroom, but comes home for the sake of their son. It’s indicative of a changing India. By taking responsibility to get his sister married, the hero is steeped in tradition. By coming home his wife shows her commitment to her son and family life. By educating himself on autism, the husband fights his own ignorance and that of the people around him. These serials, although highly-stylised, and excruciatingly slow, and not entirely reflective of the modern and secular India of the metros where women work and live alone, are often morality stories. They are glue for many who feel misplaced, a map for living decently, a cautionary tale against superstition and oppression. They are a powerful tool in maintaining an identity for a people.

Ever since I became hooked (I fool myself that I watch only to improve my Hindi) I wondered about our own soaps. What soaps could we send abroad to our yearning West Indian diaspora from London to Toronto who eagerly scan the Internet for news of home, for the remembrance of language and a culture of which they see disappearing in their children. They would not see any Trini soaps, because despite our wealth, we don’t produce any local programmes. We don’t develop our nationalism, our sense of belonging, our dialogue in this way. Our diaspora would, on the Internet, perhaps, be hooked to the “soaps” of the Opposition and the Government. They would say to their children: “This is the soap of the government. Every few years the Prime Minister announces that his life is under threat.

“This is your opposition. They are squabbling for spoils that don’t exist; for a meaningless power because the opposition has no impact on the people, or governance. They are mimic men and women, using words like “ethnic cleansing,” blind to the people who live on the streets, line up for transport in the floods, take taxis, wait in hospitals.” Here, I offer an idea for a soap. In the grocery today, I saw an old woman with watery eyes. In her thin hands she held a piece of cheap meat and hops. I saw her eyes take in the bounty of a businessman’s large basket, and she simply stood there, as if frozen. What is happening to our elderly? Another soap. I see a 15-year-old boy with empty eyes. His mother tells me he hasn’t been to school for six months and it’s unlikely he will return.

He used to be first in his class and wanted to be an electrical engineer. He was stabbed on his way to school one day for his phone, which wasn’t worth more than $60. Now, he just stands, and looks and waits. Everybody can be bought here, everyone can be sold. It’s a soap that will never be made. We will never make them. Not for the next 100 years, because our people’s tongues have been cut off. They are mute. Over 500,000 people stand on our islands, unable to utter a sound because they are illiterate. Those who do have a voice are intimidated by our Prime Minister, who doesn’t realise that nobody has anything against him; that the media are merely a reflection of the people. And the people are mute; dependent on Cepep programmes, uneducated, dying in our hospitals, killing one another, puppets of the powerful, diverted by petty political in-fighting and grandiose statements. Today’s soap in T&T? Nothing. A disconnected flickering set of chaos and nothingness.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur