Friday, April 27, 2012

Going High On A Swing

An 11-year old girl getting married to a 31-year old widower. Her parents agreeing to the alliance under some pressure because "she is past her marriageable age and too old to get a first-time groom". This is not the stuff of some tribal legend from a remote area. It was happening in an educated Chitpavan Brahmin family of repute in Pune in as late as 1873. This story showing the social fabric that was prevalent merely 139 years ago, is being brought alive on television screens in an ongoing Marathi series "Uncha Maza Zoka" (roughly translates as "My swing goes high") on Zee Marathi. The protagonists are Ramabai Ranade and Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade.

The society was wracked by many ills such as child marriage, female illiteracy, untouchability and banning widows from remarrying, while it was perfectly alright for a widower to do so. Widows--even as young as in their teens, or younger-- were not only not allowed to remarry, they were banished from leading a civil life, restricted to the confines of their parents' or in-laws' home, treated as outcasts on all auspicious occasions. If this was not enough, they were defaced by shaving off their heads, and forced to spend the rest of their lives in a dreadful, red, 9-yard saree. Devoid of any adornment, their appearance was a constant reminder of the tragedy that had befallen them.

Set in this milieu, this is a tale of the mis-matched union of Rama and Mahadev--fondly addressed as Madhav at home--and his relentless efforts to educate his young wife and liberate her from the shackles of some of the oppressive practices of that era, passed off in the name of "tradition". Madhav is progressive in his outlook, committed to encourage and support his comrades in particular and the society in general; in doing away with some of these age-old customs. Caught between his loyalty to his father at home and his commitments towards social reforms outside, he marries Rama against his wishes, his conservative father forcing the wedlock barely a month after the passing away of Madhav's first wife. This is the father's way of nipping the possibility of Madhav marrying a widow --if he were permitted to follow his convictions--in the bud. Madhav has to face the ire of fellow reformists for not practising what he had been preaching, but he deals with it stoically; the pain making his resolve to educate his wife firmer.

This is an excellent story being adapted for the small screen beautifully. The little girl playing young Rama is doing a fabulous job. Not only does she have to carry herself in a 9-yard saree, she has to show a range of emotions mouthing lengthy lines in a somewhat archaic Marathi. A carefree girl one moment and a married woman the next moment...she alternates between these two identities effortlessly. Each and every actor in the large cast is giving a brilliant performance. The youth playing Madhav is very impressive in his hugely understated portrayal of the young scholar. He has fire within him, but he is restrained by his circumstances. Surely a superlative effort by this actor.

The makers of this series have taken some liberty with the script, obviously to make it more interesting and dramatic. But they know their limits and are careful enough not to make it melodramatic. Their imagination has added a lot of value to the screenplay. All the characters and all the inter-personal relationships--Rama's relationship and rapport with her mother deserves a special mention--have substance and look very real. Four widows are part of this story. We get to see them as women, as human beings. They too have a heart buried within the folds of their red saree, resigned though they are to lead a life full of denials.

The sets and the props present a picture of middle/upper middle class Brahmin households of that era. Especially of interest to me are the kitchens where most of the chores were performed sitting on the floor. Large, empty rooms with minimum furniture look good too. The floors are bare, sometimes covered with a dhurrie. Perhaps the floors should have been earthen, instead of being tiled with rectangular stones? Perhaps the costumes and the jewellery should have been more commonplace, instead of the impeccable wardrobe being sported by the cast? Well, television, as a medium has some limitations and some compulsions. So, these small things can be ignored in the interest of the larger picture. And what a promising picture that is!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Delhi In April: Summer Is Here!

The summer has arrived in Delhi. It will be quite a while before the cool days and nights return again. The sun is bright and the breeze very warm. It is dry and dusty.

Delhiites have just the right remedy for these weather conditions. It is a rather large contraption, called the air cooler or desert cooler. These huge, metal objects are ubiquitous in the capital. They are often seen perched on a metal frame or stand, installed outside a window. As the water filled in the inside chamber evaporates, it draws heat from the surrounding air to do so, making it cooler in turn. The powerful fan then blows this cool air inside the room. These coolers are very effective and economical too, much more affordable than air conditioners. They are rather noisy, and there is no temperature control. I have enjoyed many pleasantly cool days and nights, thanks to these coolers. They provide enormous relief to the weary residents of Delhi. The flip side of using these coolers? The stagnant water (when the cooler is not in use), acts as an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. The warm temperatures help too. One needs to be especially careful in keeping the coolers clean, not letting unused water stand in them for too long.

Nature provides its own coolers too. Markets are flooded with watermelons and musk melons. The huge fruits spill out of Mother Dairy outlets. Sellers sit with heaps of melons on the footpaths, usually under a tree, waiting for customers. Tender coconuts, that were earlier found mainly in coastal areas, are available in Delhi too. Stalls selling fresh fruit juices by the roadside are in business again. Also on offer is a drink called "neembu lemon". It is basically fresh lime soda with some spices, like chaat masala, black pepper and salt. A very refreshing concoction indeed, with a name that never fails to amuse me. Cucumber slices, placed on slabs of ice entice people who are out on a hot day. The seller sprinkles them with a generous amount of powdered spices before serving them. They taste great, but the conditions in which they are served on the roadside are unfortunately not hygienic.

Mango trees wear a different look as they get covered with tiny white flowers. In fact, some early fruits, especially the raw ones, already hit the market. The tangy fruit is chopped into pieces, and mixed with spices and oil to make delicious pickles.

Schools reopen after a short break. In a few weeks, they will close for the summer vacation. It is back to the mostly white summer uniforms. All the woollens have been packed and stored safely. Loose, cotton clothes feel just right. Popular markets like Sarojini Nagar and Lajpat Nagar have very affordable, cool, cotton garments on offer.

This is just the beginning. The summer is here to stay for long.