Doordarshan has opened a fresh can of #thosewerethedays nostalgia as it has started to broadcast Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and Baldev Raj Chopra’s Mahabharat on the screen. It is bringing back many yellowed afternoons for millions of middle-aged parents all over the country. They are having their kids sit in front of the TV and taste their bygone childhood with them. It’s a new thing, indeed, for generations brought up on DC and Marvel mythologies.
But it may have been better to be more cautious about this. Maybe there isn’t as much cause for celebration here. Ramayan and Mahabharat are television serials which are adaptations – not true-to-text retellings – of the original Indian epics. And these serials connect emotionally to only that majority of our nation which is Hindu in religion. And this is completely okay and acceptable, nothing is wrong with it.
What’s wrong is the propaganda that these shows ‘unify the nation’ and ‘remind us of who we are.’ No, they don’t unify the nation; what they do is they entertain it and that’s a very different thing. Neither do they educate the nation, – not in terms of history or literature at least, because they represent neither Vedic history nor the authorship of Valmiki or Vyas. They can be a very interesting study of popular culture in India during the 80s and 90s, and they can be a mine of nostalgic nuggets for a section of our population, but that’s it. Have fun rewatching it; don’t turn it into a national cultural event.
I am a long-tempered product of one of the oldest and most prestigious religious organizations of this country. So I know how subtle religious brainwashing works. You can’t trick me with this game. In this day, in this hour, when our land is neck-deep in religious turmoil and communal friction, you go and decide to ‘unite the country’ by airing two old, wildly-popular, artistically-mediocre television serials based on two distinctly religious texts, – and you think you are fooling me. You aren’t. Not me, not a hundred more like me. There’s a different Kurukshetra on our horizons now, and a different Gita is being drafted by the puppeteers of hate and violence. One day soon they will blow on their conches and sound the call, and thousands of two-bit ‘crusaders’ will take to the streets and make a new bloodfield on the mute, screaming soil of India. A Dharmayuddh, again.
“Time is a flat circle.”
You want to help unify the country, you know what you could have done? This very Doordarshan had screened masterpieces like Shyam Benegal’s Bharat: Ek Khonj, or Nadira Babbar’s Main Dilli Hoon. Come, let us have re-runs of those on the screen. Come and sit down with your children and watch them, if you are indeed a patriot. Introduce them to what their country truly was, and still is, and indeed will remain, if we give it half a chance.
Let me share an old story with you. – Dronacharya, the fabled teacher of the Pandavas, had a son; his name was Ashwatthama. Drona was a very poor man. He could barely provide his wife, Kripi, and his son, with the necessities of life. He couldn’t even get milk for young Ashwatthama. The boy used to be teased by his playmates because he was so poor.
When Ashwatthama could bear it no more, he cried, begging his parents to get him milk. And poor that they were, they gave him whitened rice-water to drink, telling him that was milk. Ashwatthama drank, and danced in joy, crying “I have tasted milk!” in happiness. – It is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the Mahabharata. It is this period of humiliation and pain that would lead Drona to train the Pandavas and exact revenge on his unworthy childhood friend, King Drupad.
But what is this that happened here, this affair of fake, make-believe milk? Why did Ashwatthama dance with joy having tasted rice-water, thinking he had tasted milk? How was it possible for Drona and Kripi to deceive him so?
This process is called infantilization. This is when someone treats someone else as an infant, denying them the truth or the mature treatment they deserve. A child’s grandfather dies, and he is told, ‘See that star, that’s where Grandpa has gone.’ This is infantilization. You keep the hard truth from someone and keep them distracted by something else, something light, something false. Drona had to do it to his son because the weight of poverty rested heavily on his shoulders. But we have others doing it to us in this very day and age, and there’s no such excuse for these people who are doing it to us.
We are not being told that there’s only one bed per two-thousand patients in our country, no; we are being asked to clang thalas and bang plates. We’re not being told that we have a hopeless shortage of test kits right now, and so testing is not going on at the required rate; no, we can rather light diyas and lamps. We are frighteningly short on personal protective equipment for medical workers like nurses and doctors, many medical professionals have given up their lives already, being infected by the disease they are fighting; but we have been handed the nice firecrackers, and we are happily cracking away. We don’t know what the details of the Hydroxychloroquine situation are, we don’t know how much we have and why its distribution was being controlled so tightly and why now it has suddenly been relaxed after the recent arm-twisting by USA. We know nothing; but we are being asked to come to the balconies and clap for the interest of the nation. We are watching this entire farce take place right before our eyes. The day the death-count crossed the 100-mark in our country, we had rallies with dancing, celebrating, cracker-bursting crowds on the streets. We the nice sensible people are just getting endlessly surprised, while the agenda is rolling on perfectly. The heads of some of the topmost companies of the country have met in conference and predicted that there may be a 15-30% cutdown in the job market in the upcoming months. 15-30% of jobs going poof, on the top of whatever unemployment problems we have right now. There’s going to be some 136 million people in the informal sector alone who would lose their jobs, people of this country who would be reduced to… what, we do not know. Have we been told all this, has there been any conversation, any discussion? We have been asked to clang plates.
A huge number of companies have predicted that their produced goods might be lying in godowns for months even after the lockdown is lifted. That means no sale, and that means no salary for a vast, vast number of workers. Have we been told? Where these workers will go? Do we know that widespread, mass unemployment is one of the biggest factors leading to rampant increase in violence in any country? Do we remember why Post-WWI Germany relished the Nazi idealogy so damn much? No. We’ve been remembering to light the candles and lamps.
Quite a few state governments have already slashed salary by 50%, albeit temporarily. Have we been told, formally, what kind of a situation is unfolding? Nah. Climb to the terrace, clap your hands.
The production of many, many essential goods are on hold, we are going to feel the bite of this crisis once the lockdown is over. We need to be talked to about these things, we deserve to be warned, guided, helped. We need to understand where things may stand if the lockdown extends. No one is telling us these things. We have been told, – bang thalas, light lamps.
I’m all for lighting lamps, believe me. But there’s a thing called responsible prioritization, no? When a cancer-battling patient needs some radiation and chemo, a cute peck on the cheek isn’t what you offer. You don’t say that you’ll ‘kiss away the pain.’ That’s not the god damn time for that.
‘Bhabo, bhabo, bhaba practise koro.’
Heed, my country.
* I have made a distinction between Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Ramayan and Mahabharat. The former names refer to the original epics, and the latter ones refer to the television shows.