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Ramayan to kite flying—a pandemic of nostalgia

Covid-19 has revived forgotten habits, like watching TV reruns and forging neighbourly bonds, but its pain and suffering are all too real for millions

Reruns of mythologicals on TV during the lockdown have been watched by millions of people.
Reruns of mythologicals on TV during the lockdown have been watched by millions of people.

Thirty-three years ago, the Ramayan famously brought India to a standstill every Sunday morning. As the country went into a lockdown in March, the Ramayan returned to an India that was at a standstill anyway.

When it first aired, there were reports that families would light incense sticks in front of the television set when the Ramanand Sagar mega serial came on. Not even the bad animation of slow-flying arrows and tacky sets could dim our collective ardour. It was a must-watch at our home in Kolkata as well. One does not hear of that kind of devotion now but if Doordarshan is to be believed, the josh is still strong.

A tweet from Doordarshan claimed that the re-broadcast became the most-watched entertainment show in the world with 77 million viewers on 16 April. In comparison, the final episode of Game Of Thrones had 19.3 million viewers. Apparently, the “world record" claim was as shaky as the creaky sets in the serial because Mint pointed out that the American classic war comedy M*A*S*H had had nearly 106 million viewers for its final episode in 1983. It seems Doordarshan had only been looking at numbers from 2018.  Shashi Shekhar Vempati, CEO of Prasar Bharati, dismissed the “world record" controversy, underscoring instead “how families came together during the lockdown to re-experience the epic in an unprecedented manner and that the public broadcaster was effective in its role in keeping Indians ‘Stay Home Stay Safe’".

The Ramayan was followed by more reruns—Mahabharat, Shri Krishna. While some accused the ruling party of trying to score Hindutva points in the middle of a pandemic, it was really nostalgia, rather than religion, that was the opium of the people.

At a time when the future seems scarily uncertain, it has been comforting to soak in the nostalgia for a simpler past when families gathered every Sunday morning in front of the television set to watch the only channel on offer.

It’s not just the Ramayan or the Mahabharat on reruns. My mother’s Bengali soaps are also in rerun mode because they have all ground to a sudden halt. Some have just started again from the beginning. Some have gone back in time, airing “Best of" episodes. Others have brought back “golden" soap operas from years ago, unwittingly reminding audiences how little has changed.

Memory loss is still an occupational hazard in tele-serial families. Wicked sisters-in-law still switch the sugar and salt in the kitchen to harass the new bride. And the men have still not learnt to make themselves a cup of tea. But there’s comfort in watching them now because you already know exactly how they will end, which is more than one can say about the pandemic raging outside our doors.

In fact, the early days of the lockdown saw us return en masse to an India we had long left behind. Well-worn Ludo and Snakes and Ladders boards were taken out of dusty boxes in the attic. Talcum powder was rubbed on carrom boards as families rediscovered the pleasure of playing games together. We tried to remember the rules of old card games we had stopped playing years ago—Bray and Screw and Fish.

As the daily help stopped coming, people joined online cooking groups and reminisced about the recipes of their mothers and grandmothers. We felt as virtuous about using every scrap of vegetable as our mothers had once done—turning watermelon rind into a chutney and ridge-gourd peels into a tangy stir-fry. Everyone had a story of a widowed aunt who could cook up a divine meal just from potato peels and karela (bitter gourd) scrapings.

And we rediscovered the terrace, once the mainstay of middle-class urban lives. Before air-conditioning became a fact of life, the terrace was always our patch of escape, our little oasis. It was the place where neighbour flirted with neighbour across rows of potted plants. It was where young adolescents stole puffs of contraband cigarettes and giggled over even more contraband girlie magazines. My grandmother spent hours on our terrace coaxing the gladioli to bloom and the lemon tree to bear fruit. My great grandmother put out her jars of pickles and lentil vadis in the sun. On load-shedding nights, we would lie on the terrace looking up at our patch of sky, and the dark silhouettes of buildings crowding around us, some smokily lit with hurricane lamps until the power returned and the fans whirred back to life.

Long before the internet and smartphones, the roofs were our social media, where my mother talked to the aunt next door and the cook traded gossip with the neighbour’s maid. Our neighbour rarely called us on the landline. She would yodel my sister’s name at top volume from her window and we would run to our terrace to answer. The rooftops fit together like an atlas of our lives.

When houses gave way to apartment buildings, we lost the roofs. They just became lids covering life that had increasingly moved indoors. They belonged to everyone and thus to no one at all. While clothes dried on nylon clotheslines strung on the balcony, terraces were abandoned to crows and pigeons.

But in the days of lockdown, I see the roof returning to our lives. I go up to the roof to do yoga and I can see the couple next door going on evening walks on their roof. Sometimes we talk to each other roof-to-roof. The family across the way is playing cricket on their roof. Even paper kites, a dying pastime in the age of mobiles, have returned to the city skies. It’s an hour or two of fresh air and some human connection in a time of physical distancing. “It was like my eureka moment," a kite flyer tells The Telegraph about seeing a kite in the sky. He remembered a forgotten stash of two dozen kites and 3,000 yards of string left over from last year. “I am having tense duels in the sky with other kite lovers," he says. “An hour or two just flies by."

Our dog is delighted. He has learnt the word “roof" and gambols up every time anyone says they are going up to it. After one thunderstorm in April, I went up to the roof and saw a shimmering rainbow. And as if touched by magic, people appeared rooftop by rooftop, all exclaiming in wonder, pointing their mobile phones at the perfect arch. And we looked at each other and smiled and waved and forgot all about covid-19 for a moment. It felt like a neighbourhood of terraces, a throwback to another India.

Of course, this nostalgist’s map of the pandemic is itself a sign of privilege. Millions do not have the luxury of reliving an older India of slower rhythms, cleaner skies and fewer cars. That is apparent in the daily stories of migrants walking home, livelihoods lost and businesses in a shambles. Somewhere, a migrant scribbles a note of apology for stealing a bicycle to get home to his ailing son. Another talks about swallowing two painkillers a day, even if he has no food, to bear the torment of unforgiving highways and scorching sun as he tries to walk from Visakhapatnam to his village in Odisha. The image of a stranded man breaking down in tears, his face twisted in grief as he talks on a mobile phone to his family some 1,200km away, unable to get to his dying son, stares at us from the pages of our newspapers. While we post pictures of bread we baked from scratch on our Instagram pages, we see pictures of chapatis lying on railway tracks in Maharashtra, the pitiful remnants of migrants who fell asleep on the tracks, unaware of a train approaching.

And it reminds us that in the end our nostalgia is but an analgesic in a time of pandemic. The pain and suffering are all too real, borne by millions around us.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

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