These are the days

These are the days

DD years’ nostalgia is still the hook but there's something about Malgudi Days that also transcends generations

I wasn’t sure why I went back to Malgudi Days. The August watch-list was all police procedural and dystopian gloom. Shankar Nag’s original series for Doordarshan, based on R K Narayan’s classic stories set in a British-era fictional town, was an unlikely follow-up. But there it was on the streaming website, a few scrolls below the list of based-on-clicks recommendations – a thumbnail promo video for the series, instantly setting me on pause-rewind, L Vaidyanathan’s opening theme playing in my mind. It was a call I resisted for decades, partly because of a fear of disappointment and a self-inflicted need to stay clear of all age-of-innocence tropes of nostalgia. I didn’t want to feel underwhelmed and end up with a garbled retake on a time I had locked away in a happy place. It was either that moment or the promise of an instant ride back in time; either way, I had to click Play.

The eight-year-old son joined in for the second episode of the first season – in 1987 it was, of course, just a serial – without a clue. M’s “what are you watching?” enquiry is typically followed by 12 seconds of casual attention and a lazy walk out the room. But this, he watched; for a few minutes walking around me and the rest of the episode, from a chair he quietly pulled up. W S Swaminathan and his friends from Albert Mission School were making an impression, I could sense from the way he was chuckling. The initial episodes left me undecided; it was like entering a home you lived in many years ago, the idea of it formed and absolute in your mind but its corners and corridors throwing at you flashes of the forgotten. Before I could flit away to full-on throwback, M made sure that we started to watch. Sure, what played on the screen meant different things to us. But in a way, we found in each other a worthy partner for this evening ritual.

It didn’t take long for us to settle in. The stories still connected; Swami’s troubles are universal – rigours of school, rules, peer pressure – and the setting builds up these familiar stories of growing up. For us, it also meant a lot of questions and comments between Pause and Play. Children skipping school in protest against the British (“they were allowed to do that?), the race with trains, the homes with pickle jars (“this flat should have an attic”), the songs from the radio, the sadhu who eats nails and glass shards, the wooden toys and Seikosha wall clocks, the town post office, the ghost stories, Maurice Tate – for the child, they all come together as a backdrop strikingly real, unfamiliar and wildly entertaining. For the man, they set off muddled memories – of a house in Alappuzha, Kerala, TV dinners, Chris Evert, a tulsi plant, Kannada films on Doordarshan, a creaky living-room window, the first smell of cricket-ball leather. Separately, all random fade-ins from the past that, together, set a time back in motion.

Even after the Swami stories, after the plots got more serious, M has stayed on. The dark humour in episodes including A Horse and Two GoatsEngine Trouble and Astrologer’s Day (directed by Kavitha Lankesh) still works. The staging and acting still work. There’s the question – do we want our children to like what we liked as children? It’s tempting to trace the enduring charm of the series to the collective endorsement of the Doordarshan generation; a nostalgia-themed advertising campaign even used its soundtrack to drive home the point. It’s also convenient to trace it to the wonder years we all feel we have, to that something which makes us return to the ideas of home, family and order. Its success also validates the power of a simple, honest form of storytelling.  

Confession: I still Google Surinder Khanna and Ghulam Parkar, under news. It could be about seeking context to memories – Khanna and Parkar are names from the first ever cricket scorecard I read; Asia Cup, Sharjah, 1984. The Malgudi Days re-run appears to have brought in that context to a time slipping away in memory. Some of our conversations now loop back to the series – a Shankar Nag image on the auto-rickshaw, the row over Hindi (“did you also watch it with subtitles?”), the proposal to rename the Arasalu railway station in Shivamogga district – one of the series’ locations – as Malgudi (“can we go?”), the triggers could be anything. A few days ago, M checked with a Mani in school if he, like Mani in the series, loved lime pickles too. The answer was no.