Video Night in Kathmandu

Source: Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu, and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East (London: Bloomsbury: 1988), pp. 241-243

Text: The moment was tense; a group of well-dressed dignitaries had assembled in the imperial palace. The country was in the midst of crisis; turbulence was all around. Then, suddenly, out into the center of the hall came an enormous birthday cake, and out of that popped our strapping hero, dressed as a Jesuit father and playing an antic tune on his fiddle. As soon as she saw him, our sultry heroine fell pouting to her knees. At that, the redeemer ripped off his disguise to reveal a white tuxedo, and the two began blurting out a duet while shaking their hips together in a copy of Saturday Night Fever. Instantly, there was joy all round. Scores of onlookers turned into blazered men and bangled and bejeweled houris, writhing and wriggling in unison. The lead couple shimmied and slithered through a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine, arching their hips and flashing their eyes as they went. And everyone was happy, everything seemed good. There was plenty of singing and dancing.

Hero and heroine had met only shortly before. He had chanced to see her dragging an old woman through the dust of her palace grounds from the back of her snow-white Chevrolet. Hating such injustice, he had leaped into a horse cart and given chase. In the blink of an eye, he had overtaken the convertible and stood in its path and rescued the old lady. Little did he guess that this was the mother he had never known! And the girl was a princess, pale-skinned, pantsuited and voluptuous, while the man was nothing but a low-caste “tonga wallah.” Yet when her eyes flashed with rage, he stared back unterrified. And so it was that their eyes locked and their hearts beat as one and they knew they could never live apart. The rest, in its way, was history.

Meanwhile, the entire country was ablaze with the flames of strife! For its people were under the thumb of a race of wicked despots from across the sea, white of skin yet black of heart. Already, the cruel tyrants had killed a thousand brave fighters at Amritsar; now, merciless fiends, they wished to drain the blood of every Indian in order to sustain their own soldiers. Outside their opulent club hung a sign — “Dogs and Indians Are Not Allowed.” Inside, the shameless imperialists sat around a swimming pool, sipping wine as they ogled slinky girls in bikinis.

And then, without a warning and out of nowhere, who should come to the rescue but Our Hero? Sending his tonga crashing through the club’s french windows, he rode into the pool to deliver an impromptu sermon in his heroic baritone; then, striding out, he seized a shaven-headed villain by the throat, forced him to drink Indian beer, kicked him into the water and began playing the drums on his head. And by the hero’s side came Moti, the Wonder Dog, and behind them both the Wonder Horse, a silver stallion willing to risk anything in the cause of freedom. The Wonder Dog lifted his leg on the Empire. The Wonder Horse galloped this way and that. And the Wonder Man rubbed a foreigner’s bloody nose into the detested sign until it blotted out one of the hateful words. Now the sign read: “Dogs and Indians Are Allowed.” Jubilation! Ecstasy! Liberation! Joyfully, the crowd jumped up and followed its hero through a great deal of singing and dancing!

And so the humble tonga wallah led the downtrodden masses to freedom. He rescued poor babies, he lectured the oppressed, he brought speech to the dumb and made the lame to walk. He even, in the manner of a holy man, broke a coconut on his head. The dastardly British tried everything they could to stop him. They locked him up. They tied him up. They beat him up. They made him enter a gladiatorial arena and fight to the death the father he had never known. But nothing could stop him, neither Man nor Nature. Fearless in the fight for freedom, he burned effigies of Dyer and smashed a statue of Curzon. Like a good son, he embraced his father when he learned that he had been exchanged at birth for another. Like a good hero, he was ready at a pinch to wink and wiggle with his beloved. And like a good Hindu, he was as pious as he was playful: at his foster mother’s grave, he sorrowfully performed all the appropriate devotional rites before scattering her ashes on the Ganges.

And so, like a god from the heavens, he brought justice and democracy and happiness back to the afflicted land. Right beat Might. Love conquered all. The people were redeemed. And always there was plenty of singing and dancing.

The masses called him “Mard” (He-Man).

Mard was the cultural event of the season when I was in India. “Mard,” shouted the monstrous, many-colored hoardings that towered above the streets of Bombay. “Mard,” proclaimed the huge trailers splashed across the newspapers. Mard was the subject of passionate debates and diatribes. A single name was on a million minds and lips across the country: Mard.

Comments: Pico Iyer, full name Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer (1957- ), is a British essayist, travel writer and novelist. Mard (1985) was a hugely popular Hindi action drama directed by Manmohan Desai and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Amrita Singh.

Benares, the Stronghold of Hinduism

Man swallowing rat, from National Media Museum collection

Source: C.[harles] Phillips Cape, Benares, the Stronghold of Hinduism (Boston: R.G. Badger, 1910), pp. 209-210

Text: A night or two after our arrival, a magic-lantern entertainment was given outside the tent. It can hardly be called a lantern service, as some of the slides had a secular tendency. When the well-known moving picture of the rat-swallowing sleeper appeared on the sheet, the evangelist, thinking it must have a moral, explained to the wondering audience that this was the fruit of drunkenness.

But on another night, when this same slide was shown for the amusement of the children, one of our younger preachers informed the listeners that the swallower of rats was a victim of the opium habit! All the slides were not of this nature, for we followed with ‘Probable Sons,’ ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ and finished with some scenes in the life of our Lord, which seemed to impress the people deeply. We thought we had been generous enough in allowing all to come without charge or collection, and were not a little surprised by a man asking next day how much we would give him if he attended the entertainment!

Comments: Charles Phillips Cape (1874-?) was a British Christian missionary. His book on Hindusim and Benares (now Varansi) is a mixture of missionary endeavour and travel writing. The incident described took place in a village outside the city. The set of images showing a sleeping man appearing to swallow a rat was one of the most popular of all magic lantern slide sets.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Sketches of India

Source: [Moyle Sherer], Sketches of India: written by an officer for fire-side travellers at-home (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), pp. 76-78

Text: As I walked in the bazaar, I came upon a crowd, one minute attentively silent, the next merrily talkative. I pushed among them, and found an exhibition of the magic-lantern kind: in light, colouring, and motion, it was exceedingly well managed. The representations were combats between natives and English; now groupes [sic] of horsemen, now of foot; now a single combat. The showman explained every scene, with many coarse jokes which I could not understand, but which took vastly with the crowd. The British were always beaten, especially in the horse-encounters, and their figures and dress were much caricatured. Had I been known, I should perhaps have been insulted, but with my hat over my eyes, and a handkerchief held generally to my face, I was probably taken for a half-cast [sic] Christian. Fruits, sweetmeats, sherbet, arrack, and toddy, were selling every where. In many places were large shallow pits filled with fires, round which circles of Moors brandishing their naked swords, danced a sort of war-dance in honour of the victorious Ali; singing and shouting at every pause “Ali, Ali!” Occasionally too, one or other of them leaped into and through the fire with looks and gestures half frantic. Walking on, you will see at the corner of one street tumblers, at another dancing-girls; here singers and music, there a story-teller with a party squatted round him. In short, everything wore a festive pleasure-seeking air; and, in spite of the difference of climate, religion, laws, and education, we find the materials in which the heart of man seeks the coarse gratifications suited to it in its natural state, are pretty much the same all over the world.

Comments: Joseph Moyle Sherer (1789–1869) was a British soldier, novelist and travel writer. He was stationed with his regiment in Madras from 1818-1823 and his sketches of India, published in 1821, went through several editions. The scene depicted took place near the British military station at Gooty in Andhra Pradesh.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Climbing the Mango Trees

Source: Madhur Jaffrey, Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India (London: Random House, 2005), pp. 94-95

Text: We liked all movies but going to Hindi movies had added benefits. These Indian films were particularly conducive to whetting and then satisfying our appetites. They generally lasted about four hours. Whole families, including infants, would come to view the mythological-historical-tragi-comical musicals. There was a great deal of yelling, crying, getting up, singing along and sitting down in the audience throughout the show. Certainly no-one minded the noisy unwrapping of paper cones containing chane gor jaram, small chickpeas that had been flattened and roasted, then flavoured with cumin, chilli powder, sour mango powder and black rock salt. We would much on the chickpeas as we watched Hanuman, the Monkey God, fly across a dark sky dotted equidistantly with hundreds of five-pointed stars, all cut from the same stencil.

During the intermission we would all go in a horde to buy potato patties, aloo-ki-tikiyas, from vendors who had carefully posted themselves outside the cinema doors. These patties were a Delhi speciality and their unique flavour depended partly on the way they were cooked and partly on the spices in the stuffing. They were not deep-fried or shallow-fried but pan-roasted instead.

Each vendor carried a brazier on which he had set up a large cast-iron griddle (tava). Patties that were ready to sell sat waiting on the outer fringes, staying warm until needed. Those that were still cooking were in the centre, sizzling away in a few tablespoons of oil that pooled in the middle. in one pot were the vendor’s seasoned mash potatoes, and in another the mashed potatoes, and in another the stuffing made out of highly spiced split peas that had been cooked until dry and crumbly. To make a patty, the vendor would pinch off a ball of mashed potatoes, flatten it into a small patty, pinch off a smaller ball of the stuffing and place it in the centre. Then he would cover up the stuffing with the potato and make a ball. The ball was then flattened and slapped onto the griddle.

The squatting vendor kept turning each patty this way and that until it was reddish brown and completely crisp on both sides. By this time our mouths could almost taste the tikiyas. As soon as he got the order, the vendor would place a patty on a leaf, split it open and smother both parts with sweet and sour tamarind chutney. We would carry these hot patties back into the dark cinema house and eat them as we watched Hanuman trying to rescue Sita, the good queen, from the clutches of the demon King of Sri Lanka.

Comments: Madhur Jaffrey (born 1933 is an Indian actress and cookery writer. At the time of this extract from memoirs of her childhood spent in India, it was the mid-1940s and her family was living in Delhi.

Autobiography of a Yogi

Source: Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1946)

Text: The motion picture art can portray any miracle. From the impressive visual standpoint, no marvel is barred to trick photography. A man’s transparent astral body can be seen rising from his gross physical form, he can walk on the water, resurrect the dead, reverse the natural sequence of developments, and play havoc with time and space. Assembling the light images as he pleases, the photographer achieves optical wonders which a true master produces with actual light rays.

The lifelike images of the motion picture illustrate many truths concerning creation. The Cosmic Director has written His own plays, and assembled the tremendous casts for the pageant of the centuries. From the dark booth of eternity, He pours His creative beam through the films of successive ages, and the pictures are thrown on the screen of space. Just as the motion-picture images appear to be real, but are only combinations of light and shade, so is the universal variety a delusive seeming. The planetary spheres, with their countless forms of life, are naught but figures in a cosmic motion picture, temporarily true to five sense perceptions as the scenes are cast on the screen of man’s consciousness by the infinite creative beam.

A cinema audience can look up and see that all screen images are appearing through the instrumentality of one imageless beam of light. The colorful universal drama is similarly issuing from the single white light of a Cosmic Source. With inconceivable ingenuity God is staging an entertainment for His human children, making them actors as well as audience in His planetary theater.

One day I entered a motion picture house to view a newsreel of the European battlefields. World War I was still being waged in the West; the newsreel recorded the carnage with such realism that I left the theater with a troubled heart.

“Lord,” I prayed, “why dost Thou permit such suffering?”

To my intense surprise, an instant answer came in the form of a vision of the actual European battlefields. The horror of the struggle, filled with the dead and dying, far surpassed in ferocity any representation of the newsreel.

“Look intently!” A gentle voice spoke to my inner consciousness. “You will see that these scenes now being enacted in France are nothing but a play of chiaroscuro. They are the cosmic motion picture, as real and as unreal as the theater newsreel you have just seen – a play within a play.”

My heart was still not comforted. The divine voice went on: “Creation is light and shadow both, else no picture is possible. The good and evil of maya must ever alternate in supremacy. If joy were ceaseless here in this world, would man ever seek another? Without suffering he scarcely cares to recall that he has forsaken his eternal home. Pain is a prod to remembrance. The way of escape is through wisdom! The tragedy of death is unreal; those who shudder at it are like an ignorant actor who dies of fright on the stage when nothing more is fired at him than a blank cartridge. My sons are the children of light; they will not sleep forever in delusion.”

Although I had read scriptural accounts of maya, they had not given me the deep insight that came with the personal visions and their accompanying words of consolation. One’s values are profoundly changed when he is finally convinced that creation is only a vast motion picture, and that not in it, but beyond it, lies his own reality.

Comments: Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was an Indian guru, renowned for his 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi through which he spread the idea of yoga and meditation worldwide. This distinctive memory of cinemagoing comes from the First World War period, when he was living in India. Maya means ‘cosmic delusion.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg