A “Yay, Whoopie!” For the Great Indian Middle Class

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A “Yay, Whoopie!” For the Great Indian Middle Class

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

“B

ut mom used to exchange old clothes for bartans all the time.”

“And of course, you drink the falooda until the straw starts sucking in air and making weird noises.”

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“Dad did once ask a supermarket cashier for free dhaniya.”

“You know, we’d probably have watched Uska Pati Sirf Mera Hai if it were an actual TV show.”

My sister and I were discussing the 5,000 listicles written after news broke that the television sitcom Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai would be resurrected as a web series. We were over the moon, natch; after all, our family used to have a lot in common with Monisha Sarabhai, the penny-pinching, nosey bahu of the sophisticated Sarabhai unit.

Growing up in Allahabad, our finances were regulated by the laws governing the Great Indian Middle Class Family. The AC had to be set to a timer, which meant that when you fell asleep, it would switch itself off and you wouldn’t notice. On the occasional evening out, my dad’s temper would go through the roof if our plates showed any traces of uneaten food.

I found this resonating in the way Monisha (erstwhile Manisha, a name so “deliberately middle class” that she had to change it on her mother-in-law’s orders) conducted herself. Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai became a big part of our childhood when it started airing in 2005. Like proper Indian middle-class people, we strengthened familial bonds by eating our meals in front of the telly. It mattered little that every once in a while someone choked, as Indravadan Sarabhai had a tendency to throw a sarcastic zinger right when you were swallowing your food. But the laughs were worth it.

In the mid-2000s, Indian television was starved for good comedy. Office Office with Pankaj Kapur was already past its prime. Sarabhai’s biggest competitor was the frequently annoying and OTT Khichdi, starring Maya Sarabhai’s (Ratna Pathak Shah’s) real-life sister, Supriya Pathak. While these relied on a quirky premise for the comedy to work, Sarabhai’s gentle jokes sprang from the everyday friction of families. Perhaps that’s why it could cut across class divides. People from smaller cities and towns like my family could relate to Monisha. Upper-class folks from the metros could just as easily find their own mannerisms mirrored in Sahil, Maya, and Indravadan. And surely, surely, there is a poet-actor somewhere who sees a bit of himself in Rosesh.

Even our dog has decided that eating leftover bones from our meals is so “perpetually middle class” that she has to be fed mincemeat and rice prepared especially for her.

While the main cast was pretty funny, it wasn’t uncommon for the hard-of-hearing Madhusudan phupha, or Dushyant, the techie son-in-law to absolutely steal the show. Madhusudan’s periodic “Hain?” and Dushyant’s “Let me explain” were cues for peals of laughter. Who among us hasn’t secretly laughed at the antics of such family specimens?

An important, but heavily underrated part of the show was its use of background sounds. The gunshots fired when Maya railed about Monisha’s faults, always accompanied by a “Don’t mind, beta, I’m just joking” are firmly etched in every fan’s memory. The intro song too was a classy jazz-inspired number, such a departure from the Bollywood music that other shows used. Surely, only Komolika’s background score in Kasautii Zindagii Kay can claim a similar level of recall.

***

At the start of this decade, my dad got his long-overdue promotion and we shifted to Mumbai. And not just anywhere in Mumbai – we got a house in Colaba, the toniest part of the already tony South Mumbai. The promotion came with many perks and a considerable bump in his salary.

Life has changed entirely. When we go out now, we look at the items on restaurant menus before we look at their prices. Shorts have become acceptable clothing. Our milk now comes in Tetra Paks, no longer in big, steel containers. And we have got two Wi-Fi connections, one for back-up in case the other goes down. Every once in a while, it is also ok if we forget to set the timer on the AC and it runs through the night. Even our dog has decided that eating leftover bones from our meals is so “perpetually middle class” that she has to be fed mincemeat and rice prepared especially for her.

The other day, it was drizzling lightly as I stepped out of my house to walk to Café Mondegar to meet some friends. Luckily, I had an umbrella with me, because I soon heard a loud plop. A pigeon had decided me worthy of a gift. I looked up to give it a piece of my mind when I realised I was in front of a building that seemed familiar. I was pretty certain that I’d never seen it before in real life.

After a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions, I stood chuckling in the rain. It was the building where Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai was shot. I was living a stone’s throw away from the nutty family. At that moment, I knew that our Monisha Sarabhai phase was officially over. Our family is now bonafide Maya Sarabhai.

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