CHENNAI: Avantika is the oldest daughter-in-law of a large joint family who discovers she is pregnant. Everyone is jubilant, but not Avantika. She hears the news — cut — she meets a school friend who tells her that it’s too early for her to have a child and that it’ll take away years of her youth — cut — for whatever reasons Avantika decides not to go ahead with the pregnancy. Everyone off screen is uncomfortable.
This is a series of events that unfolded recently in the Tamil mega-serial Priyamanaval that airs daily on Sun TV. Even without a baton, I cheer for her. Silently of course, as my entire family is seated for dinner. But the grin on my face gives it away. Here’s the first female character in the history of Tamil serials (and I’ve watched several) to ‘want’ an abortion. And she goes ahead with it.
Groundbreaking, I thought, for a female character to be written in with that kind of agency, in the milieu of serials that perpetuate the idea that a good woman is someone who conforms, adjusts, and takes orders unquestioningly while upholding the honour of both hers and her husband’s families. While miscarriages are only portrayed as accidents or acts of revenge, after which the woman necessarily needs to grieve for weeks after, Avantika shone differently. I hoped and prayed that she wouldn’t die having the abortion (which in Tamil serials would’ve been a good way to teach such a woman a lesson).
After that, I had missed a few weeks worth of episodes. When I did manage to catch one, Avantika was on a hospital bed. “Oh no!” I thought and was curious about what happened. I ask my grandmother who acts like she’s hard of hearing — she’s actually not. I then turn to my uncle, who directs me to my mom, and she meets my question with stony silence. But as it is with these serials, it’s not hard to figure out what happened.
The procedure got complicated — her family knows — but Avantika is alive, thank goodness. But now that she has survived the abortion, we must make her life hell by teaching her a lesson. So, her in-laws are heartbroken and unforgiving, her husband sends her packing, her parents don’t speak to her and her sister is ashamed of her. Over the course of five months, Avantika is demonised and disowned. The sermons on-screen are for the lady in question as well as for thousands of ladies watching this.
Everyone agrees that no one should be an Avantika. Everyone now knows what will happen if you try. When Avantika realises her folly, everyone sympathises. When she decides to turn over a new leaf, everyone encourages. When she saves the dignity of the family by putting herself in danger, she wins them over and all other Tamil families. The past is now forgotten.
At the end of the 468th episode, when she declares that she is ready to have a baby, I don’t question it, but I wonder why. But again, I should’ve seen it coming. Avantika has officially been forgiven by those on-screen and off-screen. Everyone is smiling, as is Avantika. I’m the only one not. It was so different, and then it wasn’t. I’m neither forgetful, nor forgiving.
(The writer is a Chennai-based activist, in-your-face feminist and a media glutton)