Indian TV embraces real-life soap opera of wife, two husbands and unborn baby

Talk show television Oprah Winfrey-style has arrived in India with a vengeance. A sick, eight-months pregnant woman was cajoled in front of the cameras and forced to endure a seven-hour ordeal of public humiliation, as the studio audience combed every facet of the terrible dilemma she is facing with ill-restrained glee.

Even before Tuesday night, Gudiya's story was sad enough. Through no fault of her own, she faces an impossible choice between the husband she thought was dead, and the new husband whose child she is carrying. Her first husband went missing on active duty in the Indian army five years ago, and was presumed dead. After waiting years for him, Gudiya remarried.

It transpires that the missing husband was a prisoner-of-war in Pakistan. He has been released and wants her back. The trouble is he does not want the second husband's unborn child.

For the private Zee network, it was a dilemma made for television. Gudiya and both husbands were roped in to sit while a mock village council made up of studio audience members questioned them and then voted on what she should do. And all this in a country where only five years ago there were just three state-run television stations that produced a worthy mix of news, drama and Indian classical music. In fact, it emerged that one of Gudiya's relatives who took part in the Zee broadcast doesn't even own a television.

Indian society is changing extraordinarily fast. Oprah-isation is just the latest development. Long gone are the days when all that was on television was a lengthy broadcast of Ravi Shankar playing the sitar.

With the vast potential revenues to be made from advertising in a country of more than a billion people, have come networks only too eager to pander to the prurience of viewers. Gudiya's case has been seized on by a competitive market. Before Zee got hold of Gudiya, her sister had already been dragged from her bed at 3am by a camera crew from a rival network.

Because it is all so new, many Indians are naive about the potential that appearing on television in front of a mass audience has to damage their lives. By the end of the show, Gudiya was in despair, live on television. "I don't even know whether I will live or die," she said. Indian women's groups were already incensed at her treatment before the cameras got to her. She has said she wants to stay with her second husband, Taufiq. But Muslim clerics - she is a Muslim - had announced her second marriage was null, and told her to go back to her first husband, Mohammed Arif.

A real village council, a panchayat in Hindi, was held, and village elders ordered Gudiya to go back to Arif against her wishes. She was given no choice. Mr Arif said he did not want Taufiq's child, and she would have to give up the baby after it was born.

Gudiya fell ill from stress. "There is no love now," she said of her relationship with Mr Arif in an interview with The Indian Express. Taufiq told her he would accept her decision, whether she decided to stick with him or go back to Mr Arif. But in traditional Indian village society, she has little say in the matter.

Her story has shone light on the treatment women endure in a village society. From the moment Mr Arif returned, Gudiya's views were not taken into account. It was a dispute between Mr Arif, Taufiq and the men of Gudiya's family. She was a piece of property. When the dispute could not be resolved, it was put to thepanchayat to decide, and its rulings are usually considered final.

One of the few good things to come out of Zee's gruesome television spectacle was that Mr Arif said on air that he would allow Gudiya to keep her baby, but that when the child was "grown up", Taufiq would have to take him or her.

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