When we take first-time visitors around our newly remodeled house, they seldom pause to comment on the tiles with the fish motif in the bathroom or the brick-red granite counter in the compact, modular kitchen. It is not the presence of the microwave or the extra-large refrigerator but the absence of that ubiquitous appliance that has become so commonplace in India that makes them ask, “Where’s the TV?”
A friend once asked me before I left for India if I would have access to the three essentials in life: air, water, and email. I had laughed then. Now I realize I need to add television to the list of essentials. In small one-room houses by the railway tracks or even rickety shacks by the roadside, every household that has electricity, has a television. For the burgeoning middle class that can afford washing machines and music systems, cable television is as indispensable as a phone connection.
In the mid-1970s, when television made an appearance in Bombay, I remember lining up outside a neighbor’s home to watch the unequivocally dull programming on Doordarshan. My parents saved up for a few years and figured that they could afford either a fridge or a television and conducted an informal poll of their three kids to figure out our preferences. “TV!” we cried out unanimously. Having lived through the years of boring black-and-white agriculture documentaries and daily news read by impeccably made-up mannequin-like newscasters, then moving to the introduction of commercials, sports coverage, movies, and movie songs, it seems like I grew up along with television.
Today, in India, television has not just entered practically every home, it has taken over. The most ardent fans are not only children glued to cartoon shows but their grandparents. People of my parents’ generation spent over one-half of their life without access to television. When television arrived, they were busy with the logistics of running a home and raising kids. Now, in their more relaxed, retired life, they have turned to television to fill in the hours. From early-morning spiritual sermons to late-night news, Grandma and Grandpa compete with grandkids in joint families for television-watching privileges. While Grandma watches daytime soaps with fervent devotion, Grandpa keenly follows sports and keeps pace with the latest in world news. Once they return from school, children stare glassy-eyed at the Cartoon Network, where characters like George and Bob spout Hindi. In families that can afford it, conflicts between the generations have made them seriously consider having more than one television set in the home, a phenomenon common in more affluent nations.
Like several other older couples, even my parents who live by themselves have a new element of marital strife these days. After 40 years of togetherness, they argue about my father’s penchant for changing channels, or my mother’s insistence on watching travel shows even when a cricket match is at a crucial stage. I once invited my aunt who is in her mid-70s and lives by herself, to spend a few days in my home. Fiercely independent as she is, I knew it would be tough to convince her, but I knew I had failed once she found out that I had no television.
I suspect that we are the only household in the neighborhood (if not the city) without a television. Along with general comments about our “strange” decision in being a television-free family, someone remarked that it was very noble of us to not have a television. It is estimated that nearly 40 percent of the world’s population spends a quarter of their waking hours watching television. Instead of being an educational and entertaining tool, television has turned into a huge monster devouring large chunks of our time, time that I believe can be better spent. With my work hours and long commute I cannot imagine offering up what little free time I have to the demanding television gods. I would rather turn on the music, cuddle up with my child to read a story, or step out in the sultry nights for a refreshing walk. I see nothing noble in selfishly reclaiming my time and using it towards more meaningful pursuits.
I don’t deny the seductive lure of television, which transmits events in real time as they unfold in some remote part of the world. Unlike the static written word, the dynamic nature of television makes it an attractive medium for the masses. Reading a review of a music concert is no match for the vibrancy of observing the same on television, live or recorded. Watching the pristine beauty of Alaska or the magnificent pyramids on television conveys much more than mere data and statistics. For me, the most enduring image of Sept. 11, that invokes that terrible day and all its associated emotions, is the unforgettable sight of the collapse of the second tower of the World Trade Center building right before my eyes on television that morning.
As a tool for education, television has unlimited potential. While Discovery and similar channels provide some intellectual stimulation, the average family rarely watches these shows. The standard drama of the Indian soaps revolves around gaudily dressed women, totally removed from reality, who plot and avenge, or the stereotypical Sita-type ladies who hang around doorsteps with an apologetic look or weep copious tears at being wronged by either the men, their mother-in-law, or the heavily made-up other woman. The subtle nuances of human nature, the stuff that authentic story-telling thrives on, is lost on the masses who greedily devour this ridiculous fare and faithfully watch these stretched-out tales for years.
I am told that it is okay to have a vice, and for most people, addiction to television is something that they openly admit. I quit television cold turkey and seem to have suffered no significant ill effects. I am not sure if I could say the same about the other monitor (and keyboard) that I cannot seem to do without.
Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad.