First, I liked the chai: cooked milk, masalas, and sugar added in the proportions that I preferred. Swirling the chai around with my spoon released a fragrance unlike anything I knew in the West.
The second thing I liked was my bare feet against the white marble floor. The floor of the entire big room, including the steps easing down to a semicircular sitting area, was marble. It was cool, which was nice because the day was hot.
Of the two things I didn’t like, the first was the blaring television off to the right side of the large room. For some reason the little kids always were allowed to turn it on, turn it up to maximum volume, then run around screaming and playing and leaving the television on when they went outside once their attention was saturated. I had given up my efforts of unobtrusively turning down the sound; it never took long before it was blaring at full blast again. Nobody else seemed to mind.
The second thing I didn’t like at that moment was the selected TV channel. It was showing a weekly TV show imported from the West, with “professional wrestlers” dressed up in bizarre clothing and pretending to beat the crap out of each other. It was a glitzy show, with lots of eye candy and on-camera posturing between the wrestlers, and there were many events in the ring where chairs were thrown and other people jumped up to join in the fight.
I noticed that Mickey was lying on the cool marble floor, a pillow propping up his head and his long legs stretched straight toward the screen. He was studying the wrestling TV show with full attention.
Mickey was a young man, a cousin, nephew, brother, uncle, or something or other; I sometimes find remembering the rules of identifying one’s place in the family tree hard. He was good hearted and innocent, not yet having developed a shell of cynicism to protect him from dangerously believing anything people said to him.
I stirred my chai. He watched the television.
The wrestling show finished and Mickey switched off the television. He walked over and sat down across from me at the big family table and wanted to know how someone became a professional wrestler.
“Well,” I began slowly, “to become one of those wrestlers on TV, I guess you have to build up your body first. You know, work out in the weight room for a few hours every day. Maybe even take steroids or something.”
“The wrestlers aren’t born looking like that?” Mickey asked.
“No. Of course not.”
“Then I could build my body up to be a wrestler too if I wanted.”
“I suppose,” I said.
“Okay, then what do you do next? To get on TV?” Mickey asked.
“You have to learn all those tricks like jumping on your opponent so it looks like you’ve bashed him to a pulp. You also have to learn how to fall safely when it’s time for your opponent to throw you to the ground.”
Mickey became very still. He narrowed his eyes at me.
I continued carelessly, “After that you’ve got to get a theatrical guild card or something, and an agent, and probably a publicist, and start auditioning for TV matches. The more attitude you present on camera, the better. And it should be outrageous and bragging. You’ll have to spend some money on getting a few costumes that show up well on camera too.”
Mickey shook his head gravely. “No. You are wrong. Wrestling is real.”
“Real?” I said, mystified about what part of professional TV wrestling he was talking about.
“These men and muscle-women have trained for years to fight those of their kind that are bad people. There is a hero and a villain. I see how they fight. Sometimes the villain wins but mostly it is the hero.”
“Ah, but what about the bad camera angles?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just a little while ago, right there on your TV, a man jumped down on another who was lying on his back. While landing on him, the first guy drove his elbow right into the top of the other’s chest, maybe even crushing his lungs.”
“Yes,” nodded Mickey, “and yet, the man on the bottom recovered, got up and threw the evil wrestler with the black mask down to the floor of the ring. The hero won, although it was a close decision.”
“When the evil guy smashed his elbow into the good guy, didn’t you see the quick change to a different camera angle, then it went back to the original view again?”
“Well, from the first camera angle you could see that his elbow wasn’t even touching the man on the ground. In fact his body wasn’t even putting any weight on him. That’s why they switched to the other camera.”
“You can’t be right,” he said. “Sometimes these wrestlers get hurt and can’t participate next week.”
“True. Accidents happen. More likely somebody goes on vacation. But Mickey, do you think that any human being could survive getting hit the way some of those wrestlers pretend to hit each other? Wouldn’t they all be in the hospital, if not dead?”
Mickey’s look at me was terrible. He was angry. He shook his head again. “The announcers on TV, before the wrestling starts, tell us it is really true; that the masked man hates the one in the silver tights and their argument will be settled for the last time right here. And we get to see it.”
“Sorry. I know this is hard to hear. Wrestling isn’t real. In fact, these people only have entertainment guild certification, not professional athlete status.”
He glared at me, hardened his jaw, got up, and stomped outside.
Television, like any tool, can be used for good or bad. It’s been only a handful of years that TV shows from America started showing throughout India. Over these same years terrible damage to the country has occurred, in my opinion.
Before Western television seduced India as if it were free cocaine with no warning label, India was … well, sort of innocent like Mickey. Television in India, jump-started with Western cheapie programs, removed something from society over the past decade or so, right before my eyes. Television made a thousand-year-old successful technique for the self-preservation of families and their villages fade into a dull white screen of static in the minds of a new generation.
The successful preservation technique, being eroded by television and similar things, worked like this: on my very first trip to India many years ago, I saw to my amazement at Indian gatherings there was a clear process of information transfer from sender to receiver, whether they were standing under a tent in a park, or in someone’s home with a drink in one hand and a canapé in the other.
First the facts were presented. After the facts, then and only then people would add their opinions and recommendations. The boundary between news and what a person was adding of his own was clearly marked. In general, everyone knew where information ended and opinion began.
The type of information shared was as broad as India itself. People constantly received and retransmitted things like: are the rivers filling up yet in your town; do you see signs that the annual crop rains would come on time; what were the best new business opportunities; who was having health problems; where can you find certain masalas; which car is reliable to buy second-hand or new; what’s a good place for a vacation … and a billion other facts from afar which people could digest and decide for themselves how to use.
Sometimes a receiving person would adopt the opinions given to him following the facts; sometimes he would throw the opinions away and tack on his own the next time he was the transmitter. But with no regard to religion, caste, language, or old grudges, most Indians, it seemed, would share everything using this process of speaking unmodified fact, followed by a pause, followed by opinions of the speaker if any. Things could travel quickly throughout India just by visits from afar and by talking a lot. I conjectured that for thousands of years this process helped determine the safety and quality of life of a person, family, or village.
With sadness I realized that the communication erosion started due to economics, as so many bad and good things do. When television started becoming really popular in India some years ago, the least expensive American TV shows were purchased to put onto everybody’s television.
What shows did they get? Awful soap operas, ancient TV dramas, and men wearing flashy absurd costumes and pretending to fight to the almost-death in a wrestling ring.
These imported shows were accepted by too many young people in India as being “true.” After all, the shows came from the technologically magical West, didn’t they?
The watchers didn’t know they were getting 10-year-old garbage.
But then, in more recent years, things got worse in India. Like a nuclear chain reaction that could not be stopped, India’s raw, built-in ingenuity took these TV programs and made Indian versions of them. These programs were like the old American soap operas, only worse: more exaggerated, more dramatic, more histrionic, more corroding.
… And because it was broadcast on television, it all was Truth. The kids slowly stopped listening to visitors and elders and instead gained their village-saving information from a television that, with a good or bad camera angle, could make a person look like an angel or a devil depending on what the director wanted to portray. The TV stations could decide which politicians got wide exposure and which got cut off in mid-sentence, which news fit into the time slot and which was important but thrown away.
Last year I was on a trip driving through a series of villages in India. I passed over dusty dirt roads where even the bullocks were too hot to move. Days later the terrain changed to aching green beauty as the car descended into rich valleys wherein hundreds of patches of food were growing amid streams of clear water. I was collecting a wide sample of the way villages had changed since my earlier car trips.
There was a strange feeling that the villages had jumped into the future and became weaker because they forgot to bring with them some important things from the past.
I passed village after village. Now there were three things common to all of them: a paan-vala, an STD phone station … and a village satellite dish.
A week passed and the TV wrestling show came on again. I found myself sitting at the big table, writing in my journal, and Mickey was lying on the floor, head propped up by a pillow.
I glanced at the television. I saw that this week’s match had the black mask wrestler beaten up by two other guys who were dressed to look like twins or something. But, against impossible odds, black mask won the match this week. There were quite a few bad camera angles that slipped onto the screen briefly.
The show was only halfway through when Mickey got up, angrily looked at me, and switched off the television. He stomped out of the room.
Had I helped him or damaged him by revealing that wrestling was not real? Had I succeeded in communicating the key message that one must carefully decide if the television was showing fact or fabrication? Had I been clear that here in India, as in America or anywhere else, one has to know which direction the two-edged sword was cutting?
I still don’t know if what I told Mickey was the right thing to say. Responsibility is a cruel weight on one’s shoulders. I deeply pondered if, perhaps, it was time I took a monk-like oath of partial silence.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.