Dawn of the TV-ing dead
11 July 2012
How TV conquered Mangaldai and turned the people into zombies.
The year 1982 was an exciting one for Indian people. The radio and the newspapers were full of news of the Asian Games in New Delhi. Coins featuring Appu, the dancing elephant and mascot of the Games, and the Jantar Mantar in Delhi, about which many of us learnt for the first time, were already in circulation months before the opening ceremony. Newspapers told us that thousands of trees were felled in Delhi to broaden the streets, and that the price of tomatoes there was only INR 2 per kilogram due to the heavy influx of vegetables in preparation for the event. News of the construction of Appu Ghar, India’s first amusement park, got kids thrilled beyond belief.
1982 was also the year in which Doordarshan (DD), then the sole television broadcaster in India, started broadcasting its programmes nationally. And with this, television came to Guwahati, the state capital of Assam. The advent of television brought unbelievable excitement. For those with relatives in Guhawati affluent enough to afford a television set, it was customary to explain in great detail to the rest of us how a TV worked and how exciting it was to watch TV programmmes. Most of us developed an inferiority complex, and with extreme jealousy we cursed ourselves for living in such a small town where we were deprived of television’s wonders.
However, those days of agony were soon to be over. It was early 1984 when television first arrived at Mangaldai. As the relay-tower in Guwahati only had a range of about 25 kilometers, getting TV reception required an antenna stuck atop a long pole. In Mangaldai, on the periphery of that range, antennas had to be raised really high for the picture to be clear. Houses with an antenna came to be viewed with respect, as only a few houses had TVs in the beginning. Among our neighbours, the Konwar family – specifically one of the older brothers among the three or four Konwar brothers who all lived in adjacent compounds – got the first TV set.
Soon after the Konwars’ antenna went up, Pili proposed that we go over to watch TV the next day. I no longer remember if we skipped school altogether, or if we went to school and then escaped from there (ours was a government high school founded in 1903, and still had no boundary walls back then), but I vividly remember that it was a Thursday. It was the day of Brihaspati, the Guru of the Gods, and my mother did not cook any non-vegetarian dishes on that day, and even avoided using oil. Only the family cat dared to decline the food, as it still had some rights inside the house, whereas the rest of us – my father, my brother and I – had none. However, even the prospect of Thursday’s bland food could not dampen my spirits that day. And so Pili and I arrived at the Konwars’ drawing room, which was already filled with spectators, to watch the second day’s play of a cricket test match.
A note for the uninitiated: a test match was a six-day affair (five days of play and a day of rest in between) which would often end in a draw. It seemed that it wasn’t important to win a test match; just not losing was enough. It was common for a batting team facing defeat to try not to hit the ball or score at all, but rather just to draw things out and finish the game. The first 2-3 days would be particularly slow, but few things could be slower than Mohinder Amarnath and Sunil Gavaskar (or other combinations of Indian batsmen from that era, except perhaps Kris Srikkanth) batting together in total defensive mode. Watching them batting during a test match, the monotonous ‘thaak’ sound of them repeatedly stopping the ball with their bats would reverberate inside your head, and could even come back to haunt your dreams later.
But on that day we would have enjoyed even just watching a small bright spot on a dark TV screen. At one point, the TV lost its sound signal, but an enthusiastic spectator improvised a solution: watching the video on TV while listening to commentary on the radio. The result was quite fulfilling.
Then the proud family offered us tea. It required no small effort to make tea for a dozen guys, but the pride of having so many uninvited guests might have compensated for it. The pleasure of drinking tea while sitting on the floor in front of the TV (the sofa and the chairs were already occupied by older guys) lingered on in the room and in my mind. Time just flew and the evening (and the end of the day’s play) came too early. That night, in my dream and also out loud, I spoke to Sunil Gavaskar and others, earning me some ridicule from my father the next morning.
Soon more households got TVs, and not just black-and-white sets. The families of two of my classmates who lived nearby got colour TVs, and I spent most weekend evenings at one or the other house watching Hindi films, some of them good but most of them horrible (though I could not tell the difference back then).
Within a few years, my family got a TV set too. It was, despite my vehement protests, a black-and-white set, and not one that could display colour. My mother, who in her sporadic moments of lucidity debunked popular ‘facts’ such as that cooking on a gas stove led to gastric problems, or that using a pressure cooker led to high blood pressure, nevertheless whole-heartedly accepted the very ‘scientific’ fact that watching colour TV damaged one’s eyes. I often wondered if cost was the main factor in her decision to opt for a black-and-white set, but our cat, the only living being in the household who could have dared question my mother on this or any other issue, turned out to be totally disinterested in the TV, and thus that doubt was never raised or resolved.
TV changed our routine a bit. We postponed dinner until after the National news was read, first in Hindi and then in English, and then quickly returned to the TV to watch the serial at 9pm. Pitikaka, the neighbourhood drunkard, stuck to his old routine of returning home at half-past-nine shouting profanities and reciting his lyrical ballads, but now the sound of the TV submerged his voice. For those women who, totally besotted by TV, could not cook properly in the evenings for fear of missing some good programs, relief soon came in the form of regional programmes produced by the Guwahati Doordarshan Kendra (Television Centre). Most of those programmes were so boring that the moment they started, the women would stand up and move to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.The thing to do on SundayTV-owners’ initial enthusiasm and pride slowly diminished and eventually died out. The tea and snacks for anyone going to watch TV at a neighbour’s or friend’s home were replaced first by nonchalance, and then by obvious annoyance. During the pre-TV era, people often invited others over for lunch on Sundays or for an afternoon chat over tea. Most of our Sunday afternoons meant having guests over for a heavy lunch, listening to the radio, and then talking into the evening. However, as people got more and more hooked on TV, and the Sundays became packed with enjoyable TV programmes, the custom of inviting guests slowly died out. An unannounced guest on a Sunday – who would earlier invariably have been welcomed for a meal – now became a source of annoyance. Newspapers and columnists started to refer to Sunday (Deobar or Robibar in Assamese) as Tivibar (TVday). People wanted Sundays to themselves. No matter where they were, people tried to rush home in time to catch their favourite TV programmes. VCRs weren’t popular yet, and nobody wanted to miss a show.
The habit slowly spread to other days as well. Many weekday evenings had shows with Hindi movie songs, and most people wanted to watch these unhindered. This phenomenon of diminishing social contact continued and spread, especially as cricket broadcasts – whole-day affairs in those days – roped in ever more young people.
Still, TV did have some benefits. DD, the public broadcast channel, introduced us to Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela and Mobutu Sese Seko and Ahmad Shah Massoud – on that small screen, everyone was ‘physically’ in our homes. Prannoy Roy’s The World This Week introduced us to political events from across the globe. Almost a decade later, in a University Research Scholars’ hostel of some 300 people, I remained one of only 3 people who still waited for the current The World This Week episode every week.
Within a few years, DD started broadcasting a TV series based on the Ramayana. The series achieved unimaginable popularity, and some people even started worshipping the actors and actresses on the screen as personifications of the gods and demi-gods they depicted. The pious did not sit down to watch the Ramayana without first taking a proper shower and lighting incense-sticks. Once Ramayana came to an end, an adaptation of the Mahabharata kept the faith of TV devotees alive. Power failures during the show (broadcast from 9 to 10am on Sunday mornings, if I remember correctly) caused extreme frustration, and sometimes made even the noblest viewers curse like seasoned sailors.
Newspapers reported that this frustration took a violent turn in Lakhipur of Goalpara district in Assam. Frustrated with repeated power failures, the people of Lakhipur decided to solve the problem themselves, and went to the Office of the Electricity Board to demand an explanation. A heated exchange of words followed, and soon the Electricity Board’s office was ransacked and its employees beaten. After being told that only the Head Office at Goalpara could solve the problem, the irate public boarded a truck or two, went to the Electricity Board’s Goalpara office, and repeated the exercise. It was said that after this incident there were never any power cuts in the area during the Ramayana timeslot. People became so addicted to these two serials that, in the late 1980s, for the first time since its founding, Assam Engineering College rescheduled its entrance examination to begin an hour later so as to allow everyone to watch the series’ concluding episodes.
TV also taught most of us Hindi, or at least gave us a false confidence that we knew the language. My mother, for example, routinely claimed that the Hindi used in Ramayana and Mahabharata was very similar to Assamese, and she had no difficulty following the dialogues on screen. However, if coaxed into an attempt at translation, her words often conveyed very different, and sometime completely opposite, meaning to what was actually being said. Our next door neighbour Bhonti presented a different scenario. Though she hardly ever went to school and was not technology-savvy, somehow she always knew the TV schedule by heart. There was no chance of forgetting to watch a good programme so long as Bhonti was around. She even learned to read the clock for this purpose. Within a few years, she understood Hindi effortlessly.
~Pankaz K Sharma (pankaz.sharma(at)gmail.com) was born in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam, and grew up there during the turbulence of Assam Agitation and the subsequent ULFA ‘revolution’.