Saturday 14 April 2018

"Are you not entertained?" Or, the summer I became slave to television

"Are you not entertained?"Rang out the voice of Gladiator's Russel Crowe, mocking me on a drowsy summer afternoon as my dilated pupils momentarily focussed to see myself turning into a television debaucher. I first stood witness to the goggle-box’s sorcery, which has the power to change humans into zombies, when I was in Oman in the early 2000s. I had a month-long break from college, but my father’s teaching at his university was on so I tried to keep myself occupied when at home. In the living room sat a black box, and a remote control which deluded me into believing that I was running the show. 

My conscientious self first turned on the news. But it usually left me ragged as I tried to go through the national news and then wanting to know about the regional bits, then moving on to BBCCNNAl-Jazeera, for tales from other spots on the globe. At moments when I was off guard and forgot to remind myself about the futility of regretting the past, I realised frustratingly how much I had missed knowing, learning. I cursed myself for not having paid enough attention in my school days when my grandfather had tried to drum into me the conscious-of-her-rights-and-duties citizen’s habit of newspaper-reading. Motivation had failed me after the first few days, as I got busy with staring deep into the soulful liquid eyes of Dickensian heroes ensconced within the biscotti pages of my novel.

My father’s cable network also came with Pakistani channels, which offered better and more realistic soaps than what we had on the domestic menu in India. I found that the class divide still existed for our neighbouring creative heads, unlike in most present-day Indian soaps, which create a lot of bubbles for its audience. And then, of course, were the movies. FoxMBC 1MBC 2MBC 3MBC 4Dubai OneCity 7. Besides the regular Star Movies-HBO stuff, they also featured content that was non-mainstream but surprisingly intriguing. Or maybe boredom made me inept at distinguishing the good from the bad, as long as I had a roomful of people speaking in a frame.

Perhaps the reader would be more sympathetic to my charmed state if they knew I did not have access to cable TV all of my school life, for my family’s (not entirely misplaced?) fear it would hamper my studies. So when my classmate made a humongous card of patchwork photos and sent it to MTV’s Most Wanted Shenaz, all I had to offer was a Mickey card my friend had been sweet enough to draw in order to compensate for the artistry I lacked. I sent it to Vishal Malhotra on Disney Hour, hosted by DD Metro, a channel which was Doordarshan’s half-hearted effort to add spice to the life of its viewers). But he never flaunted it as a sign of all the love the show had been getting from its tiny tot viewers.

Anyway, during that vacation, duly wired into adulthood and satellite, the other thing to have become quite a hit with me was CSI. Thank god for re-runs. One didn’t have to wait for a week for the follow-up. One could cover the whole CSI range in a day — ‘Miami’, ‘NY’, ‘LVPD’, the whole lot. I also bumped into Bones, whose existence I was sinfully unaware of until then. I never thought I was much for blood and gore but I admit I couldn't help a mean, satisfied smirk when I noticed the grimaces of my co-spectators, on the days I had some. No matter how fictitious the contents, it was the fascinating picture dictionary I never had: “And look Dad, it talks, too!”

Indoor evenings were spent watching Munnibai’s ghazal recitals, the mention of whose gharana still makes people touch their ears in reverence. As she voiced the pining lover's ostensibly self-effacing-but-actually-narcissistic taunt-laden entreaties, it was easy to see where the effusive wah-wahs of the audience came from. After reading Naguib Mahfouz and Abdel Rehman Munif, it was one more step towards furthering my conscientious, hangdog — mea culpa-enclosed-herewith — project of privileging the Orient.

I tried to delight in all of it, hoping I was going to grace my couch less often in the future unless I planned to practise total self-abhorrence. The me-tube alliance was welcome for some time but its best-before date ultimately arrived. I could sense in myself anxiety that had been building because of feeling divorced from reality, an apprehension that I would find myself unequipped if suddenly I were to face the world outside. What takes place in the virtual world occurs at a speed that far outpaces the happenings of our comparatively humdrum existence. In order to experience in about two hours and twenty minutes a host of happy endings and complex issues that take years to truly understand, it would have to be not just an out-of-the-telly-box experience but an out-of-body one. And, therefore, pulling the plug seems such an arduous task. The minute we stop gazing at others’ lives and turn to examine our own, the oranges we were viewing on screen get rapidly muted into rust and soon mutate into dull browns. It becomes that much tougher to tolerate the monotonous and (as it appears to us) slow progression of time as part of life, after having become accustomed to gazing at animated colours accompanied by spikes engineered to shoot up at short intervals (think canned laughter).

My dreams too had been taken over by telly characters. I soon realised that whether it is televised or not, my revolution will surely not be delivered by television. I then became keener on delving into the off-screen unedited version of ‘The World As You Know’. Bill Hicks was right: “Watching television is like taking black spray paint to your third eye.” And I wanted my third eye up and running, as slick and in-form as Shiva’s. One must be careful not to become a passive content consumer. The more we get ensconced in the treacle of TV, the hypnotic opiate of visual entertainment, the more tenuous our tether to the real world can get.

This goes for the Internet as well, where our senses are first jolted into feeling too much and then become comatose as we float from one news piece/picture/video to another, trying to take it all in. Doing it for long and continuous hours makes us feel smaller and smaller in the ever widening web of the world. It becomes the perfect trigger for existential angst: what is the significance of our life and work in this Goliath of a universe? We start wondering about what we could do to bolster our presence there, as we become less and less present in the real world and for real people, divorced from our most immediate communities.

Years later, having learned to watch TV with a timer on, I came across little boy Jack in Emma Donoghue’s book, Room, talking about how his mommy does not let him watch too much television because it had once turned her “into a zombie that’s like a ghost but walks thump thump”. I wanted to say to him, “Well, boy, just listen to your mother on this.”

First published in thREAD, The Hindu, 13 Apr 2018.

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