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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Magic Box

There is this one cartoon that amuses me vastly. A very excited Martian holding a television set in his arms, rushes back to his home planet, and tells his leader: “I didn’t bother with the Earthlings. Instead I stole their God!” About time someone raised the status of the Idiot Box to something better.

A friend of mine was writing an article on what precious item people would take if their house was on fire, all loved ones were safe and they had just enough time to grab one item and run. The choice of item would tell a lot about the individual’s personality.

The choices people made ranged from family photo albums, to marriage certificates, to share portfolios, to bank books, jewellery, works of art, silver cutlery, books. I came home and asked my children who were then 14 and 9 what they would take. One loved books, art and sports. The other loved books, music and dogs.

Without pausing for even a second the 14 year-old said, “The TV.” The 9-year-old said, “The remote”.

I looked at them horrified. They had turned into The Modern Child. The couch potato. The brain dead worshipper of the idiot box. Just like their mother. And mine.

With people like us, anyway you look at it the television set is a magic box. As inventions go this one has my vote as being up there among the best ever invented. We did not have television when I was a child, which was why sports and imagination filled the hours of the day. But black and white television came into my life along with adolescence and the full glory of Doordarshan unfolded before us. We saw the news yes, with lots of Rajiv Gandhi doing lots of things mostly running up and down steps of planes and wearing a variety of headgear wherever he went. We watched an agricultural programme for farmers called “Amchi Mati, Amchi Manas”. We watched some wonderful Tamil, Telugu, Malyalam, Oriya, Bengali, Marathi and Hindi films. There were English films too and delightful serials like I Love Lucy.

Then came colour and cricket. My mother was an excellent home-maker, but when cricket matches were being telecast it was every man for himself. No meals were cooked, we had to manage on our own, because if she left the room, one of her “boys” would get out and India would lose the match. It was in the national interest that she had to stay put for the day. Toilet breaks were during the commercials.

Then came cable and we were ecstatic. They referred to a group of channels as a “bouquet” and what an apt term it was. Everyone had their favourite programme and generally everyone else willingly sat and watched. Commercial breaks were used for passionate debates over what was seen before.

Like most family traits I carried this on to my family too. We watched football and cricket, tennis and the Olympics, motorcycle rallies and Formula 1. We watched crime investigation serials and learned the intricacies of forensics. We learned that Lumenol can show up bloodstains years after a murder has been committed and the scene of the crime washed clean. We watched great feats of engineering and science. We observed the lifestyles of animals in the wild and the lifestyles of the fat cats of Page Three. We saw world events unfold and even learned to make accurate predictions because history always repeats itself. Television brought the whole world and all its goings-on into our drawing room.

I know six elderly women. In their time, two had been successful career women active, one had a large family and was always busy keeping her large household ticking over like clockwork. The other three were homemakers with large families. They were vibrant, well adjusted, with busy schedules. The first three felt watching television was a waste of time. The three homemakers found television to be high entertainment and a break from the routine of home-making and the silence of an empty house during office and school hours. Theirs was not a passive watching of anything on the box. They had their favourite programmes and followed every twist and turn carefully.

The first three women are today stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease. The last three tv addicts are still full of joie de vivre or joy in living. At least two of them. The third, my mother Maria Felicia, died seven years ago at 86, but she was sharp as a pin till the end. While I suspect an excess of television kept their faculties sharp, it definitely did not harm them. Therefore I am formally promoting television from the Idiot Box to the Magic Box.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

This thing called friendship

Friendship is a funny thing. It starts in the most casual of all encounters – eye contact, a shared smile, maybe a chance meeting, even a fight which ends before it can begin. Then it grows like a living thing, warm, beautiful, eccentric, demanding around a solid core of respect, commitment and love.

This thing called friendship needs more than one to grow. Sometimes it is born out of a group of three, maybe four, maybe more. It crosses all man-made boundaries of caste, colour, creed, time and geography. It is strong. It is permanent. It survives through years of separation. It leapfrogs across continents. Which is why when friends meet after years, even decades, threads are picked up smoothly just as if they had last seen each other only minutes before.

I’m gregarious. Always have been and hope always will be. I like people and generally people like me. I can strike up a conversation with anyone from any walk of life, which quality comes in handy in my line of work. Yet, despite the hundreds of acquaintances whose lives I have touched over the years, I can count only a small handful as my friends. Three of them go back more than 37 years. All three were from different colleges and we met randomly. The only thing we had in common was a love for playing hockey. What bound us was an irreverence for almost everything, including each other.

Each contributed his and her friends and relatives to the core group of four and we built up a sizeable crowd of 18 strong which guaranteed interesting extracurricular activities and a network that is now scattered all over the world. They annoy their children with stories of the fun times we had, which their children obviously do not.

The four of us were not some group of like minded soul-mates who were always on the same page. No indeed. There were fights, practical jokes that went awry, there were misunderstandings, days where all diplomatic ties were severed, but somehow all rage melted away and we were back together planning another caper.

Of the core group of four, one of us rose to great heights in an international airline, one opened an advertising agency and made a killing with her hobby of currency trading, the third and most impressive, steadfastly refused all opportunities for promotion in banking because if he were promoted he would be transferred out of Bombay and there would be no one to look after his mother. As for me, I still don’t know what I am doing, but at 55, I feel my best years lie ahead of me.

We keep in touch sporadically on birthdays and festivals, through telephone and email. When we speak to each other, time and distance dissolve into nothing. All worries and tensions that dog our everyday disappear and we are back in that time of crystal clarity when one felt no fear, when the world was our playground and we were invincible. That’s what this thing called friendship does. It melts away the irrelevant.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Who said we are not privileged?

Lately I’ve been thinking that we have pockets of privileged classes everywhere. Among the strong and also the weak. Technology has made the strong weak and the weak strong.

The men and women, who toil in the fields, grow the food that ends up on our tables. Men and women build the homes, offices, bridges and roads that we use. They are the strong ones who have the physical strength to work long hours in the sun with not much to sustain them.

Then there are the rich folks living in their high-rises and villas. Put them to work in a field or a construction site for half a day and they will collapse. Yet the strong labourer is weak in the real world. It’s the wealthy weaklings who have the power.

You would think that those with no power are crushed under the heel of those who have. You would be wrong, because the poorest of the poor enjoy the same privileges as the richest of the rich. They can build houses anywhere and illegal is made legal. All they have to do is get an audience with a powerful minister or member of parliament, touch his feet and weep on his shoulder.

We won’t talk about the wealthy because it goes without saying that their wealth buys them the privileges that the poor get with misery and a potential vote bank. The politician is the most privileged because he extorts from the rich to donate to the poor, so that he can be voted to power. Then he can rob the rich, the poor and the middle class.

Chimbel’s Indiranagar slum colony is a living example of a privileged class. If I want a ration card and have no proper documents of domicile I would wear out at least five pairs of shoes before I got my ration card. A resident of Indiranagar told me that she had no birth certificate and that her son’s name on his birth certificate needed to be changed. She did not even know which day she was born, so she selected a day, a month a year and within days she received a birth certificate and a ration card. They told her there would be a bit of a problem with changing the name on her son’s birth cert. Instead they issued her son a new one with his name duly changed.

I thought it was only the rich and the poor that are belong to the privileged class. I thought wrong.

There is a whole new class of people in between who can make the impossible possible. Largely found in the middle class groupings of society, this is the class of people who know people in the right places. All it takes is one telephone call to get one’s work done, or someone else’s work undone. They are the class of people with Contacts.

What about those who are not wealthy, not poor and not influential? They have right on their side. Also the judiciary and the entire system that can be made to work to right wrongs. It takes a while longer, cost more in terms of time and money, and it’s these who actually determine the direction the country will progress.

As it happened in the case of a householder in Mapusa who approached the Additional Sessions Court to: a) prevent a group of illegal gadda owners from dumping their construction material and garbage into a nullah and b) to order them to remove the debris and waste from the nullah. The gadda owners were incensed with the nerve of the householder dragging them to court when the nullah and road were public property and therefore none of his business. But the householder brought out a precedent set by the Supreme Court where any individual could act against persons and institutions that were causing damage to public property. The litigant here was not using influence to right a wrong. He was using the system to beat the system. Now that’s a privilege.