Monday, July 07, 2008

Every now and then a scene from my childhood flashes across my mind – that of my best friend running away from an absorbing game to watch TV.
A technological invasion took place in my life when I was 9 years old. Suddenly, we had a TV station in our small town. TV became the new symbol of middle class affluence. Of course, the rich and a small portion of the middle-class people who had newly moved in to town from the metropolitan cities already had TV in their sitting rooms. These were large, ugly and mostly useless showpieces. During the Benson & Hedges Cricket Series, I remember, entire households spent hours together trying to attract some transmission rays with the help of quaint devices called boosters attached to the TV antennae. The antennae were also gently nudged in all kinds of direction to chance upon the appropriate angle for a clearer telecast.
The very first thing I saw on TV was Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s funeral. This took place a few months before TVs started mushrooming in our town. The entire colony gathered in the only house that had a TV. The funeral of the nation’s prime minister was the first funeral that was broadcast live on national television.
It was almost a party for the children of our colony. All normality was suspended. No nagging about homework, no enforced afternoon-naps. We were all sitting on a carpet in a friend’s house, waiting excitedly for the show to begin. And wonder of wonders! Our mothers were sitting on chairs and sofas behind us! The transmission began. A grim but attractive looking young woman made an announcement. And all of us – sitting in that room in a government colony in Maharashtra went on a virtual tour of Shantivan in Delhi! The wonder of it all! Were those VIPs really crying? Why was Yaseer Arafat – the man whose name my dad uttered with respect – hiding his face behind a temporary sunshade fashioned from a programme-card? Why was Sonia Gandhi – then known only as Mrs. Gandhi’s Italian daughter-in-law – wearing black glasses? Was it because foreigners do not weep openly, as we Indians do? And were they actually using logs of sandalwood for the funeral pyre?! These were some of the questions whirling around in my head. It was all so new; so fascinating! There was nothing sad or grim about this funeral. Not until I happened to glance at a friend’s mother and noticed that tears were streaming down her cheeks. I was puzzled by her grief. Now I realize that TV had actually transported her to Shantivan while I was just peeking at it through the window called TV.
TV has always been and still is that for me – a window that I switch on once in a while; especially when I am feeling too lazy for any other kind of diversion. It never managed to reveal its magical powers to me. My best friend was enchanted by the magic of TV. Right in the middle of a very exciting contest of hop-scotch or during our regular badminton sessions she would request an obliging elder to tell her the time by their watch. If it was a Tuesday and it was 6.15 p.m then off she would run to watch ‘Phool khile hain gulshan gulshan’. Never understood the fascination! Not even after watching the programme myself. What was so fascinating about a simpering woman coaxing some ‘celebrity’ from the film world into ‘revealing’ his ‘secrets’? And why did that become more fascinating for my friend than playing with me? After TV came into our lives, all our elaborate Saturday morning and Sunday morning games came to a standstill. Saturday and Sunday became TV days. From being my favourite days of the week they slowly became the worst days of the week. I thought my friend and all the TV watching children had gone MAD. I was sure grown ups had not got carried away. I was in for a rude shock! TV had not only captivated children but also grown ups. My parents’ friends came over for Sunday lunch and post-lunch one of the guests wondered whether we see the Sunday afternoon movie on TV! My dad, playing the perfect host he likes to be, switched on the TV. And for the next three hours this family – who had supposedly paid us a social visit – were sitting on our sofa and focusing on a subtitled Assamese movie. My brothers and I were wasting a precious Sunday putting on our best behaviour and ‘proper’ clothes. Weren’t those grownups supposed to talk? Weren’t they supposed toss a few questions at us and then send their children to play with us? How could they do this to our Sunday? Why did they have to ‘visit’ us if watching TV was all that they wanted o do? That meant some grownups had also gone MAD! TV had driven so many people crazy.
It took me a good deal of time and some well-made TV programs to give TV a chance. I allow it to ‘waste’ my time sometimes and enjoy watching it once in a while. Although I refuse to spend good money on buying one, yes I conceded, I have accepted it as a permanent prop of modern life but I wince at the idea of playing second fiddle to TV for someone’s attention. I still fail to understand the ‘modern’ impulse to switch on the TV since the remote was handy while I am talking to that person. Somehow I cannot the swallow the excuse of the remote or understand the need for background noise as accompaniment to conversation. My companion switching on the TV indicates a clear preference to me. Clearly, the TV or the premium on TV’s ability to entertain is greater than the conversation. However, if I am convinced switching it on is habitual then I conclude that my battle against this technological invasion is still on. Even after two decades neither of us seems ready for a truce.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

All Mumbaikars please stop reading rightaway. I don't intend to offend people I share geographical space with.

Having put that disclaimer in place, I can go on to show how I am bemused by this city. I don't mean the geography of the place. That is pretty clear to me. When I landed in this place, about a year back, I thought it was a maze; until my husband brought out the map and proved that it was just three horizontal columns, separated by two highways, and governed by three railway lines. Then I took up a job, started commuting by local trains, fell off one of these trains onto a station platform, faced total indifference at the said station for my clumsy fall, overheard personal stuff from strangers' lives on some of these trains (stuff that could seriously fuel my writerly ambitions), and naively concluded that these trains run this city.

Now, those kind of simplistic conclusions do no good to my credentials as a student of humanities and social sciences. So, I kept my 'conclusions' to myself and pontificated further. I tried exploring the common myth that it is money that runs the show out here. And there is enough dope to get that myth going. One look at the city-specific pages in any given day's newpaper would prove that -- at least one story on a murder within a family for the ownership of a flat, and surely a couple more on legal wranglings among siblings. Other than that, talk to any local and the sentiment, "there's money in Mumbai", is sure to come out in whichever dialect of English or Hindi that person is comfortable using.

As an aside, Mumbai has some amazing amount of ghettoisation, even in the way the locals express themselves. Other than the fact that people of the same language group tend to flock together, they evolve their very own version of Mumbaiyya Hindi and English! I suppose I will write about that some other time.

Anyway, slowly I was gravitating towards buying into that money theory. Come to think of it every other day the media calls it the "Economic Capital of the Country". Today's unexpected holiday in the middle of the week gave me time to do a rethink. Here's why:

It was raining last night and there was nothing remarkable about a rainy June night in a coastal city of a mostly tropical country. And, we retired for the night at half past midnight. Nothing remarkable about that again. The first unusual thing was that our doorbell didn't anounce the arrival of our maid at 7 am. Well, that being our alarm, we overslept. The husband's subconscious must have warned him for he shot out of bed at 8 am and shouted out that we are terribly late. So, we gave up our morning tea and breakfast and got ready to head to work. I was stepping into my shoes when the husband called from the car to warn me of the situation outside. All roads were flooded, there were very few autorickshaws and nearly no taxis on the road, and there were rumours that the local train might not ply for the day. He asked me to take a call on whether I'd like to risk my life to go to work; with broad hints, of course, that taking a risk would be foolhardy. Considering the students are on vacation and I sit and read all day long in the faculty room, that too in solitary splendour when my more experienced colleagues are busy with weighty administrative matters, I decided to give the adventurous ride to work a miss. I slept some more, read the paper a tad too thorougly and supplemented the standard maid-cooked meal with a chutney. The maid, by the way, showed up a little before noon to compensate for the morning's leave of absence; being the true blue professional Mumbai bai she is! And, I also got to catch up with my local friends who called in to enquire if we were safe at home. They, of course knowing how the city works, wisely decided to not venture out. The husband also reported from his post at work that there were about 3 people at work. Naturally the workaholics, including him, would not let mere Nature deter them from their workstations! But then it occurred to me that Nature did manage to bring the economic capital of the country to a standstill. The trains had to be stopped. Buses were not expected to ply on flooded roads and people were not expected to report to work in such conditions. Moreover, the ones who did report to work were requested to head back home so that the companies would not be held responsible for any eventualities. The brave ones who ventured out did so without the customary lunchbox in their bags, what with bais dealing with flooded homes, and these brave souls had no clue about the means of transport back home.

All the gossipy stayed-at-home types reminisced about 26th July 2006, some of them about stories of rare courage, some others about resilience and a few about melodramatic tragedies. Some other busy souls, stopped by natural conditions, busied themselves at home and got a lot of work done at home. Neighbours used the unexpected holiday to catch up on news about each other instead of the customary nod while handing the trashbag to the janitor.

Suddenly, Mumbai looked very much like a sleepy small town in coastal Andhra to me. And all this because it rained heavily on one night!

I still have not figured out what makes Mumbai go but I have sure figured out what makes it stop in its tracks! Nature does!

PS: I now think the sages were wise to consider Nature the almighty!