A brief personal history of Indian television for the millennial

The biggest turn-on

Illustration: Manoj Singh Rana Illustration: Manoj Singh Rana

My first memory of it is as bright as doomsday. In the late 1970s, my family was visiting Bombay. I remember us calling upon a friend’s family at dusk. They served tea. Then everybody stopped talking and stared, transfixed, at what looked like a plywood crate that emitted a blue-grey glow. 

“It’s a TV!” my mother whispered to me excitedly. I think I must have stared at it, too, because the rest of that memory is white noise.

I didn’t see, leave alone watch, a television until many years after. Yet, I remember its power to command attention, to silence thought, to bring living-room conversation to a standstill, to replace the pictures in our minds with pre-manufactured ones.

I had a summer-vacation friend in Kerala whose father worked in Muscat. On each annual visit, Uncle Mani brought home gadgets from the future. Most prized was an Akai colour television set. For years, it sat in the living room under an embroidered dust cover, silent, waiting for when the skies would send a signal. Their house was the only one in that Palakkad village to be crowned with a towering television antenna almost as tall as the gold-plated flagpole of the village temple. 

One fine day, Uncle Mani gathered everyone in their living room, broke a coconut to propitiate the gods, and switched on the television. With a ceremonious explosion, the picture tube blew out. No one had yet heard of warranty. 

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In 1982, television-viewing was terminally inflicted upon us in a moment of national pride. Official engagements were paused to allow the country to watch the Asian Games opening ceremony, broadcast live on Doordarshan from Delhi. We watched TV at the neighbour’s, who owned a black-and-white Dyanora encased in a wooden cabinet inside which, in the hospitable warmth of the cathode ray tube, a mouse raised brood after happy brood. 

When my dad brought home a 14-inch Siemens set from Germany, TV-watching became a nuclear family thing again. This happened, with Orwellian ominousness, in 1984 — also the year that Indira Gandhi was assassinated. We watched a whole week of sarangi vadan and funerary footage in vivid colour.  

My grandfather, who swore by his transistor radio, was easily weaned off it once the TV came home. In the days of single-channel enslavement to Doordarshan, my grandmother grumbled when a week’s worth of family dramas and soap operas were sacrificed to telecast a cricket match for five days. There was no respite even when rain stopped play, not even to squeeze in a segment of Chitrahaar. I had no quarrel with that, because Test matches were played in the daytime and Giant Robot came on at 6 pm.

On Sundays, we wolfed down breakfast in time to watch Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan. You had to be bathed, get dressed and say your prayers before Arun Govil’s beatific face appeared. The entire village turned up at my grandfather’s brother’s place in rural Kerala to watch the serial. Even the Communists. 

Yet, if there was anyone more powerful than the divine, it was the electricity board. All it took was a well-timed power cut to plunge the morning into heartbroken chaos. No reruns, no highlights. If you missed it, you were left out.  

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Making social calls was easier when there was just one TV channel to watch. You dropped in at someone’s place when the serials were on and stepped out when the commercial breaks kicked in. Except, the ads (not counting Washing Powder Nirma) were immensely more watchable.

When cable TV desert-stormed into our lives in the 1990s, every day was Sunday. Our lives were stuffed with Donahue and Oprah and MTV VJs from Hong Kong, and those garishly dressed medievals from The Bold And The Beautiful. The barbershop played Fashion TV all day long to prevent patrons from moving their heads. And I discovered quite by accident that the cable guy discreetly aired the most interesting content after 10 pm. 

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The surplus of choice soon became unbearable. When my wife and I moved into our own home, we resolved to live without cable TV. Suddenly, we had time on our hands. Time to talk, to bicker, to cook elaborate meals, to raise a child in a TV-free home. And, of course, to watch the stacks of pirated Criterion Collection DVDs we had hoarded. But our friends made some excuse or other not to visit. We wondered why. Until one of their kids blurted: “But you don’t have IPL on your TV!” 

When we discovered Netflix, it was like snorting a line. We binge-watched and binge-watched until we needed to guess the neighbour’s WiFi password to continue watching. And now, we have every streaming app needed to lead a debauched life of audiovisual ananda. 

The best part? We still don’t have cable TV. 

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