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August 2004

When we take first time visitors around our newly remodeled house, they seldom pause to comment on the tiles with the fish motif in the bathroom or the brick red granite counter in the compact modular kitchen. It is not the presence of the microwave or the extra-large refrigerator but the absence of that ubiquitous appliance that has become so commonplace in India that makes them ask "Where's the TV?"

A friend once asked me before I left for India if I would have access to the three essentials in life?air, water, and email. I had laughed then. Now I realize I need to add television to the list of essentials. In small one-room houses by the railway tracks or even rickety shacks by the roadside, every household that has electricity, has a TV. For the burgeoning middle class who can afford washing machines and music systems, cable TV is as indispensable as a phone connection.

In the mid-seventies when television made an appearance in Bombay, I remember lining up outside a neighbor's home to watch the unequivocally dull programming on Doordarshan. My parents saved up for a few years and figured that they could afford either a fridge or a TV and conducted an informal poll of their three kids to figure out our preferences. "TV" we cried out unanimously. Having lived through the boring black and white agricultural documentaries and daily news read by impeccably made up mannequin-like newscasters, then moving to the introduction of commercials, sports coverage, movies, movie songs and the like, it seems like I grew up along with television.

Today, in India, TV has not just entered practically every home, it has taken over. The most ardent fans are not only children glued to cartoon shows but their grandparents. People of my parents' generation spent over one half of their life without access to TV. When TV arrived, they were busy with the logistics of running a home and raising kids. Now in their more relaxed retired life, they have turned to TV to fill in the hours. From the early morning spiritual sermons to late night news, Grandma and Grandpa compete with grandkids in joint families for TV watching privileges. While Grandma watches daytime soaps with fervent devotion, Grandfather keenly follows sports and keeps pace with the latest in world news. Once they return from school, children stare glassy-eyed at the Cartoon Network where characters like George and Bob spout Hindi. In families that can afford it, conflicts between the generations have made them seriously consider having more than one TV set in the home, a phenomenon common in more affluent nations.

Like several other older couples, even my parents who live by themselves have a new element of marital strife these days. After forty years of togetherness, they argue about my father's penchant for changing channels, or my mother's insistence on watching travel shows even when a cricket match is at a crucial stage. I once invited my aunt who is in her mid-seventies and lives by herself, to spend a few days in my home. A fiercely independent woman, I knew it would be a tough sell to convince her, but I knew the battle was lost once she found out that I had no TV.

I suspect that we are the only household in the neighborhood (if not the city) without a TV. Along with general comments about our "strange" decision in being a TV-free family, someone remarked that it was very noble of us to not have a TV. It is estimated that nearly 40 percent of the world's population spends a quarter of their waking hours watching TV. Instead of being an educational and entertaining tool, television has turned into a huge monster devouring large chunks of our time; time that I believe can be better spent. With my work hours and long commute I cannot imagine offering up what little free time I have to the demanding TV gods. I would rather turn on the music, cuddle up with my child to read a story or step out in the sultry nights for a refreshing walk. I see nothing noble in selfishly reclaiming my time and using it towards more meaningful pursuits.

I don't deny the seductive lure of TV that transmits events in real time as they unfold in some remote part of the world. Unlike the static written word, the dynamic nature of TV makes it an attractive medium for the masses. Reading a review of a music concert is no match for the vibrancy of observing the same on TV, live or recorded. Watching the pristine beauty of Alaska or the magnificent pyramids on TV conveys much more than mere data and statistics. For me, the most enduring image of September 11 which invokes that terrible day and all its associated emotions is the unforgettable sight of the collapse of the second tower of the World Trade Center building right before my eyes on TV that morning.

As a tool for education TV has unlimited potential. While Discovery and similar channels provide some intellectual stimulation, the average family rarely watches these shows. The standard drama of the Indian soaps revolves around gaudily dressed women, totally removed from reality, who plot and avenge or the stereotypical Sita-type ladies who hang around doorsteps with an apologetic look or weep copious tears at being wronged by either the men, their mother-in-law or the heavily made-up other woman. The subtle nuances of human nature, the stuff that authentic story-telling thrives on, is lost on the masses who greedily devour this ridiculous fare and faithfully watch these stretched out tales for years.

I am told that it is OK to have a vice, and for most people, addiction to TV is something that they openly admit. I quit TV cold turkey and seem to be showing no significant ill effects. I am not sure if I would be able to say the same about the other monitor (and keyboard) that I cannot seem to do without.

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