Saturday, June 22, 2013

Channel Surfing with Ganesh

What's On TV?

There has been a lot of press regarding India's spectacular growth since economic trade was liberalized in the early 1990s. However, outside certain urban enclaves, much of the country remains extraordinarily undeveloped. Mostly, it is a matter of bureaucratic corruption, rather than a failure of civic resourcefulness. Though in America it is now common for every room in the house to have a flat screen TV (not to mention computer, tablet, and cellular entertainment), a television remains a luxury item for the average Indian. If the traveler should happen upon a festival, a fair, or large trading market, it is not uncommon to see a large TV hooked up to enormous, outdated speakers, blaring Hindustani epics like The Ramayana on pirated DVDs to an audience of farmers and pastoralists, who, living on the land mostly as their ancestors have done for centuries, still regard the television as a magical box.
          TV is seen by many (including myself) as a cultural id, generally reflecting national predilections.   Museums elaborate on a nation's past; television showcases the culture's present infatuations. Mostly, whether you're in Italy, Japan, or wherever, this is not a good sign, since most programming is beyond terrible. No anomaly, Indian TV has its share of faults. There might be a hundred channels on cable, but most of them feature spiritual swamis, religious reenactments, cricket matches or recaps, melodramatic soaps, and sturm und drang news programs regarding Pakistan.
          I don't come to India to watch TV, but in recent years I've appreciated it as an instrument for decompression. Engaging with Indian everyday life, navigating its crowded, polluted streets, maneuvering through conversations with endless strangers, takes its toll on the traveler. Like many who come here, I am seeking betterment-- not exactly enlightenment or even an epiphany, but some kind of transformation-- one cannot visit India without returning home with more human empathy and gratitude for the small, good things in life. Nevertheless, there comes times, really long days, where I can no longer write in my journal or make sense of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. The television then allows me a short respite. The average Indian wealthy enough to own a television might be anglophone, but among the dozens of channels, usually only HBO and STAR have English language programming. And so last time out, I ended up watching Rocky III, Commando, and Top Gun, three 1980s movies I loved as a kid. I'm more amused by this than embarrassed. Thus, although when it comes to TV I'm more of a detractor than advocate, for all its many faults, it has helped me through the long night.

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