Saturday, February 25, 2012

Urban Bawl 5: Glass Teat

An edited version of this piece is the fifth in the series of my Urban Bawl columns in Time Out Mumbai for their 'Back of the Book' page.
This is published in the Feb 17-March 1 2012  (Vol 8 Issue 13) issue of Time Out Mumbai.

Glass Teat
We are gathered here today, we motley few, in this small chamber of
600 words, to mourn the death of our foster mother- television.

Her glass teat nourished us through our impressionable years. Her
mortal remains still lactate a daily pint of sari-clad, big bindi
infidelities and perversions in patriarchies, but we never developed a
taste for that sort of thing. When she was alive, she nurtured us
through two golden ages- the single screen, multilingual Bombay
Doordarshan during the seventies and the first multiplex age of
satellite television in the early nineties.

Those were heady days; she came to us piped through cables that flew
across rooftops, down rainwater pipes and through our windows. Her
riches were bounteous, given freely in Star TV, MTv, BBC, TNT, the
forbidden fruits of Jain TV, and of course, latesht movies of every
genre that the cablewallahs themselves curated.

But now she is gone. We could see the decline coming, the morphing of
‘Yo! MTv’ to ‘Oye! MTv’ was the harbinger. We ignored these symptoms,
preoccupied with wolfing down channels by the hundreds. Her toxic
desi-fication, complicated by relentless proscriptions in the nouvelle
vague of branded dish-content made her terminal. Toward the end, we
kept her going by restricting ourselves only to the news and English
movie channels, but even these modest needs were soon confounded.

How expectations can be belied. We searched for news, but had to make
do with cookery. Or Bollynostalgia, advertisements, spiritual
discourses, car shows, advertisements, cellphone promos, talking heads
dissecting soap operas on other channels or Sachin’s hundredth hundred
and advertisements.  We wondered, wasn’t all this better suited to the
specialized channels? But our mother was past the stage of response.

We turned to Hindi news channels and saw these headlines: ‘Shahrukh
Khan ne pahili baar shirt utaara!’ We clicked our remote for Breaking
News (all capitals and martial music) as it happened: ‘Deepika ne
Aishwarya ko Auntie kahaa!’ We felt elated. All was well with a world
where the younger peedhi showed such rispact for the elderly. News,
sans editorializing had been sublimated in a cacophony of bombastic
music and kitschy reconstructions. The bathos of Mumbaikars, who never
made news normally, was only reinforced when they surfaced briefly
from one terror attack to the next.

We sought relief in the superficiality of cinema and got Godard.
Jean-Luc invented the violation of continuity editing; fillum channels
emulated this grand tradition. Movies were downsized with ‘jump cut’
to pander to the tastes of ultraconservatives and babies. While our
Censor Board made cuts with surgical precision, the television
channels hacked though everything ‘deemed offensive’ with a machete.

Some progressive channels showed us cinema as it was made, and
preferred the middle-path of the blur and the bleep. Luis Bunuel was
outmatched, as ‘You Don’t Mess With the Zohan’ was remade into a
surrealist masterwork. The word ‘terrorist’ was bleeped out maybe a
zillion times, both in sound and subtitles. Cigarette smoke was
pixellated as per the government regulations. You could not see a
bleeding hand because your namby-pamby sensibilities would not take
it. We learn language in the laps of our mothers, so, appropriately
she taught us, replacing older words for new: ‘Prick’ was therefore a
no-no, we now use the more refined ‘testicle’. Thusly was our
vocabulary enriched, each day.

In passing, our foster mummy left us terminally infantilized. Her love
for us made her blind; she could never accept that we have grown up.
She has left behind a legacy of baby-talk and absences. God rest her
soul, as she looks down at us drooling mindlessly as we flit from
channel to channel to channel.