In praise of programmed television

Rumination 1

When I was a child, time and life seemed infinite. I was always too aware of how slow it passed. I spent many evenings, days and months staring out of windows at strangers playing downstairs or staring blankly at inherently uninteresting features like how the paint was slowly wearing off an old gate, or how water had collected in the corner of the balcony in Delhi.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t lead some vacuous, empty childhood. I had friends, I played a lot of sports, and at my teachers’ insistence, I occasionally read as well. But time didn’t seem to be rushing past me, and I was wholly comfortable to watch it go. It didn’t hold too much currency for me. Particularly over the summer breaks, where I’d be whisked off to far away lands, time seemed to tick past without any protest. Under slow moving fans, and an ambient, pleasant heat, I’d spend time in the company of pensioners mostly. For these veterans that had passed through the manic and frantic “productive ages” of their existence, life also seemed to have slowed down to an almost agreeable, kind pace. With both of us having little to do, and sharing an abundance of time to kill, we’d often sit back lazily and escape into the worlds of day time television.

I’d learn little from actually watching the TV with these seasoned professionals, but in a time where I had few things to preoccupy my consciousness, I let myself be immersed. I’d explore the worlds of poorly produced yet charmingly innocent Hindi and Kannada movies from the 50s on some days. On others, I had the pleasure of meditating through pilgrimage videos of Brahmins being enchanted by prayers in either Badrinath or some other venerated location that my older companions seemed enthused by. Often, I’d sit listlessly, gliding in and out of heavy slumber, as the mid afternoon carb explosion from a double serving of rice started to give way to a kind vegetative stasis.

I was not out to change the world those afternoons, or even actively choosing to sit in my state of indolence. It was just what the situation was, and it was something I was incredibly at ease with. There were no distractions of homework, no lingering worries of what I’d do when Monday came around. I wasn’t constantly reminded of what paths lay ahead of me, and it seemed that the end of the summer was imperceivable. That Monday, or Thursday or Sunday would blur into a continuum, and it could go on and on for weeks until an end was in sight. The company of Amol Palekar or Anant Nag, heroes of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations, would be impressed upon me. Years later, out of some odd memory retention, I’d be able to recount what obscure movie was playing on the back of bus from Bangalore to Mysore, with an alarmingly good recollection of how the plot developed. These odd characters from a bygone era, would keep me ambling on through my summer. In complete bliss.

The single defining feature of those long, soporific afternoons was that whilst we we had decided to place ourselves in front of a television and absorb its ramblings, we had not actively chosen what to watch. Unlike the never ending on demand catalogues of today that drown us with choice, the decision of what to watch had been made for us by a number of nameless programming executives. Admittedly, we had the option of choosing which channel and set of curated entertainment to pick for ourselves. But this illusion of autonomy, was quickly quashed by a state of inertia as well as some lingering fatigue from watching too much cricket.

Without the benefit of a digital guide, we also had to treat the television like a crystal ball, with little forewarning about what show or movie was up next. But little did we care, because it was a far cry away from the hours (often longer than the length of what we want to watch), that we now take to decide on what show to watch. Ultimately the marathon of having to pick something to watch is an exhaustive process, and often saps any energy I could then use to actively enjoy a show. I absolutely loved the pampered treatment that those TV channels would offer me. Requiring minimal mental or physical effort between lunch and a stream of content steadfastly flowing towards my eyes and ears.

Whilst back at school, life was very different and significantly more active, but lazy Sundays, and even lazy post-school afternoons were never enjoyed without the company of the good old telly. Maggi noodles after school accompanied by a few hours of the greatest assembly of cartoons ever made were the hallmarks of my childhood. Although a couple of hours of homework kept me away from the prime time line up, the absence only made the heart grow fonder.

Later in the evening, I’d join my father as he hastily switched channels away from a show with more mature content towards something that we could both enjoy, innocently, and together. He’d trawl through the channels, opting to skip the pessimistic tones of news television, and the unimaginative dross of Hindi soaps, before settling in on an old favourite: nature documentaries.

For years, we’d absorb hours and hours of footage of wildebeests migrating across Africa and daring to cross crocodile infested waters. We’d begin to grow accustomed to Attenborough’s voice, and enjoy the light hearted antics of Jeff Corwin. These were heroes that were constantly bringing us to new and exhilarating locations, sharing with us some absolutely fascinating tales of how predators and prey constantly sought to outdo each other. Although my father hardly spoke about the shows we watched together during my childhood, they were forever impressed on us. Remnants again, of an era, where choices were defined by others and routine was king. Shows would never end, and Attenborough would live forever.

Fast forward to the present. As a financially independent, twenty something with few responsibilities, there are joys that, ostensibly at least, greatly outweigh the benefits of sitting at home and staring at an electronic appliance. As the constraints of routine have been cut and the world opened up, it is now possible for us to actually go and experience the places that Corwin and Attenborough guided us through. We can go and seek new social experiences, and forge life changing relationships. We are indeed spoilt for choice. I can choose to eat any cuisine I want this week, watch anything that I’d care for and go places that previously seemed out of my reach.

There is a however. As adulthood has thrown open the gauntlet for us to make our own paths, a new set of shackles have been clasped around us. Time is now precious. Having worked tirelessly over the course of a week in relative social isolation, it is difficult to argue against meeting friends over the weekend rather than staring blankly out of the window or at day time television. As we seek to cram more and more in our lives, and constantly wrestle with the abundance of choice that now stands before us, it can get a little overwhelming. We may lose ourselves in a constant “go” mode, where we don’t get the chance to actually collect ourselves and breathe a little easier. We are in the “productive ages” of our existence, where we need to keep running and keep achieving. Time is ticking away, and we must make the most of our able bodies before they atrophy.

Perhaps if we stop and look at those that have gone through this already, we can appreciate that this is a long, long game. That time is no less infinite now (objectively speaking) than it was during those long, lethargic summers. Perhaps we can afford, from time to time, to sit back and stare at mindless television again. Not because it’s the best use of our time in terms of productivity, but maybe it’ll teach us to escape from our daily hamster wheels and give our minds a rest. The world won’t stop if we do, and nothing will crash and burn if we decide to give into indolence from time to time. We do have the license to escape and dream, at least in moderation.

If you live in a large, helter-skelter city, remember that there are people still sitting under those Ajanta fans in South India, inching towards their mid afternoon siestas. They rest on sofas and arm chairs, with eyelids that are increasingly leaden with sleep, as they maintain focus on some alternate reality in an electronic box. They have escaped their busy lives, however fleetingly, into the worlds of careless, therapeutic bliss.

I have found at least, that with untamed programmed television in front of me, one which doesn’t care for my preferences and will continue to flow on whether I watch or not, that I don’t need to be in India to buy a short ticket to peace. I can travel back in time to those sun baked summers. In fact, I can do that in my flat this Sunday. This lovely, lazy, infinite Sunday.