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If TV is the new god, then Manju Mulmule, a former Mumbai-based teacher, is godless. It's because she hasn't had a TV in the past seven years. "It makes you waste a lot of time," says Mulmule, who pursues other gainful hobbies like studying music full time. Mulmule believes that if there is no TV you automatically begin to spend time on self-improvement. "As a Ramakrishna devotee my knowing or not knowing about world events won't make any difference to my life," she says. Mulmule is not a lone TV-agnostic in a country opiated on the idiot box. T.K. Hareendran has been TV-less for the last six years. "It's a conscious decision," says the Delhi-based artist, "because TV is a medium that generalises imagery and provides for only superficial curiosity."
Mulmule and Hareendran are members of a small but growing tribe of people who've decided to give the snub to the boobtube. It takes immense effort though not to succumb to TV's seductive charms. Admits Delhi-based businessman and TV refusenik Ishmael Chawla, who finally dumped his set in his cupboard, "The moving image is so seductive, no amount of disciplining works."
What is it that has stopped these people from becoming couch potatoes? Are they merely contrarian oddballs or do they have lives far more interesting than the soaps on TV? Most of them simply find the idiot box a distraction or boring. "There's just too much emphasis on song and dance. It's irritating," says Calcutta's Sivadas Banerjee, a retired journalist who brought up his kids without television. Delhi-based art historian and writer Geeti Sen, who runs a TV-free household, finds the art of making conversation on the wane thanks to the idiot box.
To be sure, TV-agnostics are more the exception than the rule. Doordarshan news editor and child development research scholar Dharini Mishra has found interesting viewing trends in a study of Delhi homes. TV watching in homes that Mishra studied was done from two to four hours a day. Children, she found out, started watching and understanding TV at age three. In lower income groups (with total income less than Rs 2,000 a month), the TV was 'generally' switched on while family members sauntered in and out of the room. Higher up on the social ladder, she found that children were introduced to the TV as a side dish; they ate better when the TV was on. So not only were they being caught young they also had little choice to say no. The urban situation was one step ahead. Mishra's study found that TV actually played a major role in keeping a family together, as 78 per cent of her respondents reported that family interaction was maximum when the TV was kept in the living room.
But not everybody needs that kind of uniting experience. Bangalore's Dhanapal household of four has been without a TV for the last nine years and its homemaker Manjula says, "We have more time to communicate with each other as a family which I don't see happening in many homes." Not every TV-agnostic, however, buys this theory. Says Chawla, "The picture of an American family congregated around the TV silently eating dinner with no communication is a classic cliche but even so the model is particularly American. Indians are more chatty and involved; that's why TV is less of an alienating influence here. Conversation is just as witty as ever, it's just that people have different points of reference now." Not so, says Geeti Sen who saw TV affect her father rather adversely. "He was such a witty conversationalist who abhorred TV but when he moved to Canada he lost it to TV, which I think was mainly because of loneliness," she says. With reference points becoming TV-centric, they also have a way of making people feel bereft. Delhi journalist Abheek Barman, who has been without a TV for the past six years and who listens to music on his dvd player, does "feel left out when friends and colleagues discuss movies and soaps".
This does not deter diehard TV refuseniks from sticking to their guns. "During events like September 11, I realised it was more morbid curiosity than anything else that kept us glued to the TV. There wasn't much information added to the event," says Vivek Ramakrishnan, a Mumbai-based bank executive. Although Vivek and his wife have been TV-free for the past nine years, it all began quite by accident when as a student in the US someone broke into his apartment and stole his TV. Since he could not get a replacement he decided to get on with life without the boobtube and voila! his grades improved drastically. Now Vivek says he "doesn't even get the urge". Clearly, there is life after Tee Vee.
Dhiraj Singh With Manu Joseph, B.R. Srikanth and Ashis K. Biswas