I love the Gary Larson cartoon captioned (approximately), “What people did before they had television”. It shows a family sitting shoulder to shoulder on their living room couch, staring fixedly at a bare wall.
The first time I ever laid eyes on a television was at the ripe old age of seven, in Switzerland. It was the size of a large toaster, and it beamed black and white images of news anchors reading bulletins about debates between French President Giscard d’Estaing and his challenger, François Mitterand. It bored us to tears, and there was lots of blizzardy stuff on the screen, but we were very excited about it anyway. (And it was thanks to the television that my parents discovered that there was something wrong with my eyesight; my mother asked me if I could see the screen from where I sat, and I asked her which one of the two she meant.)
It was eventually upgraded to a slightly larger colour set with no snow, as technology roused itself into a slow warm-up jog. French programming, however, is extremely liberal stuff—the French introduce their children to sex almost as soon as they introduce them to wine—so my parents authorised us to watch only a bunch of cartoons and Zorro (which sabotaged the whole idea of colour television by being shot in black and white), although we watched all the adult stuff anyway whenever they were out.
By the time I was a teenager in Jakarta, we had an even larger colour television on which we were treated to colour images of Indonesian news anchors reading bulletins about the lack of debate between President Suharto and the rest of the country. It bored us to tears, but we also had a video cassette player by then, and so were able to watch B-grade Hollywood films on VHS tapes, which my mother said were American Bilge but which the rest of us, including my father, loved.
It was a long time before I got to a point where there was a nice TV, enough time and enough moronic programming to ensnare me—only in the past five years, really. Now I’m hopelessly addicted to American Bilge, and even my mother admits to a pale enjoyment of Friends (though I don’t think she’ll ever appreciate the vacuous thrill of sitting through an episode of E! News Daily).
Before we had television, I read. It was great, even though there was a cockroach as big as my foot that lived somewhere in the bookshelf and got its jollies from charging me. I’m glad I developed the reading habit before the temptations of television came along, because if I hadn’t, I’d be a complete zombie (I think ‘remote control’ refers to the power of programmers over viewers). You know those people who don’t have a television and don’t want one? I’m not one of those people. There are worse things than to kick off your shoes and sit down to an episode of House or some particularly non-challenging movie on HBO—it’s certainly better than smoking, or getting drunk, or watching the Hallmark channel instead.
Despite my love for books, I’m having to remind myself to read rather than turn on some version of the television—especially since the television manufacturing industry, after going through the laborious process of making ever-larger sets, is now busy breaking them down again to smaller and smaller sizes, for treadmills, for watches, so that you can take your idiot box along wherever you go. I’m having to remind myself that the Delhi Book Fair is on, and that I like going there. It’s a bit of struggle, and I haven’t made it yet, but I live in hope. Now pass the remote.