Saturday, January 24, 2009

Inside the Idiot Box of memory

Let me take you to several minutes before 6 p.m. on crisp winter evenings in the 1980s. In a cobweb of narrow Lucknow lanes, my four young uncles would be about to return home on their Bajaj scooters, my tough cookie grandfather would be about to have his evening tea and on the first floor, my grandmother would be cutting guavas and bringing them to my twin brother Shailesh and me.
That was the moment when I would get up for the highlight of our winter vacation days, in the neighbourhood someone had so stupidly named Ghasiyari Mandi.
A massive click. I would switch on the thick cylindrical silver knob of the Uptron Urvashi TV set, encased in a wooden cabinet. Vertical vibgyor colour bands would show up, and then, suddenly, the rotating Doordarshan logo that seemed to us like two huge kajus hugging a rasgulla in the centre. Sublime, pre-24X7 moment. The moment my brother and I would have waited for the whole day, killing time to prepare ourselves to open the rolling wooden shutter on the TV cabinet.

Doordarshan was the anchor of my growing up years in Lucknow and Nainital. Its wholesome programming shaped me as an individual, like it did millions of others. We never realised it then, but Doordarshan kept India tied to its cultural and philosophical moorings – a bond that was yanked ruthlessly with the arrival of cable. Doordarshan left me with a thousand nuggets of nostalgia that I cling on to.
Heck, I was such a sucker that I often religiously watched "Chaupal", the equivalent of New Delhi's "Krishi Darshan", for the folk songs after the chats about the wheat bug pesticide.
So you can imagine my plight when India were playing the West Indies, Malcolm Marshall was about to bowl to Srikkant, and my grandfather would walk in for his morning puja. I think it was around the time when Doordarshan had first introduced slow motion action replays, god bless them.

Everyone feared my grandfather. So we would watch in terrified desperation as he switched off the TV in a split second, and sat down cross-legged on the floor to please the gods. Shailesh and I knew the excruciating drill we would have to wade through before returning to the match: first the tiny quilt placed overnight over the miniature brass Krishna and Radha would be removed to wake them up, then a little bath for the shiv ling, then a little scrub for Hanuman ji. Then he would make sandalwood paste and anoint the gods with it.
Finally all the gods were prim and proper, but India would be thirty-four for five wickets.
There were no such interruptions in the evenings, when all of us watched "Buniyaad", "Bikram aur Betaal", "Fauji", together over dinner – except when they showed the Lyril ad under the waterfall or the Nirodh and Mala-D promos which jolted all conservative families and provoked senseless, embarrassed comments from everyone.
"I'll just check the gas stove". "Did Raju call? I'll just check if he is coming". "Did you lock the front door? I'll run and check". "Did you check your blood pressure this week?" Everybody wanted to check something right at that moment. Anything in the world to avoid watching the contraceptive ad.
I acknowledge, there were some days when I did not watch TV. That's because I was on it. A tiny part of my Doordarshan experience in Lucknow was also appearing on TV to sing or recite a poem – or when I had won a debate contest and they called me to be interviewed because they could find no one else.

The first time before the mike was a near-disaster. The producer of the youth show turned out to be the head of the yoga institute by the Gomti where I went every morning to fix my S-shaped spinal cord. I was in bloody awe of him. I mean, everyone saw him as something of a junior Deepak Chopra. That, combined with the intense air-conditioning of the huge Lucknow Doordarshan studio ensured that my voice trembled and quaked and I blew it.
He passed some snide comment. I walked out. I wasn't spineless, I had too much spine.
Once I went to the other extreme. Dressed in a white kurta, a tight churidaar and a karakuli cap, I sang and recorded a leftist qawwali on Doordarshan. It went like this:
"Is samajwadi shasan mein, mehmaan aapka swagat hai (I welcome you home, my guest, in this socialist regime)". The second stanza read something like this, translated: "There is no sugar at home, it is so expensive/And there is no kerosene oil at the PDS shop/Still, in this pitch darkness/ I welcome you home, my guest, in this socialist regime."
When it came on TV a week later, the second stanza had been deleted.

Rajni was luckier. She was able to get her voice – and the rage of millions of citizens -- across on behalf of all of us. She gave form to the deepest frustrations of middle class India.
I wonder whether Rajni would come storming now to my Kailash Colony neighbourhood in New Delhi where MCD so badly failed to repair the road that residents pooled money and got a public road repaired by a private contractor. I wonder what Karamchand would have to say about the impact of inflation on the rising prices of his favourite carrots, and whether Kitty would nonchalantly say "Yes Boss." I wonder whether Khopdi gave up drinking at the Nukkad – and finally shaved and bought a comb. I wonder if Basesar's wife Lajwanti in Hum Log watched Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and offered some tips. I wonder if Phatichar left his home in the pipe and got a low-income group flat. I wonder if Mr. Wagle has bought a flat screen LCD TV.
And I wonder what my growing up would have been without Chitrahaar.
My friend Jaideep Sahni, the leading Bollywood scriptwriter, recently told me that he and his brother used to record all Chitrahaars. That is a level of dedication I cannot claim to possess, but Chitrahaar was easily one of the high points of my adolescent life. I loved music, but here was something a little more tantalizing for my impressionable teenage mind. In the times of the iron curtain, Chitrahaar opened up a new window for teenagers like me: a mesmerising paayal here, a little navel there.
When we returned after our winter vacations to Nainital, where we were studying and our father was teaching at the local university, we were back to a TV-less existence. We did not have a TV. Our neighbours did. So every evening we plonked ourselves in their living room and watched Chitrahaar and Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi etc. – until one day, voila – my father ordered an Uptron of our own. Not just that, it was a colour TV. Hah. It was as if the others had Marutis before you but your first car was a sedan.
Soon after, a new enemy entered the house.
It was called the VCR.
But VCR cassettes were expensive to rent and the prints scratched. So Doordarshan still ruled, at least at my home.
One hitch: the TV reception was pretty bad in Nainital, and strong winds and rain often twisted the antenna and ruined everything. So every other evening, Shailesh and I had a little shouting match between ground floor (where we lived) and the third floor (where the antenna lived).
"A little to the left!"
"Is it done?"
"No, no, right – point it towards the GGIC School!"
GGIC was the Government Girls' Inter College, the repository of much of the teenage beauty in Nainital. The Doordarshan-GGIC nexus was convenient: fixing the TV antenna, with an eye on the GGIC main gate, became a popular pastime around the time the girls emerged in an orderly column after school.
Doordarshan also was the provocation for a cycle of events which led to my becoming a Bollywood lyricist. One day, minutes after watching the popular DD show "Surabhi", I wrote a letter to the popular anchor Renuka Shahane and asked her for the address of my college-era idol Jagjit Singh. She very sweetly sent a handwritten note with the address, and I wrote and composed a song and sent the lyrics to Mr. Singh, asking him to sing it in his next album.
He never responded.
Years later, I sang the same song ("Khwabon ki ye zameen hai/Yaadon ka aasmaan") to Mahesh Bhatt over Veggie Delight pizza in Mumbai, and not long after, made my Bollywood debut with Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai.
The first time I saw that song picturised on Bipasha Basu – after which my father jestfully suggested I write some bhajans to redeem myself – was on a promo on Doordarshan. I distinctly remember there was no cable that winter morning.
After such a long eulogy, I am embarrassed to admit that I don't watch Doordarshan now. Perhaps Doordarshan changed. Perhaps I changed. But Doordarshan has remained to me what my small town is – the faraway, tiny island of memory that has so many personal stories wrapped around it, where I often take refuge when the past seems more comforting than the present.

I miss the Doordarshan of my childhood. I miss my naani. I miss the guavas she cut and sprinkled with the spicy "buknu" powder. I miss the stern-faced rasgulla seller with the thick twirling moustache who came sharp at 3 p.m. around the corner, carrying a wooden, glass-walled box on the head and selling gulab jaamun for 25 paise each. I miss buying tiny birthday gifts for my mother with our monthly pocket money of ten rupees, later raised to twenty due to inflation. I miss the Murphy radio my brother and I broke and hid under the bed until my father found out three days later. I miss the trips to the messy chaotic lanes of Aminabad.
I am a stranger to Doordarshan and those cobweb of lanes now. But I intend to reclaim my memories some day. It was just an intermission. I will reach out.
Rukawat ke liye khed hai.

(An abridged version of this piece appeared in the Hindustan Times)
(All photos by the author, except when credit mentioned otherwise)