Serial Bus

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Doordarshan Years

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I sometimes think my generation is perhaps the last one in India to remember what I should call the Doordarshan years (pre-1991). People born after us would not appreciate the pre-eminence of Doordarshan in our childhoods and people born before us were too old to enjoy sending SMS’s to their friends at the turn of this century. In that sense, we are unique as we straddle both the eras and carry life experiences from opposite ends of the spectrum. Our youth was spent on the cusp of an old India embracing a new one: the late nineties and early years of this century (roughly, 1995-2005).

Any nation urging to grow needs several types of help, none more important than a willing mindset. Looking back, it is interesting to note how the following ‘irrevocable’ assumptions of life during the Doordarshan years, now appear anachronous and eminently questionable. Before you consider these, I must admit that some of these have a small-town, middle-class frame of reference and some are only beginning to be unraveled.

1. No regrets for obstruction!: Lets start with Doordarshan itself. The Indian family (or neighborhood, in most cases) would gather around the black-and-white television during appointed hours, when our humdrum lives received regulated doses of excitement through Chitrahaar or Ramayan or Buniyaad or (in case of kids) He-man. And then, more often than not, for no particular reason, the screen would go blank for a second or two, before this ominous message appeared: ‘Rukawat ke liye khed hai’ (We regret the obstruction!). Conscientious kids fidgeted at this message however elderly people knew better: they had resigned to what was inevitable. Everyone just sat, waiting for the screen to come alive again. Today, with more than a 100 possible channels (or at least a handful, even if you do not subscribe to cable), Indians know better: they can switch to another channel. With this choice, the broadcasters also know better: the programming is slick and screens have stopped going blank.

2. Long lines for withdrawing cash: I remember accompanying my father to the bazaar, when we would carve out an hour or two, just to spend at the bank. Jostling for space, we would patiently for our turn at the mesh-lined counter, where a poker-faced (constipation-induced perhaps, but more possibly contempt) clerk would do what he considered a favor: giving us our own cash from our own account. Today, these lines are shorter due to widespread ATM machines or credit cards. Faceless service has its advantages. 

3. Pakistan & China are enemies, USSR is a friend: The brand of patriotism that was bandied about during the Doordarhsan years inflicted more harm on us as a nation than it did good. In this scheme of things, Pakistan and China were sworn enemies of India; China was the betrayer of trust while Pakistan the unjust claimant of Kashmir. USSR, on the other hand, was a paragon of a nation that India would do well to emulate. On a superficial level, this illustrated the narrowness of our foreign policy but on a deeper level, this indicated a very warped sense of nationalism, self-absorbed and jingoistic. As India develops a more holistic identity, its geopolitical position has improved and we are moving away from defining ourselves in the context of only our immediate neighborhood. At the same time, we are beginning to realize that common people of Pakistan and China are much like our own, misunderstood and framed.

4. A phone and a car are for the rich: As I child, I remember visiting some friends’ homes who had telephone connections. It was an object of great curiosity for me, and in my mind, I would bracket that friend as ‘rich’. During the Doordarshan years, consumer goods (e.g. car, phone, AC) and services (e.g. air travel) were unwieldy and unreliable, yet they were scarce and expensive. This explains why people gathered around the singular TV set in the neighborhood and why they shouted into the phones when a ‘trunk call’ was made. As late as 1999, when an Israeli tourist in Mcleodganj told me that there were more cellphones in Israel than land-lines, I looked at him in disbelief. Today, endless cliches about the mobile-wielding fisherman in Kerala or the internet-savvy farmer in Punjab bring out one clear truth – some of the unattainable luxuries of yore have metamorphosed into affordable necessities.

5. Grooms wanted – government service preferred: I recently sparred with a friend from the Indian civil services over why her ilk were accorded a higher status in the society. My friend attributed it to respect and I based it on fear. The groveling attitude government inspires in common people is best echoed in the matrimonial ads placed in the newspapers. For a long time, people preferred government servicemen as their sons-in-law, since that held out the promise of a long and lazy career, with plenty of opportunities to earn on the side. Private jobs were sneered at for exactly the opposite reasons. Although the IAS still remains a coveted quarry in the marriage bazaars, a corporate hi-flyer could now give an IAS a run for his money. Private enterprise and corporate jobs have diverted talent away from civil services and with it, they have changed our criteria for a good career and a good life.

6. Worship ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi and ‘Pandit’ Nehru: Children in most schools are still taught how Gandhi and Nehru were heores, how the two men fought the British off and how much they loved their motherland. None of this is untrue however, any nation that thrives on personality cults is building itself a wall of irrationality in the minds of its people. Gandhi’s title ‘Mahatma’ is almost equated to be a prophet of God and Nehru’s ‘Pandit’ reminds you that he was the sharpest mind around. We were told to consider them supermen that had no frailties of a human being. Take this a step further and you get what Turkey has, where even a mildly critical statement against Kemal Ataturk would land you in jail. This is the territory of an intolerant government which pays scant respect to freedom of thought today and can commit a genocide tomorrow. However, thanks to an explosion of media, we now know that several of Gandhi’s acts and thoughts were out of sync with reality. Also, we know that the socialistic model Nehru adopted for India’s growth remained an albatross around our necks for far too long.

7. Parents will always oppose love-marriage (in movies & real life): The system of arranged marriage is now being gradually replaced in urban areas with what is paradoxically called an ‘arranged-love’ marriage (as depicted in the Bollywood hit, Vivah). The girl and the guy are given an opportunity to meet and talk before marriage to allow them to be in love by the time wedding happens. This may be a sleight of mind but it is certainly a significant step away from the ‘parents-know-best’ model of spouse-selection. Moreover, love-marriages are not a stigma anymore and increasingly, kids are introducing the families to each other, instead of the other way round. This change in mindset is reflected in our movies too where, for instance, a father has graduated from being a stern opponent and villain (Ek Duje Ke Liye, QSQT, Maine Pyar Kiya) to a friend, philosopher and guide (DDLJ, Hum Tum, KANK, Jaane Tu).

8. Power cuts are a law of life and roads will always have potholes: Apathy and resignation toward government reigned supreme. It is interesting how ‘load-shedding’ was a much feared term in our lexicon. Any person wanting to watch a much-awaited movie on a Saturday evening would better start by invoking God for an uninterrupted power supply. Similarly, ridiculous official reasons for why roads develop potholes (due to ‘Monsoon’) were accepted quietly. Though power cuts are still a norm and the potholes have turned into craters in many parts, there is a greater awareness amongst people that government is answerable. Media has given voice to many a demands for accountability – either do the job well or get out of the way of someone who can. People want government to perform on real issues, not just whip up emotions along the lines of religion and patriotism.

9. Western culture is evil: I recall vividly how our teachers, parents and well-wishers warned us about the evil influence of western culture, which was an umbrella term for cultures of white people. They called it ‘pashchatya sabhyata’ in Hindi. The West was portrayed as loose on morals (especially women, who were stereotyped as promiscuous) and lacking in values. The motifs of this culture were clothes (like jeans and skirts), music (like rock and pop), English movies (which had liberal doses of lovemaking and skin-show) and a highly individualistic lifestyle (which led to, inter alia, celebration of Valentine’s Day, love-marriage, homosexuality, drugs, booze). Indian culture was seen as a puritan heaven which eschewed all that West stood for. Such condescending attitudes have been replaced by a more inquisitive and appreciative world-view in several quarters of India. As a result, social drinking (especially for women), fashion-oriented careers and more experimental themes in Indian arts have made strides.

10. Brain drain is paralyzing India: One of the much-mourned tragedies of India was how talented young people left the country in hordes every year and immigrated to more developed countries as professors, entrepreneurs, doctors and engineers. Our IITs and IIMs were seen as feeder institutions for NASA and Harvard, with fewer high-skilled people left behind to give a hand to India. This opinion is no longer voiced as frantically, because of a couple of developments: (a) As the country is growing at a breakneck pace, it is creating value-adding opportunities for individuals who need not look overseas for that coveted investment banking position or for that cutting-edge drug research role that their educations befit. (b) India has realized that a global diaspora of well-heeled Indians benefits the country in several ways. Americans of Indian origin form the most prosperous ethnic minority in the US and help their home country by lobbying for it in areas of business (FDI) or political cooperation (the recent bilateral Nuclear deal). On the other hand, the diaspora provides a huge inflow of remittances to the economy and is also responsible for the new confident image of India (that thankfully replaces the iconic snake-charmer).


This list aside, I am now beginning to wonder what other assumptions still remain entrenched in our society that should be revealed as what they are – merely assumptions.


Written by serialbus

October 12, 2008 at 9:19 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Guess, 80% of this is still true, only that you are not the same you were, you have moved faster than rest of India has.


    October 17, 2008 at 1:51 am

  2. I remember a few detective shows from my old nostalgic Doordarshan days. I was a child then, but thanks to you tube, that I can continue watching them. Who can forget Jasoos Karamchand (starring Pankaj Kapoor), Super six, Barrister Roy (starring Kanwaljeet), Reporter (Shekhar Suman’s first apperance on TV), Tehkikaat and Suraag (starring Sudesh Berry)? But the show stealer of those good old days was definitely Byomkesh Bakshi. He was undoubtedly the desi Sherlock Holmes.

    Sourav Roy

    June 9, 2010 at 1:17 pm

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