Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sorry for the interruption!

I was surfing through the TV channels last week when I happened to catch sight of Doordarshan (DD), the only channel on our TV sets all through the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. 

It was weird yet strangely comforting to see the old and once-familiar fixture on TV. Nothing had changed. The sets were still the same. The production effects had remained unchanged. The quality of the programming was as it used to be 30 years ago. 

In the 10 minutes I spent staring at the screen, re-living the nostalgia for all it was worth, the mandarins at DD were gracious enough to show me that frame with the cartoon, Rukawat ke liye khed hai. Hindi for — Sorry for the interruption. 

It took me back in time. I remembered those days from what now seems like an age ago when DD would often get its act wrong and the grownups would fume and wait for the problem to be rectified. There was nothing to do but wait. 

There was no remote control to be fought over, no other channel that you could turn to for respite. Nothing but DD across the vast expanse of television.

While the adults fretted and waited, we children would rush out of the house. The playing fields beckoned us. We used to play games like Hide-and-seek, Hopscotch (langdi), Blind man’s bluff, Dog and the bone, I spy, Leapfrog, Simon says (Shivaji mhannto), Cops and Robbers (chor police), Musical chairs, Human chain, Kabaddi, Kho kho and Lagori and numerous other games whose names I have to dredge out from the deepest recesses of my memory.

No special equipment was required for any of these games. All you needed to bring to the playground was huge reserves of energy and enthusiasm and whoops of delight and laughter. You didn't even need a playground. We got along mighty fine, playing in one another's houses, or on staircase landings. 

Certain games were the preserve of the girls. They included skipping sessions, cat's cradle, played with a long string looped around the two thumbs and fingers, Oranges and Lemons etc. Does anyone remember Fire on the mountain, run, run, run?

Chinese whispers was frowned upon by the boys that we grew up with, most of whom were the brothers of the girls. As a child, I often thought that the reason boys didn't like this game was because they were too competitive and they could not stomach the idea of a game in which there was no winner.
Boys had their own games which were generally out of bounds for the girls. They used to play marbles. Dodge ball (aba dubi) was another favourite of the boys. They seemed to derive some perverse pleasure out of assaulting one another with a ball, while trying to escape being hit themselves. The boys who were hit during the course of this game used to howl in pain, and forget the pain a moment later when they realised that the ball was now in their hands and it was payback time.

No one went home until they were called by their mothers at least three times, and then they reluctantly trudged home with the air of someone to whom a great injustice had been done.

We used to spend all our holidays and free time scampering about and frolicking. When we were exhausted from playing, we invented games. When it rained, we played noughts and crosses, snakes and ladders, carrom. Most of us had a pack of playing cards. Some afternoons, we enjoyed refreshing siestas. Other days we read — comics, novels, magazines. We expanded our minds. 

I am not saying there was nothing worth watching on DD. There were gems like Wagle ki Duniya, Giant Robot, Rajani, Malgudi Days, Jungle Book, Flop Show, Karamchand, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Bharat Ek Khoj, Surabhi, Mile sur mera tumhara, the I love Lucy series etc that were very entertaining. 

Chhayageet and chitrahaar had huge fan followings. As did Sunday evening screenings of Hindi films and Sunday afternoon screenings of regional films. 

But generally there were so few entertainment options that we often sat through the News magazine for the hearing impaired. Sometimes we were so desperate for something to watch on TV that we used to sit impatiently through the warmup sessions that DD subjected us to. 

Remember that screen with the vertical colour stripes? It used to give way to a black screen and then a red dot which would re-cast itself, twisting this way and that, until it eventually revealed the logo of the channel. All this while the most mournful and depressing signature tune in existence played on.

But the best thing about DD then was that it shut off and said goodbye. It was not a 24-hour monster. It was like a travelling circus. For some hours of the day, the TV stopped being a piece of furniture and came alive. It showed us a few images, played out a few songs, then packed up and left. 

Leaving us with those black and white pixels dancing their crazy dance to the accompaniment of the heavy rain beating down upon an asbestos sheet roof. 

Because of that enforced selective viewing, we had a life outside the idiot box. 

We didn't spend all of our childhoods and growing years in front of it. 

We didn’t sit in front of the television, physically and mentally incapacitated, bored out of our wits, hoping that the next serial, film, cartoon or reality show would be truly worth watching. 

We had friends with whom we enjoyed boisterous playtime sessions. And today we have wonderful memories.

Thank you, Doordarshan, on behalf of all those who were children in the ’70s, ’80s and much of the ’90s. We made fun of you. We laughed at your inadequacies and your incompetencies. We bemoaned the lack of any good entertainment or education options. 

But because of you, we learned to read. 

Because of you, we learned to enjoy playtime with other kids our age. 

And because your programming was interrupted so often, we were able to step outdoors and get on with our lives. 

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Christmas is most real to a child, perhaps because the Creator of the world came to us in the form of a child.

As children, preparing for Christmas, it was a delight to do something good and not be found out. The parish priest of St John the Baptist Church, Thane, (I think his name was Fr Peter something), came up with an ingenious idea to prepare the Sunday School children for Christmas. While others cleaned their homes, we children should clean our hearts, he said.

He handed each of us a single sheet of paper on which the popular image of a heart, with numerous lines crisscrossing it, was printed. The crisscrossing lines would total up to more than 300 little squares. The idea was that all through Advent, we should do something nice for someone and offer it as our gift to God. With each good deed, we would be permitted to colour one of those little squares. On Christmas Eve, we were encouraged to place our coloured hearts, a symbol of our love for God, in the manger at the church crib. Wrapped as He was in nothing but swaddling robes, our coloured hearts would keep Him warm.

Looking back, I recall that none of my good deeds were really scale-breaking. Sometimes I may have foregone a sweet that my brother wanted. Or I may have given up watching a favourite TV programme and tried to help mum instead.

More than the deed itself, it was the spirit in which it was done that made it significant. For once, we thought of the needs of others, rather than our own. For once, we swallowed our pride and grief, if we were scolded undeservedly. For that one time in the year, we would try our best to be a little less selfish, a little more generous, a little more as God would have us be.

The Wise men came with their gifts. We brought our hearts. It was with a glow in my heart that I would place mine at the manger, knowing without the shadow of a doubt that just as the Babe smiled upon the little drummer boy in one of my favourite Christmas songs, He would look with delight upon me.

My parents never bought us gifts at Christmas. Partly because our financial circumstances didn't permit it. But more importantly, because we were just not aware of the tradition of buying one another gifts for Christmas. The way my parents taught us to view Christmas, the focus was always on the Birthday Boy, whose birth transformed the world.

So the tradition of piling up neatly wrapped gifts at the foot of the Christmas tree and pretending it was Santa Claus who had bought them for us never featured in our memories of Christmas Past. In fact, for a very long time, we didn't even have a Christmas tree.

Dad used to make a crib, a small visual representation of the Nativity. It was a small house that Dad had fashioned out of leftover plywood. It wasn't at all ramshackle as the real one must have been, but that was because Dad had good carpentry skills. With loving hands, he would smooth sawdust on the floor, place the thatched and stitched roof on top of the house and put the little statues in their positions. Even as he tried his best to make the little house as comfortable as possible, he would tell us, "The real stable must have been dirty and smelly. Imagine the trouble that Our Lord willingly accepted for our sake."

All through Advent, my excitement would be steadily built up, rising in intensity as Mum made a different Christmas sweet each day for our kuswar (Christmas goodies). One day, it would be neureos, then perad the next day, dodol the day after, and cake and kormolan the next. The following day, it would be two types of doce (the Portuguese word for sweet). one made of chana dal, and the other of local bread or pao. They were both my favourites, chonya doce and unddya doce, unddo meaning the Konkani word for bread. This would be followed by batk or bolinhas. For the local flavour, Mum would make chaklis and besan laddoos and our basket of Christmas goodies would be complete.

Day after day, our little home would be redolent with the aromas of all these sweets. It was another reminder that Christmas was approaching. As these Christmas goodies were being made at home, I would go to school with a heavy heart. Somehow it seemed unfair to miss all the excitement even for a few hours.

Incidentally, one of my cousins, so went a famous family story, apparently wrapped up a school exam in a fraction of the time allotted to write it because she did not want to miss out on the kormola making at home. While it was a very amusing story that never failed to bring on the laughs, dear cousin, if you read this, I want you to know that I thought your action was thoroughly excusable. :)

Meanwhile, Dad would decorate our little house with colourful buntings and balloons, even as Christmas carols would be playing on our little tape recorder. Mum would sew Christmas dresses for the two of us. The finishing touches would be put at the very last minute, often because there was so much that she had to do, while managing her sewing business too.

While these preparations were on, my excitement would be muffled, under wraps. It was only when Dad got the crib ready, often the last step in our Christmas decorations, that the warm feeling in my heart would smoulder into a full-blown fire.

Those childhood Christmases were beautiful. I remember the thrill that used to come over me at Mass on the first Sunday of Advent when the choir would sing, "Bestir thy power, and come, Lord, to save thy sin-laden race." It used to be my cue to give in to unmitigated joy and excitement because my favourite time of the year was finally here.

Truly, there is no Christmas like the one experienced by children. One casualty of being a grown-up is that unfortunately we lose the tenderness and affection that we used to experience as children. We lose the warm Christmassy feeling and merely end up keeping the date.

This year, I resolve to change all that. I resolve to become a child again at Christmas time. I resolve to re-live the excitement that was mine, all those years ago, and to share in the delight of my little daughter and son and two nephews. I resolve to open my heart again so that when I peer into the crib and look at the little Babe lying in the manger, I can feel content that I have made my heart a fit dwelling for Him.


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