The decline and fall of the Bhodrolok and Calcutta – part VI: field notes from my trip

Thank you Mrinal-da for reminding about the media in India; of course, this is like living in a parallel universe here. :-)

Nobody can understand Calcutta, the incorrigible, the impossible.
(Ashok Mitra, 1969, Calcutta Diaries)

It’s six o’ clock. Halfway across the world in New Zealand, this is time for the most important session of the evening news. I am nostalgic. I long for the news. I am at the my mother-in-law’s house, sipping a cup of chai, while she is glued to the television screen. A soap opera is playing its hundred-fiftieth episode. I have not watched any of its previous episodes, but it is not hard to figure out the plot. A joint/united large family story with mother-in-laws from hell who torment their fully decked up doll-like beautiful daughter-in-laws. The set, the props are surreal; you wouldn’t expect something like this in a modern Bengali household, just doesn’t happen these days. The stories are written by obscure playwrights; the plots have nothing to do with countless brilliant stories, novels, plays, skits that the fecund Bengali imagination and playwrights have produced over two hundred years of productive literary work. Who are these people, I wonder who write these tv serials? And why, pray, do they write these things, I wonder. People are glued to the drama. They discuss the sequence and the plot animatedly. I finish my tea, and after a few pleasant words, return to my house in another part of the city. The tv is on: my mum, like my mother-in-law, is rapt in attention with another similar soap opera in another channel. The plot is not hard to guess. The deafening music, the props, the drama are unbearable. Same shit, different channel.

At about nine pm, I switch on the news channel. On screen, a young woman, nattily dressed in western attire, rattles off exactly four items of local news at the speed and tone of someone reading out the statutory warning of an insurance ad in the radio. Soon after, a moderator appears on screen with four or five so-called experts to discuss a political or health issue (I have never experienced they discuss anything else). Within minutes of starting the discussion, each expert is shouting at the top of his voice, shaking fists at the others, and it seems a brawl is about to break out in the studio. The moderator somehow brashly cuts them off and ends the show. Now I seem to understand why people, rather than being bothered by the news on TV, go watch the slapstick, rasher dramas than watch the inanity in the TV news. In News, they do not mention sports (at the moment, the English cricket team is playing in India), they do not cover weather (the air quality index is embarrassingly high in the city but you wouldn’t know), none of it.

Instead, they talk about roughly four local news items. Angry men and women in the TV studio battle themselves bitterly, or experts pass nonsense remarks about most things. That’s TV in Kolkata 2016.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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