Ah…Those were the times!

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doordarshanGrowing up and growing wise with a fast-changing, behemoth of a country

By Vanit Sethi

It is that time of the year in north India when the weather turns mellow – there’s a gentle nip in the air; summer’s turning to winter. After the blistering heat and the extended bountiful monsoon this year, winter is slowly creeping in. Before the severity of the season sets in, there’s a brief period of gloriously pleasant weather from around mid-October to mid-December.

It’s the picnic season, and also a time when the mind slips delightfully into a series of reminiscences. So, this wonderful Saturday morning (October 19, 2013), as I tap into the keyboard on Facebook, I invariably hurtle down memory lane to more than 25 years ago when I began my journalism career in May 1987.

It was a different world back then… a completely different world. Come to think of it! That was another century – a period when curiously, many people were eagerly awaiting the dawn of a new century, though it was still 13 years away. Rajiv Gandhi, our charismatic young prime minister at that time, kept harping on the 21st century and building up people’s hopes of a bright new world. Today, we take computers for granted, but I remember at that time, government employees smashing up computers saying it would lead to massive unemployment, as machines would take over the task of humans.

When I entered the newsroom of Hyderabad’s leading English newspaper, there were those rickety Remington typewriters on the reporters’ desk. We had to bang our fingers on them after inserting two white sheets and a carbon paper in between them to file our stories. It was a herculean task for those not used to typing – we had to undergo training sessions at one of the numerous typewriting shops that had mushroomed all over.

And all hell broke loose if we had just 3 to 4 typos in the copy – it had to be done all over again! Compare that with today – feather touch keyboards, the ‘reds’ constantly pointing out your spellers, and a whole lot of info at your disposal via the worldwide web (we had to fish out for info in old dusty books and documents from public libraries). My kids today, as they effortlessly move their fingers on laptop keyboards and mobile phones, cannot even imagine that world.

So, let’s take that trip. Circa 1987: What was it like? To benchmark it against 2013, it would be easier to scale how far we were from the inventions and discoveries we take as ‘given’ today.

Well, satellite television was still about 5 years away; the worldwide web (www) or internet in common parlance – including the email – was a good 10 years away; mobile phones would not arrive on a large scale in India until 15 years (today, we can’t remember how we did without them for so long); Facebook, that all-pervasive global community, was 20 years into the future; and chatting with professors at Harvard or Stanford along with students all over the world through MOOCs like Coursera could not be imagined until last year. Well, such is the scale of the changes that have swept our world through the past quarter century.

Now, if I get back into the time machine and travel well past the 1980s into my childhood of the 1970s and 1960s, how different were they from Circa 1987, and what do I remember of them? Beatles, ABBA, Woodstock 1969, Armstrong on the moon, flower children, Vietnam war, Indo-Pak and Indo-China wars, the creation of Bangladesh, Emergency 1975, the defeat of Indira Gandhi in the 1977 elections, her return in 1980 and her tragic assassination in 1984, the deadly riots that followed.

It was an eventful period no doubt. Such world-changing events did happen after 1987 too, like the momentous collapse of communist regimes in eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mandela’s release after a lifetime in jail and end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Most significantly for India, 1991 marked a turning point which unlocked the creative entrepreneurial energies of the nation and propelled it into a 9% growth rate (a different story today, of course), making it the second fastest growing nation in the world after China.

Tragically, in 1991, we lost Rajiv Gandhi too – by a human bomb. Punjab, Kashmir and the North-east went through a period of turmoil in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Now, I needn’t go into 9/11 and its aftermath.

Socio-political changes have been happening throughout history, but in the past quarter century, it is technology which was the game-changer. In my high-school days of the late 1970s, television was confined to the metros of India – our day would end with Hawa Mahal on Vividh Bharati, and well before the 15-minute comedy radio program ended at 9.30 pm, we would be fast asleep. The weekly Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon was the high point of our excitement. Choice of the People ­– a one-hour western music program, also on Radio Ceylon, played out some gloriously melodious English numbers of those days (Jim Reeves, Demis Roussos, Engelbert Humperdinck etc). The biggest entertainment in summer holidays would be playing Monopoly or its Indian version Trade in the mornings, reading Enid Blyton books in the afternoon, and playing football in the evenings. Doordarshan, Chitrahaar and the Sunday Hindi movie came much later, and watching the Hindi movie was like a social gathering in a few houses that had B&W TV those days, with grainy pictures. Television’s golden period, of course, came in the mid-1980s (much before the coming of multiple channels and 24/7 programming), with some of the best serials on DD that have stood the test of time (more about this in a later column).

My point here is that technology-wise, there was nothing much happening before the 1980s. The advent of color TV in India around the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982 was a dazzling invention for us. VCRs and VCPs invaded homes much later, and perhaps, Walkman was the only new gadget to show off. We hadn’t heard of CDs then; cassettes and LP records still ruled the roost (those were the days, my friend!).

If we think of cars, we had the good old Amby and the all-pervasive Fiat, and later the Maruti, which created a mini-revolution in the mid-80s. Talking about the cars available in India today would require a separate article.

So, the technological changes that took place in the first 25 years of my life were far fewer and much slower than those in the next 25 years of my life until today. But as I still marvel at how innovations like Google, Facebook and Coursera have changed our lives, I cannot help wondering what we really missed back then in the 1970s, or did we miss anything at all? No TV, no mobiles, no computers, no playstations etc. But friends were real and conversations were real, not virtual. Of course, Facebook has made me get in touch with many of my old school friends, college friends, and ex-office colleagues, with whom I had lost touch long ago.

And while I was punching on my office keyboard late in the evening, I was awe-struck by how far we have travelled – from the bright sun-lit office, filled with typewriters, newspapers, white sheets and bromides lying around way back in 1987, to the air-conditioned cloistered hall, alive with bright-lit monitors, newspapers, white sheets and printouts of CCI pages lying around today in 2013. Well, some things don’t change; they just come out with a new look. Newspapers still exist, thank God! Despite the internet. Long live co-existence!

  • Vanit Sethi spent around quarter of a century working with newspapers in India and in the Gulf before returning home to a more relaxed and peaceful existence in one of the prettiest parts of India. He loves music, food, writing and reading. This is first of his blogs for Caravan.    

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