THE LAST WORD

...Only a populace overfed on junk food could find it entertaining to watch other human beings serve as guinea

 

pigs in an

experiment that in­ volved starv­ ing them on a desert is ­ land.

I Am A Survivor Too

So "nice guys" finish last?

I was trying to dismiss the latest hoopla over the reality show "Survivor" as another manifestation of the American phenomenon of "Dumb and Dumber" when I had dinner with my friend Jeff. A Ph.D. in Engineering, Jeff has recently joined the dot­ com world through an e-Commerce company. It was when Jeff, who had once taken night classes in spiritual psychotherapy, told me that "Survivor" was a model for operating in the real world, personally and profes­ sionally, that I realized that a nasty streak was running through American society today. And I couldn't help looking him in the eye and saying, "You know, I am a survivor, too! And in my world, being mean got you nowhere!"

Yes, it is true. I am a survivor. When I was a child, we lit firewood in a pit in the backyard every morning and put a brass pot over it to heat our bath water. I remember winter mornings (yes, India does have a winter which most people survive without central heat­ ing) when my father lit a charcoal stove to make me breakfast so that I could go to the morning shift at college at 6 a.m. Of course we didn't have to catch fish like Richard on "Survivor" -we lived inland and had access to grocery stores-but in the old city of Nagpur, where my first memories begin, we shared open pit toilets with the other tenants in the tenement building.

If we got sick, we did not have access to an ambu­ lance; an aunt of mine died from sunstroke because the rickshaw my uncle had hired to take her to the hospital was not fast enough!

No wonder I could not feel sorry for a thirty­ something woman sitting on a palm-lined beach, wear­ ing a designer bikini and a carefully selected necklace of beads, facing the camera crews and perhaps a· boat which she knew could instantly haul her to luxury, . fame, and fortune, in case of the slightest hint of

dysentery or island fever.

In contrast, we survived in the 120-degree heat of a Nagpur summer, not by wearing bikinis, but by drap­ ing our skin in loose white cotton. Like the temporary residents of Pulau Tiga, I did participate in grueling contests, such as taking final exams in Physics by candlelight because the Electricity Board had instituted brown-outs to cope with power shortages, or cycling through town at midday to buy the oil my mother needed to cook the next meal for us. But my reward was not a visit to the Survivor Bar to drink beer; instead I had to prepare myself for the arduous repetition of the same tasks the next day.

In the world that I left behind over 20 years ago, people prevailed, not by manipulation and conniv­ ance, but through kindness and generosity. Alliances of the sort crafted by. Richard could have only lasted in that world for 39 days, if that long. Over a lifetime, your odds of survival were much better if you genuinely loved someone than if you engaged in backstabbing and manipulation; for your true intentions would have been revealed soon enough, rendering you isolated and ostracized .

The real tragedy of the so-called reality TV is that it never touched the reality that was so close by and yet so far away. I am talking of the people of Borneo, a majority of who, unlike Richard, have to fish without the aid of sports flippers, and who, unlike Richard, are not guaranteed a liposuction procedure to tighten the flesh loosened by starvation.

The truth of the matter is that only a populace overfed on junk food could find it entertaining to watch other human beings serve as guinea pigs in an experi­ ment that involved starving them on a desert island. For me, sUf:h an experiment could only be amusing if millions of real human beings were not actually starv­ ing in the tropics, without any hope of ever winning a million dollars.

If you have known real hunger and malnutrition, as I have-my parents could not afford enough milk for me to drink during my adolescent years-you could not confuse the television show with reality. Yet, American journalists hailed the program as a modern morality tale.

A far more interesting, educational, and perhaps poignant experiment might have been to make the participants of "Survivor" go to a real tropical island and live with the real tribes there. But then again, I am sure that American audiences would have experi­ enced discomfort, perhaps even guilt, in watching real people starving, not for the prize of a million dollars, but just as a course of normal life. No wonder CBS succeeded in keepil')g "reality" as much out of "reality" TV as possible. ◻

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.