No time for “Trek”

In India, poverty, nationalism and too many reruns conspire to ground "Star Trek" fandom.

Topics: India, Star Trek,

This is the third of four “Planet Star Trek” reports. The series will conclude next week with a visit to the Dalai Lama.

BANGALORE, India — i can’t lie to you: India was a bust, at least in terms of “Star Trek.” You can come to India looking for lakeside palaces; you can come looking for white Brahman bulls pulling ox carts loaded with satellite dishes; you can come for the hot pickles, the raita, the dal. But don’t come to India expecting to find a seething subculture of “Star Trek” addicts. I did, and boy is my face red.

The focus of my efforts was Bangalore. Unusually cool at 3,000 feet above sea level, it’s not your typical Indian city. Sacred cows do wander the streets, grazing the greenery amid the temples and beggars; but grazing as well are Oracle, Hewlett Packard and Toshiba. Despite the usual gap between the fabulously rich and the pathetically poor, Bangalore may be South India’s first truly middle-class urban center: a hard-working, tree-shaded megalopolis with its tail in an auto-rickshaw and a Pentium chip on its shoulder. Often referred to as India’s Silicon Valley, it seems an obvious place to seek out “Star Trek” fans.

Looking for an Internet connection, I’m stunned to find a full-blown Cyber Cafe featuring color monitors, Netscape Gold and serious coffee. Right down the street is NASA, a bar that resembles a funky space station, like something out of a William Gibson novel.

I spend two days running myself ragged trying to find Trekkers before an idea bulb bursts in my head. I duck into a crowded street-side CD-ROM stall and ask if they sell “Star Trek” games. The owner, Hassib, wags his head.

“Yes, yes. In fact, we have sold more than 400 in this shop alone.”

“Really?” My blood races. “To whom?”

More wagging. “Sorry, sir, we are not keeping records of such things.”

But I stick around, and after some time Hassib says: “OK, maybe you try Ashok, at double-five, seven-six, nine-two-nine, and also Prassant, you may phone him at double-six, double-one, three-two-five …”

“And Amjad,” his partner adds. “At triple five, double-naught, five six …”



Before I can whip out my pen, everyone in the shop is firing names at me. The next day I phone a dozen potential Trekkers. Only one — Amjad, a 22-year-old university student — returns my call. He shows up at my hotel late at night with his pal Naveen, a lanky computer systems engineer.

Both guys love “Star Trek,” despite, as they tell it, years of disappointment and betrayal. The fact is, “Star Trek” isn’t really on in India, not anymore. The original series began airing here in 1984, and Doordashan (the government-owned channel) is showing those tired episodes still. A single season of “The Next Generation” was broadcast on Star Plus, a satellite channel, in 1994, but the series was never renewed.

“I was heartbroken when it ended,” laments Amjad.

“If they showed all 179 ‘Next Generation’ episodes, we would watch for 179 days,” confirms Naveen. “Continuously.”

“But even if it was on television every day, the people who loved it wouldn’t start fan clubs,” Naveen adds hastily. “Indians simply don’t start fan clubs for foreign things. If it’s something Indian, we’ll be going crazy. We’re a very proud country.”

“That is why,” Amjad cautions me, “there may be loads of ‘Star Trek’ fans in India but you will find no fan clubs, conventions or magazines.”

The fact is, however, that — unlike in Pakistan, Japan or even Russia — there are not “loads” of “Star Trek” fans in the world’s largest democratic nation. And there’s a good reason why. Over the past 10 years, the Indian subcontinent has leapfrogged into the digital age. The awkward growing stage Americans went through — from punch cards and magnetic tape to Kaypros and 300-baud modems — barely happened here at all. India jumped, in a single decade, from being a country where you could hardly get your hands on a pocket calculator to a nation where many urban kids are growing up with Quake, Doom and the World Wide Web.

As a result of this infogap, “Star Trek” is basically ignored by Indian adults, who remain addicted to their cheesy soap operas and Bollywood musicals. Yet the show’s main potential audience, kids aged 12 to 20 — India’s new cyber-sophisticates — find the interminable reruns of old episodes like “Amok Time” and “Arena” hopelessly out of date.

Still, despite what Naveen and Amjad said, I’m not one to give up hope. There has to be a fan club somewhere, even if it’s a secret society, hidden behind a code name, meeting in rat-infested cellars below Bangalore’s PC-board assembly rooms.

I have one more hunch. Inside the NASA pub, images of blast-offs, space walks and the Earth from orbit gleam through illuminated portholes; the tabletops are perched on rocket-legs. “The Earth is the cradle of mankind,” a bronze plaque on the wall proclaims, “but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” Surely whoever designed this place would know what I was after.

NASA was the brainchild, I learned, of an architect and amateur pilot named Tom Thomas. His schedule is frantic, but he agrees to meet me briefly in his office. Drawings of a huge medieval castle are spread out on his desk. They’re plans, he tells me, for a madly ostentatious new shopping center, currently under construction near Bangalore Airport.

Thomas, a bearded and distinguished-looking 53, has been building micro-light aircraft for years. His teenage dream was to become a pilot, but his older brother talked him into a more down-to-earth vocation. He still has doubts about his career choice: “When I fly,” Thomas admits ruefully, “the world becomes believable to me somehow.”

Thomas is one of the few adults here who might have become a die-hard Trekker, but he echoes the usual complaint: “The version they show here is ancient,” he remarks with disgust. “I watched it for a while and thought, hey, this is like watching Lucille Ball.”

“Listen,” he says frankly. “I’ll tell you why you’re not finding legions of ‘Star Trek’ fans in India. It’s simple: The working class people here need to come home and relax with a drama they can relate to. ‘Star Trek’ succeeds in societies that have already achieved basic levels of satisfaction. Where the food’s on the table. Where clothes are in the cupboard and the car’s outside. Then, they’re willing to watch the next step. ‘Star Trek’ is certainly the next step. Our next step is still getting that food on the table.”

“And building castles,” I remark.

Thomas rocks back in his seat. “Well, I suppose we all have our dreams,” he laughs. “Back in the 1960s, during the heyday of the space program, I was dying to be an astronaut. I was sure that, if I made a million bucks somehow, I’d be able to take a trip, fly around in a rocket ship. But those days are gone.” He grins sheepishly. “Now I have to be content with building bars like NASA — and using rocket fins as table legs.”

Jeff Greenwalds latest book, "Future Perfect: How 'Star Trek' Conquered Planet Earth," was recently released in paperback by Penguin.

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