Boy in a bubble

Last Updated: Fri, Oct 23, 2009 19:50 hrs

When a family reports that their six-year-old son has accidentally floated away in a homemade helium balloon, the result is frenzied media coverage and nationwide sympathy for the stricken parents, accompanied by copious church-going (in addition to a small number of harassed papas and mamas mulling the possibility of constructing similar dirigibles for their own little Damians). When it turns out that there was no one in the vagrant balloon and that the kid was munching biscuits in the attic all the while, there is relief, along with puzzlement. But when it later transpires that the publicity-hungry parents had concocted the whole story just to get their own reality TV show, the reactions really heat up.

The indignant "How could they?" is followed, a while later, by introspective musings about the hold of reality television on our lives and what it tells us about our social climate. Are Richard and Mayumi Heene the only ones responsible for this emotionally manipulative drama, or are they really just the external symptoms of a world gone thoroughly rotten? Aren’t all of us glaze-eyed TV addicts culpable in some way?

Personally I say the Heenes are the ones with primary responsibility, so let’s just lock up the loons and move on to the next real-time media story to feed our hunger for voyeurism and collective hysteria. But many Netizens disagree. Take the poster on the ABC website ( who says, "How about we do some looking in the mirror ourselves? Come on — all of us have the potential for such stupidity. If jail time, or Child Services is what is needed here, many American families would be guilty. Not just American, worldwide for that matter." The concepts of universal guilt and shared stupidity were never so attractive.

The Heene saga has spawned a pleasing variety of online responses, ranging from the solicitous to the less than tasteful ("I’m glad they found the balloon boy safe," twitted one twit, "I thought Michael Jackson was ordering carry-out from heaven!") to the informative (lists of famous hoaxes from the past). A discussion on Womanist Musings ( neatly summed up the key points of the issue, while raising more pragmatic matters that have been drowned by the moralising and soul-searching. "I’m angry that search and rescue resources were wasted like that," said a commenter, "What if some other family actually did have a kid missing that those rescue crews and helicopters could be looking for instead?"

A related thought is expressed in an eloquent post on Blogpurri (, which points out that "the act of crying ‘wolf!’ has undergone a seismic shift in tone" and wonders how we will react the next time a similar tragedy — perhaps a genuine one — unfolds. "Did Aesop already give us the answer all those centuries ago? Will we roll our eyes, click the remote and move on to the next channel?"

The New York Times blog Motherlode ( has anguished comments about "parents sucking a six-year-old kid into a conspiracy like this" but at least the six-year-old knew a bit about what was going on. Which is more than one can say about the babies on our own reality show Pati, Patni aur Woh. There’s an obvious link between the picture of a boy trapped alone in a balloon, cut off from his family, and the prime-time images of howling babies separated from their real-life parents and handed over to cloddish "celebrities". "What can possibly prompt parents to hand over their infant child to Rakhi Sawant for a TV show?" asks a commenter on Rediff (, "Wouldn’t it be better to pack him off in a helium balloon?"


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