When I was a baby, I would tug at my parents’ sleeves whenever we passed by a shop playing a song on the radio. Eventually, my mother cut out newspaper advertisements, and selected the British company Bush, for which the BBC’s Bush House in London is still named. For nearly all of their lives, it was this radio, with valves instead of transistors, and a blue cord pulled by a tuning knob, that my parents listened to. Eventually, the twine would be eaten by mice, and the dial would only reach a few stations like the ubiquitous All India Radio and Vividh Bharati, and of course Radio Ceylon, with its hit-parade program every Wednesday night sponsored by Ciba’s Binaca toothpaste, and hosted by the ever-popular Ameen Sayani. But ever since I began to read English, I would ogle at names of places like Bulawayo, Rio de Janeiro, and Reykjavik, printed in yellow above its short wave dial on its glass front, and dream of traveling to them in a huge ship.
I remember once listening to my uncle, who was a scientist, and who lived in Paris, giving a lecture on the subject of the chemistry of perfumes on the BBC.
My favorite program was called Bal Vihar, on the Nagpur station. Hosted by Anand Kaka, it consisted of songs, plays, and comic skits by children. I would wait a whole week for Sunday morning to arrive, only to have my mother bug me about the weekly ritual of washing my knee-length hair with shikakai. And every week, my father, who understood the magic of radio, would intervene on my behalf to postpone the ordeal until after the program. Predictably, I would be hungry for lunch afterwards and sometimes was lucky to skip the torture altogether.
My first literary foray occurred when, unbeknownst to my parents, I mailed a comic monologue to Bal Vihar. It was titled “There is too much partiality in school,” and was a self-deprecating piece about a young girl who complains that everyone is discriminating against her, when she just isn’t good at anything. I had my ear glued to the radio the next Sunday as a young girl read out my comic skit. I tried to get my parents’ attention but they didn’t believe that their 10-year-old could publish anything, and seemed too busy to listen to my byline.
Alas, I never sent anything to Bal Vihar again.
But a few weeks later, our dance teacher announced that we would be doing a singing gig on Bal Vihar. For days, we rehearsed our songs.
At last, Sunday arrived. We were taken, in an air-conditioned limousine with tinted windows, to the radio station, which was located in the Civil Lines on the outskirts of town. There we sat on plush leather sofas in the lounge, feeling the soft carpet under our feet while our teacher ensured that we didn’t jump on the upholstery.
We sat on the floor of the studio, with walls covered in carpet and hung with thick drapes. Anand Kaka, it turned out, was a taskmaster and a perfectionist, and for an hour or two before the program started, he rehearsed with us, changing the compositions of our songs. He was the kind of radio host Garrison Keillor might have modeled himself on; for Anand Kaka was not only a writer and an announcer, he also sang and composed music and played several instruments. His female co-anchor fiddled with the knobs at a huge desk equipped with reel-to-reel tapes, LP turntables, and other mysterious gadgets. We sat in a hush, barely breathing, as the program began, live. We watched the hosts make sound effects. We performed chorus songs on cue, and sat quiet as mice, through the whole hour. Later, we made several trips to Bal Vihar, each as memorable as the first one.
In high school, I was invited again to the radio station, to read some of my English essays, for an afternoon school program.
But the All India Radio station of my childhood, with its opulence and luxury, would remain for me for a long time the only glimpse of life in another world; a world of quiet and order and refrigerators and cars and couches and coffee tables and electronic gadgets; a world in fact, that until then I did not even know existed.
In the ’80s, when I lived for a few years in New Zealand, and where the one major magazine was called the Listener, I once again had a chance to relive that magical era of radio. Every morning, as Radio New Zealand predicted weather ranging from stormy to sunny to dry to foggy to muggy—it is hard to predict weather in an island—I would be gripped with nostalgia for my youth. Radio New Zealand, it turned out, still aired radio dramas and comedies.
I did not know then that one day I would write commentaries for the local and national public radio in America. I did not know then that one day I would be invited to participate in a debate on the BBC, reminding me of my father’s old joke; that only two entities knew the truth, God and the BBC.
It all started in that bygone era when people did not have television and therefore paid attention to voice and language and cadence. Perhaps, without radio, I would never have learned to love the sound of words or to write anything.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.