Sunday, December 19, 2010
Edavazhikal, Radio and Me- To My Children 7
‘Edavazhis’ (alleys) were an integral part of the village life. They were/are the arteries of a village. People lived in the plots on either side of these alleys. Some plots had boundary walls and many didn’t. For the children, these edavazhis provided playing grounds; they rolled the old cycle tyres along these alleys and imagined that they were driving cars. They made a continuous burring sound from their mouths emulating the revving engines that they thought to have controlled. We, the children tied two ends of a long rope and stood within it in a long line with the boy in the front acting as the driver of an imaginary bus or train and the boy at the back acting as the conductor. From different points of these alleys girls and boys waved these buses down and got into it to ‘go to the town or to the relatives’ houses’. Grown up boys cycled through these alleys to catch the glimpses of the girls who they thought were in love with them.
During summer, the weavers prepared their white threads on stands kept along the length of these edavazhis. During monsoon months these pathways became puddles where the children happily played like piglets. During the cold days of December and January children came around to burn the dried up leaves and enjoyed the warmth of the fire. The grown up people had a different feel about the edavazhis. As they were grown up people, they lived their lives realistically. They did not find the edavazhis as treasure troves as felt by the children. Only the drunken men and mad people found edavazhis equally exciting. And in any village you would find permanent drunkards and resident mad men. Women going to the market avoided those edavazhis where they expected the sudden appearances of the drunken men or mad people. When it rained, we the children sat in our verandas and watched wet black umbrellas and plantain leaves moving along these ways. People did not always carry umbrellas so when it poured they just entered any plot of land and plucked some large leaves including those of the plantains and used them as umbrellas.
It was in these edavazhis that I learned the primary lessons of being friends with other boys and girls in the village. I remember a few of us moving like some creatures under the white threads horizontally stretched on stands by the weavers. We did not disturb the threads and the weavers allowed us to enjoy the feeling of walking through a white cave. From the one end of the edavazhi where these threads were dried and prepared, it looked like a never ending white sari stretched to perfection. Like any other child I too liked the feel of it and the children always enjoyed passing through any cavity that perhaps reminded them of the security of their mothers’ wombs.
Today, I find you, my son, mumbling things to yourself. He speaks to himself and he keeps transforming into several characters at every passing moment. When he is at the washroom, we could listen to him speaking in different tones, reliving some television program that he has been watching for ages. This is one drawback of kids growing up in the cities with over protective parents. The parents don’t allow the children to go out and play. There are reasons for it. The streets are no longer safe for children. With the changed ways of life, we anticipate threat at every corner. We live in perpetual fear and anxiety about our children. And we fix time for our children to go out and play in the parks or we take appointments with the parents of other kids so that we could send out our son to their homes to play. But I have observed one thing, the children love to play with other kids but as they are so much engrossed in their television programs, they prefer not to meet their friends. They refuse to go to the park and play. They are glued to the television sets or computer screens. So they get more intelligent and more obese.
During my childhood there were no televisions. Mornings were announced not by an alarm clock or the honking of school buses in the streets making their first trips. Evenings were announced by the slanting rays of sun and the chirping of the birds that flew back to roost. For the kids, night meant a sort of liquid dark and think magical potion from which visions both soothing and threatening came out. Grand parents told us stories and the cousins and other elderly people around discussed their lives and we gathered some anecdotes and episodes from their mouths. We also did our homework and the home work started with the recitation of a prayer before a lit lamp. Then we opened our books and read out aloud. When a new pencil was given to us, we wrote words and digits on our slates. We were not given notebooks till the age of ten. We wrote everything in slates and rubbed it off when we were supposed to write other things. We used the stem of some juicy plants to wipe the slates clean. When none was looking we used our saliva also to clean it up. After doing that we smelled our own palms to feel the nasty smell the saliva had created. It gave us a strange kick. Children did their homework mainly for getting their supper on time. Mothers said that children did ‘Chottu Vaayana’, which means ‘reading for supper’. Once the supper was served all homework ended. Sleep came soon and kids huddled together under the blankets and bed spreads.
There used to be several children around in the families. The families were not strictly joint families though children of aunts, uncles and the children from the neighbor’s houses always gathered during these evening rituals. The elders entertained them and seeing us playing and fighting in turn was a great entertainment to them. People had all the time in the world. Radio was the only technological device that brought the world into the homes. Most of the houses did not have a radio set. And having a radio or cycle at home was a big affair and to posses one, we had to take license from the Panchayat office. Everything went on quota basis. Even cement was rationed and one had to take permits to buy cement from the public market as government controlled the sales of construction materials.
Ours was one of those households where there was a radio set. It was a huge valve radio. When there were some state level or national level important political incidents, people from the neighborhood gathered in front of our house to listen to the radio news. My father switched on this valve radio and I always thought that this radio set had a personality of its own. Perched on a high stand, this radio looked at us with its cold face. And when it was switched, it took some time to wake up from its slumber. First, it made some cracking and creaking sounds and we waited for its single eye on the left side to open. Its eye was green in color and it parted in the middle. Once it was correctly tuned and heated enough to function, the green pupils dilated from either sides and touched in the middle only to part a little bit and expose a grey streak between them. Then it started talking to us in different voices. My father tuned it to different meters and waves and he listened to the news items. Once he was retired to bed, my cousins took over the control of it. They listened to the film music, radio plays and the sound tracks of movies. ‘Sabda Rekha’ (Sound Track) was one important program that the teenagers and the jobless cousins always anxiously waited for to listen. Through the familiar voices of the actors and actresses, they imagined the scenes one by one, laughed and shed tears as per the mood of the movie.
We, the children never listened to any program fully. We enthusiastically waited with the cousins to listen to film music or the sound tracks. By the time the program was half way we all fell asleep in different forms and shapes and in different corners and laps. Later, the respective mothers hauled the sleeping children to their beds as if all of them were log woods. The kids from the neighbors’ houses also fell asleep at our home. Later in the night their parents also came and made them walk in sleep and whenever I was awake I could see their feet being dragged along the sand in the courtyard. Though we were not allowed to handle the radio, Sundays were our radio day. There were two important programs for children on Sundays. One was Balalokam (Children’s World) and Kouthuka Varthakal (Wonderful News). For ages we recognized someone in the radio as ‘Uncle’ who entertained us telling stories, reading out letters sent out to him by children from different parts of our state, inviting children to the studio in Trivandrum to sing, act and deliver speeches. In Kouthuka Varthakal, the news reader told us about the curious and funny incidents that had taken plays during the last one week in different parts of the world.
Today, the kids fancy themselves as power rangers, Doremon, Shinchan, Chotta Bheem and so on because they see a lot of television programs. As we had only radio programs as a way to the world, we imagined ourselves to be the characters in the radio. We wanted to grow up and become someone in the radio programs. We wondered at that virtual world of sounds. We were curious to know what exactly went on inside the radio. At times we used to think that a miniature world existed inside the radio box. Once in a while the radio went ‘dead’. The best remedy was to slap it left and right as if it were a truant school boy. The tapping worked most of the times. As if from sleep it woke up and spoke to us again. But sometimes it was more than a slumber. It really needed some medical help. So we waited for one of our uncle to come home, open it and find out what exactly happened to our beloved radio.
This uncle came by cycle. He used to live around twenty five kilometers away from our home. He cycled to any place and he had this special capacity to open up anything and repair them. He repaired clocks, wrist watches, cigarette lighters, torches, radios, table fans and anything that had some ‘mechanics’ involved in it. This uncle always had a suitcase on his cycle carrier and this suitcase contained a few tools of different sizes and shapes, torches, soldering iron, led and a host of cigarette lighters of various shapes. Some of them worked with a few drops of kerosene in it and some of them worked through the activation of two special stones. While focusing at some work, this uncle always smoked a bidi (a locally made cigarette). We waited anxiously behind him when he opened our radio.
The personality of the radio was different when we see it from behind. From behind it looked very vulnerable with those wires going in and coming out. From the front it looked like an ambassador car with a serious face. When the uncle opened the back cover, it exposed a different world to us. So many lights and machine parts that looked like electricity transformers at the junction were there inside it. Once when he opened it, this uncle found out a few newly born mice inside it. It had a lot of vacant space and the holes behind the radio were big enough for the mother mouse to go in. There was no wonder why she found the radio the safest place to deliver her babies. My mother took these babies in a coconut shell and put it in the backyard where she expected the rats frequented. We waited for the mother mouse to come and pick up her babies. Every morning we went to the backyard where old pots were stacked and looked at those babies. After a couple of days they disappeared. We were sad as we were not sure whether they were taken away by their mother or scooped away by the crows, which were always there or the cats that sat philosophically on the boundary walls waiting for my mother to come out and cut some fish.
There was a wall clock in the drawing room. It was a spring clock that needed winding every morning. My father religious wound it up and when he climbed on chair to do the winding I stood below and looked at it and watched the wonder spring that got tightened at each winding. When father turned his hand towards left to wind, I made the sound ‘Kikkidee kee’ and in the second time the sound came differently; it was like ‘Kidikidi kee’. This ritual went on for several years till I was grown up enough to climb and wind the watch for myself. Even when my father allowed me to do this ritual, while doing it I used to mumble along with turn of my hands, ‘Kikkidee kee, Kidikidi kee’. And like the radio the wall clock also had a face, but a very smiling face with a tongue like pendulum always wagging left to right and then right to left marking the passage of the moments in our life. I used to stand before it and looked at it intently. It spoke to me in a different language, which I never attempted to decipher. But happy I was to stand like that and communicate with it. When years passed, it became an ornament as it was declared dead by my visiting uncle. He said, it was beyond repair now.
I had this wish to become a radio star. This was in a way fulfilled after several years. I had a friend named Nizar Syed. We met each other when we joined for the pre-degree course at the Sree Narayana College, Varkala. He used to be an enthusiast and took interest in so many things including theatre. His elder brother wrote and acted in plays and his uncle was from my own village and was a famous professional stage actor. As we had these similar interests we became thick friends soon. After pre-degree, like me, Nizar also went to Trivandrum and one day I found him a very famous personality. And he became a radio star! Everyone was talking about the program that he was doing.
This program was called ‘Prabhatabheri’ (Heralding of Morning). In today’s parlance if we translate the nature of the program, we could call it a ‘reality show’. Nizar befriended some produces in the AIR, Trivandrum (All India Radio). They gave him a tape recorder and mike. He went around and talked to people. He was addressing the vital social issues. And each morning, through the AIR Trivandrum station, the local people were expressing their feelings, observations and criticism on the government and governance through this program. People were talking through Nizar and there was no wonder why he became a star soon. I was feeling jealous of this guy. I contacted him and he put me across to his producer in the AIR. She was a good soul and she asked me to do radio features.
I had become an intellectual by then. I had already started publishing my poems, stories and articles in some magazines and the Sunday supplements of some newspapers. And I never wanted to do anything journalistic; I wanted to do creative stuff and I thought my friend, Nizar was doing journalistic things. So I told the producer that I would do features related to art and literature. She agreed and gave me a tape recorder and mike. I had already done a script and had decided to interview a few budding poets in Trivandrum. My topic was ‘the New Wave Poetry in Kerala’. I went around, interviewed friends and poets and all of them talked about that day, that glorious day in which the poets and artists ruling the world. They lashed out against the growing commercialism in all the walks of life. They talked about their poems and dreams. And the program was broadcasted and I was happy. The producer asked me to do more programs but by that time I had lost interest in walking behind people and taking interviews. I was hanging out more with fine arts college students and spending hours after hours in libraries.
A few of those poets whom interviewed for the program became news readers in television channels when channel revolution hit Kerala. They all used to look very shabby in those days. Years later when I saw them in the television screens, they looked different; totally different. All of them had grown thick moustaches and chubby cheeks. All of them started looking like Mammootis and Mohanlals (two superstars in the Malayalam film industry). The transformation was fantastic. Even today, when I go to my village, people who knew me as a child, as a young boy and also as a young man, keep fingers on their nose and make ‘tut tut’ sounds with their tongues. They ask me what has gone wrong with my life. I smile at them. I know why they ask these questions. They want me to be pot bellied (like the Malayalm film stars) that shows prosperity by forty, they want me to have a proper hair cut and they expect me to wear clothes of their choice. And above all when they ask me what I do for my living, I don’t have any specific answer for that. I tell them I write. And they still don’t believe I can make a living through writing only. To tell you the truth, I don’t do anything other than writing. My profession as a curator also is one form of writing for me, the way I perceive it.
Nizar remained a friend for a long time. He started writing in the mainstream journals as he had this stardom. I felt irritated at times because he was getting more attention than me. Besides, I thought that I was more qualified to become a radio artist or a writer because I had appeared for one of the AIR examinations towards the post of a news reader. Perhaps that was the only one examination or test that I have ever given in my life for getting a job. My mother used to force me to fill up public tests for jobs. I used to get these hall tickets. On the examination day (mostly Sundays) I went to the examination center and after hanging out there for sometime, went to the near by places to see the life around. Once I sat for a test as my mother accompanied me to the examination center and left me with no option to slip away. I passed and got an appointment letter in some government department but by that time I had escaped from Kerala.
But the AIR Examination was my choice and I went to Calicut (Kozhikode) to give the test. I was nineteen years old then. It was my first trip outside Trivandrum district alone. I went by a train and it took nine hours to reach the place. I took a room in a lodge and the next morning appeared for the exam. It was successful and a couple of months later I got a call for the interview. Once again I went to Calicut and appeared before the interview panel. I did well. Read news in the studio for the voice test and I was cleared. But I did not get the job. The job went to another person who later joined the Doordarshan (DD Trivandrum) and became one of the successful newsreaders. In that trip I went to see Vaikom Muhammad Bashir, a legendary writer in Malayalm literature. He was very old by then. His admirers were allowed to visit him at any time. When I went there he was sleeping. His wife asked me to wait but I had to catch an afternoon train. I told her (Fabi Bashir) about that and she opened a window for me and asked me to see him sleeping inside the room. I saw him through the window and went back to the railway station.
Life is always strange and it has its own game plans. Nizar, after spending a few years with the AIR, went to Gulf Countries and became one of the biggest radio stars in the region. From there too he used to write articles for Malayalam journals. And I am sure he must be one of the experienced radio personalities from my generation. We were in touch with each other for a long time. When I was doing my graduation in Trivandrum, I used to get invitation from the Trivandrum Doordarshan to present poems and participate in quiz programs. I never found success in quiz programs though I used to appear in them quite often. But the poetry sessions were good. At least amongst the classmates and family circles I got a temporary star status.
But several years later I did become a news reader in the AIR. Now I was not reading at the AIR station in Trivandrum. I was reading it from New Delhi. The senior new broadcaster, Gopan met me in one of the parties and he liked my voice. It was in late 1990s. I was a struggler in Delhi and Gopan asked me to meet him at his office. I went and met him and I was given a formal test and the next week I was reading news from the AIR, New Delhi. I read three news a day, the early morning news, the mid noon one and the evening one. It was the Delhi relay of national news in Malayalm. They gave us PTI news feed and we had to make readable news out of it. There used to be two people in a session and while one read the other stood stand by. If anything went wrong, the other person should take over.
‘Akashavani, Varthakal Vaayikkunnathu JohnyML’ (This is All India Radio and the news read by JohnyML). Soon I became a radio star in Kerala and I did not know this was happening till I once visited Kerala and people recognized me as JohnyML who read news in the AIR and the same person who did political reporting from Delhi for a famous Malayalam magazine. Life takes you to places. As an appreciation to my voice, my ability to translate news fast, I was selected for the midnight news, which was strictly relayed in the Gulf countries. So I started reading the Gulf News. This went on for three or four years till I grew tired of the boring nature of it. I was no longer thinking about me as a radio-television personality. As my work was based on temporary contracts I decided not to renew it though the authorities insisted that I remained the readers’ panel.
Let me go back to the edavazhis and the evenings of my village. As I said earlier, it was in these alleys I met my friends and created life long bonds. It was in these alleys, I received the first side glances from a girl whose white shirt was wet at her mid rib thanks to the hair that she had washed a few minutes back. She appeared before me from nowhere and she was holding a bunch of books close to her bosom. She had a one red bangle each on her wrists. As she passed by me I smelled the cool fragrance of the ‘cuticura’ powder. And she had a small red bindi on her forehead. Did she smile at me? Oh my god, I would have died then and there if she had. I decided to live only to see her again in these edavazhis and to tell the stories of my bonding with childhood friends.