My Father and His Radio

Cool breeze was swirling around on the hills in the evening. But for me it was yet another sad day. Abandoned and lonely at the age of seven, I was sitting in front of a house on the hill side, watching the rays of the sun race through the white clouds. Suddenly, I could hear the scattered music bit coming from the direction of the winding mud road down the hill. I ran towards the overhanging rock where from one could see parts of the road below through the flora of trees that covered the hill. I spotted a man wearing white dhoti and shirt coming towards the house. Music was hovering closer and closer. It was then that I saw the radio in his hand, singing away to glory.

It took me a moment to realize that it was my father. My thrill knew no bounds. I rushed down the hill without waiting for anyone’s permission to meet him. Like a puppy dog that missed its owner, I trotted around my father but never taking my eyes off the radio in his hand. ‘What are you doing here without reading your lessons?’ The whip of scolding from my father did not diminish my enthusiasm. As we climbed up the road, the music too came along. I walked blissfully behind my father with the pride of one who owned this world. My father has a radio! Even my uncles, who disciplined me on a daily basis, couldn’t dream of one!

The house on the hill was where my mother was born. My parents had left me there for studies. It was roughly ten miles from our own home. At the age of seven, that was a lot of distance. That house was a big joint family affair. My maternal grand father was a very strict person. My grand mother went about the place all the time complaining about things which made no sense to me. The favourite pastime of my uncles was to discipline me by beating me up at the slightest hint of a chance.

That night I could not sleep. My father and grandfather were engaged in loud exchange of thoughts, news and views after the customary evening drinks. And I was engrossed in innocently sitting somewhere nearest to the radio, listening to it and making valiant efforts to touch it without anyone noticing it. I badly wanted to turn the knobs on the radio, but had this fear of father ingrained into me.

Radio was on full blast till my father readied himself to leave the next evening. I wept inconsolably, not that anyone tried to console me, when he left. Of course, the grief was entirely because my father took the radio with him. I wished I could leave with my father and sit at home somewhere near the radio. Previously, I used to shed lonely tears thinking of my ‘far-away’ mother and sister, but from that day I mourned for the far-away radio as well. The radio songs I used to hear on my way to and from school saddened me immeasurably.

My first memory of a radio was as a big metal-tinted radio box. It was love at first sight. A distant relative had brought it to our home. He had come to our place on the way to our other relatives’ homes. As he visited the relatives one after the other, I tagged along behind his radio. I spent most of his visit, staying close to his radio.

None too soon, my father’s elder brother bought a ‘transistor’ radio. It was the first in our area. The moment I heard about the arrival of this miraculous device in our own family, I ran to my Perappan’s house. It was a small beautiful radio with a reddish tint. Even today I remember the first song I heard on it. ‘Ayithanam Nee En Ayithanam Nee’, a Tamil film song.

It took one year for me to get permanent freedom from my grand father’s house and go to our home. From that day radio remained my inseparable comrade. I practically lived near it, sleeping, awakening and eating by its side. I hated school because I loathed being separated from my radio. At the stroke of closing school bell, I breathlessly sprinted home to sit before the radio. I think the craze for music that is within me must have been inducted from that radio. Singers like Yesudas, S. Janaki, A.M. Rajah, P. Susheela and Jayachandran became closer to me than the people of my village. It came to such a pass that I could not live without the radio.

When father was not home, it was I who operated the radio. My hands knew exactly where Thrissur and Alappuzha stations were. Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikkodu stations were available faintly. Tiruchirappalli and Madurai stations that brought the voices of T.M. Soundararajan and P.B. Srinivas were received better. It was through the radio that I heard the boundless world spread wide beyond the hill-bound small hamlet where I lived.

I was very eager to find out how this small box could bring to us so many people from such a far and wide world. One day the eagerness to find out how every station was situated on every point of the radio simply overwhelmed me. When the knob is turned beyond the last point what will we hear? But the knob refused to go beyond a point. I kept turning the knob. Trringg...I heard a sound. Something must have broken inside! Suddenly the needle that showed the stations was not there! I simply froze. I had a foreboding of what will happen next. Frightened, I ran to tell my mother and begged her to save me. My fear got only keyed up when my mother simply washed her helpless hands off saying: “You know your father well enough.”

I spent the whole day following my mother and beseeching her to save me. I believed my mother could save me from my father’s wrath. But as the time for my father’s arrival neared, my heart started beating faster and faster. I could actually hear it! Then I heard my father’s foot-fall. As usual, he went straight to the radio to play it. I was standing in the backyard, dead to rights with fear. Then I heard my father shout in his fearsome voice calling out for my immediate presence. I found myself before him in total fright. After addressing me with his choicest names, he came straight to the point. As the last efforts of a condemned boy I tried mumbling, “I didn’t.....” The slap fell on my face like a thunder.

He spewed out abuses drawing from his considerable diction even as he boiled over in anger. He also dished out physical punishment with all the force at his command. I cried out pathetically begging his forgiveness. When my mother summoned some courage to intervene on my behalf, he told her off like only he could. Finally, I was well and truly beaten up and deposited in a room corner. In all this melee my shorts had come off and I was too far gone in fright and pain to notice that I was naked. My father, still enraged, wrecked the radio on the door-steps. My radio, my window to the world has become a heap of plastic waste!

My father was not done yet. He came at me with whatever he could lay his hands on. He tied a rope on the handle of the radio and hung it around my neck. It, along with some unbroken pieces, hung heavily on my neck. My father shouted at me to run away from home and his presence. I did not wait for any further. I ran out with whatever was left of me. I ran towards the next hamlet, completely naked on the road with a broken radio hanging from my neck, crying and lamenting. It was evening and farm workers were returning home after the day’s work. They stood and stared at the strange sight that I presented. I felt nothing. I was already deadened with the beating and fright.

My father was still chasing me like a wild animal that had smelt blood. He finally caught hold of me, snatched the radio off my neck and threw it into the paddy field. He now started beating me up asking me to run home. I ran back home crying with my father chasing me. My radio was lost. My music was gone. My mind was deeply wounded.

My father did not buy another radio for many months afterwards. When he bought one, a Philips pocket radio, he took to taking it along with him. But he could not stop me from listening to radio. I went to my neighbours’ houses to listen to music. I would go wherever the songs were heard.

In those days, the radio was the sole means of entertainment for ordinary people. Even people with nothing else to call their own had a radio. The valve radios of earlier period were big affairs and costly. These decorated rich men’s drawing rooms. ‘Transistor’ technology made radios smaller and lower priced.

People just loved their radios. When they worked on the fields, radio will be singing hung from the branches of trees or carefully laid down on towels on the bunds of the paddy fields. The breeze would carry the sound of the radio along with the smell of the soil and the green foliage of plants. Melodious voices of favourite singers pleased the hearts and lightened the burden of their hard work.

Some used to keep the radios in leather pouches tailored for radios and carried them around wherever they went. Many kept it on special stands readied for radios. Many, like the daily wage-earner Thangappan, were particular that radio should always be kept ready with new batteries, even when there was no money for rice at home. Thangappan used to raise the playing volume of his radio particularly when programs of film songs like Ranjani and Chalachitra Ganangal were broadcast. Once Thangappan had proclaimed to me how he loved that ‘Nusic’.

Some fans write to Radio stations asking them to broadcast songs of their choice and await the broadcast to hear their names associated with their favourite songs. Those less interested in music depend on radios to listen to News or running commentary of sporting events. For example it was radio that took the ball-by-ball commentary of the match that India won to lift the 1983 World Cup in cricket to every nook of India.

At one stage, having lost interest in small radios my father brought a big radio set with wooden cabinet. It had a good sound quality. But on days when it rained the radio only produced screeching sounds. By then radio repair services had sprouted everywhere. Even those who learned radio repairs through postal lessons prospered. My father used to get the radio repaired again and again. But it could not cope with rain at all.

Finally he gave up on that radio and returned to packet radio. Thus that abandoned radio became mine alone. I tried to set right its rain-sickness, a problem no expert could repair. I was at it with a screw driver, ever opening up and refixing it. I am not sure what I did, suddenly it started working well on a pouring day! I listened to it for some months with considerable pride in my own technical prowess. Then I sold it to a boy named Babu for twenty rupees, as I fell in love with the idea of a small radio. Babu never complained to me about the radio but few years later he committed suicide. I do not know whether that radio had a role in it.

There are some very famous songs which reflects the popularity and impact of radio. Donna Summer’s ‘On The Radio’ (1985), REM’s ‘Radio Song’(1991), Joni Mitchell’s ‘You Turn Me On, I’m Your Radio’(1972) are very famous. Bon Jovi’s ‘Radio Saved My Life Tonight’, LL Cool J’s rap song ‘I Can’t Live Without My Radio’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Radio Nowhere’, Buggle's ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ are all such radio songs spring to mind at once. But it is Freddie Mercury’s song ‘Radio Ga Ga’ is my favourite among them because its lyrics directly reflect my life.

I'd sit alone and watch your light
My only friend through teenage nights
And everything I had to know
I heard it on my radio

You gave them all those old time stars
You made 'em laugh, you made 'em cry
You made us feel like we could fly

We watch the shows, we watch the stars
On videos for hours and hours
We hardly need to use our ears
How music changes through the years

You had your time, you had the power
You've yet to have your finest hour
Radio, someone still loves you!

Tape recorders reached our rural communities in 1970s and people changed from Radios to tape recorders. Some of those cassette tape recorders had radio as well in-built. These were called two-in-ones. But they failed miserably in our villages that did not have electricity. Batteries were run down by the time a cassette was played fully. Therefore, those who bought them had to use them just as radios.

My father remained an ardent devotee of the radio. He would listen to all the radio programs. He was neither attracted to tape recorders nor did he ever buy one. Whether he was happy or sad, he turned to his radio to celebrate or mourn. I remember the day when my father’s mother passed away. She was the only soul my father ever really loved. Her death shook my father. He sat beside my grand mother’s body for a long time and wept like a child. At one stage, he went inside the room and switched on the radio. He played the radio at high volume and came back to sit by the side of his mother’s body and continued weeping. I particularly remember a Malayalam song I heard that day:

Moon has risen
Across nations
Embraced by evenings
Hasten Away, hasten away...

My father and I never got along well. He was stubbornly opinionated person. His first interest was in the social problems of our villages. After the age of twelve, I rarely spoke to him directly. I was more affectionate towards my grand father. My father, on the other hand, had not been seen having much relationship or conversation with his father. Since he was traveling most of the time, I saw my grand father only on occasions. In spite of that he was the one person who truly loved me in my childhood. He passed away when I was fourteen.

As I grew up, I started expressing my opposition to my father’s inhuman acts. To me he had the classic features of a cruel and dictatorial person. His loud interventions in the family and the deathly silence that followed it were regular affairs of our home. I hated him for his brutal treatment of my mother, the torture he meted out to us, his children, and abandoning us in the name of social service activities he indulged in. I bore the brunt of his ill treatment, being the eldest son. It was extremely difficult for me to live under the same roof with him.

After I left home and found ways to live on my own outside the state, whenever I went home, I found my father completely immersed in the sound of his radio. Even after the arrival of TV he continued listening only to radio. With passage of time the tension in my attitude to him eased. But he remained the same considering me a worthless being. He could not bring himself to understand my feelings. Years later, when I bought a new house in Chennai and invited him with an emotional appeal to come for the housewarming function, he plainly refused.

29th of March, 2008, was the date of wedding of my youngest brother. I had reached a day earlier with my wife and daughter. As soon as he saw me and my wife, my father came and took my daughter and kissed her, holding her in a tight embrace. I must admit I was moved. He was in a celebratory mood, but I felt that his eyes had misted. He did not meet my eyes and went away to the room where Television was on full blast!

Two weeks later, at two thirty in the night, I received a call. My father was no more. When I entered the hall of our family home, I could see my mother, sister and other relations with their cries and laments rending the air. My mind went blank. My father’s frozen body was kept in a freezer box. I went near and looked at his face. That scornful smile which I was so familiar with seemed to dominate his lips, as if to say to me, “Get lost!”

Thousands came for his funeral. The entire village grieved for him. A huge condolence meeting was held. Many spoke listing the many good deeds he done for the people of the village, lauding him for his spirited social work and his humane nature. Are they talking about my father or about some other man? Alone I walked down the same road on which I have ran away from him years ago with the broken radio parts hanging heavy around my neck.

Before he returned to his place of work abroad, my younger brother broke open my father’s cupboard. Along with many items of little value, there was an old broken radio. Now, months after his death I am listening the song ‘In the Living Years’ on my Hi-Fi music system. 

Every generation blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
I know that I'm a prisoner
To all my father held so dear
I know that I'm a hostage
To all his hopes and fears

I wasn't there that morning
When my father passed away
I didn't get to tell him
All the things I had to say

It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye
I just wish I could have told him
In the living years.....

I am not able hold my tears anymore.