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Luminous Ether

Back then, radio sets were a status symbol, owned only by the privileged

It was September 1939, and the British government had officially declared war against Nazi Germany. I was eight and my father the Resident Magistrate of Batala in Gurdaspur district of Punjab. As a Provincial Civil Service officer, he was expected to keep abreast of the day-to-day developments in the war. Hence he was keen on listening to news broadcasts by All India Radio and BBC London and other foreign stations.

In those days, radio sets were a status symbol, owned only by officials or privileged citizens after obtaining a licence from the government. So after careful evaluation of available brands and discussions with his colleagues, my father ordered the latest model of an HMV (His Master’s Voice) radio set imported from Holland.

Aerial display

We were all excited on the day the radio was delivered at our bungalow. It looked like a large wooden box with a large rectangular screen and several knobs. As I watched the elaborate process of setting up the radio, I was fascinated by the installation of the aerial on the rooftop. Two bamboo poles were fixed at both ends of the roof and a long wire was tied between them, with round crystals on each side. Then a lead wire was drawn from one end of the wire and the other end was taken down through the ventilator into father’s bedroom, where it was connected at the back of the radio set.

After father returned home in the evening, everybody gathered around the radio with bated breath for listening to the inaugural broadcast. As father switched the set on, the rectangular dial lit up, showing four wave bands to be selected by moving an arrow shaped needle up and down. But the most attractive and intriguing feature of the dial was a circular magic eye at the centre with a green light which flickered around as the tuning needle slowly moved over the marked meter band, making queer noises. And as soon as any station got tuned in, the magic eye suddenly turned green, and we could hear clear sound from the speaker on the left side of the radio set.

While the main broadcasting station of All India Radio was in New Delhi, the most popular station covering North India was in Lahore. It’s Urdu and Punjabi programmes were a hit. But for father, the main focus was news. After dinner every night, he would first listen to the AIR English news bulletin at 9 p.m. Even today, I can hear the deep resonant voice which we all heard with rapt attention: “This is All India Radio. Here is the news read by Melville de Mello.” This was followed by the BBC news bulletin at 9.30 p.m. which required careful tuning into the short wave. The broadcast began with a time signal of three beeps, followed by the sound of the Big Ben striking five in the evening in London.

During summer, when we slept out in the open backyard of the bungalow, the radio was also brought out and connected by a long wire to a plug point in the veranda. Father had got a table of the exact size made for the radio. Sometimes, under the starry night, we would all listen in rapt attention to some radio plays by eminent writers like Imitiaz Ali Taj and Rajendra Singh Bedi broadcast from Lahore.

Sunday specials

On Sunday mornings, I eagerly looked forward to listening to the children’s programme from AIR, Delhi. I vividly remember the day when, during one of our occasional visits to Delhi, father took me to the AIR studios on Parliament Street to attend the live broadcast of the programme. Right from that age, I was fascinated by the magic world of radio broadcast, which in many ways influenced me later in my forays into creative writing.

The grand old HMV radio set remained an inseparable member of our household and shared our travails, including Partition. Even when father was confined to bed after a stroke, he continued listening to the news till he passed away in 1967. By that time, the radio had become irreparable and had to given away for nothing.

Now as I grow old, trying to adjust to the high-tech life of instant connectivity, I am often reminded of those days when we waited for the magic eye to get connected to the world beyond time and space.

madanmathur@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 12:54:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-magic-eye/article31259379.ece

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