Readers Write In #304: Of radios and cigarette smoke

Posted on November 18, 2020

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(by Anu Warrier)

Lying in bed with the radio on
Moonlight falls like rain
Soft summer nights spent thinking of you
When will I see you again?”

So sang England Dan and John Ford Coley in Nights are forever without you.

I grew up at a time when a radio had pride of place in many middle-class homes. From the news to music and even plays, the radio provided hours of entertainment. I’ve certainly spent many nights with the radio on, and many a day as well. Long, lazy summer afternoons where I would lie on the sofa or with a pillow on the floor; the latest book purchase to read; fried snacks or pastries if we were lucky, raw mangoes with a red chilli paste if we were less lucky to stave off mid-afternoon hunger pangs – and the radio on. Always. From Aap ki Farmaaish to Manoranjan to Jayamala, there were hours of Hindi film songs to listen to, with persons writing in with unerring regularity from a place called Jhumri Telaiya.

We pondered over whether it was a real place, my sister and I; we wondered about the people who lived there, who apparently loved Hindi film songs so much that they took the time to send in requests day after day. It was funny the things we thought of, then. We squabbled amicably over our favourite singers – mine was Mohammed Rafi; my sister’s – inexplicably to me – was Mukesh. I’m not sure she actually liked him the best or was just saying so to be contrarian. She was like that sometimes, my sis.

Dad used to smoke 555s. And Wills. Gold Flakes, on rare occasions. He would solemnly tear the empty cigarette packets into thirds horizontally, so I could jump on them and listen to the band. When he was home, he had his own chair (and his own cup and plates, his own comb and towels and soap). He would sit there in the afternoon, smoking a cigarette, reading a Wodehouse again, or the latest bestseller he had picked up at the airport, twiddle the knobs of the radio. The room would fill with the voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Talat Mahmood, Shamshad Begum and Mukesh. I would settle myself on the floor, book in hand.

I read Wodehouse because my dad read them. I laughed the same way he did, even if I didn’t quite grasp the humour. I felt very grown up reading them. I used words like ‘ravenous’ ‘bally’, ‘rummy’ and ‘squiggle-eyed’ in my conversation – correctly, in context. I was 8. I was considered precocious; I looked that word up in the Oxford Dictionary and felt quite proud I was ‘precocious’.

It was my job when I was a wee child to polish his shoes. Black and brown. Kiwi shoe polish. Old rags and a stiff brush. The shoes gleamed when I finished with them. I was black and brown. My mother complained I polished myself. It’s strange the things you remember when you want to forget.

My sister, and as I grew older, I, made his afternoon tea. I felt pleased as punch when he complimented me on the colour and taste, poking my tongue out at my sister. She shrugged. She was happy to let me do it. Now she had an excuse.

A pencil sketch of Amitabh Bachchan, made by a boy who had a crush on me, hung in our tiny living room. When dad was home, the smoke curling from his cigarette would hover in the air somewhere near Amitabh’s nose. “What would you do if he sneezed?” queried my sister, lying flat on the floor beside me. I looked up. I liked the smell of cigarette smoke myself. To me, that reminded me of my father. But I moved the sketch to the opposite wall, Amitabh’s eyes following me as I returned to the floor to the book waiting for me.

I digress. Back to the radio. It was a large unwieldy Murphy. Covered with a terry towel when not in use to prevent it from being dusty. It was my job to take the towel and shake it outside every evening. Inevitably, I sneezed.

The radio was a thing of wonder to me – all those channels and services: Akashvani, Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation, Vividh Bharati. The News read by Lotika Ratnam. Sushil Javeri. Pamela Singh. Melvin de Mellow. Sports commentary by AFS Talyarkhan.Legendary names that have – some of them – passed into the ages. “Listen to them enunciate,” my father said to me, even as he insisted that I laboriously copy out the Malayala Manorama Op Ed so I would learn to read and write my mother tongue.

The news was sacrosanct. I learnt to listen to the news because my father did. I had to read the newspaper headline each morning anyway – we were expected to write five sentences about the news of the day. But it was always the radio at night. My father enjoying his post-prandial cigarette as he listened to it. I would finish up my homework, only half listening to the news. But dad often interrupted my train of thought to ask me questions about current affairs. Or to explain something to me. I felt grown up, talking to him about such grown up matters.

My mother would be sitting there too, reading a magazine or a book. My siblings would vanish upstairs to the room they shared. I had a bed in the dining room. And dad would make sure I was tucked safely inside my mosquito net. And the next morning, I would wake up to the sound of the radio, as dad got ready for the day.

The radio provided the soundscape of my childhood. Until it vanished. That sketch of Amitabh vanished too, along with the boy who drew it. So did the shoes and the tins of black and brown polish. There’s an inevitability about such loss.

As there is about death. Grief doesn’t begin when a person dies. There’s no hierarchy of grief, no contest about whose pain is greater. It’s a process, and it only begins when you let it. There’s no saying when it will end, or if it will. You say your goodbyes when you are ready. The loss is a shared one, but the pain is uniquely yours.

But soon that pain will vanish. Like the radio. Like my childhood. Like the laughter. And the tears.

Like the smoke that hung for a moment on that still afternoon so long ago.

Lying in bed with the radio on
Moonlight falls like rain
Soft summer nights spent thinking of you
When will I see you again?”