Radio: The soul of a nation finds utterance at last
Sunday 17 August 1997
Mark Tully (himself so often the voice of India's soul) introduced this montage of first-hand contemporary commentary: Mountbatten, strangely unmoved, spoke blandly and patronisingly of the great nations of the world watching with sympathetic expectancy; Wynford Vaughan Thomas described the most astonishing spectacle of his life, the enforced migration of thousands of Sikhs out of west Punjab; exhausted at the end of his last fast, Gandhi whispered that we must never make enemies, only friends. Two weeks later he was assassinated: Nehru, again, closed the programme, this time with tears in his voice.
And then it was time to Start the Independence Week (R4). Another broadcasting heavyweight, Charles Wheeler, chaired this discussion with five writers and critics from the subcontinent, each with important things to say. Immediately, the problems surfaced. Poor Wheeler, anxious to be fair, seemed unable to allow any argument to develop. Passionate statements hung in the air resonating like wind-chimes, I lost track of who was saying what, but a couple of true stories stayed with me.
One told of a group of women slaves who borrowed money to buy their hand- looms, built up a successful business and used the profits to educate their children, illustrating the supreme importance of literacy. In a land where only half the population can read, the birth-rate is rising dangerously. The connection between the two statistics is to be seen in the district of Kerula which, by a chance of history, has 98 per cent literacy: its birth-rate is as low as Sweden's.
Another story was about rivalry between groups of Muslims. When people asked whether Jinnah was a Shia or a Sunni he replied with a question. "What was the Prophet?" he asked. The answer came that the Prophet was a Muslim. "And so am I," said Jinnah. As WH Auden observed, civilisation is the degree to which unity is attained and diversity retained.
Yet what tremendous, baffling diversity there is. All week, different aspects of it have emerged from the radio like sparks from a Catherine- wheel. Moments from the life of a North Indian village punctuated Monday's Radio 4 programmes, from a recipe for morning tea (brewed with sugar, milk and cardamoms) right through to the blue-grey smoke from burning cow-dung spiralling into the night sky - apparently, once that smell hits the back of your throat, you can never forget it. This deep domestic peace was shattered by the wild naked dancing, fuelled by hash, that characterised Shiva's Wedding (R4). These divine nuptials are a grand excuse to tear off your loin-cloth, roll in the ashes and cavort around your shivling, if that's what turns you on... Ah well, as another poet once said, home is heaven and orgies vile but I like an orgy, once in a while.
There were some good linguistic programmes. On Indian Legacy (R2), we learned that it's not just jodhpurs, bungalows and shampoo that come from India but less obvious words like cash, cushy and chintz - one chint is a roll of cloth to an Indian haberdasher (and don't ask where haberdashery comes from: even the OED doesn't help with that). It's not surprising that we borrow so many words when the sources are so rich. In Mother Tongues (R4) Anita Bhalla attempted to steer a polyglot course through 18 major languages and 1,650 dialects in regular use. English still has a place, though usually in the form of Hinglish, a blend of Hindi and "the sort of language used by Rex Harrison and David Niven". One man declared, sensibly, that if he wanted to communicate, he would just use any language that helped.
Andrew Whitehead began Thursday's From Our Own Correspondent (R4, WS) with a sobering reminder of the atrocities that followed partition. He had spoken to survivors of the massacres that left 600,000 dead and 12 million homeless, a civil war at the root of many current problems. The stories he had heard were as horrifying as anything to come out of Bosnia: one man, now a Calcutta lawyer, was a child who peeped through a curtain and saw a sight so vile that "ever since that day, I have been dead". Whitehead hoped that the spotlight of this anniversary will dispel such sinister shadows: a brave, frail hope.
He was followed by Hugh Levinson from Pakistan, who warned of the trouble approaching from Afghanistan - first guns, then a horrible mixture of heroin and hair-removal powder, then a sinister form of punitive Islam. Whitehead's hope looked even frailer.
There is no shortage of drama in this Indian summer. Sakuntula (R4, WS), based on a 5th-century Sanskrit poem, was ancient legend in florid translation "I fell into the clutches of a man with a mouth of honey and a heart of stone," the heroine moans, and he responds, unnervingly, "Oh Lord, I am fed up". These lovers, however, have a more promising future than the dubious couple in an excellent play about the pitfalls of arranged marriages, in which everyone is expected to Do The Needful (R4), though the groom is gay and the bride has a secret lover.
The best drama I heard this week, probably this year, was Tanika Gupta's Voices on the Wind (R4, WS), based on the life of the author's great-uncle. Dinesh Gupta would have no truck with Gandhi's peace movement. He was a young freedom fighter who shot the wrong man and was eventually hanged. The play centred an his relationship with O'Leary, his Irish jailer, instructed to wheedle information from him, who saw in him the youth and promise of his own dead son. Most of the action was set in 1931, but it ended on Independence Day, when O'Leary returned to Calcutta to give Gupta's niece her uncle's prison journal. It told us as much about India as any broadcast of the season - no, correction, it told us a great deal about humanity.
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