'Life has been a smooth ride'

Ravi Sharma was once a rickshaw driver in India. Now he's a radio star in London. Radha Venkatesan reports
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The Independent Online

"I'm so lucky," says Ravi Sharma. And the broadcaster smiles at his understatement. Four decades ago, he was working as a rickshaw driver and construction worker in a small town in India for a daily wage of less than 5p. Today, as the highest-paid Asian radio DJ in London, he lives in a huge west-London house and drives a £58,000 Mercedes with a personalised number plate. "Life has been a smooth ride for me."

His show is so popular among the British-Indian community that one of his old T-shirts was sold for £2,200 a couple of years ago at a charity auction. "There was a scramble among the women to buy my shirt," he blushes. But the attraction hardly centres on his persona or his looks. In fact, his manners are rustic and his appearance that of an ordinary potbellied Indian father. The charm lies in his voice - its emotion and texture - his wit, his ability to mimic film stars and politicians, and the variety of Hindi dialects he can speak.

The programme, on Sunrise Radio, is aimed at the south-Asian communities in Britain. Sunrise, which broadcasts mainly in Hindi and English, was originally confined to an AM frequency covering London, where it has 405,000 listeners every week. The station now also reaches digital radio listeners in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Coventry and Wolverhampton; it is also heard across Europe via satellite. The station estimates (optimistically, perhaps) a total listenership of 1.75 million; and Sharma, 50, is undoubtedly its biggest star. His show attracts an average weekly audience in London of 125,000.

His audience consists largely of the middle-aged and elderly, who flood him with letters, phone calls and Indian sweets. Some are a little over-enthusiastic. "I received 73 calls from an old woman all night last week. Finally, I had to call up the police," he says.

His two-hour morning programme comprises entertainment, news and serious philosophical discourse. For the younger audience, he presents a menu of Bollywood songs. For the more mature, he offers chinthan (a thought for the day) and news items. He strikes a personal chord with his listeners, sharing in their grief and happiness, as one listener, Pramila Agarwal, a 50-year-old librarian living in London, explains: "He touches our hearts and, over the years, has become a balm for our sorrows."

When Agarwal wrote to Sharma about her mother's death, he came up with a personal condolence verse in his mid-morning broadcast. "It really moved me. His poetry and voice still linger in my heart," she says. If he moves his audiences with his poetry, he also makes them laugh with his rapid-fire jokes and snarling Hindi lines.

He imitates George Bush, Tony Blair and a host of Indian politicians, concocting imaginary conversations between political leaders on current events. "But I never make any offensive remark. It is always light-hearted banter," he says. After the recent arrest of a young British woman who joked that she had a bomb in her bag at Miami airport, Sharma warned his listeners: "Humour is good for health. But not at the airport." A fellow-Hindi broadcaster sums up Sharma's formula: "He understands what his listeners want. He is spontaneous, quick-witted and versatile. He empathises with his audience. On-air and off-air, he is the same man."

Sharma is a product of Indian poverty. Born into a high-caste Brahman family with an abysmally low income, in Rohtak in the Indian state of Haryana, he had to get up at 4am each day to milk the family cow; then he and his three brothers would sell the milk. His father, a teacher, made the equivalent of 50p a month, and his mother worked in a spinning-mill at night, earning 2p a day. So he had to fend for himself early in life. At 11, in the summer holidays, he learnt his first lessons in hard labour, shifting stones and cement-mix on a building site. A few years later, to pay his tuition fees at high school and university, Sharma became a rickshaw driver.

In traditional Indian society, such work is considered way beneath the dignity of a Brahman. Sharma was forced to cover his face to escape the attentions of his relatives and friends. Even today, in several parts of India, graduates driving rickshaws often swathe their faces in scarves.

So, how did the rickshaw driver end up in London? At university, an interest in music and poetry brought him into contact with theatre, and there were offers from political parties to stage plays to woo crowds at election meetings, and from religious organisations to perform at Hindu celebrations. He also performed in radio plays, and was invited by a London-based troupe in 1982 to act with them.

The trip wasn't a huge success, but he earned £1,000 by cleaning hotel rooms and returned to India.

Two years later, he came to London again. This time, there was no looking back. He married a British-Indian woman (it was an arranged marriage, he hastens to clarify) and began working as a freelance for the BBC's Hindi division. A few years later, he was offered work at the then-unlicensed Sina channel, which was later to become Sunrise. "Ravi has been with us for over 15 years. Normally, listeners get fed up with listening to the same voice for such a long time. But Ravi rejuvenates and reinvents himself," says Avtar Lit, chairman and chief executive of the Sunrise group.

Sitting in his smart house, Sharma considers his life's journey. "The house I was brought up in was just one-sixth the size of the hall in my house now. Where do I go from here? Probably back to India, where I want my voice to be heard."

And he reels off one of his verses: "I am not an actor, not a star, I am only a sand particle on the banks of river Yamuna. You [the audience] may try to dust me off, but I will remain stuck with you. For ever."