'When Nehru himself cried while speaking, what about an ordinary news reader like me?'
Poornam Viswanathan cleared his throat, controlled his emotions and announced India's freedom to the outside world in a radio broadcast. At five thirty on the morning of August 15, 1947, young Viswanathan became the first Indian to make that external broadcast from All India Radio to East Asia.
That moment has stood still in his memory since. Fifty years after that historic event, 76-year-old Viswanathan spoke about those memories and the turbulence of pre-Independent days with Shobha Warrier of Rediff.
When did you know that you were to broadcast the news of India's independence?
I was a news reader for All India Radio from 1945 onwards. You can call it a strange coincidence, rather a divine coincidence. When the duty list was announced, my name was scheduled for the night of August 14. The broadcast began at 5.30 in the morning for the East Asian listeners and I was to read the first bulletin. It was my great fortune, I must say. How did I feel then? I felt elated.
Was there a lump in your throat then?
As a news reader I am not supposed to feel any any lump at all. I controlled my feelings till I finished the news bulletin. Later I cried with joy.
Yes, I cried for two reasons. One, India was free; secondly, I was selected to read the news bulletin announcing India's independence.
Do you remember the first line?
"India is a free country," was the first sentence. This was followed by repeating Nehru's Tryst with destiny speech.
Did you read Nehru's speech in English or in Tamil?
What it difficult to translate Nehru's words?
No, no, not at all. For one thing, Nehru spoke in simple words. Gandhiji spoke in yet more simpler words. We had been translating Gandhiji's prayer speeches regularly. I translated Nehru's speech with great joy and read it with even greater joy.
We have heard that Nehru had tears in his eyes when he made the speech. Those who assembled there also wept. Did you feel the same way when you read the speech in Tamil?
It is true that all those assembled wept with joy. When Nehru himself cried while speaking, what about an ordinary news reader like me? But if I cried while I reading the news, the lines would have smeared. So, I controlled my emotions. I still cherish the moment, a moment that I will never experience again.
Did the bulletin begin with "India is a free country," or the regular, "This is All India Radio..?
Though it was such an important occasion and formal announcements were not required, the listeners needed to know where the broadcast was coming from. So, the "All India Radio" announcement was necessary.
Was that also in Hindi or Tamil?
In 1947, we only said, "All India Radio." Akashwani came only later. So I read, "All India Radio, seythikal vasippathu Poornam Viswanathan...
Where were you at midnight?
We were at home listening to Nehruji's speech over the radio. I knew I had to leave home at three in the morning for the five thirty bulletin. Normally, we used to go to Birla House, collect Gandhiji's previous day's speech at the prayer meeting and proceed to the radio station. There it would be translated into various Indian languages and read. But on the day of Independence, Gandhiji was not present in Delhi. He was in Naokhali. So, we went straight to the All India Radio station.
I stayed in Lodhi colony then. During the day, I used to go to the Broadcasting house via Birla Road. I could have chosen some other route but I went that way just for the pleasure seeing Gandhiji. Even during winter Gandhiji used to lie on a cot on the lawns of the Birla House. Whenever I passed the area, I could see him.
Did you ever go near him?
Yes, I did. I attended at least ten prayer meetings of Gandhiji.
What was the experience of those prayer meetings?
Gandhiji talked on very important subjects. He referred to many national issues, the duties and obligations of all Indian citizens, how we should behave, etc. One speech would not resemble any other. We could sense his sincerity in all the speeches.
You were very young then. How much did Gandhiji and his speeches influence your development?
When I first saw Gandhiji, I was pleasantly surprised to see that his skin was like the skin of a child. Soft and beautiful. There were no wrinkles on his skin or hands even though he was very old.
Did you ever touch his hands?
Oh, no. I only touched his feet. In those days, almost every educated young man wanted to join the freedom movement. If I had gone my way, I would have become freedom fighter. Since I was a student, my elders did not let me join the movement. But my mind was always there.
When I look back, the only regret I have is that I did not join the movement in a big way. All of us had only one thought in our mind, our country and its freedom. The kind of devotion we had for our country could not be explained.
Partition must have been a traumatic experience for all those who lived during that period. How was it for you?
It was a very painful experience for all of us. We saw people coming in thousands from Pakistan, walking all the way with whatever belongings they had. Exodus from India was on a smaller scale. We saw riots, murder, looting, etc. But I have also seen many Hindu and Sikh families give shelter to suffering Muslim families. It is true that till the previous day they were friends but under the new situation, a Hindu was not expected to protect a Muslim or be the friend of a Muslim.
You spoke about the kind of devotion people of your generation had for the country in those days. Do you feel unhappy about the way things are moving now?
I am very, very unhappy about the present situation. This is not the India Nehruji or Gandhiji dreamt of. In fact, Netaji wanted India under a benevolent dictatorship for sometime after Independence and then open the doors to democracy. He believed that only then people would develop a strong national character. How true he was! Unfortunately the devotion for the country was gradually eroded because nobody had any clear vision about an ideal India.
Do you think the later politicians have been irresponsible?
Of course, the politicians are showing us the wrong way. But our deterioration is so fast and total that I cannot think of Indians living a normal life in my life time.
Are you so dissatisfied?
I am very, very dissatisfied. The dreams of all our freedom fighters are shattered.
What are your dreams?
Would you believe it, I thought India would be the most prosperous country in the world? Nehru and Gandhiji expected all of us to work for the country with greater devotion. Unfortunately that did not happen at all.
What went wrong?
Something went wrong with the thinking of the politicians and the common man. Maybe because of illiteracy, people did not understand the value of freedom. They thought that the government would cook food and bring it home for them every day. They didn't realise that in freedom lay an enormous wealth. Now there is corruption at all levels. I blame people to a large extent for the amount of corruption in our society. Why do they bribe to get things done quickly? Again and again, I am reminded of Netaji's advice.
Were you very much influenced by Netaji?
Not exactly. Netaji sounded a different call. He had a different dream about free India. He wanted a very powerful character for India. That did not happen at all. I admire the way he led the INA.
I must tell you something. My elder brother Somasundaram was in the Indian army then. His unit went to Singapore to fight in the Second World War. In Singapore, he was caught as a prisoner by the Japanese. But he and four others escaped from the prison and my brother had to disguise himself by growing a beard. He lived in Penang. It was difficult for him to find a job. One day, he accidentally met an old friend and the meeting changed his life altogether.
At his place he heard over the radio that the Azad Hindu Radio run by the INA needed people for broadcasters. He had a good voice, so he applied for the job and got it. See the irony, when he was broadcasting for the INA through Azad Hindu Radio from Bangkok, I was broadcasting from Delhi, indirectly for the British through the All India Radio. But he knew my voice and name, and recognised me when he was in Bangkok itself. Finally we got united.
I will tell you one more thing. I have nothing but hatred for the British. When I think of the way the British behaved, I cannot but hate them.
Were you in Delhi when Gandhiji was assassinated?
Yes, I was in Delhi. I did not have a radio then. But my house owner's radio was always on and I could hear it properly from my room. That day also, their radio was on and I could hear the Tamil programme for East Asian listens.
It was my sister who worked for the external services of the AIR who made the announcement in the middle of the music programme. I heard her voice saying that Gandhiji had been shot by an Indian. Immediately, I took my bicycle and rushed to the Birla House. I saw Nehru standing near the gate and there were hundreds and hundreds of people outside trying to rush inside.
Nehru was appealing to the people to remain calm. He said it was a Hindu who shot Gandhiji so that there wouldn't be any anti-Muslim feeling among people.
You recently said that in those days you saluted a Gandhi cap whenever you saw one. What do you feel when you see a Gandhi cap now?
We had such respect and admiration for a freedom fighter then! Every freedom fighter, however small or big had good intentions. He was idealistic and unselfish. I don't have any respect for today's politicians. I feel those politicians (with Gandhi caps) must be kept out of Indian politics completely. See, I have lived in those days, I have seen the freedom fighters but now I feel disillusioned and pained.
As a person who has witnessed the freedom struggle, as a person who is pained to see today's India, do you have any message for the youngsters?
We attained freedom through non-violence. In those days, the minds of the Indians were receptive to good messages. It should come again; at least in the minds of the generation that is growing up. The youngsters must think about the welfare of the country at heart. Even if they lead a normal life and have clear thinking, the result will be fantastic.
Are you optimistic about that?
That's a very delicate question. I am not very optimistic now. But we do not know what will happen tomorrow, and the day after. I know that one has to be optimistic even in the worst of times, so I would say that I am hopeful. I would like to see a totally selfless leader leading the country once again towards an ideal state. Let us wait for the day!
This article was published in Rediff.com This article brought tears in my eyes. I saw emotions take over my grand father and mother while speaking about freedom fight. My mother always told us stories of independence struggle with sparkling watery eyes and chocked voice. She never took part in that struggle as she was just a kid then. She always regrets for being soo young during that period. Me.. I just read and listen the stories of independence struggle. Just knowing about it is making me soo emotional.. being a part of it.. I donno how to describe it.