The room was filled with a strange excitement. At least we kids surely felt so.There was an unmistakable sense that we were being allowed into the world of adults for the first time. That the big secrets are being shared with us; secrets that need maturity to be grasped.
I was 9 years old then, in 1989. Atul bhaiyya, the younger son of our landlord auntie closed the door shut after everyone was in. We liked Atul bhaiyya. He used to tell us impromptu ghost stories during the mandatory power-cuts every night. We would hold each other tight and listen to these stories, and anticipate one kid (most of the times it was Annu) to start crying with fear mid-way. We kids were holding each other tight again as Alok bhaiyya, Atul bhaiyya’s elder brother put the cassette in the waiting tongue of the tape recorder-cum-player. It was a 90-minute long recorded cassette, some local cheap brand, with its contents written in bad handwriting on the outer cover.
It was a 90-minute long recorded cassette, some local cheap brand, with its contents written in bad handwriting on the outer cover.
The cassette settled inside the mouth of the player with a ‘satt’ sound. Nana ji, the white-haired, sweet-natured father of auntie went to the window and peeped out of the curtains to check, one last time, just in case. He then signaled Alok bhaiyya to start playing. Annu giggled for no reason. Or may be out of excitement.
The tape was rolling.
We listened to Sadhvi Ritambhara first. She had a crisp, booming voice, and we had never listened to a voice with so much passion in it. We liked her instantly.
The romantic coolness of a late afternoon room when the sun has been curtailed by heavy curtains, the smell of Russian perfume Nana ji used to wear (he was a doctor in Russia once and our constant source of old copies of Misha Magazine with those exquisite illustrations and fairy tales), and that group of around 15 people from 3 families huddled together listening to a smuggled illegal tape created an instant polaroid in my head.
The elders were nodding emphatically on Sadhvi Ritambhara’s every invocation. Sometimes, they would look at each other and share an emotion, while Nana ji swung between mild grunting, cussing, or the remembrance of a God’s name at some of the lines.
As SIDE A of the cassette got over, mother told us that Sadhvi Ritambhara is from “our own Yamunanagar”. Sadhvi has been giving sermons since she was 6 years old and our hometown Yamunanagar should be credited for discovering her talents. I don’t remember now if I felt superior to other kids after this information was shared, but I think I most probably would have.
I don’t remember now if I felt superior to other kids after this information was shared, but I think I most probably would have.
The B SIDE of the cassette was supposed to be even more fun. The first speaker on B SIDE was Ashok Singhal – again, a man with a booming voice and assurance. He called CM Mulayam Singh as ‘Mulla Aayam Singh’ and we kids burst out laughing. Alok bhaiyya too liked that line and the cassette was rewinded a bit to listen to that portion again.
This time, we were anticipating that line so we said it along with Singhal, and tried to copy the jerk in his delivery when he breaks Mulayam into Mulla and Aayam. That sent Annu into another round of giggles.
After Singhal ji’s speech, I could piece together some of the issues: There was a temple in Ayodhya, where Lord Ram was born. That temple had been captured by Muslims, and now Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav (there was a funny twist to ‘Yadav’ also in the speech but I can’t recall it now) is not letting us Hindus inside the temple.
Only a couple of weeks before this, we had got a VCR and color TV on hire and had seen that ‘Newstrack’ video bulletin tape (again smuggled) where Mulayam Singh’s police was firing at Ram Sevaks in Ayodhya.
Atul bhaiyya was a part of that crowd of Ram Sevaks, a few months ago. With orange flags in hands and wearing head-bands like Wimbledon players, Ram Sevaks were on a bridge when the police party took them head-on. With nowhere to go, some Ram Sevaks had to jump into the river Sarayu flowing underneath to avoid the bullets. (Ayodhya had a river Sarayu. This, we knew already from the TV serial Ramayana.) The Newstrack screening was also in a similar hushed set-up, but its grimness was offset by the film magazine ‘Leharein’ we saw right after.
Singhal ji also talked about Newstrack in his speech, and auntie started crying while listening to that bit. He finished his speech with a call for ‘Jai Shri…’ and we all screamed, in our most enthusiastic voices, together, ‘Ram’.
Originally published in Hindi here, and translated by Varun Grover.