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'When Nehru himself cried while speaking, what about an ordinary news reader like me?'

Poornam Viswanathan 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.

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.

Jawaharlal Nehru Did you read Nehru's speech in English or in Tamil?

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?

Mahatma Gandhi 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.

Poornam Viswanathan's photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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