Sat had arranged for a friend of his to loan me three hundred pounds that would tide me over until I had a job. I promptly bought a lovely pink negligee, a dressing gown and a fur coat from Peter Robinson’s in Sloan Square and went off to see Froggy (Farrukh Dhondy), my second weekend in London.
Froggy was reading natural physics at Pembroke. I alighted from the train in my best (silk) saree and heels. I was ready for Cambridge, I thought. I expected to be met by an academic sort in a smart suit. Instead, I loitered on the deserted platform until I discerned faint cries of ‘Dolla’. It wasn’t just the wind, then. The sounds floated downstream, originating near a figure with an untamed beard and wild, shoulder-length hair, dressed in a green sweater that descended almost to its knees.
My friend, Farrukh Dhondy. Cambridge undergrad, impersonating the Abominable Snowman. That weekend, I was to become familiar with the word ‘bourgeois’.
We trooped off to his digs. We never wrote to each other much, Froggy and I. Yet, every time, we picked up where we’d left off. Amidst scones and tea, we kinda/sorta made back the last few years. Somewhere in that ramble, Froggy asked me to get a letter of employment for a Mala Sen from my employers. I didn’t pay too much attention to the request.
It was ‘dinner’ night at Pembroke. There’s something about Oxford and Cambridge. History breathes, the museum comes to life around you, and it’s delicate and formidable all at once. Distinguished gentlemen in robes will wish you good evening at midnight, and as you slip around the corner, someone will tell you that the odd man in the cloak you just met is one of the world’s great Heidegger scholars. It’s magical. It was magical, that night.
The accidental broadcaster
After dinner, I was smuggled into St. Catherine’s through a ground-floor window. I was to spend the night with Dick Stokoe, someone I’d never met, never even heard of. Froggy was nervous his landlady might not appreciate a woman in his room. He’d enlisted his friend, the aforementioned Dick Stokoe, whose ‘bedder’ – it was hoped – would be more accommodating.
I lay in bed all night. I pretended to sleep. I was wide awake, confident that this white stranger would attack the very next instant. Finally, his ‘bedder’ came by with a bowl of warm water. Night had become morning and I washed up and left. When I got to know him a little better, Dick confessed he’d studied badly the whole night because he was so nervous about a girl from the land of the Kama Sutra sharing his room.
Three days after my arrival, I’d gone to see David Stride. Not only did he remember who I was, but he was also as good as his word. Within a week, I had joined the BBC as an editorial assistant in the Overseas Information Service. My role was to help edit the Overseas Press Bulletin and London Calling. Meanwhile, the Hindi section of the BBC World Service invited me to report on subjects of special interest to women from India and Pakistan.
Suddenly, I was a broadcaster. I had no idea of what the hell I was supposed to do. I only had a lifetime’s experience in debates, and in elocution, and in the theatre. I was very good at preparation. The rest was trial and error. I didn’t have much of a choice.
Once I’d gotten my start in broadcasting, work began to flow in. I got a call from BBC’s English-By-Radio – a guide for people who were new to the language. I went on to play a nine-year-old Indian girl on some hundred and four episodes.
Within weeks, I had a routine. Most Monday evenings, I would take a train to Birmingham. I’d head to Pepper Mill Studios. There, I’d appear on two BBC TV programmes for Indian and Pakistani immigrants, Look, Listen and Speak and Make Yourself at Home, presented by Mahendra Kaul and Ashok Rampal. Both series attempted to ease the newly arrived into life in the UK. How to use the gas connection, how the NHS worked, precautions for pregnant women, that sort of thing. Those were my first set of TV appearances. I’d stay the night in Birmingham – where I slept on a four-poster bed for the first time in my life. And then head back to London the next evening.
Eight weeks into life in London, I received a call from the Central Office of Information. Would I come to Lambeth North? Well, was I going to say ‘no’? When I got there, they thrust half a dozen eight-minute scripts at me. I glanced at the copies of the London Newsletter, saw that they had each been marked ‘English- Hindi Translation’ and panicked.
The COI had rung the BIS in Delhi, asking for a translator. The BIS, in turn, pointed them in my direction. My protests that my Hindi was actually very poor – that I could under no circumstances translate, that the best I could do was tell someone what to cook, when to serve it and that the bed needed to be made – were overruled.
The job had belonged to Dr Gaur. He was the Head of the Urdu and Persian Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, someone with actual qualifications for the job. He’d suffered a brain haemorrhage and the six scripts were the resultant backlog. And while I was trying to figure out whether or not I could do the job, he passed away. The position was open. If I translated the scripts, I could broadcast them. Did I want it?
The COI paid eight guineas a recording. That worked out to about thirty quid extra a month. So I borrowed a Bhargava’s English-to-Hindi dictionary and enlisted Froggy. Farrukh’s Hindi was horrible – mangled, Parsi, comic. I had to get special dispensation for him to spend days at the BBC library in Bush House, Aldwych. Together, like a duo of intrepid amateur archaeologists, we took the plunge. The first of the scripts arrived just before Christmas. It took us eighteen hours to translate those eight minutes. The following Monday, I recorded the London Newsletter, scheduled to be broadcast to the Seychelles, Mauritius, Fiji, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Madras (now Chennai) at 11.30 a.m.
That first morning, the sound engineer asked me to announce my name.
‘Dolly Rawson,’ I said.
Pause. The voice from the booth clicked on again.
‘Um. D’you think you could be more … um … Indian.’
Great. I now had to translate myself for the job. Also, coming up with a nom de guerre on the spot is not an easy thing. Not when you’re worried about getting the Hindi right on the broadcast.
‘Kavita’ came to mind. Kavita Rohatgi was a friend of mine from Kanpur, a smart and attractive girl. She later married and became Kavita Nagpal, the Hindustan Times’ long-serving drama critic. ‘Kavita’ would do. And for the surname, I decided on something nice and non-committal. ‘Mehta’. Kavita Mehta. Sounded Indian enough, I thought. So Kavita Mehta I became.
Two years after my return to India, some five years into the future from that first broadcast, I barged into the Station Director’s cabin at All India Radio, Bombay. I can’t remember what for. He was in the middle of a meeting but the door had been shut, so he’d been talking to someone important.
I launched into my tirade but before I could say more than a few words, the gentleman with his back to me, the Station Director’s guest, stirred.
‘Yeh toh Kavita Mehta ki awaaz hai,’ he said. (This is Kavita Mehta’s voice.)
I was a little stunned. A thin line separates an anecdote about one’s broadcasting career from experiences with stalkers.
I asked the gentleman how he knew who I was.
Turns out he was the Station Director of Radio Mauritius and he’d listened to Kavita Mehta, every week for the three years I’d been in London.
Excerpted with permission from Regrets, None, Dolly Thakore with Arghya Lahiri, HarperCollins India.