The first time realisation dawned that I was my mother’s daughter was also the first time I heard her voice on the radio. It was late in the evening. My father, sick of diversion tactics, hoped that he could keep working after getting his daughter to sleep. But I was a stubborn child who would do anything to keep awake until my mother returned from work.

When none of his methods worked, my father dived into his wardrobe, where he kept his SMENA cameras, brought from USSR after completing his PhD (and marrying my mother), and weathered technical dictionaries in Russian on geology and pulled out a small, brown leather encased box with a slender metal protrusion.

As he pulled it, its collapsible parts stretched up like a magic wand towards the ceiling. Then he started to fiddle with the large knob. Strange voices, amid static, wafted into the room, until, like magic, my mother’s silvery voice sailed into our dining room.

The voice, and each word she said, coursed from my ears to my head, gliding over my hair, my neck and spine and made my legs feel light. Was my mother playing tricks on me from this box? The way she let the words flow and effortlessly roll into the next. My knowledge of Russian was basic but I understood every word. It was the way she emphasised and elongated each word. The effect was like a caress, like a light muslin cloth of words, wrapping around my hair, muzzling my face, as I became lighter and lighter until I felt delirious.

That night, my mother’s voice enveloped our dining room, traveling over my father’s large, weighty work desk, over the shiny, bubblegum stickers on my study table towards the hall and the bedroom. It was a shrill, high-pitched voice, capable of sounding soft, mellow, yet child-like, with a wafer-thin hint of a Russian accent, an accent over which she seemed to exercise thermostat-like control, that became thick as honey when she spoke in Russian, but clipped and sharp when she switched to English. (She hated being recognised for any trace of an accent and often said that the biggest flaw for a professional working with language, was having one. Speak like a native, she would always tell me.)

What was she reading? One of the children’s stories she would tell me when she was home on her weekly day off, a Russian folk tale. My father filled the pauses in her narration, explaining that her “broadcast was on short wave, not in real time” and that “this was why she was missing until midnight…to record the programme and be heard at the right time in the USSR”.

The next day, back from school (thanks to broadcast timings, I got to meet my mother only for an hour in the afternoons) I burst into her bedroom to tell her that I’d heard her voice on the radio. How come she read “our stories” to others? Why did she read the stories only in Russian? Did she have other children in Russia I had no knowledge of ? How come she sounded stern when she read the news?

It took some demonstrating on her part to convince me that all she did was sit by herself, in an air-conditioned studio, an hour away from our home in Delhi, changing the tone and pitch of her voice. Finally, it was on a visit to AIR’s Broadcast House that I got to witness how Akashvani and Elizaveta Ghosh’s transgressions – from being my personal storyteller to public broadcaster – worked.

Elizaveta Ghosh with her family.

For anyone who has visited All India Radio, the structure feels more like a museum at first, with circles within circles. I remember feeling dizzy, my eye following the bending curves. There was even a round garden outside, encircled by a car park. The flowers grew wild even though the grass was trimmed to perfection. Daisies, pansies, chrysanthemum, daffodils, marigold, dahlias, roses. On summer nights, my mother would come home holding an unruly bunch, plucked by one of the staff maalis, the chocolate fragrance of the orchids and the greeneyes filling the balcony long before she entered.

The art deco-style building rose up from the curb of Parliament Street and felt open and accepting, its large enclosures and spaces accomodating all sorts of people who crossed its porch. AIR staffers, Doordarshan bureaucrats, Information and Broadcasting ministry officials, administrative staff, artists – classical or otherwise.

Once inside, an unexpectedly narrow set of stairs led up to a highway sized corridor with tiny doorways. I was taken to one such with a wooden sign that read AIR, Russian Unit, ESD – External Services Division – on its side. In that room, sat my mother, preparing for the night’s broadcast. Regulation blue-white striped AIR worksheets lay scattered about her desk as she hurriedly translated the day’s news from English to Russian, numbering the pages as she wrote. (The bulletin would arrive from the PTI building across the street just in time for translation before broadcast.)

I accompanied her to the broadcast studio, which was on the ground floor. In a cluttered ante-room adjoined the studio there were technicians operating connections and equipment in preparation for the broadcast as my mother sat arranging her news bulletin sheets. In the few minutes she had free she briskly worked on a cryptic crossword from The Statesman that she usually tore out and carried in her handbag.

Then, as a red bulb came on, she spoke again in that broadcaster’s voice, her hands busy adjusting the faders and the music, her fluid, fruity voice said, “Gavariit Delhi.” (Later, I learnt it meant, “Speaks Delhi” or, “Says Delhi” –- the Russian unit’s signature programme at the time.)

All India Radio had officially been known as Akashvani (meaning “voice from the sky”) since 1956. But it had been started in 1936. The External Services Division, where my mother worked from 1973 to 2006, was set up in 1939. It broadcast programmes in 16 foreign languages, of which Russian was one. Established before India gained Independence, AIR had the broad goals of taking Indian lives, voices and news out to the wider world.

On my first visit, I was daunted. On my way to the Russian unit, I crossed doors that led to the Pashtu, Dari, Swahili, Japanese, Spanish, German, French, Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Tibetan, Thai, and Burmese units with the bustling aura of newsrooms in these alien languages within each. In the Russian unit, there were more informal programmes – possibly because Indo-Russian ties in the 1970s were warm, socialist and friendly and Russians were curious about Indian culture. My mother, jaded by just reading the news, added new programmes.

In response to a popular “listener’s programme”, letters would pour in by the sackful from places like Sochi and Talinn, Tikhvin and Stalingrad. She would take time to read them all, replying to each one in great detail with her voice. Over time, these relationships grew – contact became more direct, calls and letters more elaborate and personal. Having grown up in a remote part of Russia herself, the radio, for my mother, had always been a lifeline. Relaying the news from India in her mother tongue both gave her a voice as well as gave voice to her experience of making India her home.

Elizaveta Ghosh with Information and Broadcast minister Vasant Sathe (with garland).

By the time I finished school, I was navigating Central Delhi roads to drop my mother to AIR so that she wouldn’t have to use erratic public transport. On our daily evening drives to AIR, I had learnt Lutyens Delhi roads by name, bend and curve. We would exult, exiting the narrower, more crowded arterial roads of South Delhi, gliding into Central Delhi stopping for refreshments at the India Coffee house or, detour via Santushti Complex to browse saris: my mother was always dressed in a sari for her nightly broadcast. That was her rule.

We would take the longer route through Sunehri Bagh, a particularly green and lush avenue, the branches of those trees weaving an intricate tapestry around us not unlike her saris and casting dappled green shadows on us through the windows of our old Fiat. Sometimes, my mother’s hand would grip mine at the steering wheel as she would turn to me and smile. I was, by then, a grown daughter, driving a proud mother to her workplace.

A few years after I moved to Mumbai, my mother retired. Though she officially superannuated in July 2001, she was contractually obligated to visit as a newsreader thrice a week to read the news and record her “listener’s show”. She had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s by then and a host of other chronic ailments assailed her, although she kept her thrice a week appointments at the radio dutifully.

By July 2006, she stopped her news broadcast, handing it over to younger recruits from Jawaharlal Nehru University whom she trained. I realised how deeply it hit her, this loss of voice, when I discovered in her handwritten notes, on the same regulation blue-white striped standard AIR work sheets in her Parkinson’s-affected, tremulous, spidery hand.

Farewell, my world of radio
I may never speak on air again
Never again, my voice will go out
Into the unknown, to the frontiers of the universe
And echo back to our planet
It will no longer travel the world
Like a free spirit, reaching the horizons, entering people’s homes
Touching, caressing their ears
My laughter is silenced now
It will not ring in cosmic space anymore
Its vibrations will stop, their ripples will no longer distrub the cosmic ocean surface
Why does it sound surprisingly like dying?
Because I will be dead to the world of my listeners
But not to my immediate world… my family…
Still, I am glad that somewhere in the records of the cosmic network
My voice has been preserved forever

My mother passed away in the month of July, the same month that she had superannuated a few years before. Radio broadcast hadn’t just been her job, being a broadcaster was who she was. Having married her way to India, she had left the confining borders of her own country and found her voice here. The confidence she exuded to her listeners came from being able to allow her voice to cross those borders once again from her new home.

Postscript: This July, it was my mother’s tenth death anniversary. Driving on a whim to Broadcast House was out of question, a nationwide lockdown with a night curfew had been imposed. India Coffee House shut down years ago. Central Delhi had become inaccessible.

As I researched online for material about AIR, a news clip came up: on January 7, 2019, AIR shut down its public radio broadcast too. The reasons given were “rationalisation” and “cost cutting”. Public sites of AIR make no mention of Nehru, nor the architects who designed and executed its construction in the thirties.

I thought about my mother’s decades there, and as I had my coffee, I took a drive in my head to Parliament Street via Sunheri Bagh. I thought of the glimmering light, bursting through the leaves that Delhi’s trees radiate around this time of year. Memory drives us, even if we are let down by our times.

Sonali Ghosh is a freelance producer and international film facilitator in advertising and films. She is based in Mumbai though very much at home in Delhi.