By the time you read this, I might already be on air, bringing to you the Republic Day parade. It has been 45 years now. People tell me now that they associate Republic Day with my voice. Still, I don’t like my voice. And I am not being modest.
My story began in 1948, when I was 17, and it was time for that conversation parents have with children when they are 17. My mother asked me what I wanted to do about my career.
I shocked her out of her wits with my reply. “Main taan commentator banna chauna haa. (I want to be a commentator),” I said. A commentator? We were a family of famous civil engineers. It was taken for granted that I would study and become one too. A commentator? Whoever became a commentator?
It wasn’t a teenage fascination. I had thought long and hard about it. I had been thinking about it since 31st January that year when I first heard the voice of (legendary commentator) Melville D’Mello as he narrated the final journey of Mahatma Gandhi after his assassination in his famous, measured baritone. The way he described the whole scene -- and the way he gave words to how the nation was feeling at that moment -- touched me deeply. I never knew that single experience would transform my life.
I finally prevailed. I came to Delhi to become a commentator -- but I did not know any Hindi. We are Sikhs from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan), but my father shifted to Jaipur in 1928. I went to a vernacular school that taught Urdu, not Hindi.
I have come a long way – since the first time I got to do a commentary on the parade on Rajpath in 1963. That first day itself was among my most memorable.
It was a cold winter morning when my only companion was a lone moongphaliwala (peanut seller) at Rajpath at 5:30 in the morning. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister and Dr S. Radhakrishnan the President. The parade started as usual and I started describing the marching contingents and the passing tableaux.
But I was not prepared for what happened next. As I and thousands of others watched mesmerised, Panditji marched with his MPs from Vijay Chowk to India Gate. Panditji started marching with 40 to 50 of his MPs as a contingent soon after the Armed Forces had passed by the President’s dais. He wore his trademark sherwani, churidar and Gandhi topi, but he looked like a commander leading his contingent.
This was soon after the Chinese aggression and I was told that he wanted to show the solidarity of the whole nation on the occasion. Almost spontaneously, the people who had come to watch the Republic Day parade -- wrapped in quilts and blankets and carrying children on their shoulders --decided to join the parade. President Radhakrishnan inspected the Guard of Honour by the people. That day the commentary lasted till 3 in the afternoon.
Years passed. Many people would come to Rajpath to see me. For some strange reason, they did not believe that I was a Sikh. Security was not so strict in those days and people really participated in the event. These days people come to watch the parade, but it is more out of curiosity. They come because they want to show their children the horses, soldiers and tanks. But they do not come because of national pride. In those days, people came to see Pandit Nehru.
Once the former Maharaja, Raj Singh of Dungarpur, telegrammed me from Bombay soon after Republic Day, to tell me that although the royalty had lost its estates, he felt proud again, proud that he is an Indian when he heard my commentary. I was then a Doordarshan employee.
I remember Kiran Bedi, the first woman IPS officer, leading the Delhi Police contingent in 1975. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister then and we were celebrating the Year of the Woman. It was quite a sight – a lady leading an all male contingent.
We never used to think much about security. But these days it is frightening. At every point there is someone to frisk you. Back then, there used to be a few policemen carrying nothing but sticks. The President used to come in a golden buggy, but all these things have been scrapped due to security reasons.
I never read the boring scripts which were given to us. I have always loved describing the intricacies of the things around the parade ground, the smart uniforms of the presidential bodyguards, the clouds, sun rays and bravery of the children who got gallantry awards. I tried to add a little extra to my commentary with sher or couplets.
My CV starts with the fact that I am a patriot – a feeling that is conveyed in my commentary. I love the fact that I am an Indian, a secular Indian.
I don’t know how long I will live, I am 76 years old. I hope I am able to complete my half century at the Republic Day commentary before I go to meet my maker.
(As told to Anuradha Mukherjee and Karan Choudhury)