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They’ve got mail

Somewhere in UP, Bihar or Tamil Nadu, families are tuning their digital radios to hear the voice of China in pure Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and Urdu spoken by a Chinese newsreader in a Beijing studio, reports Reshma Patil.
Hindustan Times | By Reshma Patil, Beijing
UPDATED ON JUN 08, 2008 01:29 AM IST

Somewhere in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar or Tamil Nadu, families are tuning their digital radios to hear the voice of China in pure Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and Urdu spoken by a Chinese newsreader in a Beijing studio.

The 12th floor of China’s only overseas broadcaster, the state-owned and operated China Radio International (CRI) in Beijing, is strewn with evidence of the mass interest among Indians about their largest neighbour.

Here, Hindi expert Rakesh Vats struggles to sift through almost one lakh letters received last year, stuffed in three sacks. “Our maximum listeners are in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana,” says Vats, who hails from Dharamshala and joined CRI in 2006 after a stint at the Peking University. He says, “Farmers, teachers, students, government employees, ask us how India can replicate China’s ‘miracle’ of development and how to modernise agriculture. They write regular letters because we respond to their views. Maybe in India, rural Indians feel marginalised by the media. We give them a voice.” His colleague, Wang Xiaobin alias Lalitha, hosts Aap Ki Pasand, a weekly broadcast of Hindi songs requested by listeners. And Cheeni Geet Sangeet plays Chinese music.

CRI was founded in 1941 to tell the world about China’s news and views, in the language of the listeners. The Hindi section, which has over 300 listeners clubs back home, will turn 50 next year. Over a dozen Chinese staff in each Indian section speak Indian languages as well as most Indians, with perfect diction and grammar.

Yang Yifeng, one of CRI’s 12 Hindi-speaking Chinese staff, graduated from Beijing University with a BA in Hindi. She was inspired by music from Raj Kapoor’s movies. “Bachpan se main Bharat ke bare mein janna chahti thi. (Since I was a child, I wanted to learn about India),’’ she says. “For us, Arabic and Hindi are the toughest foreign languages.” Since Bollywood DVDs are not available in Beijing, Aap Ki Pasand plays songs from old Hindi movies and the staff downloads the music from the Internet.

The Tamil section that first broadcast in 1963, received 5,30,000 letters last year. Its staff, Han Chong and Zhou Xin, prefer their Tamil names Thilakavathi and Eeswari as they work on Tamil translations. Their team keeps the language alive for Tamil speakers in India, Sri Lanka, the US and the Middle East through China news, commentaries and cultural programmes about Chinese opera. “In 1975, the Communist Party of China needed someone to learn Tamil to work at CRI,’’ says Tamil service director Zhu Juanhua who studied Tamil in a Shanghai university. “I mastered the language in a year and eight months. Tamil heritage attracted me too.’’ Today about 15 students study Tamil in the Beijing Communication University of China. Han and Zhou are the newest recruits from the University among 18 Chinese Tamil-speakers at the CRI.

Outside the studio, these earnest young Chinese spread awareness about India. “I want to understand Indian culture deeply,’’ says Han (22), a Tamil movie buff who handles the online Tamil section and is eager to travel to India. Zhou (22) grew interested in Indian culture during middle school. Her identical twin sister learns Urdu. “Spoken Tamil is most difficult but I hope I can go to Tamil Nadu for further studies,’’ she says. Residents of northeast India listen to the latest in China in Bengali. “We get letters from Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Bihar and from over 60 listeners’ clubs,’’ says Yu Guangyue, director of the Bengali department.

At the end of the day, all staff head to the canteen for a typical Chinese supper. The Chinese chef peers over the counter and beams: “Sasriyakal!”

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