The Foremost Broadcaster

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In 1981, when Mahendra Koul (July 28, 1922 – July 18, 2018) visited the 10-Downing Street, he looked at Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.“I looked at her from top to toe,” he later recalled, “No wonder the Arabs are investing so much money in Britain.” She liked it. ‘Oh, you think so?’ she said.” Thatcher explained that she would have to change for the evening function, saying: “Maybe you will like the other dress more than this?”

Koul was Kashmir’s senior-most broadcaster. After matriculation, he attempted becoming an actor but failed. Then, he joined Radio Kashmir Srinagar where he did a controversial programme, Jawabi Hamla (Counter Attack) that brought him to All India Radio in Delhi. Later he was hired by the Voice of America in 1955. Married to Pashto migrant Rajni, he became a personal friend of Richard Nixon, then US vice president, in Washington, and helped him with some of his India related speeches. Eventually, he moved to BBC in 1961, later joined the BBC TV in 1966 and remained the face of its special south Asian capsule Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan for 20 years.

In the UK, he launched the Gaylord Restaurant in Mortimer Street and installed Britain’s first tandoor, or clay oven, on June 7 1966, for making tandoori chicken. The tandoor was flown from Srinagar. Gaylord expanded to Birmingham and Manchester.

In 1975, he became the first Asian to get Order of British Empire (OBE) and later he got the Duke of Edinburgh award. His daughter Kalyani Koul was UK’s No 3, highest earning attorney (Rs 6 crore) in 2005. She is now a senior judge.

Rajni Koul, the aged wife of departed broadcaster was in Srinagar recently, to announce a 100-pound sterling award for best student poet in DPS Srinagar. She spoke at length with Masood Hussain offering details of her departure from Peshawar during partition, her education and marriage with Koul.

Rajni Koul

I was born in Peshawar and we left it in 1947 when I was 17. Our journey from Peshawar to Delhi was very good. Nobody touched us.

That particular night there were processions for the first time in Peshawar because Jinnah Sahab was coming to Peshawar. There were apprehensions of rioting. That day my maternal cousin was taking her matriculation examination. She was returning back from the examination hall on a Tonga. The Pathan custom was that when a female would sit on a Tonga, they would place a veil and thus create a separate compartment. Tonga was carrying two Muslim girls and another Hindu girl. The first house where Tonga stopped belonged to a Muslim girl and she took all the girls to her house saying she will ask her husband to escort them to their respective homes. Later that evening, she made them wear Burka and his husband dropped them home.

We never heard of any theft taking place at a Hindu’s house or a Muslim murdering a Hindu. Hindu women used to return from singing at weddings late at night. On the way, the Jhalli Wallas, the poor villagers, who used to ferry vegetables in the basket on their heads, used to sleep. Nobody, even among them maltreated us. Nobody made us feel we aren’t welcome at Peshawar. We were barely two per cent of Peshawar population.

When the massacre started in Punjab from both sides- Sikhs and Hindus killing Muslims and Muslims killing Sikhs, at that time, Muslims Surkposh men appeared. Wearing red shirts, they used to stand outside our streets on guard saying: “Sister, go wherever you want to, your brother is on watch, this deed will help me in the afterlife, you don’t have to fear anything, it’s your nation, you are my sister.”

Nobody ever bothered us even a bit. I have lived in the US, and am living in England, for almost 62 years now, but I have never seen a city as good as Peshawar, never seen the justice anywhere as was prevalent there. Whenever anything untoward happens in Peshawar, I always cry. I have seen many hardships in childhood but I am amazed by Peshawar where nobody harbours any hard feelings against anybody. Angels used to live there.

Interviewing Magaret Thatcher UK prime minister 1979-1992.

Once a relative came from Lahore, wearing a net dupatta (scarf). As soon as she got off the tonga near our house, a Pathan told her: “Look girl. There is no need to wear mosquito net here. Mosquitoes don’t inhabit here, human’s do. If you want to observe purdah do it with a thick veil, if not throw this away.” This was the way they talked.

When the children of Peshawar were shot, it felt that like my heart was ripped out. I was shocked that at such places how they could kill kids. From where had these butchers come?

People tell me to visit Amritsar where there is some department in which they meet people who have been treated unfairly in the partition. I tell them I was treated not only justly but pampered. They walked with us hand in hand up to the railway station. Women were on tonga, they carried our luggage, dropped it in buses saying take this, this is yours, that is yours.

Delhi In 1947

It was raining heavily when we reached Delhi. I was happy that here I don’t have to wear a burka, do not have to veil myself with chunni.

In Peshawar, I was studying in FA in Lady Griffith Government High School. In Delhi, I studied in camp colleges which were functional in different schools and colleges during evenings.

In Delhi, after some examinations, I wanted to study further. I needed money. So I went to All India Radio with a friend to participate in a children programme. AIR had a Pashto service. There was a Pathan who looked at me and asked: “Child, where are you from?”

“Peshawar,” I answered.

“Will you do anything in Pashto?” he asked.

I was a kid. I said I will sing.

Mahendra Kaul with daughter Kalyani Kaul, QC, and wife Ranji and grandchildren Callum Lee and Symran.

In Peshawar, singing is the biggest vice. Even if a man sings he is called Kanjar (pimp). Pathans portray singers in a very bad light. After I finished my song, he was upset. “God be angry at you. Child, what nonsense song did you sing? Where have you learnt this song?” he asked.

“Our Tonga driver used to sing it,” I politely said.

After abusing the Tonga driver, he finally gave me a song to sing, which I still remember: Rasha Nanbiya Biya Dilruba (come, come oh beloved). I sang it and got Rs 10. After that, I used to sing songs in Pashto and sometimes had announcement assignments also.

I had a great passion for learning and wanted to achieve something in life. I did three post-graduation, one in America and two in Delhi.

Marriage

In AIR, there were people working with different language desks. There was a big star called Mahinder Koul. Every Sunday, newspapers would print long features on him about how a single person played as many as nine roles in a drama.

Mahinder Koul was everywhere but I wasn’t acquainted with him. I was a Pashto speaking girl, still in Peshawar, covering my head. People had nicknamed me ChurewaliPathani, a Pathan woman with a knife.

For a Kashmiri play, Koul sahib needed a female singer but the vocalist did not turn up. He sent me a message asking me to sing from a written word. I still remember two lines of that song: Poshe Chamna Dayave Naar Doun Dilan Hund Intizar.

Later, he sent me a message a few times to meet him. Since I was from a Peshawari conservative observing Purdah and I didn’t know Kashmiri, I never agreed to meet. In Peshawar, I used to wear a burka at nine years of age. Though Burka was not there, the mindset was. Since I did not talk to men, this impressed Koul sahab. After about five years at AIR, he proposed me in a letter.

A girl, also a migrant from Pakistan, was supposed to marry my brother. But she wanted me to settle first. By then, I was already a post-graduate. She asked me about my interests but I said I had nothing. I even mentioned that Koul once proposed me but I rejected. She took the cue and visited Mahindra Koul and told him that I was shy and willing to marry.

Koul Sahab rang our neighbour’s phone because we were poor and could not afford one, telling them to get me to talk to her. When he revealed that he knew I was willing to marry him, I was surprised and told him it was completely false. I remember him saying: “I don’t have money beyond my salary. My father owns the land but would not support me because he does not like me. But I want to send an application of marriage to you again.” I refused and it angered him. He dropped the phone and came to my home and told my mother everything.

My father was in the freedom movement and had been released at the time of independence so he wasn’t accustomed to getting involved in matters of the house. My mother was convinced that it was a perfect match. My brother was also supportive of the idea.

I married Mahindra Koul in 1959 in Delhi. When I told people of my Pashto section (in All India Radio) that I am getting married. They asked: “Where? You must have chosen some Punjabi Chor (thief).” When I told them that he was a Kashmiri, they replied: “It’s okay.”

The day I said yes to marriage, he got an offer from Voice of America, Washington. He sent his stuff, they liked his acting but had problems with the script. So I wrote two plays for him, which they liked and thus we were invited to join the service. We married and went to the US.

We were there for five years. Then we came to England for BBC that started a TV programme for the Asian immigrants. He got a lot of respect, was the first to get the honour of Order of British Empire. He was so well known that people there would joke about him being the boyfriend of Prime Minister Thatcher.

Pakistan gave him a lot of respect. Whenever there was a programme in Pakistan Embassy they would call him because he used to conduct the programmes in Urdu. He could read but didn’t know how to write Hindi. When he was made an editor, he was supposed to correct mistakes of others. So he would pass papers to me under the desk and I would make the corrections.

Troubled Past

Not many of Koul Sahab’s relatives were around when we married. In a way, he was unfortunate because his mother died when he was 9 years. Pandit Dinanath Kaul, his father, was occupied with his work and lands. The only person from whom Koul Sahab received affection was his maternal uncle Jia Lal Saraf, who was passionate about poetry. There was no major poet of Urdu who didn’t visit his Fateh Kadal residence. DP Dhar was Saraf’s hero. Whatever Koul Sahab got in life he got it from his uncle’s place. That was the place where he learnt things, the rhythm and the modulation. After Mehfils, the poets would call him by his nickname Bull and ask: “Now you say something Bulla.” He had a fine and deep voice so they always encourage him to speak.

Koul Sahab was unable to pursue higher studies beyond matriculation. Unlike him, his cousins went to college and graduated. But they would later say: “We are left here while Bulla reached America.”

After our marriage when we went to BBC, D P Dhar used to visit us when he was India’s Ambassador to USSR. He always gave Koul Sahab lot of love and encouragement and earlier used to provide him pocket money too.

Mahendra Kaul

When Sheikh Abdullah was imprisoned for some time, Koul sahab became a witness in his favour so he too was imprisoned at the age of 13. He told me that the then authorities didn’t know whether they can detain a boy of 13 years of age. Then they set him free.

Later, Koul Sahab befriended Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and he visited and stayed with us in England. Although Sheikh Sahab also visited, there was great bonding with Bakshi, and his son Bashir and his kids.

Koul Sahab never forgot his Kashmir roots. When we reached England, there was a Kashmiri living there for a long time namely Lambardar Zutshi. When Koul Sahab paid him a visit he told him, “Now that a Kashmiri has come here, nobody stands a chance in front of you.”

Even though he had not done any outstanding thing at that point in time, he was working in radio at that time and had not joined TV yet but he told him now you are going to run it all.

Zutshi told him that if in an interview there were two Punjabis, Biharis and Bengalis; they get scared if a Kashmiri candidate was also there. Kashmiri brain gives all others run for their money. I always tell my daughter, Kalyani Koul, who is a big judge in the UK that never forget you have a Kashmiri brain and no brain withstands a chance in front of you.

Whenever we visited Kashmir, he used to spend all his time with his friends. We would stay at the Broadway Hotel but we never went to sight-seeing because he was always busy with his childhood friends. My story in Kashmir was like that of any other Kashmir woman – washing Haakh, watching kids, checking if the doors are closed, typical Kashmiri mannerism.

Sheikh Sahab once told my daughter: “We are neither idol worshippers nor makers. But we will make the idol of your father here for his first ever broadcast in Kashmiri. We are proud to have given him a programme in Radio Kashmir.”

His Thatcher Talks

Unfortunately, after going abroad Koul sahib forgot poetry as everything became political, but enjoyed a lot of respect and influence. After he had retired from BBC when he had just turned 60, secretary of UK Prime Minister Mrs Margret Thatcher called him informing that since the Prime Minister is visiting India, she wants to be interviewed in anticipation. He told her Secretary: “Tell Mrs Thatcher that she will have to pay me because I am no longer a servant of BBC. Ask her to negotiate money with me first.” The Secretary laughed. Within an hour, she was on way to record the interview.

Rajni Koul was in Srinagar recently to announce a 100-pound sterling award for best student poet in DPS Srinagar.

Throughout our career, I would be so very worried about his work because I would also do programs (in BBC Pashtu) and would prepare everything for it. I was doing international broadcasting. I would tell him: “Listen to me for two minutes since this is not your subject let me tell you a few things.”And he would say: “You keep your knowledge to yourself. I will work on my own. Never even for a second did I see him worrying or preparing. What I mean to say is that he was exceptionally gifted.

Although he was just a matriculate he would speak correct English. Whenever he would write letters he used appropriate legal jargon. You may say I am exaggeratingly praising my husband but it is not so. He had many flaws but those never affected his work.

In Voice of America, there was an Urdu section where people from Pakistan would work and a Hindi section where people from India would work. Since we were Indians we worked in the Hindi section. Since he didn’t know Hindi, he would always require my help. Both the sections functioned from a single spacious room. Annoyed over his success, they would tell him: “You don’t even know Hindi but you have become a big Pandit here.”

As far as I know, I don’t think he got higher marks than a third division till his 10th because he would never study or work hard.

I have a deep regret that he became very weak in the last few years that he couldn’t travel to Kashmir. In his last years, he would talk to me in Kashmiri. Since I couldn’t speak Kashmiri, he would tell me: “I get mad, why don’t you speak Kashmiri”.

(Irtiza Rafiq processed this interview)

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