News that the BBC is closing the shortwave service of the Hindi section to India has a special relevance for me. This is not a post about the decision. The service will continue to be available on FM and via other digital means.
My mother, Lalita Ahmed, used to freelance for the Hindi Section. She read news sometimes but, being a professional performer rather than a journalist, took part mostly in dramas and discussions. And without childcare, throughout the 70s she used to take me, and often my siblings and even friends, along when she had recordings.
I must confess, there were long stretches, especially when I was only 5, when I was bored. But there were those fabulously exotic English meals to look forward to in the Bush House canteen when it was all over. Fish and chips and spongy things with custard. But over time it came to mean much more. I grew up completely at home with reel-t0-reel tape machines; sitting with the Studio Managers, watching them rock the reels and edit with a flick of the china graph pencil and razor blade. Scripts were painstakingly typed and carbon copied. Words in beautifully written Hindi were amplified round the booth. I even got my first broadcast experience there being interviewed for a children’s programme about second generation Indian immigrants growing up in Britain. (And learned that it was never a good idea to drum one’s fingers on the table during a recording). I saw the professionalism of take after take till they got it right, broadcasters and non-Hindi speaking technical staff alike. Compared to the racism one often came across outside in 70s Britain, Bush House seemed a beacon of mutual respect and tolerance, whatever the reality of office politics. It made a big impact on a young girl.
Most of all I remember with affection sitting in the Hindi section offices. The Eastern Service was all on one one floor — Urdu, Bengali and the other Oriental languages linked through the labyrinthine corridors of the building. A wrong turning on the way back from the Ladies might see me wander into a room full of Burmese or Nepalese journalists and writers, sharing a joke. The place was always full of intelligence and affection for distant homelands. Many staffers in some Eastern European sections were political exiles. The Bulgarian dissident Georgy Markov was famously murdered around this time (1978); his killing not solved till 1995.
I would sit in the window bay as night fell, looking out on the lit up theatre marquees of the Aldwych and the taxis dropping off outside the Waldorf, and listen to my mum and her journalist friends discussing the latest politics in London and Delhi. I can actually still remember that specific moment, sitting there, when I thought, one day when I’m grown up I’ll live in London like this and go out at night. Bush House was then, and somehow remains to me now, the centre of the universe.
My mum’s friends mostly continued to serve the Hindi section till retirement. They were delighted when I became a BBC graduate News Trainee. Kailash Budhwar, who was from 1979 till 1992 head of the Hindi section, and a regular commentator on South Asian politics for programmes such as Newsnight, remains a close family friend and mentor. I took a special delight in 1990, in going back into Bush House for the first time since I was a child, to interview him for a trainee radio report. It was about the 6th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. He has remained a passionate advocate of the World Service. I found this letter he wrote to The Times about the power of English as a global language in 2005.
Looking back now from the vantage point of 20 years in news journalism, mostly at the BBC and ITN, I realise how privileged I was to be, in a small way, part of the Hindi section.
For an opinion piece about the closure of shortwave by a former BBC-staffer you can read this in The Guardian.