Wednesday, 7 March 2012

My Journey to the Beloved ...

No, this post is not about some dream man, a fantasy, a hidden desire or a sacred passion! Yet, still it concerns all of the above, and so much more besides!
See, thanks to a very special some one in particular, I’ve been forced to contemplate the recipient of this title and my resulting affections quite allot lately, and as I’ve nothing in particular to blog about these days, I’ve decided to indulge myself by writing about some aspects of this love, and just why it is so special, so beautiful! Some of this will be familiar to you, if you’ve been reading the blog for a while, or if this is a love that you and I share!
Let me try to identify where it began! Not that this is easy for me, for this love feels older than me, so elemental, so much a part of me that it resonates in my heartbeat, pours out through my every breath! But though its familiar, it remains exotic, captivating and entrancing, so that no matter how much I try to shelf or contain it, the intensity only returns to me with force, dragging me from categorising it as a guilty pleasure, and recognising it for what it really is! When did I first fall in love? That’s the thing, I really don’t know! Maybe the first time I wore glass bangles, the first time I dreamt in Urdu (when I was 6 years old), or the first time I heard Radio Pakistan! …, not what you were expecting eh? Well, that’s the whole point about this love, the whole charm of it lives in its spontaneity and its ability to keep its admirer on the edge, adoring the unexpected! I envisioned Karachi long before I ever visited! The city used to call to my subconscious through Radio Pakistan and the long hours I spent in my room as a kid, listening to Tahira Saeed gazals and dreaming of a world that was unknown, yet somehow part of me. I was given a salwar kameez when I was 9 by my uncle who worked in India at the time. I’d wear it, lay on my bed, listening to spoken Urdu. If I closed my eyes tight enough, the sounds of the cars on the newly built slip road below my bedroom window almost mimicked the waves on Clifton beach. I’d stretch my arms wide to touch each of the walls that imprisoned me in the tiny space my parents had given me, and wondered why I was here and why I was such a misfit in this family, this realm that had been chosen for me; such a small child, asking such big questions! Things didn’t make sense to me then, any more than they do now! But I knew one thing for sure; one day, I’d visit that place, I’d make it home! And though I didn’t know how I was going to get there, I made it my business to make the dream a reality by learning Urdu, studying Asian classical Music, filling my wardrobe with more salwar suits and glass bangles than I knew what to do with; and insuring my music collection began and ended with Vital signs; exclusively! People often ask me how I ended up in Karachi? And my stock answer is always something like; well, I went on Holiday; got a job, and never came back! …, this is true, though there is a bit more to it than that! See, we plan, and Allah (SWT) plans! Karachi rescued me at a time when I was truly drowning! The seed was planted on the 14th August, 2003! Pakistan Independence day, 2200 hours, GMT! I was alone in my office at the BBC. I’d been sort-of living there since my husband had divorced me only 2 months previously. I couldn’t quite get my head around it; here I was, not even 21 and divorced, with my dream job coming to an end in less than 4 months! What would I do? Where would I go? How would I survive? To make matters worse, my landlord at the time, who was a relative of my former husband, informed me that as my x had no more use for me, he had no need of my rent either, and wanted me out! In those days, the BBC was still in its former home in the West End of Glasgow! We occupied an old, eccentric charming building with character and sanctity in equal measure! Security was lax for staff and it was perfectly normal for the anoraks among us to spend days and nights there! I kept a bag of clothes under my desk and slept on one of our meeting room sofas. I showered before any one came in; and no one even noticed I’d made the office my home! But on 14th August, I had a 10 PM moment! I stood by my office window which looked down upon Kelvin Grove park. Couples walked hand in hand under the trees, talking, loving, laughing and living! People wandered casually home, picked up bottles of wine and pizza for a quiet evening by the fire. I surveyed the scene; and wondered what had happened to my life! Just then, the phone on my desk rang! It took me by surprise because as far as I knew, no one had any idea I was still at work! I didn’t want to talk, but still, the journalist within was already imagining the potential story lead which might just bag me a BBC Contract extension! My friend and colleague Ali was on the line, all the way from Karachi! I was in shock; it was 2 AM his time, why was he calling me right now? He said he’d been calling my house for days in the evening, and had a horrible feeling that I’d rather moved in to the office; as I appeared to only be returning work related Emails! Ali and I had worked together for 2 years prior to this point. He was with Geo Television at the time, and had become a great friend, skilled colleague and serious inspiration in my eyes! Just like me, he was a journalist without all the necessary letters to his name, but his passion and incredible film skills had earned him a production job way above most of his counterparts! Ali had helped me secure recordings in Pakistan, leading interviews for my programmes and had, most significantly for me, taught me so much about the city of my soul and how it had raised/nurtured him. I admitted I’d been living up there on the fourth floor, and confessed to him that I had absolutely no idea where I’d go or what I’d do from here! He calmed my nerves and if I remember correctly, distracted me by talking about the day he’d spent recording a video with Noori! I ended the call and went off to make some coffee to get me through another restless night of faked sleep and fretting! But when I came back to my computer to log off, Ali had Emailed! His note said “Roshni, I don’t know what you are doing there and why you are doing this to yourself! I don’t know if I can help you but …, Come to Karachi! You have a home here, I can find you work if work is what you want! There is clearly nothing keeping you there, and you are so obviously not happy! I know this man has hurt you, but I wonder why you are hurting yourself like this? think about it …”. His words shook me to the core! They were all true, but so obvious I’d only seen the abstract till then. Why was I hurting myself, and why was I staying! His words haunted me constantly over the following few months, during my 21st Birthday and my frantic job search. Ali mentioned Karachi a few times, and I always said I’d (probably) come for a holiday or something, but I remained non-committal! I’d come out of such a huge trauma, I felt too weak, too incapable of making another life changing decision that could go so wrong, just as my marriage had done! I got myself another job; and managed to secure another apartment in the building I’d lived in before! So, I was settled; or so I thought! The fact is, I hated the new job! Even on the day I accepted it, I cleared out my BBC desk in floods of tears, and even told my producer I knew I’d made a big mistake! But there was no going back; my contract was going to end any way! by the end of the first day, I knew I couldn’t stay! The workload was impossible, the manager was evil; the environment was stifling! This was not a place of late nights and creativity; and the stress of it seemed to drag out the pain of my divorce and situation; things I’d kept well controlled till that point! I sensed my loss of control over myself, my reality; of all that mattered to me; and I knew I had to act fast! Strangely, while all this was going on, Karachi began to play an increasingly significant role in my life! I was writing for 2 Karachi lifestyle websites, was editing a chat forum about Karachi and interviewing artists for a Music column on Pakistan for the Scottish addition of Eastern Eye! These distractions kept me sane; and I took a month or so sick leave from work to relax and concentrate on the fun stuff which paid little and brought great pleasure! As my sick leave ended, the boss from hell began a manic phone campaign, stocking me to try and ascertain whether or not I was going to return! I had no where to go, but going back wasn’t an option either! And so, on the last day of my permitted sick leave, I washed, dressed, and went to the Asian Travel Agency near my house, and bought a one-way ticket to Karachi! Why one Way? simple; that’s all I could afford; …, but maybe not that simple! Maybe there was wisdom in all of it; maybe, if I look back on it now, the message about where I should be was clear! I bought my ticket, dropped off my paperwork to secure my visa; and went to pray Jummah at Glasgow Central mosque, for the last time in my city! I went to the library and did some writing, including printing out my resignation letter! 2 weeks later, I’d emptied my flat, given away all that I owned bar a box of sentimental items which I left at my parents, and the suitcase I took with me! Very few people knew I was leaving! And as far as my parents knew, I was going for a month or so, for vacation, and I’d be back! That’s what I believed then, and that’s what I told myself! I didn’t know where I was going; what I would gain or what I was leaving behind! All I know is that nothing has ever felt so right as the moment when I waved my bangle covered hand behind me, and, dressed in a dark purple salwar curta; stepped on to PIA flight 787 for Karachi; leaving the past behind!

***To be continued in the next post! ***

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Radio Rukhsati; The End of an Era

A red lenga, gold bangles, ornaments, mendi, music, laughter and tears! These are the accompaniments to any bride/dulhan as one chapter closes and another begins! Only, not so of a legendry radio presenter!
Instead, Sonia Deol wears a lenga woven out of fun, frolics and amazingly well-made radio! She wears ornaments of praise and accolades legitimately earned through-out her glorious media career. The mendi on her hands maps her journey from unknown teenager from Birmingham to passionate radio/TV presenter, compare, journalist and voice of the Asian Generation, the songs sang for her span 3 decades of brilliance she has shared with us, and the flowers at her feet are the hopes, dreams, wishes and prayers of all those she has touched with her talent. I’m sure that neither Sonia nor the BBC were prepared for the incredible stirring of emotions her leaving to get married has evoked, after all, radio presenters come and go, and the Asian media scene is arguably more fragile in this regard than its mainstream counterparts! In spite of this, radio possesses a unique talent to connect with hearts and minds, spanning the workplaces, homes, cars, light and dark spaces of its listenership, and Asian radio existed long before the era of facebook, twitter, blogging and Television! Perhaps that explains Sonia’s popularity (in part at any rate!), for in truth, our emotions run much deeper. I have spent the last 2 weeks in floods of tears whenever I hear Sonia Deol present her flagship show on the Asian network, knowing she will soon be leaving. I never expected to feel this way; most of the time, I don’t know whether I’m articulating or projecting, but I’m sure I speak for many when I say that saying goodbye to Sonia is like saying goodbye to a family member! Yet for those of us with an overwhelming affinity to radio, the kind of affinity that gave birth to Sonia in the first place, the loss is even more stark! Losing Sonia means losing our youth, our generation, the force that sustained us and created milestones within radio for some to listen to and others to follow!

Aspects of Sonia Deol’s career mirror my own. She was born out of obscurity, beginning her radio career in the curious backwaters of Radio XL and Sunrise! Radio stations long forgotten now, yet once served as the essential/only entertainment for Asian Britain! I started in local radio too (Awaz FM), yet didn’t get very far with Sunrise! Despite many interviews, CV exchanges and worked demo programmes, a 14-year-old visually impaired gori was not really what Asian media needed then, (or now it seems!). I continued at Radio Awaz however, and each Saturday morning, I’d watch Sonia Deol, presenting Network East, a magazine show which marked the BBC experimenting with a new genre of Asian/Ethnic programming! “I want to make media like that”, was all I could say! In Sonia Deol, I saw the person I desired to be! I saw youth, talent, creativity, innovation and a desire to succeed! Sonia was funny, flirty, an extravert with her finger on the pulse and, above all, a unique ability to spin humour and personality out of the mundane happenings in every day Asian life! Sonia Deol shot to fame at a time when Asian media was new, opportunities were thin on the ground; and thus, the media she made back in the late nineties is a living history, creating the backdrop to the sector we have today. Back then, The Asian industry was close, but not exclusive. It was easy to talk to people, to reach out and make things happen for yourself. People like Sonia wore their dreams in their eyes, so that aspiring hopefuls like me held firmer to our affirmations than we do today! And though I never did get to Sunrise, I did make it to the BBC; I produced some decent radio and spent 3 of the best years in Pakistan making the radio of my life; something the Blind Gori never imagined was within her grasp! Out there, I saw Many unknown Sonia’s, with aspirations beyond their circumstances. These ranged from the boy who worked as a child mechanic and had practised reading Dawn for one week before coming to audition for me, to the young assistant Danish Saeed who supported my production team and is now planning to launch a radio station of his own! All of them have come and gone, and some remain within the sector; and others, like me, have lost their way, station and opportunity. Sonia remained; and that too, within a time where the industry she joined back in the nineties was changing beyond all recognition. The culture she created through Network East, the BBC Asian Network and even her pilot magazine show for Channel East! All formed a subculture, and later a culture which empowered the youth and nurtured new talent, but with the expansion of the BBC Asian Network, these cultures were replaced. Bangra was replaced with street, Hindi with English, Punjabi with Urban, Hindi with Rap, Film songs with Fast, Fusion sounds which talk of everything and nothing. I don’t know Sonia well enough to guess what she made of these changes, though she has indirectly hinted at her disdain during her closing shows this week! Culture, by nature of itself must grow, change and evolve; but the outpouring of sorrow at Sonia Leaving the network hints that all may not be well! The essence of both what she created and represented is fast disappearing! The Live traditional music, arts and chat she has celebrated during her remaining days with us, tugs at the heart strings and makes so many of us recall our own youth, dreams and how Sonia was the soundtrack to so many. Her laughter, smiles, passion and ingenuity drove so many, whether to radio or to more conventional careers and journeys. Culture might evolve, but where Asian radio is concerned, change appears to have only induced stagnation! The Asian Network loses listeners daily, as the channel struggles to develop a sound which says any thing but “Asian Britain”. I could use this space to talk about how the Asian Network might well be synonymous with the double-edged integration debate raging within our government, but this is all about Sonia; and tomorrow, the queen of our airwaves will leave the land of her birth. Sonia closes one chapter, and will travel to Canada to live and marry the man who finally captured her heart from the radio that long-since held it captive. She begins her married life; (though, hints that a radio career might follow suit one day!). I don’t know what she has planned for her last appearance on BBC Asian Network tomorrow but I, for one, will be in pieces! This is, without a doubt, the hardest rukhsati I’ve ever witnessed! With Sonia, I send away my dreams of a place in this industry, I played the Asian media game when it operated according to the rules and styles I knew, but Sonia and the brand of journalists like her have left, either by force or by their own volition, and what remains is a generic, unfamiliar neutrality which neither interests me, nor offers me openings. While we might cry for Sonia, those of us concerned with Asian talent wonder who our rising stars might emulate? “have you listened to Sonia Deol?” was always the opening line I used when coaching my radio trainees about media awareness; and while they might find mentors in the mainstream, who now raises the bar for their sector? It amazes me that the Asian Network which Sonia Deol shaped with a selected few, seem less and less concerned with brand identity and about the pathways now closed to talent of the future. If Sonia’s brand of radio lives on in Canada, we will indeed be truly blessed!

This post seems negative and selfish, though it is not meant to. So many mixed emotions live behind these words! But Sonia, if you read this, you have my heart-felt congratulations for the journey ahead. For one like you, giving your heart is not easy, it means losing one identity and blending with that of another, trimming the edges to a place where they fit; and trying to accommodate radio in all of that will be challenging! I wish you health, wealth, happiness and peace, but above all, I wish you love in your new home! Married life can be tough, and so, when the mendi fades from yellow to brown, remember the beauty of these days and those traits which stole your heart from the airwaves. Remember what drew you magnetically to this man; and remember too, the values radio taught you; that it is your beautiful spirit and soul that make you; that draw even those who cannot see you towards your aura. My prayers, dreams and remnants of a career and time travel with you. Go forward and shine as only you can Dearest Sonia, thank you for the years, and for sharing the intimacy of your big day through Radio with us all. Who knows; in another time, another space and another set of Canadian waves; we might just capture the magic again!
Radio stars are not made, they are born; and in you Sonia the best was truly born, and will live forever!