'When Nehru himself cried while speaking, what about an ordinary news
reader like me?'
Poornam Viswanathan cleared his throat, controlled his emotions and announced India's freedom to the outside world in a radio broadcast. At five thirty on the morning of August 15, 1947, young Viswanathan became the first Indian to make that external broadcast from All India Radio to East Asia.
That moment has stood still in his memory since. Fifty years after that historic event, 76-year-old Viswanathan spoke about those memories and the turbulence of pre-Independent days with Shobha Warrier.
When did you know that you were to broadcast the news of
I was a news reader for All India Radio from 1945 onwards.
You can call it a strange coincidence, rather a divine coincidence.
When the duty list was announced, my name was scheduled for the night of August 14. The broadcast began at 5.30 in the morning
for the East Asian listeners and I was to read the first bulletin.
It was my great fortune, I must say. How did I feel then? I felt
Was there a lump in your throat then?
As a news reader I am not supposed to feel any any lump at all.
I controlled my feelings till I finished the news bulletin. Later
I cried with joy.
Yes, I cried for two reasons. One, India was free; secondly, I was selected
to read the news bulletin
announcing India's independence.
Do you remember the first line?
"India is a free country," was the first sentence. This was followed by repeating Nehru's Tryst with destiny speech.
Did you read Nehru's speech in English or in Tamil?
What it difficult to translate Nehru's words?
No, no, not at all. For one thing, Nehru spoke in simple words.
Gandhiji spoke in yet more simpler words. We had been
translating Gandhiji's prayer speeches regularly.
I translated Nehru's speech with great joy and
read it with even greater joy.
We have heard that Nehru had tears in his eyes when he made the speech. Those who assembled there also wept. Did you feel the
same way when you read the speech in Tamil?
It is true that all those assembled wept with joy. When Nehru
himself cried while speaking, what about an ordinary news
reader like me? But if I cried while I reading the news,
the lines would have smeared. So, I controlled my emotions. I still
cherish the moment, a moment that I will never experience
Did the bulletin begin with "India is a free country,"
or the regular, "This is All India Radio..?
Though it was such an important occasion and formal announcements
were not required, the listeners needed to know where the broadcast was
coming from. So, the "All India Radio" announcement was necessary.
Was that also in Hindi or Tamil?
In 1947, we only said, "All India Radio." Akashwani came only
later. So I read, "All India Radio, seythikal vasippathu Poornam Viswanathan...
Where were you at midnight?
We were at home listening to Nehruji's speech over the radio. I knew I had to leave home at three in the morning for the five thirty
bulletin. Normally, we used to go to Birla House, collect Gandhiji's
previous day's speech at the prayer meeting and proceed to the
radio station. There it would be translated into various Indian
languages and read. But on the day of Independence, Gandhiji
was not present in Delhi. He was in Naokhali. So, we went straight
to the All India Radio station.
I stayed in Lodhi colony then. During the day, I used
to go to the Broadcasting house via Birla Road. I could
have chosen some other route but I went that way just for the pleasure seeing Gandhiji. Even during winter Gandhiji used to lie on a cot on the lawns of the Birla House. Whenever I passed the area, I could
Did you ever go near him?
Yes, I did. I attended at least ten
prayer meetings of Gandhiji.
What was the experience of those prayer meetings?
Gandhiji talked on very important subjects. He referred
to many national issues, the duties and obligations of all Indian
citizens, how we should behave, etc. One speech would
not resemble any other. We could sense his
sincerity in all the speeches.
You were very young then. How much did Gandhiji
and his speeches influence your development?
When I first saw Gandhiji, I was pleasantly surprised to see
that his skin was like the skin of a child. Soft and beautiful.
There were no wrinkles on his skin or hands even though
he was very old.
Did you ever touch his hands?
Oh, no. I only touched his feet. In those days, almost every
educated young man wanted to join the freedom movement. If I had
gone my way, I would have become freedom fighter. Since I was a
student, my elders did not let me join the movement. But my mind was
When I look back, the only regret I have is that I did not join
the movement in a big way. All of us had only one thought in our
mind, our country and its freedom. The kind of devotion
we had for our country could not be explained.
Poornam Viswanathan's photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj