S Gopalakrishnan, a Malayali living in Delhi with many years of experience in radio, hosts the show.

A man with grey hair and moustache smiles standing in front of a microphone and wearing headphones, recording, as in the background you see a book shelf and paintingS Gopalakrishnan
Features Podcast Friday, September 10, 2021 - 14:52

In a dilapidated old printing press in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, Gopalakrishnan heard an old man’s cough from the next room. He looked around and saw an old photo of two young men on the wall. Who are they, he asked the middle-aged owner of the shop. One was his father, Madan Yadav, the owner said, and the other was ‘Zadruddin uncle’. The photo was taken in 1949, a little after India’s partition. It was a time when riots broke out in the streets of Delhi and shops run by Muslims were burnt. Zadruddin’s shop was set on fire too and his son disappeared in mob violence. Madan Yadav hid Zadruddin and his wife under the bed in his single-room house until peace was restored in Chandni Chowk after Nehru’s appeal.

S Gopalakrishnan, hearing the story in 1996 while he worked in the Delhi Akashvani, was curious to know more. Ninety-year-old Madan Yadav, the man who was coughing in the next room, told Gopal the rest of the story. A non-Brahmin from UP’s Bareilly, he had run away to Delhi with his wife Shanti, a Brahmin, when relatives were ready to kill them both for the inter-caste marriage. It was Zadruddin, a tailor in Delhi, who had given them shelter in his single-room house. It was there that their son, the owner of the shop that Gopal spoke to, was born.

This anecdote from 1996 is retold in Gopalakrishnan’s disciplined voice 14 years later, for a podcast he began recording in Malayalam, his mother tongue. Called Dilli Dali, the Malayalam podcast, now more than 1.5 years old, touching upon myriad topics from current affairs to social dilemmas to art and culture, all set against lovely background music, has become hugely popular. The podcast began out of anguish, Gopalakrishnan says, in an interview to TNM.

“It was the early months of 2020 when Delhi witnessed communal riots. My initial podcasts were just on the secular fabric of the national capital, based on my life in this city since 1995. We know what dirty tricks even the Delhi police played during the time, and while I’m talking to you, we’re hearing what the courts in Delhi have to say about the unholy relationship that the police had with the communal forces. I spent more than three decades in the audio medium, and though I’m a writer as well, I thought audio would help me talk to the Malayali community and hence started the podcast,” he says.

Gopal, a Malayali from Kottayam, worked as programme executive at All India Radio for 12 years, then moved on to other radio and music platforms, all of it in Delhi. He is also a Kerala Sahitya Academy award winning writer in Malayalam. You can see how his years in Delhi and his experience of working in radio easily led to the creation of such a podcast. But it is not just the voice modulation or Delhi experiences that draws you. It is his ability to connect one story to another, narrating it so smoothly that you gain your knowledge without even realising it. It must have something to do with the soothing music he invariably adds. Gopal is a huge connoisseur of music.

“Once I did a podcast with a beautiful track by Pt Bhimsen Joshi in the background. I got the idea while I was on my regular morning walk listening to music on my headphones. I spoke about uncared, dilapidated monuments in South Delhi on my walk route. People like it as I connected the stories of these monuments culturally to contemporary life,” the podcaster says.

Another time, he connected the ghazals of Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar – a musician who doodled while he sang – to artist Namboothiri’s proclamation that music is the most substantial art form. From there he moved to Gustav Klimt, the Austrian artist who made a painting of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and to Bob Dylan who brought out a book of his paintings called Drawn Blank!

In his very first episode in February 2020, Gopal began with the topic ‘Mathilukal’ – fences – connecting it first to Bashir’s famous novel and then to the infamous wall that the Government of India built in Ahmedabad to hide a slum area during former US President Donald Trump’s visit to the city. In another episode, he talked about the ‘Nehru hunt’ that right-wing leaders often indulge in, connecting it to the so-called feud between Nehru and Sardar Patel.

In the same episode he talked about a bird hunt that VP Menon, Govt of India political advisor to states at the time of India’s independence, used to indulge in with kings of princely states. “It was on my visit to Rajasthan’s Bharatpur bird sanctuary two months ago that I saw in an old register that Menon had shot down 1,666 birds on November 18, 1948, in the company of the king of Gwalior!” Gopal says in the podcast. He adds how the British viceroy had shot down more than double the number of birds that Menon killed.

These early episodes are only four to six minutes long, and you effortlessly absorb the information from Gopal’s crisp speech. As time passed, he began inviting guest speakers, experts on various subjects, artists, journalists, activists, doctors and nurses. He also discussed newspaper articles for the day, sometimes taking the pain to translate a major story from an English publication into Malayalam.

“I’m a generalist, if you want to call me something. Therefore I talk about whatever touches me on a particular day... sometimes it could be a track from Ustad Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan, sometimes it could be current affairs, or reminiscences. I prefer an interview if I think that I’m not equipped to talk on the subject. There are no strict compartments for choosing a topic,” the podcaster says.

He is unable to choose his favourites, having done more than 100 episodes already, each painfully prepared and executed all by himself (“It’s a one-man radio station, I talk, I record, I edit…”). But when pressed a little, he mentions the story of a Sikh without a turban he met during the Delhi riots of 2020. “He had long stories to tell me about the secular fabric of Delhi since India’s partition days. I made a podcast on it, and listeners loved it.” Another episode is from the first time COVID-19 struck Delhi and how an old rickshaw puller living in a juggie was taking the situation, narrating the stories of Old Delhi during many past crises, and the sagas of survivors.

He mentions a few more – the episode on Dara Shikoh’s tomb, on Sunder Munda, on a lizard “speaking” science during COVID, on Gandhi ashrams, among others.

A listener may perhaps be drawn more towards the emotional content of his episodes. His stories can make you ache for times you haven’t lived in. The story of Payal the dog, who barked and ran after a lorry that carried away his human family to Pakistan after the partition, is one Gopal heard from a man called Baldish Singh in Amritsar. Most of Baldish’s Muslim neighbours had moved away in lorries, forbidden from taking their animals with them to the new country. Baldish took Payal, who sat lost outside the house, to his home. Gopal says in his storyteller’s voice, “Payal lived for five years in free India and then calmly passed away.”

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.