A love letter to the stage
How a radio show provided a sanctuary of self-expression
With loads of self-doubt, I found it hard to find my place in a boys-only high school. Other boys found their communities in various areas like rugby, cricket, and scouting. I was lost.
Everything changed when a radio show was held in the school, led by the Sinhala literacy union and directed by teachers who specialised in the local language. Boys in year ten classes were assembled in the school auditorium on the sixth floor. They were in their hundreds, dressed in crisp white school uniforms, wearing green and white ties. Everyone was excited to be part of the great event.
Two famous announcers of the day were the comperes, Lalith S. Maithripala, a tall, dark-skinned man with hair combed to the back and his female counterpart, Sumana Nellampitiya, wearing a blue saree. Both were household names and admired show-biz characters in the country.
Crews from Radio Ceylon, the only radio station in the country, conducted the show. They were everywhere with their technical gear, microphones, and spooled tapes. Kids looked up on stage, mesmerised by the magic spectacle, something never seen before. It was an epic, like a modern-day movie set.
The show was sponsored by BCC, a conglomerate known for beauty care products. Every Sunday at 1 pm, on the sole commercial radio channel, it conducted a half-hour program advertising its products. It pre-recorded the program in a prominent school. It was a big deal because the program was beamed to the whole island of Sri Lanka. For the schools, it was an opportunity for free marketing. Schools vied with each other to get into the weekly show. That week, my school, St. Benedict’s College, was the lucky participant and venue, thanks to the hard work of the literacy union.
The two hosts started the show. The boys sat glued to their seats, watching the curated gig. Then, one by one, selected boys came on stage to sing at the prompt of the comperes. You don’t need to guess; singing is certainly not my forte or talent. So I was relegated to watching the whole saga as part of the audience. At the end of each segment, each lucky boy on stage received a gift package from Sumana.
A quiz was thrown at the students in the audience between the singing. Boys were asked to put their hands up if they knew the answer.
Maithripala read the first question. What is the capital of the United States of America? My hand went up. So did many boys. Maithripala looked at the audience and called out a tall boy from behind. The student answered Washington. Maithripala commended him for his correct answer. The organisers prompted the audience to clap, and everyone clapped in unison. Sumana moved to the centre stage and presented the boy with a shiny gift package wrapped in yellow.
All of these were being recorded to be played out on the radio on Sunday.
Now, the second question. How tall is Pidurutalagala? My hand went up again. Maithripala looked at me, sitting in the front. Bypassing me, he picked another boy. The lucky boy answered correctly, 8280 feet and walked off with a gift package from Sumana. I was not so fortunate; rejected twice.
Many fellow students saw me putting my hand up; It was hard, being rejected and dejected. Answering was my way of escapism. My hopes dashed off.
Now the last question in the quiz came up. Maithripala, holding the microphone, eloquently asked Name the USSR’s leader?
Before I could muster the courage to raise my hand, my hand had gone up as if it had a mind of its own. Maithripala looked at the audience, feeling his spectacles, his usual gesture.
This boy in the front row always raises his hand. I am giving him a chance. Maithripala said, pointing to me. Excited, I walked up to the stage like there was no tomorrow. Three steps to the stage, I was now facing Maithripala. He lowered the microphone to my height. The vast audience was now looking at me.
What is your name?
What is your surname?
Who is Russia’s leader?
Correct. You have answered correctly. Well done!
I felt ecstatic. The time seemed to have stopped. The stage seemed to move. I looked up at the entire auditorium. There were hundreds of claps to my tongue-twisting answer. I am now famous.
Sumana came over and handed me the gift package wrapped in green.
The feeling of walking off the stage was way out of this world. My feet never felt the same. I found my pace by answering that simple question. While I was getting off the stage, the radio crew played the sponsor’s theme song and advertisements. I did not hear a thing except the roar of claps — a feeling of pride and the feeling that I had arrived.
I found two bars of Rani soap, shampoo and fragrance and a long bar of washing soap in the gift package. Rani was the most expensive and popular soap in the country. It was advertised as a panacea for beauty. The yellow-coloured bar smelt of sandalwood. It was grand; I always held it close to my nose.
At home, I gave everything in the box to my mother but kept a bar of Rani soap for my use. On Sunday, I listened to the radio channel with my family. Then finally, I heard my voice beam to the whole of Sri Lanka a little past 1 pm. It was a great feeling, my short-lived moment of fame.
For the next month or so, I used the bar of Rani soap, rubbing it hard on my body, making soap bubbles and feeling great about myself. I gave out a fragrant smell for the rest of the school day. When no schoolmates were looking, I poked my nose on my hairless armpit, absorbing Rani soap’s fragrance. I loved the feel of sandalwood in my nostrils.
Winning the quiz and being clapped was a huge confidence booster for this lad. There, I found my place and rhythm. My voice being broadcasted all over the island of Sri Lanka, and the aromatic smell of sandalwood was simply a bonus.
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