Once a Ham, always a Ham

Very few people know about the life threatening risk ‘Bob’ Tanna, VU2LK, took to help Mahatma Gandhi win India’s struggle for independence.

After independence, Bob ( VU2LK ), received official recognition as a nonviolent Freedom Fighter and was named a national hero for his underground radio work in the Gandhian movement.

For those who call on Bhavsinh (Bob) Tanna, it is a little annoying that there is no lift in his building near Grant Road. But for the 94-year-old Tanna, the oldest ham in the country, it doesn't matter that much. For, Tanna, 'Bob' to friends and VU2LK to hams, rarely stirs out of his fourth floor flat, where he lives with one of his daughters, and communicates with his friends in Mumbai through his radio and with family over voice chat through the internet.

As he moves around the apartment with the help of a walking stick, he seems content with his life. Because, this is how he had visualized his life to be even when he was a child.

Tanna narrates how a wayside vendor outside his school used to lend children a magazine each for two paisa. "One of them had an article titled, Travel round the world without leaving your armchair, and it was about amateur radio. And, I got hooked," says Tanna. "My father got me more literature on ham radio."

His father was the diwan of the erstwhile kingdom of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. "The king, who was called Bhavsinhji came to our house for my naming ceremony and gave me his name," says Tanna, whose family moved to Mumbai when he was very young.

Tanna learnt to operate a radio but had to wait till he turned 21 to apply for a license, which he got in 1936. "It is current till now," he says. The main income for his company, Tanna Radio, came from lending out public address systems. Tanna remembers that he was the second Indian to get a license while the first was a Kolkata professor. "Half a dozen British army officers also got licenses before me," says Tanna.

It is a stream of candid consciousness as he narrates his experiences as a ham but the old man is at a loss whenever I insist on chronological order. The purple patch was when he helped Indian National Congress leaders like Vitalbhai Javeri and Usha Mehta transmit patriotic speeches and messages. "They approached me and I made the equipment for them. There was no tape recorder in those days and we used to record the messages on acetate discs. The discs would then be handed over to the person who operated the system. The transmission was done from different places to maintain secrecy," says Tanna.

Apparently, it functioned for about 10 months before the British cracked the whip. Tanna was detained and kept in the Colaba police station. "They tortured me for seven days. I was made to lie down on a block of ice with only an underwear on me. When they realized I did not have many secrets to share, they shifted me to the Arthur Road jail and I was set free after nine months," he says.

Tanna has received official recognition as a freedom fighter for his underground radio work during the struggle for Independence but says candidly that he did not have much of an interest in politics. "My interest was in the radio part of it," he says. He met Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose while recording one of his messages at the now-defunct Capitol cinema in Boribunder but is unable to recollect much about the meeting with the legendary freedom fighter. "I simply said hello," says Tanna.

Another meeting with a national leader was when then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, an amateur radio enthusiast himself, summoned some hams for a chat at his office in Delhi. "It was a proud moment," says Tanna.

The biggest setback to his career came in the early 50s when the builder of his apartment decided to have another floor in the building. "I used to have my antenna in the terrace but I lost that facility forever. Now, I only interact with hams in Mumbai and that too mainly when we have our 'Night Owl's Net' at around 10 in the night," he says.

He takes out his equipment and tries for signals but finds none. But Tanna knows that it pays to listen for signals. Once, several decades ago he got an SOS from a sailor who was on a yacht that was coming from Australia to Chennai and got caught in a storm in the Bay of Bengal. "I alerted the Naval people in Chennai who then sent a boat. The ham got rescued but his colleague died," says Tanna.

His daughter, Lata, remembers the time when her 'daddy' had a special assignment in Ahmedabad. "I think it was in the mid-70s. There was a blackout in the city and they needed to have some kind of communication link. So, they took him there to operate his radio, with police security accompanying him like a VVIP," she says.