One of the most vibrant ‘Voices of Kenya’ has fallen silent with the passing of broadcaster Pritam Chaggar. Ajit Sat-Bhambra pays tribute.
Pritam Chaggar, who died in January this year just a week before what would have been his 84th birthday,was for a long time an integral part of my life. We went back a long way, to the days before he was known as ‘the Maharaja’. It could almost be said that we knew each other before we even met, as his father and my maternal uncle once exchanged turbans, a mark of brotherhood that foreshadowed the strong bond Pritam and I were later to share – a bond in many ways more powerful than any blood tie.
One abiding memory of Pritam is of the childhood football games I played against him on hot, dusty days in my maternal grandfather’s village in Punjab, next to Pritam’s village. We were just schoolboys but we both had big dreams of how our futures would play out.
For some years after that, we went our separate ways. Then, in 1959, when I arrived in Kenya after completing my degree in India, my father re-introduced me to Pritam, who was by then well-known in our social circles as a broadcaster for the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation (KBC). Not only was he a welcome reminder of home, he also used his contactsto help me in my career and it was partly through him that I was offered a headmaster’s post at a local primary school.This was quite a feat on Pritam’s part, because at the time the Kenyan government was pushing to replace graduate teachers in primary schools with young local trainees.
It was a challenging and frightening time; after all, I was new in Kenya and had no real experience in runninga school.Pritam was always helpful and encouraging, treating me like a well-loved younger brother, yet he was also a realist and I remember him once telling me: ‘You were lucky to get this job; now it’s up to you to prove yourself.’
Although the school I ran was 100 miles away from Pritam’s home in Nairobi, I used to stay with him often when I visited the city.It was around this time that Pritam introduced me to the radio station Voice of Kenya, for which I was soon writing plays, talks and stories. This was a truly happy period of my life – his too, I hope – though we also had our troubles, which we would share with each other.
In 1964, as a result of my success as headmaster of the primary school, I took over the helm of a secondary school in Nairobi. Pritam helped me to settle back there and made me a regular contributor to Voice of Kenya.
As for his own career, he was by now something of a star at the radio station. His satirical show Chacha Sahib was very popular with VoK listeners, and this was in large part due to his own colourful, larger-than-life personality which infused the show with his unique brand of warmth and humour.
In addition to his life as a broadcaster, Pritam was also a mentor to a host of artists and performers from India, whom he lured over to perform in Kenya and other African countries such as Tanzania and South Africa. He was the first to invite the singer Mohamed Rafi, and brought over freestyle wrestlers. He was always supportive of others’ workand generous with his advice.
Given Pritam’s creativity and artistic tendencies, I found it slightlystrange that he was so devoted toorder and cleanliness. His desk was always a hive of activity but you would never find a stray scrap of paper lurking there, or an abandoned pencil. He was so impeccably tidy and even his car, though small, was spotless. This, along with his regal bearing and eloquent speech, led to the coining of his nickname ‘the Maharaja’, an affectionately-used moniker that became part of his name for the rest of his life.
Now the Maharaja is gone: a kind, generous-spirited man who made many friends in his life, but also some enemies who found his success a bitter pill to swallow.