East is West

I started reading old Ray Bradbury interviews after he passed away on June 5 and came across this one in the Paris Review. It’s a fantastic and charmingly candid interview. When Bradbury is asked how he began writing, this was his answer:

“Everything went into ferment that one year, 1932, when I was twelve. There was Poe, Carter, Burroughs, the comics. I listened to a lot of imaginative radio shows, especially one called Chandu the Magician. I’m sure it was quite junky, but not to me. Every night when the show went off the air I sat down and, from memory, wrote out the whole script. I couldn’t help myself. Chandu was against all the villains of the world and so was I. He responded to a psychic summons and so did I.”

Like all good Indians, something in my head started beeping at the sight of that distinctly Indian name, Chandu. To think Ray Bradbury had an India connection! Not being particularly familiar with American radio, I didn’t realise that Chandu the Magician is actually a bit of a legend from the 1930s. It’s one of the longest running adventure series on radio and was also adapted to film. Frank Chandler is an American gent whose alter ego-ish character is Chandu the Magician. Frank picked up all sorts of supernatural abilities thanks to a trip to India. The first episode begins with Frank returning to America. His sister Dorothy and her two kids (Bob and Betty) are waiting for him. Betty says she hopes he brought her a sari and a veil (“They make women look so mysterious!” she says).

Frank’s unusual abilities are exhibited early on in the episode when he’s able to reach Dorothy’s house from the airport in an absurdly short time. Not just that, he tells Dorothy to lock the door, shut the windows and turn out the lights and wait for him. Suddenly, lo and behold, there he is. Bob asks Frank to make a rope stand, the good ole Indian rope trick, but Frank laughs Bob’s request away. “Those things are the stock and trade of every wandering fakir in India,” Frank says. His luggage, which materialises as mysteriously as he does, is a black bag that has in it a crystal ball. The first thing they see in the crystal ball is a man on a houseboat, on the Dal Lake in Kashmir. That’s Frank’s teacher and here’s the thing: HE DOESN’T SOUND LIKE APU. *gasp* Yes, there’s shpooky music and references to rubies and princes and India is the land of magic blah blah, but Frank’s Indian guru doesn’t sing his English. Imagine that.

The intro for Chandu the Magician promises, “There are many tales told on radio, but there is only one Chandu. [pronounced "Chan-doo"]” True dat. Some kind soul has uploaded a bunch of them here on this YouTube channel. Be warned: you may just find yourself listening to the episodes compulsively. I certainly did and it’s very, very easy to imagine a little Ray Bradbury, crouched close to the radio, listening to how Chandu goes around battling evil in exotic lands. (The ads in the show are hilarious too.)

But it’s not just a fake Indian like Frank/Chandu who was on the radio in 1930s’ America. There was also a bona fide brown dude: Rajput, “the internationally famous Hindu Secret Service Agent”. Yes, the agent’s name is Rajput. Take that, Bond.

I found only one episode of Rajput. It began with an advertisement for a elephant-shaped good luck charm. To get it — via a “secret service courier” — one had to write a letter to Rajput. (I wonder how many people wrote in with the hope of getting this talisman.) Rajput is the narrator of his own exploits. His English is distinctly and properly British, although it does have hints of singsong in it. There are Malays, poisonous gas, stolen treasure, religious chants, gongs and all the usual tropes of Oriental exotica. There’s also some proper nonsense, like when Rajput tells his listeners that “Borobudur” means “circle of doom”. Given that’s the name of a Mahayana Buddhist temple, Rajput is talking complete tosh. Rajput may be Indian, but his is the rationalist, Western perspective. He’s horrified by all this pagan nonsense (in this episode) while these damn Orientals do brutish things like make someone deaf, cut out their tongue and so on. I do wish I could find some earlier episodes that would tell me Rajput’s backstory. Anyway, perhaps because there aren’t any other voices and also because the story isn’t as well plotted (at least in this one episode), Rajput isn’t anywhere near as much fun as Chandu the Magician. Amusingly, he signs off “in his native tongue” with the words, “Salaam aur naseeb”. Which would translate to “Hello and fate”. Not quite as catchy as “Live long and prosper”, but it’s quite amusing to imagine little American boys and girls greeting each other saying “Salaam aur naseeb”.

Fortunately, the poster I found of Rajput offers a few more details about the man. He wears a turban, naturally, and has shpooky eyes. I suppose that’s bound to happen when your USP is “Strange Oriental MYSTERY”. Rajput hails from the fictitious town of Mishanagar in India. He is “an Oxford graduate, speaks perfect English” and his show is about “his amazing career as a secret service agent in the mysterious Orient.”

And look at that. The lucky elephant charms were apparently made of ivory.

Also, spotted this frame (thank you, Twitter) from a Batman comic from the 1940s, apparently:

Clearly, Indian exotica has been making inroads into the American imagination waaay before Bollywood.

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