NEW DELHI — Every weeknight, millions of Indians tune their radios to the mellifluous voice of Neelesh Misra spinning tales of a vanishing way of life in a fictional Indian town.
He calls it Yaad Sheher, or Memory Town, a place on the cusp of change where people are leaving behind extended families and back yards with tamarind trees for boxy new city apartments.
As India’s rapid urbanization pushes people from small towns and villages in search of new jobs and opportunities, centuries-old family rituals are rapidly fading. And Misra’s daily show, called “The Idiot Box of Memories,” is helping to keep the nation’s dying storytelling tradition alive, while easing the path between growing aspirations for the new and nostalgia for the old life many have left behind.
More than 42 million listeners — 14 times the audience of “A Prairie Home Companion” — tune in to hear Misra’s hugely popular tales, which have earned him the endearing moniker “the Pied Piper of Indian radio.” Cabdrivers instantly recognize his voice, and fans have told him that they circle the block in their cars just to hear how a story ends.
Misra, a 42-year-old Bollywood songwriter and an editor of a rural newspaper, is Indian radio’s Garrison Keillor. And Memory Town is his Lake Wobegon.
“There was a time when the elders in our families used to tell stories to children. But we are all leading very busy and insulated lives now. Even the grandparents are busy with their cellphones and sharing jokes on WhatsApp,” Misra said in an interview. “We are using radio to revive the rich tradition of oral storytelling and scrape the dust off our urban lives.”
The radio program, which began in 2010 with just 33,000 listeners, is now in its fourth season and runs for a little over an hour, with 14 minutes of storytelling interspersed with eight Bollywood songs. The show airs on commercial stations in 45 cities, 1,200 towns and 50,000 villages.
Behind the microphone, Misra narrates what he calls India’s “everyday stories” — about the aspirations of Indian youths, the building of a new highway, a son confronting his corrupt father, a husband learning to cook and a new bride adjusting to an arranged marriage with a stranger.
“Neelesh Misra is like a cult figure now,” said Ashwin Padmanabhan, executive vice president of Reliance Broadcast Network, which runs the Big FM station. “Our listeners feel these are stories about real people around them from their very own neighborhoods.”
“Your stories are like my maa’s story, which she used to tell me in my childhood,” one listener wrote to Misra last month.
Misra’s radio stories are also heard on YouTube and Facebook and can be downloaded on a smartphone. He has done voice-overs for television commercials and conducted a live storytelling event on the India-Pakistan border last year. He got into radio storytelling purely by accident, he said. Earlier, he found radio “too full of Bollywood music and tacky humor.”
“His stories are about ordinary people, not the rich,” said Raju Thapa, a 32-year-old driver who says he is a fan. “When Neelesh Misra’s stories come on air, there is silence in the car. My boss in the back seat is hooked, too. This is the only thing that my boss and I have in common.”
In India, “leaving home” is a universal theme of the country’s narrative these days, as universal as love is, Misra said.
“The protagonists in his stories are often from some other place,” Padmanabhan said. “There is a lot of mixing up of people in our cities now.”
One of Misra’s most popular stories is called “Diwali Ki Raat” (or “The Night of Diwali Festival”), a tale of a busy, jet-setting executive who has to spend the night of the festival holiday away from his parents’ home because he has to make a PowerPoint presentation to an American company via video conference call.
Hindi advocates are happy that the show is reviving the language in an era of spoken “Hinglish,” a blend of Hindi and English. Most radio announcers speak this way.
“Hinglish is the language of the incompetent because it is spoken by Indians who are not very good in either Hindi or English,” said Ashok Chakradhar, a renowned Hindi poet and former vice chair of Hindi Academy. “This radio program is an important contribution to reviving spoken Hindi that is not corrupted by English.”
A few months ago, Misra asked listeners to contribute to the climax of his stories. Soon, listeners began calling in to offer their own.
Now, Misra has begun to crowdsource stories from listeners by mentoring writers clubs in cities and shepherding thousands of their stories before reading them on the air.
At a recent gathering of writers in Delhi, some read aloud to him — stories about a mother’s old school uniform, children climbing mango trees, crowded train journeys and yearning for the perfect pair of gold earrings.
“He does not allow any mention of cigarettes, alcohol or anything gloomy or macabre — nothing that will leave a bad taste in the listeners’ minds,” said Shabnam Gupta, who has contributed 10 stories in the past year for the program. “The show opens up an alternate world where good does exist and has not been overtaken by material greed.”
Although poignant, the stories in Memory Town almost always end on a positive note. And that is deliberate.
“We are not documenting the real India here,” Misra said. “In our stories, the bad guy will never get away free. I make sure that people are not left feeling defeated.”