Salman Rushdie -The Free Radio- Summary and analysis

Bird’s-eye view- The Free radio

Salman Rushdie’s “The Free Radio” is the story of Ramani, the rickshaw-wallah. “The Free Radio” appeared in the anthology of short-stories East, West in 1994. 

The Free Radio – Summary


The narrator of “The Free Radio” begins with a note of disappointment that Ramani, the rickshaw rider, could have had a good life. Ramani is a handsome young man who inherited a brand-new first-class cycle rickshaw from his father. He could have got a good wife in time as well. But he fell prey to a thief’s widow. It was sure nothing good would happen to him since she had enchanted him. It was hard to get him out of the spell of the thief’s widow because he was an innocent, an empty-headed person.

The thief’s widow must have been ten years older than Ramani. She was undoubtedly attractive, but her mentality was cheap. When her husband died he left her not a single penny except five children. The narrator suggests that the thief’s widow is a prostitute, “people saw men at night near her rutputty shack, even the bania himself they were telling me but I personally will not comment.” The widow became interested in Ramani because she knew he could rescue her from her inevitable disaster and sustain her family.

The narrator of “The Free Radio” narrates their first meeting. One day Ramani was his rickshaw into town without a passenger, but he was smiling widely as usual as if someone had given him a ten-chip tip, and was singing some playback music from the radio. The thief’s widow with her five children had gone to the bania shop to buy some three grains of dal.

The thief’s widow called out to Ramani: “Hey! Rickshaaa!” the ride must have caused her children to remain hungry but according to the narrator, it was an investment for her and family, because she had already decided to make him her savior. While carrying all five children along with a weighty widow in the rickshaw, Ramani was gasping, and his veins were standing out on his legs, and the narrator thought, “careful, my son, or you will have this burden to pull for all of your life.”

Since then Ramani and the thief’s widow were seen everywhere, shamelessly, in public places, and though the narrator was not happy about their relationship, however, he was glad his mother was dead because for her seeing her son with a thief’s widow would be a disgrace.

Ramani came into contact with some friends with whom he would drink illegal liquor in the back of the Irani’s canteen. The narrator was unhappy to see him with them. He cares for Ramani because he knew his parents when they were alive. Therefore he advised Ramani to keep away from that bad company, he grinned like a sheep and ignored the narrator’s advice. He said that the narrator was wrong, and nothing bad was taking place. At last, the narrator let it go.

The narrator does not like Ramani’s friends. They wore the armbands of the new Youth Movement. At that time the State of Emergency was continuing, and Ramani’s friends were not peace-loving people. They might have involved in beatings-up. Though Ramani wore no armband he was with them because they impressed him. They always flattered Ramani by telling him that he is such a handsome man who can be compared to actors Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh and he should go to Bombay and invest his career in the film industry.

They flattered him with dreams because they knew they could take money from him at cards and buy drinks at his expense. As a consequence Ramani’s head was became filled with those movie dreams. The widow could have stopped him but she also once flattered him, “Truly you have the looks of Lord Krishna himself, except you are not blue all over.” She told him in the street so that everyone would know they were lovers. From that day on the narrator was sure about the oncoming disaster.

Therefore the narrator determined to save Ramani for the sake of his dead parents. The next time the thief’s widow visited the bania shop he called out to her. The widow was astounded to hear his voice, jerked her face in an ugly way as if he had hit her with a whip. She might have calculated that if people saw her talking with a man with the social status they would stop ignoring her when she passed, so she came to him.

He told her with dignity, “Ramani the rickshaw boy is dear to me, and you must find some person of your own age, or, better still, go to the widows’ ashrams in Benares and spend the rest of your life there in holy prayer, thanking God that widow-burning is now illegal.”

She reacts to him by screaming out and calling him curses and said that he was a poisonous old man who should have died years ago, and then she said, “Let me tell you, mister teacher sahib retired, that your Ramani has asked to marry me and I have said no, because I wish no more children, and he is a young man and should have his own. So tell that to the whole world and stop your cobra poison.”

After that incident, he left his interest in Ramani with the thought that he had done all he could and there were many other interesting things happening in the town. For instance, the local health officer had brought a big white caravan and was given permission to park it out of the way under the banyan tree. The youths with armbands always guarded the caravan and every night men were taken into this van for sterilizing them. The narrator did not pay attention to any of the rumors he heard.

The free radio

At this time Ramani suddenly began to tell everyone about his new fantasy, it was about the arrival of a highly specialized and personalized gift very soon from the Central Government in Delhi and it was to be a brand-new first-class battery-operated transistor radio. Everybody took it as another dream reverie. But Ramani insisted that that was true, and seemed happier than at any time in his life.

Soon after the dream-radio was first mentioned, the couple got married. One day when Ramani was passing the banyan with an empty rickshaw, the narrator called him and asked him if he had been to the caravan. Ramani replied that there was nothing to worry about. He declares that he was in love with the widow and he made it possible to marry the widow.

The narrator became angry at Ramani; indeed, he almost wept as he realized that Ramani had gone willingly there to sterilize himself which was being forced upon the other men who were taken to the caravan. The narrator rebuked Ramani bitterly, “My idiot child, you have let that woman deprive you of your manhood!”

Ram replied, “It does not stop love-making or anything, excuse me, teacher sahib, for speaking of such a thing. It stops babies only and my woman did not want children anymore, so now all is a hundred percent OK. Also it is in national interest.” He also added that the free radio would soon arrive.

“The free radio,” the narrator repeated. Ramani said confidentially that in his childhood days when the radio came, people from every corner of the town thronged to listen to the radio. It is how the Government said thank you. It would be excellent to have a radio.

The narrator gave up his attempts in despair, he ordered Ramani to go away and did not tell him that the free radio scheme was abandoned many years ago which was already known to everyone in the country.

After these events, the widow rarely came into town, but Ramani worked longer hours than ever before. Every time he saw any of those people whom he had told about the radio he would put one hand up to his ear as if he were already holding the free radio in it, and mimicked radio broadcasts with vigor.

“Yé Akashvani hai,” he announced to the streets. “This is All-India Radio. Here is the news. A Government spokesman today announced that Ramani rickshaw-wallah’s radio was on its way and would be delivered at any moment. And now some playback music.” The people almost believed in his imaginary radio.

Ram continued to carry the invisible radio and his caricatures of the radio channel filled the air in the streets. But there was a strained thing in his face which was much more tiring than driving a rickshaw, more tiring even than carrying the thief’s widow and her five children in his rickshaw, and he was trying to bring the radio into existence by a mighty act of will.

“The narrator had divined that Ram had poured into the idea of the radio all his worries and regrets about what he had done, and that if the dream were to die he would be forced to face the full gravity of his crime against his own body, to understand that the thief’s widow had turned him into a thief of a stupid and terrible kind.”

And then the white caravan came back to its place under the banyan tree. He did not come there for two days, because he didn’t want to show the health officer that he was desperate for the radio. Besides, he was hopeful that government officials would give the radio at his place with some kind of small, formal presentation ceremony. A fool will always be a fool.

On the third day, he went to the caravan with the widow, ringing his bicycle-bell and imitating weather forecasts, ear cupped as usual. After a while, there are sounds of disagreement were heard inside the caravan. Ramani, visibly beaten, is marched out of the caravan by his armband friends and his hair-grease was smudged on to his face and there was blood coming from his mouth. The thief’s widow remained stationary even when they dumped her husband in the dust.

One day, the narrator saw Ramani selling his rickshaw and told the narrator that he and his family were leaving for Bombay to fulfill his dreams of becoming a bigger film star than Shashi Kapoor or Amitabh Bachchan.

After some months, the narrator received the first letter from Ramani which was not written by himself, but by a paid professional letter-writer. That meant he could not write. The narrator received more letters filled with stories from his new career he told him that his talent was discovered at once and he was living the dream life of a film star. He bought a big house and the thief’s widow was good and happy and getting fat, and life was filled with prosperity.

Though the narrator was receiving wonderful letters, however, whenever he read them and remembered the expression which came over his face when he learned the truth about the free radio.

The Free Radio- Salman Rushdie- Analysis

Character sketch


Ramani is the main protagonist of the short story “The Free Radio”. Ramani is a naive rickshaw rider. He fell in love with the thief’s widow and later marries her. 

The narrator cared for him since he had a good relationship with his late parents. For the narrator, he was gullible. Therefore he wanted to warn him whenever he saw him doing something wrong but could not succeed. For instance, while talking about his love for the thief’s widow, he says, “It was hard to get him out of the spell of thief’s widow because he “was an innocent, a real donkey’s child, you can’t teach such people.” The narrator also told him to stay away from his rowdy friends, the armband youths but he ignored his advice by telling him wrong. 

Later, he went to Bombay to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor. His letters to the narrator could suggest his relationship with the narrator. 

The thief’s widow

The widow was a beautiful woman. She was ten years older than Ramani and had five children alive and two dead from her previous marriage. When her husband died he left her not one paisa. For her, Ramini could save her from impending doom. That is why probably she married to Ramini. She is looked down upon by the whole town including the narrator. Not addressing her by her name is an act of denial by the narrator.

The narrator 

The narrator was an old retired teacher who was respected in the town. The narrator is unreliable; he narrates most of the incidents based on gossip. For instance, based on the gossip of the town’s people he implies that the thief’s widow is a whore. 

The narrator, being a respected member of society, discriminated against the widow. In a sense, he is a misogynist. He never addressed her by her name. He thought calling her by her name would be a shame. “I risked being shamed by a . . . no, I will not call her the name, she is elsewhere now and they will know what she is like.” 

According to the narrator, the widow could stop Ramani from doing such silly things. Instead, she too flattered him in the public by comparing him to Lord Krishna. 

Theme of Oppression

The State of Emergency was a dark period in Indian political history. During the time, the government introduced the idea of vasectomy or nasbandi and it was targeted at poor people like Ramani. Illiterate people like Ramani could not understand the depth of it and instead welcomed it. Ramani willingly went to the caravan to sterilize himself.

The Free Radio

Moreover, he agreed to the state’s claim that nasbandi was in the national interest. As an act of sacrifice, he thought that the government would reward him with free radio. He would rather be happy to receive the free radio than thinking of his loss. The free radio became a symbol of reward from the government. Though the narrator informed him that the free radio scheme was abandoned a long time ago and was known to everyone, he did not stop his reverie. 

Work cited

Rushdie, Salman. “The Free Radio”, East, West. Vintage Books.

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