Twenty-four years ago, Keki Darbary and Vilas Rabade, two amateur radio enthusiasts from Pune, were fiddling with their Ham radio sets when they accidentally established contact with a Soviet cosmonaut aboard the orbital space station MIR. They had a three-minute exchange, and a number of their fellow enthusiasts were tuned into this conversation that took place on April 14, 1989.
Similarly in 1966, when Ved Prakash Sandlas was a student at IIT Kharagpur, he made contact with a sailor who was on board a vessel travelling from Honolulu to San Francisco. When they exchanged their latitude and longitude coordinates, the sailor said to him, “In one hour, I will be exactly opposite to you on the globe.” Sandlas, now in Delhi, still looks back fondly at the confirmatory letter he has, a reminder of a conversation he had with a stranger ages ago.
Salutations from members of a social network who are tuned into a frequency of their own, where your “friend list” thrives on “incidental contacts” established via radio waves. The networking platform here is a wireless transceiver (radio transmitter plus receiver), referred to as a Ham radio.
In his Vigyan Prasar office in Delhi, a generous portion of Sandeep Baruah’s workspace is taken up by his Ham radio equipment, including a device for Morse Code (yes, dots and dashes). “Ham radio is an alternative form of communication. The beauty of this communication is that, while sitting in your room, you can make contact with anyone, anywhere across the globe, provided he also has the required equipment. When disaster strikes and cellphone services don’t work, a ham radio continues to function,” says Baruah.
As an example, he cites the time he made contact with Cap’n Fatty Goodlander, an author and sea gypsy who travels the world in his 38 ft boat. Then, there was the time he established contact with Port Blair, when tsunami had struck, helping relay messages between people stranded on the island and their families back home.
In India, there are 15,000-20,000 Ham radio operators, or Hams, and a generous portion of this number is based in south India. Delhi has about 40-50 active Hams, who are “on air” every night, at 9.30pm, for a round of “rag chewing” (think group chat). Worldwide, there are more than three million hams, each of whom has a “call sign” which denotes his identity, and country of origin.
While Baruah is known as VU2MUE to other Hams, 77-year-old Gopal Madhavan, the president of Bangalore-based Amateur Radio Society of India (ARSI), is VU2GMN. Other clubs in the country include National Institute of Amateur
Radio (NIAR), Hyderabad, and the Coimbatore Amateur Radio Club.
“Hams believe in the concept of a global community,” says Baruah, “Since most of the contacts are incidental, we give preference to the weakest signal we are receiving — you never know, someone may need help, or could be transmitting from a remote location. Besides audio, we can also send across text messages and pictures.
Then there is the use of Morse Code. While most people think of it as a series of dots and dashes, Hams such as me see complete words and sentences. A Ham based in Russia and I speak only through Morse.” The dedication to this hobby is commendable. To be a Ham, one needs to appear for a test organised by the Wireless Planning Coordination (WPC) wing of the government and get a clearance from the Intelligence Bureau.
In India, the minimum age criterion for this is 12 years. Worldwide, the lower age limit varies — in the US, a 10-year old boy has recently become a licensed Ham. Referring to this kind of networking as the “queen of hobbies,” 69-year-old retired DRDO and ISRO scientist Sandlas says, “Ham radio equipment used to be very difficult to procure but, after 1984, Rajiv Gandhi, who was a very active Ham, allowed import of the equipment free of any duty.”
But many Hams — like Madhavan — still prefer to build their own sets. Cheers to a world tuned to a different frequency.