31st October 1984. Twenty nine years have passed. Two deaths in the same month; on 6th October 1984, my father had breathed his last and on 31st October, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s life was cut short by her own bodyguards. Without referring to google I can remember the names of the bodyguards; Beant Singh and Satwant Singh. One good thing about having less mediums of communication is that you would remember things clearly. We had only radio and newspapers to know about the world and we remembered everything that we had heard and I should add, almost believed too. When Amitabh Bacchan was hurt while he was shooting for Manmohan Desai’s ‘Coolie’, we knew everything about him including the name of the one who accidently injured him; Puneet Issar was his name. Bombay hospitals like Jaslok and Breach Candy became familiar names for us even in down south.
Due to my father’s prolonged illness and hospitalization and the eventual death, I had lost one year in the school. I was with him at the hospital. I was supposed to give the school final examinations in March 1984. I would later sit for the same in March 1985. After my father’s death, a few months were left before the exams. So I was sent to Varkala, a nearby town to take classes privately. On 31st October 1984, I was in Varkala, in a tutorial college. Suddenly, the streets were filled with people. Students from the Varkala SN College were coming back to the bus stops. Someone came to our class and announced the death of Indira Gandhi. At the age of 14, I was shocked to hear that news. It was not because I was a strong Congress follower. But I believed that Indira Gandhi would never die. There are some people who you think would never die. But then they die one day as my father did. Then you believe in death. Life overtakes death and at times death overtakes life. It is a curious traffic game.
We were asked to go home silently. Our principal, the venerable Krishnan Sir of Sagar Tutorials, where I had the chance to teach many years later, advised us to be calm and quite. He, in his paternal voice told us that there could be the possibilities of a riot and hartal hence we were supposed to take buses or trains and reach home safely at the earliest. When I came out to the streets with so many students like me, there was tension in the streets. Buses had stopped plying. My sister was in Varkala SN College and I waited for her at the bus stop. She came with her friends at the bus stop. Once again, when you do not have instant communication devices like today, you just need to believe in your intuitions. I had heeded to it and thought that my sister would come to the bus stop. As the buses have stopped running, we decided to go to the railway station to see whether any trains going further south so that we could get down after two stations and walk back to home. Trains also did not come. Everything had gone standstill.
(Rahul,, Rajiv, Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi at Indira Gandhi's funeral in Delhi)
Indira Gandhi’s death was in everybody’s lips. College students, generally unruly in behavior, on that afternoon behaved politely. The boys and girls who were from the south villages congregated at the railway station and decided to walk back to homes. Our house was around fifteen kilometers away. We all started walking along the railway line. We reached home safe. Radio was playing sad tunes. Special bulletins were broadcasted. Next day newspapers came with headlines screaming the death of Indira Gandhi. More deaths were about to follow. We did not know much about it on the next day. Within two days we knew the Sikh community was being persecuted in Delhi and its surrounding places. News, views, stories, rumors and whisper campaigns followed. In the next week, the weeklies published in Malayalam were full of Indira Gandhi and her death, her cremation; the history of Indira Gandhi’s family came to us through so many pictures. We saw our next Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi standing silently at the pyre with Sonia Gandhi flanked by young Rahul and Priyanka. I thought Priyanka was beautiful and Rahul must be a chess player.
We all believed Indira Gandhi would rule forever and also live forever. She was charismatic. My first memory of Indira Gandhi is from a school text at the fourth standard. The lesson’s title was ‘Even a Stone has a Story to Recount’. This was an abridged translation of Nehru’s letters to his daughter Indira Priyadarshini, who later on became Indira Gandhi. The lesson was illustrated with a black and white drawing, which years later I found out was from an existing photograph. In the picture a young Indira in her frock was seen sitting at the bedside of Mahatma Gandhi and him holding her hands with his enchanting smile. Indira stared at us from the picture with her wide, dark and enigmatic eyes. Then my father found out a beautiful picture of Indira Gandhi from the cover page of Vanitha (Lady), a special magazine for women published by the Malayala Manorama group.
(A hug from the Star of Revolution; Indira Gandhi and Fidel Castro)
Somehow my father liked this photograph a lot. So he carefully took it and pasted on a large album that he had recently acquired. The album was quite a big one but was quite desi. It did not have any bells or music coming out of it once opened as in the case of several fluffy albums came from the gulf countries. I was happy with the desi one I had for the simple reason that I could see the photographs that my father had tastefully pasted in it. Every Sunday, I observed this ritual of opening this album only to see Indira Gandhi in the first page and in the next my father’s portrait done by my uncle. My father had taken a great pride in having Indira Gandhi in his personal album. He was a Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) leader. He could have become a MLA or minister but he was hot blooded and too critical of things then. Once he fell out of with the party, he joined the Indian National Congress. It was Congress (I); the Indira Group. Indira Gandhi had become very strong during the early 1970s.
I clearly remember during 1975, though I was hardly six years old, there used to be a lot of hushed up meetings at home; mostly between my father and his friends. The word, emergency used to come up quite often in their talks. People were afraid of Naxalites and we, children were always warned about the naxalites who could either take us away or harm us in some way. I don’t remember when exactly my father joined the Congress party; however, now I think that he must have joined it just before the declaration of Emergency. He was quite during that time; from the office he came home, changed his clothes and went to a club and played cards. He was not arrested for possessing any incriminating literature or writing any provocative pamphlets. But our home library had the collected works of Marx and Engels, Maxim Gorky, Tolstoy and many other Russian writers. Besides, my father used to subscribe some left wing magazines even after he officially joined the Congress party.
(Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Priyadarshini)
I had shouted ‘Indira Gandhi Zindabad’ when I was in school. As my father was a Congressman, I automatically became a Congress follower. In our times, school parliaments were quite strong and I used to get selected as a Congress MP. And in 1982 or 83 I was the Speaker of the School Parliament. Debates and passing of the bills were regular features though we did not know much about the nuances of it. As most of the male teachers wore Khadi clothes like my father, and as our school library had a lot of Gandhi literature and literature on Indian independence, and our librarian, Balakrishnan Sir was a poet and a Gandhi enthusiast, I also thought Congress had the natural right to rule things. I found the left parties and my friends in the opposition benches anachronism in politics. I was too ignorant to understand the Left wing politics, which later on obviously I caught up with. Whenever I won school election, along with my supporters I shouted, ‘Indira Gandhi Zindabad’. When public elections came, I went around with a mike to campaign for the local MLA. Being a school student was not a problem then.
‘Soviet Republic’ and ‘Soviet Land’ were two publications that used to come to our home by post. In one of them I saw Indira Gandhi standing with the Cuban president, Fidel Castro. They were not standing; the charismatic and handsome Fidel was embracing Indira Gandhi and for the first time I saw Indira Gandhi as a woman, with her cheeks going red. The caption of the picture read: A hug from the star of revolution.’ I saw her photographs with President Brushnev and many others. She too followed the Nehruvian strategy of Non-alignment but leaned towards the then USSR. Indira Gandhi was an event and a presence. She became a fearsome personality when I start reading about Emergency days and the efforts towards Cultural revolution in Kerala. When I studied the history of the Naxal Movement in Kerala, and came to know the stories of Rajan, the engineering student and the ill treatment meted out to Ajitha, the then Naxalite leader, Indira Gandhi fell in grace before my eyes. Reading the biography by Pupul Jayakar or Katherine Frank did not help much. But I liked the young Indira who lived in Santiniketan and formed a Vanara Sena (Army of Monkeys) to support the nationalist cause.
(Fidel Castro and Indira Gandhi)
I have hundred and one reasons to hate Indira Gandhi as a political leader. But when I think of her, she was someone very unique. I had seen her in person from the shoulder of my father when she came to Attingal, a nearby town from my village; we all had gone to see her. She looked a bit more real that reality itself. She waved to the crowd. The crowd went in raptures. She spoke in English. C.M.Stephen translated it. When he translated more than she said, she admonished him in public. She never allowed people to fall on her feet like Jayalalithaa does today. But she did not tolerate insubordination. She fell for soothsayers. She stopped liking naysayers.
Indira Gandhi, perhaps is a phenomenon for me. I am not a political pundit to judge her or a historian to evaluate her political contribution. But when I see her picture in today’s newspapers, I feel a sense of missing someone; it could be my father or she herself. May be those 1970s and 1980s, a time that has shaped me into this person who is writing.