March 1, 2007

B2B with K: Where we were the day Nehru died

In Tehran, homeless, penniless and hungry, says Kini. He wound up his latest post - End of an era... - with these words: this was the 27th of May, 1964 –“a tryst with destiny”, a significant day in Indian history as an era was coming to a close and the breaking news of this event made us the centre of attention for the rest of our journey...

On that day in May I was on a ship, crossing the Suez. The ships moved in a convoy led by a pilot boat through a narrow strip of sea wide enough for single-lane traffic. Ours was a one-class tourist vessel – m v Asia – a Lloyd Triestino boat on the Hong Kong – Trieste run.

it was mid-morning (May 27, 1964); most passengers were out on the promenade deck when news of Nehru’s death was announced through the ship public address system. Suddenly I found myself focus of attention. Wherever I went, on the deck, the library, or the dining hall,co-passengers sought me out convey their composite sympathy, and to say how sorry they were to hear the news. Ours was a small one-class tourists liner, in which almost everyone was a familiar face. Never realized Nehru was so known, and endeared.

They wanted to know what the man was like; whether I had met him. Nehru was, in fact, a tourist attraction in New Delhi. He set aside some 15 minutes daily to meet and pose for photos with common people who came to his residence, Teen Murti House. An official photographer from the Press Information Bureau (PIB) was deputed to take pictures that were catalogued and kept for public browsing in the PIB photo library. I knew this because I had worked there for a while.

Visitors to Teen Murti House who wanted to order copies of their photographs with Nehru were directed to PIB photo library, Parliament Street. They came from all countries, cultures, and walks of life. A former Ms Australia dropped in once at the photo library, to get copies of her pictures with Nehru taken at Teen Murti House that morning. My boss was so taken in that he took her out to lunch (while the photos were being developed and printed) at the Chelmsford Club.

It was during his Teen Murti House darshan time I met Nehru a few months before his death. I had escorted a freelance journalist from the US, Jackie Hudgins, who was on a world trip. Jackie had worked half-way round the world, from Richmond, Virginia (US), freelancing for foreign magazines. In New Delhi she had done a couple of talks on her India experience for Australian radio.

It was a journalistic assignment that brought her to the PIB photo library. It was well stocked with news and feature pictures taken by a platoon of official photographers. And journalists in New Delhi, paricularly the foreign print media, relied on the PIB library for their photographic needs. Jackie Hudgins came there looking for pictures of horse-drawn carriages, to go with her magazine story of a tongawallah in Jumma Mazjid. When she chanced on an album of Teen Murti House photos, of visitors with Nehru, the globe-trotting freelancer expressed interest in meeting the man and having her pictures taken with Nehru. I arranged for her visit to Teen Murti House, and also agreed to accompany her.

We joined other visitors waiting in small companionable groups in a spacious hall in Teen Murti House. It was customary for the PM to meet visitors after breakfast, before he left for office at the South Block or Parliament House. Nehru stepped down from his first-floor living quarters to the waiting hall, and worked his way through the visitors standing in knots of two or three. He spent a few minutes with each group, with the photographer in tow taking pictures.

Nehru walked up to us for a chat with Jackie. He evinced interest in her globe-trotting, as Jackie told him how she had worked her way, freelancing, through Japan, the far-east, Indonesia and Singapore. Her next stop, she said, was Pakistan. “Do write about it,” said Nehru before moving on to the next group.I wasn’t sure how he meant it. Maybe he wanted Jackie to do a book on her travels. Surely, he would not have meant that she wrote to him. I don’t know if she did. But I got a letter from Taxila,in Pakistan, on her travel in a caboose (with the guard of a freight train).

So much our meeting with Nehru. Must admit I felt utterly ignored in the proceedings. Would conclude this post, Kini, with my disembarkation at Genoa, after a ten-day boat trip from Bombay. Immigration and customs officials at the port were particularly kind, as they examined my Indian passport. The immigration official uttered the word 'Nehru' noddingly, and stamped me through.I was waved through the customs formalities, with no baggage checks. Which was helpful. Because I had in my baggage an item that did not belong to me. I was taking ashore an ivory chess board on behalf of a crew member.

Shortly before the ship docked at Genoa a crew member came with a request to our cabin, which I shared with three other Indians. None of us thought much of carrying a small parcel for him, to be collect after we cleared the customs. The plea was addressed to us as a group. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to any of us to turn down his request. We knew it was not quite the right thing. But then the crew member working in the dining hall had become a friend during the voyage.Unknown to us, the chap was, presumably, cultivating us. Smuggling small items through the customs was not seen as a crime then. Most people would have done it, without a thought, even for total stangers. Would not be seen as a smart thing to do nowadays.

1 comment:

Guru said...

The death of Nehru was not cleanly announced. First there was the rumour of his ill health, the AIR bulletins did not give any clue. I was in Bangalore at that time, working in a company and my works manager was a German , an ex-Luftwaffe pilot, who was shot down near Dover in England and escaped quickly as soon as he was captured. He was an excellent engineer.

In those days (1962) engineering students were required to go on a tour to see the real world. After visiting a few industries and power stations in the North, our group arranged to visit Teen Murti Bhavan to see Nehru. He arrived on time, and after chatting to a few visitors came straight towards us learning that we were engineering students from Mysore. He spoke for about ten minutes giving reasons why engineering is key to India's prosperity, and hence why our role is so important in nation building. He spoke with emotion and sincerity. It was for me a memorable experience. After a few years, I had the opportunity as a staff member to take a group of engineering students to visit Teen Murti Bhavan, now a Nehru memorial building. We went round this historical house, stopped by his bedroom. Seeing on a desk the book of poems by Frost, opened on the page -"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" from which he quoted, " But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.." a few days before his death. We were very moved. A day later, we went to see Indira Gandhi (Thanks to the effort of Poonacha, a minister in her government and an uncle of one of my students). I mentioned my experience of 1962 to her, and I could see some moisture formed in her left eye. She spent more than 40 minutes with us and she enquired each of my 20 students. I mentioned my family, and my family's close association with the 'sage of Kanchi', and her face lit up with a smile.

When the emergency was introduced with draconian measures and people were oppressed, I could not believe that this was the lady with visible emotion and who paid such silent respect to the saint that we mutually revered, could be so ruthless. I wondered then whether her father would have approved what she did. For the first time in my family history, I cast my vote to an opposition candidate in the parliamentary election that took place after the emergency was lifted.