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.