Once upon a time even the prime minister was approachable
14-Jan-2011 •Jay Dubashi
Like a 4-star general on D-Day, US president Barack Obama descended on Bombay last month, at the height of Diwali festivities, complete with an armada of planes, helicopters, bulletproof-cars, and, of course, the usual army of G-men, armed to the teeth, and all in the name of security. It was almost an invasion but we took it in our stride.
Until about 30 years ago, nobody in India had even heard about security and things were so lax you could get away with murder, sometimes literally. Dwight Eisenhower was, I think, the first US president to visit India and there were huge crowds in Parliament Street and Connaught Place to greet him, with may be a few score policemen to keep us off the streets. Some of us shook hands with him as the cavalcade halted for a while near Gol Dak-khana, but before we could exchange a few words, he was whisked away by his staff, never to be seen again, not even on TV, because there was no TV!
Things were much simpler in Delhi at the time, I had an office in Chanakyapuri, a stone’s throw from Nehru’s palatial residence near Teen Murti. We used to see him drive past the roundabout every morning, but before that he used to meet the public for an hour on the lawns behind his house, and you could go in and take a chair and Nehru would come in and listen to you and sometimes, on a cold morning, his men even gave us tea. There were no bodyguards, even when sometimes things went out of control, and Nehru had to pacify weeping old women who had trudged all the way from refugee camps in old Delhi.
Things were a little more orderly in Nehru’s office in South Block, but even there, you just went in and signed a chit, and waited for the great man. Once in a while, Nehru came out and said ‘hello’ to everyone as the peons glared at you but did not interfere.
Right up to Nehru’s death, Delhi was, so to speak, an open city. On the day he died, we dropped everything and decided to visit Teen Murti house, though, we had no idea where exactly his body had been kept. I expected huge crowds and also the usual police ‘bandobast’ but there was nobody there. I reached the outer gate and asked the sentry if I could go in, and he just waved me in. He was a Gurkha and probably did not understand me.
There was nobody at the porch either, so I just climbed the few steps to the main entrance and went inside, waiting to meet somebody who could direct me to the proper room. Since there was nobody there either — it was four in the afternoon — I went up the staircase to the first floor and turned left into a hall which, to my great surprise, was also empty.
I went through the door to another hall which was also empty, but for a couple of men near the window whispering to each other. All furniture had been removed but for a carpet — a blue carpet — on which a body lay shrouded in white. Since I didn’t expect Nehru there, I almost ignored it, until I saw Indira Gandhi come in and squat near the body and adjust the shroud.
I was now in panic as I realised that I, total stranger, had walked, so to say, in the lion’s den and would probably be taken out and shot. I decided to look as casual and normal as I could, nodded to Mrs. Gandhi, and sat down in a corner of the carpet. After a while, I rose, nodded to the lady again, and tiptoed out of the room without a backward glance, until I came into the garden, and nearly collapsed on the lawn, paralysed by fear.
I had half a mind to pick up a flower, preferably a rose, go back to the room where the body lay and place it on the shroud. But I just didn’t have the heart to go through it all again, and ran out into the road where crowds were beginning to gather.