Landing at the Indira Gandhi
International Airport at 2 am, wondering at its gleaming floors, fancy
lighting, escalators, in crisp understated saris, understanding why it’s
ranked the world’s second best airport, I wanted to sit and weep with
relief when an officer took my tired mother to sit down and offered her
water while we rummaged for our yellow fever cards.
On the way back to the hotel I was as
mesmerised as a child staring outside, at shadowy figures moving in the
fog, in the coldest winter in decades, trucks carrying produce, a jangle
of cowbells in fine grey light, at groups of men walking, of people
sleeping on the pavement. India fills up all the empty spaces with
The next morning, after a South
Indian dosa I’d been longing for, my mother and I head out with the
driver to the bank. Delhi, the world’s fourth most populous city, is an
assault on the senses one associates with India (but with half the
pollution as the city’s most popular form of transport—the three wheeler
auto rickshaw—now runs on compressed natural gas).
I look back with pleasure in the taxi
at the Qutab Minar, the highest stone tower in India, built in 1192 by
the Persian ruler Mohammed Ghori, signalling Muslim domination in India
lasting centuries, and Humayuns Tomb, another Persian structure in a
garden built in the 16th century by the Mogul emperor’s widow.
The long shadow of India’s 5,000-year
history sits as comfortably with modern India as a hoary man in a
loincloth sits under an ancient spreading tree talking on his mobile.
Centuries co-exist, mesh. Incongruity is ordinary in India.
We meander through crowded streets,
vendors on sidewalks, auto rickshaws fuelled by compressed natural gas,
people on cycles, patches of green, brightly dressed women holding onto
the handles of auto rickshaws, groups of children in salvaar kameez
uniforms, another in “vestern” pleated gingham and tartan skirts,
working women in crisp saris and many in western clothes, husband, wife
and two children on one motorbike, their scarves floating flat.
All this to the perpetual cacophony
of Bollywood music, shouts of vendors, squawking of birds, honking of
trucks, cars, bikes, three wheelers and motorbikes.
Burning wood, joss sticks, jasmine,
fog, splashes of gold light, cool shadows, dust and decay fill the air.
This is the Delhi I feel viscerally, as opposed to what I see, both
wondrous and unknown like the fog that wouldn’t, one winter, engulfed me
as child and miraculously cleared, allowing me to rush to my mother.
Just when I think I’ve lost India, I find her.
As we approach the Indira Gandhi
Memorial museum, through a wide boulevard, heavy trees, I sift through
these childhood memories like photographs sinking in water. I’ve been
back here several times, once with my children.
This time an old sepia memory
surfaces: walking into the garden of this sprawling white bungalow when
Indira Gandhi lived here as prime minister of India, with my stunning
mother in pale chiffon and pearls, silky sheet of long hair, and cat eye
shades (literally parting gaping crowds), my father in mufti, my brother
and I, escorted to her by security.
Outside the bungalow there was the
din of crowds a quarter-mile thick chanting: “Indira Gandhi acchi hai,
jo kehti hai voh karti hai” (Indira Gandhi is good. She keeps her
It was here in her garden, among
roses, less than a foot from the stretch she last walked (now enclosed
in memorial glass), the place she finally fell after being shot,
assassinated by two of her bodyguards on October 31, 1984 (now marked by
spots of her blood) that my parents, brother and I had an audience with
her—so close we could touch her striking face, (translucent pale, in the
punishing Delhi summer), her grandson Rahul in the crook of her arm.
She chatted with my parents for about
20 minutes while my brother and I sat, awed. I learned later we got
there because my father, then Lt Col Mahendra Mathur, was the officer in
charge when the new Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Indira
Gandhi met in Simla to discuss Pakistani prisoners of war.
When he came home and said he’d met
the two women, I did what is expected of a daddy’s girl: pouted and
said, “I don’t believe you, Daddy. I’ll only believe it if I see it.” So
he somehow arranged that meeting with Mrs Gandhi, sheepishly unwilling
to wear his army uniform.
This winter as I walked about the
former prime minister’s bungalow dodging a dozen schoolchildren,
honeymooners and college students mulling over her photographs, a visual
narration of Indira Gandhi’s life from childhood to her last days,
covering the Indian Nationalist movement; the graceful, powerful,
intellectual life of Nehru-Gandhi family lived on an enormous canvas—I
thought, so this is how continuity, memory, history, culture is
Among Indira Gandhi’s personal
exhibits was her blood-stained sari, which she wore on the day she was
assassinated, the letter she wrote expecting her assassination, and the
burnt clothes and shoes her son Rajiv Gandhi wore when he was
assassinated in a bomb blast in May 1991.
In her simple drawing room, where she
made decisions that affected millions, ordered generals, created foreign
policy, groomed her sons for leadership, I understood finally why I took
her assassination so personally and my love for India became indelibly
mixed in with memory, pride and loss in equal parts.