Memory of a farewell

Memory of a farewell

A little over 50 years ago, my brother and I were among the thousands who thronged to bid farewell to India’s first prime minister, as the gun-carriage bearing his mortal remains moved majestically down Rajpath, New Delhi.

Our house was not far from that stately boulevard and, just four months before, we had stood at much the same spot to witness the Republic Day parade.

The poignant funeral procession on May 28, 1964, was oddly reminiscent of that celebratory event for, on both occasions, spectators, dignitaries and the armed forces were in attendance.

My brother was four years old and, though his senior by five years, I could hardly have looked after him and myself in a surging sea of humanity.

I learnt later that our mother was with us but, surprisingly, she eludes my memory. The weather, however, is vivid in my recollection.

Summer was at its peak but, braving the sweltering heat, people had come out in large numbers to pay homage to their beloved mentor. ‘Chacha Nehru amar rahe!’ chanted children and adults alike.

‘The light has gone out of our lives,’ declared Jawaharlal Nehru, when Mahatma Gandhi was lost to the nation.

Evidently, the country was steeped in similar gloom at this elder statesman’s demise. Many sobbed unashamedly and, engulfed by emotion and exhaustion, some onlookers fainted.

My brother and I were too young to be thus overwhelmed, but we regarded death with fearful fascination.

Our parents still spoke regretfully of John F Kennedy, who had been assassinated the previous year, and I remember feeling sorry for his daughter who was five days short of her sixth birthday when the president was killed. Closer home, one of my friends had recently been bereaved.

I had been shaken by the sight of her father, who had talked and laughed with us, lying still and silent.

In striking contrast, our prime minister had been a remote figure and remained so at the end.

Police cordons prevented the crowds from getting anywhere close to the cortège and we gazed from afar as it went past, accompanied by a cavalcade of cars.

Even at a distance, the uncovered face of the departed leader was visible above the tricolour that draped him.

The servicemen drawing the hearse marched at so measured a pace that none among the multitude of mourners was denied a final glimpse.

Suddenly, a woman grabbed my brother and lifted him high so that he could get a better view. Then, just as quickly, she put him down and fled.

Apparently, while holding the squirming boy aloft, she had tried to steal his prized new watch, only to be ably foiled by maternal vigilance.

Strange that after five decades I should recall the devious designs of a would-be thief but not the protective presence of my mother!