The passing of a president

The passing of a president

This year, the US observed the birth centenary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The nation’s suave and spirited 35th President was born on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, and assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. 

Apparently, not long before his death at 12.30 pm (Central Standard Time), President Kennedy had a premonition of disaster. Warning his wife, albeit lightly, that they were ‘heading into nut country’ (Dallas was hostile to Kennedy’s perceived pro-Communist stance), he added: “If somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody could stop it, so why worry about it?” Brave and prophetic words from a man who, barely a few hours later, would return to Washington, on board Air Force One, in a casket.

In 2013, as America marked the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, a well-known newspaper asked the public to share their memories of the day that ‘united the world in shock’. Only those in their late 50s or older would have participated in the survey, since anyone else was unlikely to remember hearing of the president’s passing. If I had been interviewed, I could have spoken, not about the afternoon of the tragedy but the morning after. On November 23, 1963, I woke up early, although there was no school on Saturday or, more likely, because there wasn’t! Suddenly, my parents and I heard a cry from the drawing room. We rushed there to see my father’s brother, who was spending a week with us in Delhi, in a state of distress. Clutching the newspaper, he murmured incoherently, “They’ve shot Kennedy!”

In stunned disbelief, my parents sank down beside my uncle. My brother, who was four months short of his fourth birthday, went from one person to another, hoping for attention. He was bewildered that those who were usually quick to cuddle him seemed oblivious of his presence. For my part, I had recently turned nine and was old enough to understand that someone of stature had been slain. What surprised me was the effect of the event on my family.

I knew, of course, that presidents were important individuals. Earlier that year, I had watched Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan take the salute at the Republic Day Parade. Before him, that ceremonial duty had been performed by Dr Rajendra Prasad, who my parents explained was our first president. I could understand people being upset if India’s former or current Head of State had met with misfortune, but Kennedy seemed a remote figure in a distant land.

Not that the American president was a complete stranger to me. I had seen pictures of him, his wife and children in magazines.

Even as the adults lamented the loss of a charismatic leader, cruelly struck down in his prime, my thoughts turned to Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline. We were both born in November, and I childishly wondered whether she would have a party on her sixth birthday, which was just four days away!

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