Face to face with the gracious Gandhis
The first election I ever covered, by a quirk of fate, happened to be Assam’s. I do not know why my editor in Bombay transplanted me to the North East – I had neither the experience (less than a year) nor the expertise or perspective to report from a strife-torn region of the country.
But today it helps me to boast that I cut my milk teeth in journalism reporting on riots and massacres. For soon after reaching Assam I found myself in the middle of floating bodies in the Brahmaputra (from Nellie), village after village boycotting the polls and suddenly face to face with Mrs Indira Gandhi as she came to condole the victims and bring hope to the survivors.
That was my only encounter with Mrs Gandhi but one I have never quite forgotten. For, the sheer moment of being face to face with the Prime Minister of India had got the better of me – I was shooting my own pictures and my hands started to shake so badly that I just could not find the trigger.
The Prime Minister had been condoling a woman who fell upon her chest with loud cries and tears. ” Rone se kya hota hai, behen,” Mrs Gandhi told her, even as she enfolded the woman in her arms. ” Himmat rakho. Main aapke saath hoon aur yeh vaada karti hoon ki ab aap ke saath aisa kuch nahin hoga. (Nothing will be gained by simply crying. You have to be brave. I am with you and I assure you nothing like this will happen to you ever again). ”
Ooooh, went my mind and my heart beats increased multifold at the perfect news picture that that scene made. Mrs Gandhi knew it, too. So even as other cameras finished flashing she held the pose for me a little longer. But my fingers simply froze! Then as it took forever for me to find the button, she said with just the slightest touch of impatience, “Hurry up now, girl. I don’t have all the time in the world, you know!”
I almost dropped the camera and would really not have got that picture at all had it not been for one of her security detail. There were no Black Cats then, only a whole load of ordinary policemen and we could get really close. One of the cops nearest to me then leaned over, took the camera from my hands, aimed the lens at Mrs Gandhi and the wailing woman and pressed the click button. “There you are!” he said, as the Prime Minister moved away to condole with the next victim.
“Got nervous, did you?” he asked as he followed Mrs Gandhi. “Hope that picture comes out ok.” (It did.)
By this time my legs were quaking and I do not remember how I got through the rest of Mrs Gandhi’s visit. But her small gesture towards a completely inexperienced reporter so overwhelmed by her presence – for she had recognised the gaucheness and tried to ease it — went a long way in teaching me about grace amid high office and power, a quality I came across in her son Rajiv, too, many years later.!”
By then I was no longer a rookie and could face a Prime Minister without quaking in my boots. I had many memorable moments with Rajiv Gandhi for he came frequently to Bombay as Prime Minister (and even after he had ceased to be one). I will write about them by and by but the moment I recall with most fondness is the time he came visiting Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan (the Frontier Gandhi) along with his wife at the Bombay Hospital.
No reporters were allowed but I worked for a wire service then and, armed with a security clearance from the Special Branch, I knew I just had to get in. I managed by getting to the floor below in the patients’ lift from the side entrance, clinging to a stretcher, pretending to be a relative. And then climbing up to the Frontier Gandhi’s floor and hanging out discreetly in the vestibule for two hours before Rajiv was scheduled to arrive and the cops sealed the floor.
I was in a spot when then Bombay Congress president Murli Deora emerged from the lift, followed by Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. He ordered me thrown out as soon as he saw me. But Rajiv, who may not have known my name but had seen me tailing him across Bombay on many occasions, stopped him. “Let her be. She is not coming into the room with us, is she?”
And before he disappeared inside, he threw over his shoulder at me, “We’ll speak later.”
Of course, neither the cops nor the Black Cats could throw me out after that. But I did not really believe the Prime Minister would actually take the time off to brief me himself, though H Y Sharada Prasad, travelling with him as the PM’s press secretary then, assured me he would. “If he has said he will, then he will.” And he got me a prime standing spot just outside the door, so that the PM would see me as soon as he emerged and remember his promise.
I was not shaking, of course, when Rajiv and Sonia came out and stood before me but my pen would not move fast enough across my notepad as Rajiv went into every minute detail of how he had entered the room, how Ghafar Khan’s eyes had lit up, how he had tried to sit up, how he had held his hand, and something (for I am sure it was not everything) of what they had talked about.
But what struck me most was that Rajiv spoke slowly, looking into my notebook, reading every word I wrote and keeping pace with my pen. His next sentence began only when I had put in a full stop. And he waited long seconds for that last full stop after he had finished. When I looked up for more, he was looking straight at me and said, “That’s all. I think you have got it all down all right. I have given you all the details I could. I hope that makes you happy.”
You bet it did! But I could only nod and smile, though I wanted desperately to say “thank you” to him as I had so many years before to his mother. Simply couldn’t – because this time the cat had got my tongue!
I now have a voice that does not choke and a pen that does not freeze in such situations. I have faced all other PMs who followed – VP Singh (arrogant) Chandrashekhar (rustic), Narasimha Rao (erudite), Deve Gowda (somewhat uncouth), Inder Gujral (somewhat listless), AB Vajpayee (painfully slow) and now Manmohan Singh (thorough gentleman).
But has there ever been a Prime Minister since who has been so charming or even one as chivalrous?