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Walking in the crystal footsteps of Indira Gandhi

india Updated: Oct 28, 2009 17:11 IST
Minu Jain

This is where she sat poring over files late into the night, here is where she slept, that is where she greeted visitors and over there is where she walked her last steps. Twenty-five years after Indira Gandhi's assassination, an eerie mise-en-scene of a life well lived and cruelly ended.

The Indira Gandhi Memorial in the heart of Lutyen's Delhi was once a home and is now a museum with the lives of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and her son - another former prime minister - Rajiv Gandhi, encased forever behind glass.

The mother was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards in the pathway connecting her 1 Safdarjung Road home to her office next door on Oct 31, 1984, unleashing a frenzy of revenge that saw 3,000 Sikhs being killed in three days. The elder son, who took over her mantle after her assassination and was blamed for the pogrom, was blown up by a suicide bomber in faraway Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991.

And the shadow of death lingers everywhere. Even through the cacophony of 5,000 visitors who every day file through the rooms that were for long the home of Indira Gandhi, during her days as information minister in the 1960s and then during her two stints as prime minister.

Bits of Rajiv Gandhi's kurta and the Lotto sneakers he was wearing is inside a glass capsule, a tattered reminder of his violent death.

A little ahead is another glass case and another testimony to murder.

The ethnic mustard yellow and block bordered cotton sari that Indira Gandhi wore that fateful morning - in readiness for a television interview with noted actor Peter Ustinov - is carefully pleated over a slab, the bullet holes evident and the spattered blood faded to a blotchy grey over the 25 years. Carefully placed below are her simple black sandals.

Elsewhere are the many detritus of the lives lost forever. The dressing room where Indira Gandhi must have got ready that last morning, two balls of grey wool and knitting needles scattered on a stool - did the prime minister ever knit, one wonders - a comb and a few odds and ends. Simple accoutrements of a woman known the world over for her impeccable dress sense and innate poise.

The gracious book-lined study with a leather recliner, perhaps the only concession to luxury, and an incongruous Rubik's Cube that no doubt belonged to one of her grandchildren; the dining table where the family met over meals; the simple, elegant drawing room where she must have greeted visitors; and her bedroom - with a single bed covered with a handloom bedspread.

And everywhere family photographs - some sepia-tinted with age - of her sons, her daughter-in-law and now Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her grandchildren, her father, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The memorabilia scattered around have people entranced. Like Nehru's list of probable names for his grandson in his own handwriting.

The Gandhis were stars, and continue to be.

"Oh, look, isn't that Priyanka Gandhi when she was a baby. And see, there's Rahul. Wasn't he cute," exclaimed Roshni, who had come with her parents from Bhopal, and was peering closely at the photographs that Rajiv had taken of his family.

A walk through the memorial is all about getting closer to India's ultimate political celebrities. And, of course, to grab a slice of history.

The gaggle of voices is representative of all that is India. Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi... all merging into a cacophony of sound that quietens dramatically at the edge of the shimmering pathway of crystal that marks Indira Gandhi's last steps.

It was about 9 a.m. on a Wednesday exactly 25 years ago that Mrs Gandhi, as she was known, stepped out of her home to walk to her office where Ustinov was waiting under a tree.

Just short of the white picket gate, her Sikh bodyguards opened fire and emptied 31 bullets into the 66-year-old leader's body.

A sheet of plain glass marks the spot where she fell.

A hushed silence falls over the gathering. A father takes his young daughter aside to explain to her the import of the event. A husband nods grimly at his wife, sharing her grief, however momentary.

They are casual tourists no more. Even 25 years later, they mourn her death -- and perhaps those of the 3,000 Sikhs who died in retribution.

(Minu Jain can be contacted at minu.jain@ians.in )