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Incongruity is ordinary in India
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 wonder, timelessness.
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 promises).
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 preserved, perpetuated.
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.
Next week: My mother in the bank in Delhi
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