Saturday, October 31, 2009

Remembering Indira Priyadarshini

Today, 25 years earlier started off as just another day, with just a tiny difference. India was playing a cricket match against Pakistan, so more people were turned into the TV and radio than was normally the case. Our geography teacher was droning about the continental drift when someone rushed into the room with news – Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister had been shot at and was battling for life at a government hospital. Any sensible person would have sent all the children home, but not our principle. He insisted on keeping the school open till the government confirmed the news, which it did not do till many hours after she had passed away.

Rumours kept trickling in. It was suspected that she had been shot at by two Sikhs, members of a then hostile community, easily identifiable by the characteristic turbans they all wore.

Even a thirteen year old me knew the consequences of not nipping that piece of news in the bud, but how can a government deny something it never declared in the first place.

By the time school got over at the scheduled time, the riots had started. Since our school bus was owned and driven by members of the Sikh community, the service was abruptly cancelled, and we were left to fend for ourselves. We took turns to use the school phone to call home, and even after many false tries was not able to do so. I knew my mother would eventually call my father to tell him I had not arrived, and that he would come to school to fetch me, but I also knew that could take a few hours. With many others, I settled myself to wait.

“Anybody here living in Gariahat?”, the watchman shouted.
“I live close to Gariahat!” I jumped up.
“These two men say they will take you till Gariahat”, the watchman informed. “Do you want to go with them.”
The men were total strangers to me and to everyone else, but without a second through, I climbed on to their motorbike.
“I live a little beyond Gariahat”, I told them when we were half-way home. “But you can drop me off there, and I will walk the rest of the way home.”
“Not a problem”, the man replied. “We’ll drop you home.”

They did, and my mother was so relived to see me, she didn’t even ask how I had come till I volunteered the information. After my father got home, we discussed the incident, and concluded that the men were not exactly good Samaritans- they had picked me up because they knew the chances of their motorcycle being attacked was much less when they had a child in a school uniform with them.

Thinking back, I shudder at my foolishness. When the city was up in flames, would not the prudent thing have been to wait for my father, even if it took time before he got to school. Had a mob set on me, would the men have offered me any protection. They were not even going all the way home – did I seriously think I could safely walk a couple of miles in a riot torn city all on my own?
They could have also been kidnappers, child molesters, rapists or anything else. But my life had been so sheltered I had not even considered any of those things.
Today, if my sons' school bus is a couple of minutes late, the call from their Daycare sets off a domino reaction of panic. I have the school bus conductor's phone number on speed dial, and still worry. How did people cope all those years back? Especially without mobile phones?

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi
(19 November 1917 – 31 October 1984)
Requiescat in pace


Anonymous said...

What a story! And what worry for our parents who had no way of knowing what was happening to their kids.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

That must have been so frightening for all of you. What a horrible day! And you're right..I frequently wonder how my mom was able to cope without a cell phone when I was a kid. I love the knowledge that my children's schools can get in touch with me anywhere at any time.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Chary Johnson said...

It is crazy how the "mob mentality" can be so infectious. We see it over and over again: Rodney King beatings leading to the LA Riots, NYC blackout of 1977 and even in literature Shakespeare's [b]Julius Caesar[/b]. It is strange how even the most moral of individuals can be swept up into the frenzy.

I am happy that you made it safely home. I think because my school was so close to home (one half block) that my parents didn't really worry as much since they could just walk over and pick me up in less than five minutes. However, for those whose schools were quite a distance, it is remarkable how their parents coped with emergency situations at all.

Excellent post!

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@Fiona - tried asking my mother about what she was going through that day, and she doesn't even remember. Which means it was either just another day for her, or a day so traumatic she's blocked it out completely.

@ Elizabeth - precisely. I am not sure I would be able to survive without that knowledge.

@ Chary - yes, totally. Read a nice description of the mentality driving incidents like the Rodney King one - if I remember where, will let you know.

dipali said...

I need to do a post on this!
Oh, you went to school in Kolkata?

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ dipali - would love to read it. After I had that as my status message on Facebook, I find that everyone has memories of that day.

And yes, Calcutta was home from Std VI to undergrad.

dipali said...

Have finally posted!


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