Before the funeral ceremony many hundreds of thousands of people, from ministers of governments to humble villagers, had been visiting the house of Mr. Nehru to pay their last respects to the dead leader. And many more thousands lined the streets as the body was taken in solemn procession to the place of cremation.
As a correspondent covering this solemn event I was faced with difficult problems. India was not my normal territory; it was because the BBC’s Delhi man was sick that I had been told to break my journey back to Hong Kong. I had almost no contacts in Delhi and I was not at all sure that I would be able to send a broadcast despatch to London. All I could do, as afternoon and the hour of the funeral approached, was to walk out of the hotel, hire a taxi, ask the driver to take me to the place of cremation, and hope for the best.
Luck was with me; without realising it I picked a driver of imagination and initiative. He plastered his windscreen with every kind of label screaming “Press! Overseas Press!” and drove with speed and determination past the great crowds, past the police, past all hindrance, and set me down at the very centre of the big open space between the road which encircles Delhi and the River Jumna. Some Indian reporters were already there, but no foreign journalists - they were avoiding the enormous crowds and staying by their office radios.
It was a burning hot day. Just in front of us, in a small guarded enclosure, was a sixteen-foot-square brick platform with steps leading up, where people were bringing in great wreaths of scented flowers and laying them in heaps. Above us the kite-birds wheeled and hovered, and all around, as far as the eye could reach, was one great sea of heads and faces, some turbanned, some veiled in muslin, some sheltered with umbrellas or even newspapers to keep off the sun; and from all this great multitude the hum of voices was like the roar of distant lions.
But now there sounded another note, the steady beat of a drum and stamp of feet as the gun-carriage approached along the road to the cremation ground. And the people, packed twenty and thirty deep along the route, were crying out in loud concerted chorus, the greeting their Prime Minister had so often heard in the years of struggle for independence: “Chacha Nehru - Zindabad!” (Long live Uncle Nehru!) repeated many times.
He appeared to us now quite suddenly, lifted up on the platform from the far side, calm in death and utterly remote; and the relatives began piling the sandalwood logs on and around him, scattered the incense and camphor, and poured out the ghee, the clarified butter. The chanting of Hindu scriptures sounded ever louder; already they had removed from the body the national flag, which must not be burnt, and laid long silk scarves on him; and the little crowd on the platform, in which we caught the sad faces of the daughter, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and the sister, Mrs. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, suddenly parted for us to catch a glimpse of the youngest grandson, a serious-looking boy of eighteen, whose task it was to light the funeral pyre. It started with blue smoke. Then as the soldiers fired a salute, and the trumpeters sounded the Last Post, the flames broke out, almost colourless in the sunlight, and the crowds again set up a great roaring cry: “Chacha Nehru Zindabad!” repeated again and again.
The fire would continue burning into the night, but the crowd began drifting away, and the dust rose high in the air from the movement of untold thousands.
I so often think back to that day, but never somehow as a day of sadness. Indians do not wear black for mourning, and the enormous crowds in their colourful clothes seemed to greet Nehru on his last journey as if he were still a living spirit.
And luck was with me, the outsider, not only through the daring taxi-driver who brought me to the heart of the great event, but in the Indian journalists who, seeing halfway through the afternoon that I was suffering acutely from the sun beating down on my bare head, quickly folded a newspaper into the kind of admiral’s hat we used as children, and smilingly offered it to me. Without that kindness I never could have lasted out.
Then finally, in all that crowd of a million and a half, I was rescued by a friendly army officer, who knew where the radio station was and took me there in his car. And my report of Nehru’s funeral was not only heard in Britain but was relayed and translated and broadcast throughout the world.
Yet I had the strange feeling on that solemn afternoon of being very much the outsider, of not belonging, like a stranger from another planet, growing only gradually aware of the grief of a family of millions.
(Excerpted from INDIA DIGEST NO. 3 - Nov.-Dec., 1987)
Copyright © - New India Digest