Monday, 31 October 2016

31st October 1984

Ten days ago a movie was released in India called 31st October 1984. I read the review in the newspaper we order from India. ( Reading on line doesn't satisfy the urge to have newsprint smudged fingers!) The movie is about a family caught in the riots that were the aftermath of one of the bloodiest days in Indian political history. The review set me thinking about that long ago day, 31st October 1984.
I've often read that when John F Kennedy was assassinated, people asked each other "Where were you when you heard the news? What were you doing? Who told you?"  31st October 1984, thirty two long years ago, was the day when India's first and only female Prime Minister to date was assassinated by her own body guards, at her residence in New Delhi. The day stands out very starkly in my mind and all that followed is clearly embedded there too, so I'm putting it down here and I hope others will feel free to share their memories too.
31st October 1984, Wednesday morning: My dad was in the Indian army and had been recently  posted to our home town, Pune. We had not been allotted our authorised accommodation yet and so we lived in a palace! Yes, a palace had been converted into an Officer's Mess and the temporary accommodation for officers and their families was on the first and second floor. Though we did not have a huge area to live in, what we had was the epitome of luxury! Black and white marble tiles in the bathroom and a marble bath tub! A smooth. red and black tiled floor in the living area and a large terrace whose floor was inlaid with multi coloured china chips was part of our domain and it overlooked an immaculately maintained garden. A steep, spiral wrought iron staircase led to our house. It was actually Sethna Palace's fire escape but that was what we had access to, in order to reach our house, as the main staircase was part of the Officer's Mess and therefore forbidden to us. And so it was from this grand and very secure environment that my sister and I left for school that day in 1984.
I was in third grade, one of the class toppers and the apple of my teacher's eye. ( I was the only student invited for her wedding a few months later!)  Most of us, in turn, adored her, bright, bubbly young thing that she was, yet to be bogged down by the toll that a career in teaching takes from most great teachers. Our Prime Minister was shot down at around 9:15 am that morning and the news was kept under wraps for a while, until a chain of command could be established at the centre.
Those were the days of very poor communication in India and most people did not even have land lines while cell phones, obviously, were unheard of.  We were in the middle of a regular working day and maybe around noon the news trickled in into school. The teacher from the neighbouring classroom rushed into our class and quickly whispered the news into our teacher's ear. Our ever smiling teacher burst into tears and began sobbing. When we loudly chorused " What happened, Miss?", we were told straightaway that the Prime Minister had been shot. ( We did not even know the word assassination then!). When you are eight or nine years old, there are few things more upsetting in your life than the adult in charge losing control and panicking. Our teacher then began feeling faint. ( Did she actually faint, fellow Helenites who were in my class?) . She was led out by the other teacher and we heard the unmistakable sound of the latch being shot into the bolt from outside! For the first time in our young lives, we had been locked inside the classroom...
Then there was complete mayhem. Most of us began crying and someone mentioned India would go to war with our neighbouring country. Note that we had NO clue who had taken responsibility for the assassination but sadly even as kids we were quick to conclude our dear neighbour was somehow involved. (They were NOT involved !). When I heard the word war I began sobbing even louder as it was immediately obvious to me that my Dad would have to go and fight at the border. There was absolutely no logic to this conversation but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and we had all turned into a bunch of cry babies at the very thought of those unheard shots in far away Delhi. Young though we were, we were smart enough to understand even then, that there would be repercussions of this dastardly deed and none of them would be good.
School was let out early leading to even more chaos as there had been no time to inform all the parents about the early dismissal. No handy WhatsApp groups in those days... Fortunately for us, our army truck which was our school bus, was waiting to pick us up. We had been told that a few days of holidays had been declared by the government and so school would remain closed indefinitely.
Finally we reached home safely through rapidly emptying streets That evening my parents went out to Main Street in Army cantonment area ( In retrospect couldn't they have just stayed at home? Was it even safe to go out?) and bought lots of books for us to read from our favourite second hand book store, which exists to this day and which I make a point to visit during my annual sojourn to my home town. So though it was a very dark and sad period for my country, I have memories of long, languorous, slightly chilly November mornings where I lay in bed, snuggled up under a quilt and read to my heart's content. I always associate this period with Enid Blyton's St.Clare's school stories, as one of the books my mother bought on 31st October was from that series and which was to become a hot favourite with me. The human mind is so funny when faced with trauma, no matter how far removed,  that today I cannot think of Indira Gandhi without thinking of the O' Sullivan twins, Pat and Isabel, the main characters of the series. They were my escape from the reality that the Northern part of my country was burning and innocent Sikh families were being slaughtered, just because the body guards responsible were from that community. It was hard for our mother to shield us from the dire news pouring in day in and day out, more so because we were surrounded by army officers who had their own, efficient communication channels.
We went back to school after a ten day holiday, this time under armed escort. The orders had come from above that all army vehicles could move around only with at least one armed soldier and so our bus too had its own gun bearer, with bullets in his pocket, to be loaded at a moment's notice, if needed. We all touched the unloaded gun and fingered the shining bullets. By this time, all thoughts of war had fled from our flighty minds and we looked upon the gun as a new and exciting development and we felt special... How many others could boast their school transport had an armed body guard?
So if you were living in India then, do tell me  where you were on 31st October 1984. I'd love to read about your memories of that day, which changed the course of Indian history, destroyed and shattered many lives and forced many people of a particular community to immigrate from India. For many of them, it was 1947 all over again...

                                              Our late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.
                                                                 (Pic from the net.)


  1. I can relate to this Anupama. Eventhough i didnt really understand it at that time - I still remember the chill I felt at the news!

    I was in primary school that time and not so far from our house. My school would be over around 2 in the afternoon. We were not informed in school and oblivious to the fact I walked home. As I was reaching home, an older boy from my neighbourhood with whom I had never talked, stopped me and said "did you hear? Indira Gandhi was shot to death!" A sudden chill spread through my body and I was so scared - I ran home and for a very long time couldn't actually understand what happened!

    1. Wow Queen, can imagine how terrified you must have felt when you heard the news out of the blue.But even I've experienced that such events make strangers talk to each other... Thank you for sharing.

  2. I was in my Mom's womb, trying to escape it! Got delivered on 1st Nov after 12 hrs of labour!

    1. Wow Priya! The best one yet! Happy birthday!


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