It was the evening of Tuesday May 26, 1964. The scene of action was the Cantonment Polo Grounds in Dehradun.
Jawaharlal Nehru haltingly climbed the few steps of the helicopter stairway at a helipad in Dehradun Cantonment. His usual brisk gait was missing; Indira followed him very close as if she feared her Papu might stumble.
That was the end of his four-day visit to Dehradun for rest and recuperation after the stroke that he had suffered on January 8 that year at the Bhubaneshwar AICC session. In the quiet environs of the Bhubaneshwar Raj Bhawan, where Nehru stayed, he slowly recovered. He remained in convalescence on his return to Delhi and his working hours were substantially curtailed, even though the gravity of his illness was not publicly disclosed.
No one in the assembled farewell party at the helipad, or those among the throngs who had earlier cheered Nehru and waved at him during his short drive from the Circuit House, could have dreamt that the sunset that evening would be Nehru’s last, and that he would not see another sunrise.
Nehru stood at the open doorway of the helicopter, and looked back, almost blankly, at the small and assorted farewell group. There were Congress leaders, senior civil and defence officers as per protocol, and a few journalists, including this writer.
A pale, faint smile appeared on Nehru’s otherwise rosy countenance. In retrospect, ruminating over my impressions of that evening, I realised that his left hand was less active than his right. Nehru’s left knee appeared somewhat stiff, hampering his brisk trademark gait. Those were perhaps the after effects of the stroke that had afflicted him early that January.
Nehru did not appear his usual cheerful self, though he tried hard to keep up pretences, and succeeded to some extent. He waved at us jauntily with his right hand, but that seemed a laboured effort. There was a strange expression on his face. What did he wish to convey to us, who had assembled there to bid him adieu? Was that to be the last and final goodbye? Did he have a premonition about his death? District Magistrate AP Dikshit, during whose tenure Nehru visited Dehradun on five occasions, had written a book on those visits in 1965 titled “Antim Charan”. My impressions tallied with those of Dikshit.
On May 25, Nehru often spoke about postponing his departure for Delhi by a day. He even indicated that he had some appointments in Delhi only in the afternoon on May 27, and could easily leave for Delhi in the morning. Nehru had felt so relaxed and comfortable in Dehradun that he really yearned to extend his stay here. Dikshit cleverly noticed his desire and mustered courage to suggest that he extend his stay in Dehradun through May and June, adding that all important files and papers could be sent to Dehradun. “Aur sab kaam yehan se ho jayega,” he said.
“Haan kaam to sab ho jayega”, Nehru replied philosophically. Was this a foreboding of sorts? But eventually the scheduled departure on the afternoon of May 26 was adhered to, since it meant some overnight rest for Nehru in Delhi, to enable him to attend to his appointments the following day rested and refreshed.
But the rest turned into a restless sleep. He awoke several times in the night, and was given a sedative by his trusted attendant Nathu Ram. He awoke one last time before dawn. At about 6.30 am, Indira and physician Bedi were summoned.
Nehru seemed somewhat disoriented when the two appeared by his bedside, and asked “What is the matter?” And then he fell into a coma, and died at 1.44 pm on Wednesday, May 27. Though he missed his scheduled appointments in Delhi that afternoon, he did however keep the final appointment with his maker.
It was sheer providence that Nehru had chosen to spend his last four days in Dehradun, the city he loved more than any other. Here, in the sylvan surroundings of the Circuit House under the shade of his favourite camphor tree, with birds as his companions, he felt at home, and he felt at peace —far away from the maddening crowds of Delhi and the political intrigues. Here, he partook of simple vegetarian meals, took leisurely walks on its expansive lawns, sat under trees, and read occasionally.
On the third day, he visited his old friend Sri Prakasa, former minister and governor, at Kothalgate, eight miles uphill on Mussoorie Road. He had lunch with his old colleague and returned to the Circuit House late in the afternoon.
He and Indira also visited Sahastradhara late in the afternoon on the penultimate day of his stay in Dehradun. He was happy and pleased like a child who had just been given a chocolate bar. He and Indira enjoyed the view of the Sahastradhara sulphur springs, and the mountains beyond, sitting in the verandah of the PWD guest house, which was newly constructed then. As the sun set far away on the horizon, Nehru returned to the Circuit House, feeling rejuvenated and relaxed with the excursion.
Raj Kanwar is a senior Dehradun-based journalist and author.