Dr KP Mathur was possibly the last few people Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spoke with before her assassination. Her personal physician for more than 18 years, Dr Mathur, now 92, despite his disintegrating memory, recounts with haunting clarity what transpired between him and the PM on the morning of the tragedy. “I had gone to her Safdarjung Road residence (New Delhi) for a routine check-up,” he says, “She was getting ready for an interview with British actor Peter Ustinov scheduled in the adjoining house. Two make-up artistes were busy preparing her for it. She was her usual happy self, but in a bit of a hurry to make it on time. After I was done, we exchanged pleasantries, and I left for my duty at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. She, on the other hand, took the other exit to meet Ustinov.”
Dr KP Mathur at his Chitra Vihar home in New Delhi, with daughter Mala. He first treated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1966. Pic/Ajay Gautam
When Mathur reached the hospital 10 minutes later, his personal assistant informed him about the attack. Hours later, Mrs Gandhi was declared dead.
Mathur, who has served dignitaries and VVIPs, including Lal Bahadur Shastri and Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in the past, still holds his association with Mrs Gandhi — that began in June 1966 — dear. His new book titled, The Unseen Indira Gandhi: Through Her Physician's Eyes (Konark Publishers), which released last month, provides often amusing and sometimes, insightful vignettes on the doctor-patient relationship.
Dr Mathur (extreme left), walks along with the PM’s contingent, during a visit to Budapest in 1970
"I have been thinking of this book ever since I retired 30 years ago," said Mathur, in a telephonic conversation from his New Delhi residence. “I, however, kept postponing the idea," he says, until the need to share these stories, finally pervaded in.
Mathur has been working on the book for three years. "Because of my health, I had to dictate the stories. I should have written it earlier, but then these things happen only when the time is right."
The doctor recounts how Mrs Gandhi never wanted a personal physician for herself. "When she became PM, she was relatively young...only 48 and in great health. So, when the proposal for a doctor was mooted, she asked, 'why do I need a doctor? I am healthy’."
For the next six months, no doctor was called for, despite it being protocol. "But in June 1966, the PM was flying for an election tour, when the aircraft got caught in some ill-winds and lost its balance. While nothing happened, a lot of people were injured inside the plane," says Mathur. After that, she realised that if there was a doctor, along with her, first aid would have been available for the passengers in the flight. Soon after, Mathur, who worked at the Safdarjung Hospital at the time, joined her as personal physician.
"I would usually meet her early every Saturday morning for a regular check-up because she either didn’t go to office that day, or went in late. Apart from the clinical examination, we indulged in a lot of small talk," recalls Mathur, who always addressed her as 'PM'. Unlike the autocratic image that affected her political career, the late PM was pleasant and treated everybody with great regard, the doctor says.
Mrs Gandhi was also an emotional person he says. In the book, he remembers how she once caught him off guard, when she broke down in front of him. Mathur says that Gandhi, 'who was virtually in tears', had perhaps been reprimanded by B K Nehru (her cousin), who she respected, during one of their political discussions.
During his two-decade-long association, Mathur never once contemplated quitting the job. "She made me feel at home. Why would I ever leave her?"