>> There are some individuals whose passing is etched into people’s collective memory.
‘Where were you when JFK was shot?’ is a question that has defined my generation. I was five-years-old and on a family holiday in Delhi, when the news came in.
It was decades before television had come to India and in childhood’s hazy memory I recall being driven to a newspaper office block, which was flashing the headline on its ticker tape display.
Even without the all pervasiveness of the electronic media’s 24x7 coverage, sadness hung over the capital like a cloud. Our parents and elders huddled in groups listening to the radio for information and updates. And, of course, the next day’s newspaper’s brought in more details.
Episodes such as these are etched into the collective memory of a generation, and for mine, the sadness of that day was captured in the photograph of the assassinated president’s three-year-old son John F saluting his father’s coffin with chilling solemnity.
When the red rose faded away
>> My next encounter with the passing away of a great public figure was far more immediate, when a year later our own Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru died. I recall coming home from playschool and hearing my mother weeping loudly on the phone as she received the early news from a friend in the media.
My parents had been friends of the late leader, but even so, the extent to which they and others of their generation took his death so personally bewildered — and frightened — me. Everywhere one went, there was an uncanny feeling that we had all lost a family member. That we had been collectively bereaved.
How does someone so distant and inaccessible touch the lives of strangers, even when they’re no more? What makes them feel so connected? Why do they show up in such great numbers to bid them goodbye even when there’s nothing left to gain or prove? These are questions that go beyond the realm of politics and cut through to the very core of people’s hearts.
That my parents’ generation wept so publicly at Nehru’s funeral was something of an enigma to me. I had yet to experience that feeling of unmanned sorrow over the death of a national leader.
Grief’s full circle
>> Ironically it was the assassination of Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi that brought the grief full circle. I had met the late prime minister on many occasions in the years prior to his assassination and had been an admirer.
That I would feel sad over his death was something I expected, but nothing prepared me for the dozen-handkerchief, gut wrenching body-wracking sobbing that overcame me as I watched his funeral procession and his cremation.
I recall sitting in front of the television crying my heart out all day and then finally attempting to get a grip on things by stepping out to a local SoBo park only to find many other people there trying to shake off their inexplicable collective grief.
In Rajiv’s case, the fact that he was so young, that the tragedy occurred so suddenly, that he was on the verge of returning to power might have added to the national frenzy of anguish, perhaps the fact that television brought home the ghastly pictures of the scene of the assassination and of his cremation added to the hysteria — but I never again wondered how and why ordinary unconnected people could feel such a personal sense of loss at the passing of a mass leader.
When Di died
>> If Rajiv’s funeral had opened the flood gates, Princess Diana’s funeral watched by over two billion people worldwide was the ultimate proof for me that the lives of a few people can become so meaningful to so many.
As her cortege left from Kensington Palace to wind its way along Hyde Park to St James’ Palace it was high dudgeon — and perhaps in retrospect — a bit over the top with emotion. The collective gasp when her cortege first appeared in public, Elton John’s haunting rendition of Candle in the wind and her brother, Charles Spencer’s astonishingly moving speech which captured the mood of the moment so skillfully.
Years later, after the dust had settled and the tabloid writers, spin masters, biographers and social commentators had spliced up the Princess’ sad and brief life, I look upon the universal grief that her death had evoked as something that went beyond one person or one thing.
It was a catharsis, a public wailing, an emotional bloodletting, and I felt we cried as much for the Princess as for ourselves. For our own un-reported, unshared tragedies. And for the fact that we lived in world where princesses did not live happily ever after.
>> I write this as I watch Bal Thackeray’s funeral unfold on the TV screen. No one, not even the most astute political pundits, could have predicted the turnout of two million mourners, or that it would be conducted in such an orderly and peaceful manner.
As I watch this mammoth moment in history many thoughts arise: Could this be the moment of breakthrough for Mumbai? When the late leader’s political heirs realise the enormous clout that the patriarch possessed; would this encourage them to use it constructively?
Will they having been assured of their legacy of followers decide to turn their backs on hatred and communalism and divisiveness and forge a bright new positive future that includes all the people of this wonderful city? And lastly will they give us Bombay back? RIP Bal Thackeray. In your passing you once again proved that leaders are the sum total of their followers. And that they touch the lives of ordinary people in inexplicable ways.