'Gate-crashing' Indira's party
Two days before her 96th birth anniversary, Raj Kanwar recalls a conversation with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi about knitting patterns and getting invited to her family outing
One nice thing about those good old days was that one could meet top political VVIPs, without much hassle. In the 1950s, and to some extent in the earlier part of 1960s, some of us could simply walk into Dehra Dun’s Circuit House to meet Mrs Indira Gandhi and even the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
My late lamented sister, Neel Kamal, was a big fan of Indira Gandhi, and always wanted to meet her. She wanted to write letters to her but didn’t know what and how to write. I willingly became her ghost-writer.
Indira Gandhi flanked by the writer Raj Kanwar on the right and his sister Neel Kamal on the left
The first letter to Mrs Gandhi praised her dress sense and the grace with which she carried herself. The praise was subtle; she was a role model and icon to the young generation. It was 50 years later that the terms — “role model”, “idol” or “icon” came into vogue.
Then my sister wanted to meet her when she next visited Dehra Dun. At that time Mrs Gandhi did not hold any official position, except that she was the Prime Minister’s daughter and his official hostess. To our utter delight, and surprise too, we received a two-line positive response. Mrs Gandhi would meet my sister when she next visited Dehra Dun. My sister wanted to send a long letter in reply. “Nothing doing,” I said. Instead in just two sentences she wrote a “thank you” letter. We didn’t want to know the likely date of her visit to Dehra Dun. As a journalist, I would come to know of that in any case.
Neel Kamal was agog with anticipation. “What present should I give her?” She asked. “Knit her a blouse,” I suggested without thinking much. “Oh! That’s a wonderful idea.” Neel Kamal was fast and skillful at knitting. The blouse was ready inthree days. Then it waited, gift-packed, for Mrs Gandhi to arrive.
Mrs Gandhi came 15 days later. Two of us cycled up the three kilometers distance to the Circuit House, and reached its Porch, short of breath. The Circuit House’s in house ‘bearer’ Ram Prasad had known me as a journalist; Mrs Gandhi had not by then come out of her room. Fifteen minutes later, she appeared in graceful splendour. It was our first face-to-face meeting with Indiraji. Holding her nerves, Neel Kamal first introduced herself in Hindi and then me.
The knitted blouse
Kamal was the welfare officer in the Indian Red Cross, attached to the Military Hospital. Indiraji asked a couple of questions about the nature of her job; then she talked with me for a while. My sister found a brief break in the conversation, and took out the gift packet, it was our first time trying to give a present to a person of Indiraji’s stature; Kamal was at a loss for words. Taking a deep breath, I told Mrs Gandhi about the blouse that my sister had knitted for her, and asked would she accept her humble gift? As on cue, Kamal took out the packet, tore it open, and pulled out the blouse, and hung it in her hands like a saleswoman, trying to impress a customer. It was a beautiful blouse, beige in colour. Mrs Gandhi seemed to admire my sister’s handiwork, yet, I wasn’t sure about Mrs Gandhi’s response.
Before she could say, “Thank you,” I said “I hope the blouse would fit you, and that you would like it,” or some such words to that effect. With her inbred courtesy, Mrs Gandhi thanked us, and told my sister she shouldn’t have bothered about knitting the blouse. Encouraged, I elaborated that knitting was my sister’s passion, and that she could knit blindfold in a dark movie theatre while watching a picture. Indiraji was not amused. The two then talked briefly about knitting patterns. That conversation went above my head. She asked Ram Prasad to bring tea for us. We sat there for about 20 minutes. Indiraji left for the Doon School. We cycled all the way back home, greatly thrilled at our adventure. My sister was on cloud nine, and she didn’t talk anything else for next Fewf Subsequently, I must have met Indiraji about half-a-dozen times. Once, Mrs Gandhi came to Dehra Dun around her birthday to celebrate it with sons Rajiv and Sanjay, then in the Doon School. Unknown to me, my sister had knitted another blouse for Mrs Gandhi to be given as a birthday present. She sought my advice on the best mode of its presentation. November 19 was just a couple of days away and what better occasion could one find than her birthday for giving that unique present.
Rajiv and Sanjay
Indiraji did not come very often to meet them but whenever she visited Dehra Dun, she would bring the boys out if the school’s rules permitted. Neither Pandit Nehru nor Indira Gandhi ever threw their weight around and behaved very deferentially with the then headmaster John Martyn and KC Joshi, house master at the Kashmir House, in which the two boys stayed. Both Martyn and Joshi treated Nehru and Indiraji like they would treat any other grandparent or parent.
When my sister and I reached the Circuit House the morning of that November 19, we were told that Indiraji had gone to the Doon School to fetch her sons and will thereafter take the boys to Kwality restaurant for a treat. We instantly decided that the restaurant would be a better option for our rendezvous with Indiraji. Putting our cycles in the reverse gear, we reached the restaurant in 20 minutes.
Diffidently, we approached Indiraji’s table, unsure of the “reception” since I felt guiltily that we had intruded into the family’s privacy. Indiraji looked up curiously; I nervously blurted out “Happy birthday, Indiraji”. My sister took out the special blouse that she had knitted, and I presented it to Indira Gandhi on her behalf. She graciously accepted the gift.
Indiraji asked us to be seated. We then joined India’s first family as its “gate-crashed” guests. Mrs Gandhi did not recall our names; she introduced me as a young journalist to her sons. I don’t now remember how the two boys had responded but I found them preoccupied in eating their ice cream. A pound of stick-jaws, popularly known as Kwality toffees, had been ordered and delivered for the boys.
Raj Kanwar is a Dehra Dun-based veteran journalist. He has written several articles in down memory lane genre on Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi.