News

MAY 21st 1991: NIGHT OF THE STORM

By Sanjay Jha

Delhi, one summer evening
Elections in the air
I am home returning
There is palpable excitement everywhere


The sky is dark and ominous
Interspersed with thunder and lightning
I almost crash against a stationary bus
At the byzantine turning


Am gripped by a strange sense of inexplicable fear
It’s only the 21st of May
Wished I could share with someone near
Seemed like an unusual day

I wonder about a lonely pilot
Up in the dense clouds in a throbbing cockpit
Experienced sure he maybe, but
This sudden storm is quite a bit

Reach home and quickly switch on the news
Heave a sigh of relief
The pilot is in Madras airing his political views
Am delighted beyond belief

Reassured, I go to sleep
Set my bedside clock for morning alarm
Next day there are business appointments to keep
Even under the thin quilt, it is quite warm

Unexpectedly, the telephone rings
I get up with a disgruntled start
Wonder what news it brings
Why is my heart beating so fast?

Haven’t you heard the news as yet?
It is a terrible disaster
This is certainly one of the saddest
A woman has lost her husband, the children their father

In a state of virtual shock
I struggle out of bed
It is midnight, reminds the grand old clock
It is true, Rajiv Gandhi is dead

In an obscure, so far unheard-of-place
A happy soul, a genial man has met with fate
Only memories remain of his handsome face
Alas, an appointment for which he was not late

I look up to find, surprisingly, the clouds have cleared
It seems like an impenetrably calm, still night
The moon and stars have again reappeared
But there is darkness in the light

COMMENTARY

I was working in the NRI Division of ANZ Grindlays Bank at 10 E Connaught Place in New Delhi in 1991. It was a regular day at the office, business as usual, men at work and everyone pretending as if the world survived thanks to their inimitable dexterity. Bankers are ( were???) pregnant with hubris. Outside, the mercury rose with a determined resolve, unrelenting in its searing intensity. But by afternoon, the weather outside had begun to subtly change, before suddenly assuming extraordinary proportions. Quite dramatically. The scorching sun had given way to one of Delhi’s typical summer dust-storms which enveloped the city in a thick dark particle-infested smog-like cloud. By late evening , we were experiencing heavy thundershowers accompanied by fiery lightning in sporadic bursts. It seemed like the heavens above were experiencing some serious warfare. The gods indeed were expressing a peculiar ire.

The bitterly-contested election campaign of 1991 was drawing to a close, and there were newspaper reports that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was occasionally flying his small plane himself, the private passion of a former Indian Airlines pilot. Although I had read that he was campaigning down in southern parts of India  , I sincerely prayed that he was not up in the sky above Delhi that evening in his miniscule aircraft as it would be highly unsafe given the rough weather conditions. I reached home about 7 pm that evening and tuned into Doordarshan to find that Rajiv Gandhi was indeed wrapping up the national campaign in Madras (Tamil Nadu)  that night. I was hugely relieved. But the deep sense of an unnerving premonition was disconcerting. It lingered momentarily, but soon I moved on.

I was a big Rajiv Gandhi fan; for many in our generation, Rajiv Gandhi was India’s new hope , who inspired you into believing that we would be in able hands under his stewardship. In short, he was India’s lodestar. Although he had taken charge under tragic circumstances on the ghastly night of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, he brought in a breath of fresh air with his bold, pragmatic, breakthrough statements and actions before some calamitous errors had brought that golden honeymoon period to an abrupt halt. But the two years under the opportunistic VP Singh-led alliance had been disturbing, and during their reign the country looked liked it was drifting into complete chaos , lacking in direction and going nowhere under their shibboleths of social emancipation . Initial opinion polls indicated that the Congress would reemerge as a leading political force and that Rajiv Gandhi would be Prime Minister once again. We were indeed very excited.

Then late in the night as I prepared to sleep the telephone rang. And everything changed.

This poem was written over a decade back and is an extract from my book When I Wondered About You , published in 1999.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: