Op-Ed: Memories of a copter ride that wasn’t

Even 27 years on, the memory of that dreadful day remains as fresh as the morning dew.

It was around 8 AM in the morning on May 21, 1991 when we – senior journalist Nageswar Patnaik and yours truly – reached the State Guest House in Bhubaneswar, hoping against hope to hitch a ride with Rajiv Gandhi on his helicopter to get an ‘exclusive’ with the former Prime Minister. Though I had heard him speak at en election meeting at the Unit 1 boys’ High school ground just the previous night, this was the closest I had got to the SPG protectee, about 10 feet from where he stood on the portico. Fresh from a bath, the Gandhi scion looked dapper in his spotless white kurta, pyjama. In particular, the Lotto shoes that Rajiv wore caught my attention as he kept rising on his toes every few seconds giving some much needed workout to his overworked feet during a hectic election campaign. (How could I have imagined that the pair of Lotto shoes would become the only thing by which his disfigured body would be identified later that day?)

Meanwhile, Nagubhai, always the go getter, had struck up a conversation with Suman Dubey, Rajiv Gandhi’s media advisor. I too joined the conversation. Nagubhai asked Dubey if we could accompany Rajiv on his helicopter to Bhadrak, his next destination. Since it was campaign time – and may be because Nagubhai used to report for the BBC those days ,- Dubey was happy to offer us a ride on the ex PM’s copter with the rider that we would have to return on our own.

This got us thinking. We figured out that we were certain to miss out on incumbent Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar’s public meeting scheduled in Bhubaneswar at 4 PM if we chose to accompany Rajiv and return by road. Hence, we had to subsume our once in a lifetime opportunity to travel with a former PM to the prudence of attending the PM’s rally.

So, PM it was rather than the ex PM. Before the meeting, however, we caught hold of Raj Babbar, who was on campaign trail, at the Akbari Hotel in Cuttack. Though he was a poor substitute for Rajiv, I was happy at this ‘consolation prize’. Early in the conversation, I realised his discomfiture with English and immediately switched over to Hindi. This appeared to have done the trick as Raj began opening up.

After the ‘exclusive’ with Raj, we rushed back on Nagubhai’s bike to reach Bhubaneswar in time for the PM’s rally. Having filed my copy after a hard day’s work, I joined a feast just outside the Sambad office in Nayapalli at night. A few minutes after, Pitabas, my colleague in Sun Times, came running to break the news that Rajiv Gandhi had been killed in a suicide attack at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu. I could hardly believe that the man I was supposed to fly with just a few hours ago now lay dead. But there was no time to ruminate. I left the feast venue and rushed back to the news room. “Rajiv Gandhi assassinated”, the teleprinter kept screaming for a few minutes before more details started tricking in. Forgetting the fatigue, I got down to writing the lead story for my newspaper, checking out the teleprinter every few minutes to make sure that we did not miss out on any updates.

As I was returning home around 2 AM, my mind inevitably went back some seven years: to October 30, 1984, to be precise. Rajiv’s mother and the incumbent Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was delivering her famous “Khoon ka Katra” speech at what used to be called the Parade Ground in Bhubaneswar, now known as Indira Park. I had not, however, gone there to listen to Indira, but was just wading through the crowd to reach my ‘khati’ near the Unit II market building. Little did I know at the time that the speech I was listening to inadvertently would become Indira’s swan song and her most famous speech.

Next morning, a few of us friends were crowding around a radio to listen to the running commentary of the India-Pakistan one day international match being played in Pakistan. The explosive duo of Sandeep Patil and Kapil Dev was smashing the Pak bowlers to all corners of the ground. We were all glued to the radio when the commentary suddenly stopped and a melancholic tune started playing on All India Radio (AIR). We were perplexed and dejected at this abrupt disruption of the commentary and kept hoping that it was a temporary affair caused by loss of transmission, which would be rectified soon. But alas! It was not to be. The melancholic tune kept playing all day on all stations. Disappointed, we returned to our respective rooms in the hostel. Around 2 PM, someone rushed in with the news that Indira Gandhi had been shot dead by her security guards. The news had broken on BBC radio, he informed. The formal confirmation from the government came only around 6 in the evening.

I was struck by the remarkable similarities in the circumstances leading up to the assassination of the mother-son duo. If the mother was killed within hours after I saw her in person for the first time, the son got assassinated within hours after I watched him from close quarters.

I kept wondering if I was cursed with an evil eye that killed two of the most loved Prime Ministers in the history of the country! Once I got over the shock, I thought about what a memorable experience it would have been had we not decided against accompanying Rajiv on his helicopter. Just imagine having an ‘exclusive’ with a former PM just hours before his assassination! But Providence obviously had some other ideas.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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