Peter Ustinov
November 19, 1984 12:00 PM

The famed actor-writer-director was in New Delhi when he became a witness to tragic history. After spending two days traveling with Indira Gandhi, he was waiting in the garden October 31 to tape an interview for a series of TV profiles when she was assassinated by two trusted Sikh members of her security staff. The murderous retaliation for the government’s June 6 invasion of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, plunged the country into convulsive rioting and thrust Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, into a position of power for which few believed him prepared. What follows is Ustinov’s account of the woman he found “easy and almost shy in conversation, with even a trace of the hesitancy of her childhood, who became, in public, a tiny figurehead of a gigantic ship, a high priest of some rite she had invented.”

In order to interview Indira Gandhi, I read from books lent by the Indian Embassy in Dublin. They were a good preparation, but at times the facts were clouded by fiction. Invariably sympathetic, at times sycophantic. Nevertheless, reading between the lines, it was possible to detect a character of great complexity, which my eventual meeting with her did nothing to dispel.

My arrival at New Delhi gave me a foretaste of that India which I had known briefly before. A young lady in a sari shepherded me with the greatest courtesy to Immigration, where a stern old gentleman in uniform informed me that I had no visa. I sat at a wooden table for a time before it occurred to me to produce my United Nations travel certificate, which had a magical effect, and the need for a visa became not only superfluous but an insult to my status. This rapid change of attitude did not affect the Customs officer, however. He ordered me in peremptory fashion to open my bags while he ferreted through my dirty washing. He let me go with some regret, and after having stood in line for the best part of an hour to cash a traveler’s check, I found a taxi to take me to my hotel. There I fell into a deep sleep, only to be awakened minutes later by a plaintive voice telling me that I was not at the airport. I replied testily that I was aware of that fact. The gentleman then revealed that he was an emissary of the Ministry of External Affairs sent to facilitate my entry into the country, and that he was phoning from the airport.

I dwell on this initial incident at such length because it is typical of the almost brutal efficiency and astonishing waywardness, the military bearing and lapses into bewildered and disarming chaos, that characterize this huge country, and without which a part, at least, of Mrs. Gandhi’s personality cannot be understood.

There had been a change of plan. There always is. Mrs. Gandhi decided to invite us to travel with her on her preelection visit to the state of Orissa. The program for this 66-year-old leader would have seemed formidable even for someone far younger. We were to arrive at Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, at 9:05 a.m. (breakfast onboard). From there a helicopter was to take us to Saintala, where Mrs. Gandhi was to lay the foundation stone for a projected ordnance factory and address a public meeting. At 11:05 a.m. we left for Umarkot. Here, she did no more than address a public meeting at 11:55. At 12:20 we were off again, and she addressed another public meeting at 1:20 p.m. At 3:10 p.m. came a further public meeting. At 4:40 p.m. we were back at Bhubaneswar so that the Prime Minister could meet party workers of the Congress Party machine. The so-called night halt came at 6:20 p.m. I say so-called because an interview with a Lebanese journalist was set for 7 p.m.

These public meetings always followed the same pattern. The Prime Minister would emerge from the helicopter to vast acclamations and orchestrated shouts of “Zindabad Gandhi” (Long live Gandhi). She would then stand in a jeep and be driven slowly round the inner perimeter of the meeting ground, waving and being showered with flowers. Then she would mount a small concrete grandstand. We would sit behind her among local dignitaries while she made her speeches in Hindi. She spoke in a weak, un-resonant voice, completely devoid of oratorical tricks. The loudspeaker system, at times, seemed inadequate. This would have made the public in most other countries restless, but here the 100,000 listeners were extraordinarily silent—apart from some ecstatic outbursts of doubtful spontaneity. Mrs. Gandhi told me, with evident satisfaction, that these were small meetings compared to most, and it is certain that she took particular pride in being the leader of the largest democracy in the world.

On a purely technical level it was astonishing that even a partisan crowd could have been reduced to such docility by the sight of a tiny woman and the sound of a voice both thin and monotonous. Then it occurred to me that her famous namesake, Mahatma Gandhi (no relation), had also been a tiny person without powers of persuasion other than those of morality and high ideals. And of course the very idea of nonviolence and conciliation are the antithesis of sophistry; oratorical tricks would only serve to make such a message suspect. Perhaps the presence of leaders of physical fragility coupled with an indomitable will, who express themselves with a degree of mysticism usually deemed impractical in other countries, is exactly what appeals to the Indian public. Such figures become, in a sense, the symbols of human possibility against all the challenges imposed by doubt and irresolution.

Philosophies such as nonviolence do not just spring into the popular consciousness out of nowhere. They evolve as urgent solutions to very palpable problems. Nonviolence is born out of violence. India is, after all, a land that has given the word “thug” to the vocabulary, which itself signifies that violence stands at one end of the spectrum of this highly volatile nation as clearly as exquisite courtesy and celestial calm stand at the other.

Mrs. Gandhi seemed to me a microcosm of this India, as capable of calmly ruthless decisions—like the storming of the Sikh temple at Amritsar—as she was of most engaging and even humorous banter. Like most people, but unlike most leaders, she grafted herself onto the mood of the moment, fulfilling expectations, or often surpassing them. When it was a time for snap decisions, even of a far-reaching nature, she was capable of making them with little visible emotion, but when it was a time for introspection, she allowed herself to explore the well of her own solitude with the most disarming candor.

She sat down beside me on the airplane and we had the only substantial chat of our trip. She told me of King Ashok, a great tyrant and warlord who many centuries ago conquered territory with enormous loss of life. Then his sister spoke: “What have you created in your existence but widows and orphans?” He never fought another battle, instead writing precepts for human behavior, ordering solutions, both pacific and harmonious, to conflict. Mrs. Gandhi seemed to derive particular pleasure from the fact that whereas the peacemaker was a man, his inspiration was a woman.

I made it clear to her on the airplane that I was not after an interview in the accepted sense but preferred a conversation. I wished to start my exploration at the beginning, with her as the only child of a charismatic leader whose wife, Indira’s mother, had died young. “I am an only child myself,” I explained, “and I think we come to terms with our own essential solitude earlier than children with brothers or sisters do. It was only when I had more than one child myself,” I went on, “that the rivalries and jealousies of siblings became apparent.” I knew that it was on record that when her first son, Rajiv, now the new Prime Minister, was born, he was an exemplary baby, only to become fractious and difficult when his brother, Sanjay, followed two years later. The mother was shocked by the sudden change that came over him. How could she guess that such undercurrents existed in human nature, she who had known only solitude?

It would be pretentious to suggest that my slightly unusual approach held any significance for her, but she agreed to appear in the garden for our conversation at 9 a.m. on Wednesday. The talk was to end at 10 a.m. Between 10 and 11 we were to travel in her car to her office, filming the journey. From 11 to 1, we were to continue in her office. She promised time the next day in case we were not satisfied.

None of this was to be. To continue in the precise style of the Indian briefings, between 9:07 a.m. and 9:08 a.m. on Wednesday, she was killed.

I recall that we arrived at 8:30 and, owing to the stringent security measures, were at first denied admission at the gate. By the time we had set up in the garden, it was just past 9:00. The Prime Minister’s press secretary was told we were ready. He went to fetch her. Before he had time to meet her, three shots rang out. “Firecrackers,” said the Indian cameraman. “They are quite usual in these parts.” Then came a burst from an automatic weapon. Clearly not firecrackers. One of our crew walked slowly toward the house. He returned as slowly, looking white and shaken. “The Prime Minister’s been hit,” he said quietly. Then two more bursts of automatic weapon fire. Someone, or others, had been hit.

One remembers in those moments the attempt on the life of Mr. Reagan. One remembers the shouting, the urgency, the plunging to the sidewalk. In other countries assassination attempts occur in streets or in offices. In India, even such ugly events are different. For both Mahatma Gandhi and Mrs. Gandhi they took place in gardens, and in silence.

Within a surprisingly short time there was a noise of hammering, metal on metal. They were building barricades outside. The life of the garden continued as though nothing had occurred. Above me only moments after the event an ungainly vulture had tried to enter its nest, already occupied by its mate. It was pushed out and fell almost to the ground, protesting, only to rise again for another attempt, beating the branches with its wings.

An intellectual-looking official sent us home. We were stopped at the gate. There are no precedents for murder. Nobody is in full command, though the center of gravity tends to slip toward the military. Three times we were sent away by civilians. Three times we were sent back by the military, eventually to sit on the lawn on dining-room chairs, like an absurd group of Colonial administrators having a snapshot taken a hundred years ago.

After four and a half hours of watching officers and civilians come and go, some nervous, some glacial, all of them grim-faced, they allowed us to leave. During the hours of enforced idleness I reflected on the meeting that never took place. Mrs. Gandhi had wished to talk of other things than her daily routine, of that I am sure. She wished, perhaps, to continue that endless discovery of oneself in which everyone of sensibility indulges, breaking for a moment the demanding routine at which she had become such an expert. I had never met her before, of course, but she seemed much smaller than I had imagined, and an occasional twitch of one eye seemed to speak of a fundamental weariness and strain. When she warmed to her subject, the twitch disappeared, but in moments of reticence, when there was no need to focus on particulars, it would reappear.

Now I will never know if my speculations are true or not. She is dead, but the fact of her death has affected the living even more than her life had done. Due to an act of treachery incompatible not only with religion and honor but even with common sense, more than a thousand other lives have been lost, more by far than those lost in the Golden Temple of Amritsar. Never has there been such urgent need for nonviolence to be rediscovered.

Rajiv, the child whose solitude was disturbed by the birth of his brother, now has the solitude of power thrust on him. His is a forbidding task, but no more difficult than being the 40-year-old Crown Prince of such a magnetic woman in a land of tenderness and terror, a land in which the cows wander unmolested through the massacres.

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