As the heaving, sweaty mass of bodies surged towards the yellow metal barricades, a defiant fist rose above them all, clutching the stalks of a frayed, red bouquet.
“I have to get this through for Kalam sir,” said 21-year-old Anubhi Sharma, gaunt and on the verge of collapse.
Anubhi had reached Rajaji Marg nearly four hours ago, at noon, to “say goodbye” to India’s 11th President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam outside his residence in the heart of Delhi.
And just when she had settled down on the pavement to wait for 3 pm, when the public would be allowed to pay their tributes to the former President, the bouquet was thrust into her hands by a man she’d never seen before.
“I don’t think I can handle this, please place this on his body,” he told her. The bouquet had a piece of paper stuck on it with an address and these three words: “Condolences Varma Family”.
Anubha and her friend Jyoti Rawat — both BSc graduates from RSD Academy in Moradabad — held on to the bouquet for an hour or so, as the crowd around them swelled to a hundred and more.
And then, around 2 pm, as Anubha moved forward to secure a “good spot” near the barricades, she dismantled the bouquet and started passing the pale green stalks around. “I don’t know why I did it, maybe Kalam sir would have liked it,” she said.
And so, the bouquet, left by an unknown Indian to celebrate the memory and mourn the death of one of its most popular leaders, split and spread — across the nation.
One stalk went to Varada, a 10-year-old from Kottayam and a Class V student in Delhi, the youngest in the first rush of mourners, wilting in the heat, but firmly holding on to the hands of her father Sajimon Karunakaran.
“She’s too little to know what Kalam was all about. But I have told her that he was the only Indian leader who taught its children to dream. He was a Muslim President nominated by a Hindu party and yet was above all religion. Today, my girl may not understand any of this but she will know one day that she was here,” Karunakaran said.
On the other side of the road, clutching on to a single, bare stem from that bouquet was Bobby Rajkumar, an IAS aspirant from Imphal West.
“Humility. That’s what Kalam meant to me. He reached the pinnacle and yet he was a common man, just like you and me. He had the world looking up to him, but he always looked down, at people like us,” Rajkumar, 25, said.
Behind Rajkumar, another shareholder of that bouquet stood grimly, surveying the gathering crowd. “He showed us the way. I remember my father used to say ‘look at Dr Kalam, he is an inspiration for our community’,” said Mudassir Ahmed, a second-year BCom student from Nehru College in Hubli.
“There’s this one Kalam line that my father always used to repeat: If you want to be the sun, burn like the sun. I will never forget that,” said Ahmed, 19, who is in Delhi on a sightseeing trip.
By now, the queue behind the crowd at the barricades had twisted around the corner of the road, skirted the roundabout and snaked into the K Kamraj Lane nearby.
It was past 3 pm. Ahmed and Rajkumar stepped forward to rejoin the surge at the barricades, and Anubha, her bouquet and its shareholders disappeared in the melee. There was a loud, collective groan as the barricades let out a police vehicle and closed again. Anubha and her bright blue top skimmed into view, vanished again.
But there, it was that trademark stalk again. Clutching it was K S Murali, a 48-year-old seller of computer parts in Lajpat Nagar who said he did not know the story behind the stalk, only that someone was “passing it around”.
Murali is from Villupuram in Tamil Nadu but has been a Delhi resident for “the last 20 years”. “What a man, I say,” Murali exclaimed, when asked about Kalam. “He came from such a poor background, you know. And look where he reached — scientist, missile man, President. Look around, everyone knows a good man has died,” he said.
It was past 4 pm now, and finally the barricades were thrown open. The crowd surged forward. There were hundreds waiting to follow. And in their midst, that defiant fist.