Thirty years after India’s first and only woman prime minister fell to the bullets of her bodyguards, 1, Safdarjung Road continues to evoke a mix of awe and curiosity. The leafy Lutyens building, where Indira Gandhi lived for 20 years until her death on October 31, 1984, was converted into the Indira Gandhi Memorial and Museum and, according to those who run it, is one of the most visited memorials in the country.
Every morning, the road outside the memorial is lined with half-a-dozen buses carrying tourists from across India. Around 1 pm on a Wednesday, a group of tourists from Rajkot, Gujarat, alights from a bus and jostles through the gates.
The average daily footfall at the memorial ranges from 3,000 in January-February to 15,000 in August-September. With whistle-blowing attendants goading visitors to keep moving, Mrs Gandhi’s public and personal life recorded in photographs, medals and
newspaper articles fast-forwards before their eyes. The “Rajiv section” was added to the museum after Mrs Gandhi’s son and former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.
The museum walls have framed newspaper articles chronicling her public life: “Unanimous election of Indira Gandhi (The Indian Express, Feb 3, 1959)”, “14 top banks are nationalised (The Times of India, July 20, 1969)”, “Mrs Gandhi loses (The Statesman, March 21, 1977)”. Visitors hold up their mobile phones to take photographs of Mrs Gandhi as PM, with her grandchildren, and as a young girl in a light-coloured blouse.
But the sight which stuns most is the orange-brown sari and black chappals she was wearing when she was shot. Through all the chatter in disparate tongues — Gujarati and Telugu, among others — the one word that keeps coming up is “sari”.
The path leading up to Indira Gandhi’s office is covered with crystal pieces. The spot she fell after being shot dead is encased in glass.
The prime minister was walking up to her office for an interview with the BBC when her two guards had shot her dead. In 2009, some of the worn-out crystal pieces on the path were replaced with new ones brought from Czech Republic.
The memorial is a window to Mrs Gandhi’s lifestyle — her subtle taste reflected in the mellow sofa upholstery, dim lights and the Madhubani paintings. Her dressing room has a big shoe shelf with a pair of plain chappals, saris, a weighing machine and a dressing table lined with a magnifying glass, a lipstick, and an Estee Lauder foundation. Her study room and bedroom display her books: Dandil: Stories from Iranian Life, The Left Bank: Writers, Artists, Politics from the Popular Front to the Cold War, and Philippines. In 2009, on the 25th anniversary of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, her books were fumigated.
The rooms, blocked to the public by glass walls, are dusted every Monday, when the memorial is shut to the public.
“Sonia Gandhi often comes here to oversee the maintenance of these rooms,” says Suman Dubey of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which maintains the memorial.
In 2012, two nitrogen chambers were installed in the enclosures displaying the clothes Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv wore the day they were assassinated. “Nitrogen protects the clothes, stained with blood, from oxygen, thus increasing their shelf life,” says Dubey.
As they head to the exit, people take back different things from the memorial.
“She was so pretty when she was young,” says Amina Tabassum from Hyderabad. Denka, from Bangalore, says she feels she now “understands Mrs Gandhi better”.