Date: January 30, 1948
Time: 5.16 pm (Dusk is approaching)
Place: Rear lawn of the Birla House, New Delhi [ Images ]
Nearly 500 people are seated on the ground and some are standing with their eyes on the garden-path leading from the main house to the rear lawn. Enter Gandhi, with his hands resting on the shoulders on Abha and Manu Gandhi. He folds his hands. A gunshot rends the air. Then another, and then a third. Gandhi falls.
I have often wondered whether I would not have been happier had I been spared those few traumatic moments I was destined to witness that historic evening on the lawns of Birla House, on Albuquerque Road (later renamed Tees January Marg to commemorate Gandhi's martyrdom), New Delhi. I had been visiting Birla House every evening since the middle of September 1947 to attend the prayer meetings of Mahatma Gandhi [ Images ].
Strange as it may seem, it was not because I was a devotee of the Mahatma -- at least not to begin with -- that I went to these prayer meetings every evening. What took me to these prayer meetings was that as the program officer of All India [ Images ] Radio, I was assigned to record the Mahatma's post-prayer speech every evening. AIR would then broadcast the speech at prime time on its national network.
Voice recording those days was a far more cumbersome procedure than it is today. Voice recorders and handy cassettes had not yet arrived. Recording was done on unwieldy presto discs 16 to 18 inches in diameter; and Birla House being situated about 3 miles away from the studios of AIR, the speech would, in the first instance, be carried by telephone lines to the studios of AIR and recorded on in the control room for subsequent broadcast.
On that fateful evening, as dusk approached, little seemed different. I was making my last-minute checks, including testing the microphones, checking the quality of speech on the telephone lines, and settling with the control room engineer the day's cues to signal the start and the end of the evening's recording.
All these checks would take barely a few minutes once the equipment had been set up at the usual place, but by their very nature, these would be completed only minutes before Gandhi took his place on the low wooden platform at the far end of the sprawling lawns.
As I recollect, I was preoccupied alternately checking the recording equipment one moment and turning my gaze the next moment towards the pergola-ed garden path leading from the main house to the lawn along which Gandhi was slowly approaching.
I can recall his coming up the two steps from the garden-path onto the raised lawn with his two hands resting on the shoulders of his grand-nieces Abha and Manu, one clad in a khadi sari and the other in a khadi salwar kameez.
The next instant, I again turned to check the microphone for the last time. I had not completed the check when a gunshot rent the air. Strangely, I continued to concentrate on whatever I was doing, thinking someone had burst a firecracker. But barely a second later, another shot pierced the air and, by instinct, I knew what had happened.
As my eyes turned towards the scene, I saw the man pulling the trigger a third time. In a moment, Gandhi fell. Those nearest him knelt down and formed a ring round the fallen body. As legend unfolded later, the last words, it was said, to emanate from Gandhi's lips as he fell down were "He Ram!"
I must confess that from the place I was positioned at that moment, I did not hear these words. For a brief while, there was pandemonium among the audience. Several persons leapt forward and seized the assassin who offered no resistance nor uttered a word.
Someone tall and of a strong build from amongst the congregation, with a flowing white beard, clad in white kurta-pajama, quietly lifted the Mahatma's body in his two arms all by himself and slowly walked carrying the body to the room which had been Gandhi's last abode.
The whole crowd surged behind in the same direction, and very soon, the lawn became desolate. I hastened to gather the recording equipment and put it aside.
Moments later, I noticed that someone had circled off the spot where Gandhi had fallen with a handful of humble twigs, and in the middle of that circle, a tiny candle placed on a small stone was burning with a flickering flame. By then, the sun had set and it was dark.
The news of the ghastly tragedy must have traveled at lightning speed. In a matter of a few moments, thousands of people came rushing to Birla House.
Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy and the first governor general of India was among the first to arrive, followed minutes later by Jawaharlal Nehru [ Images ].
Sardar Patel, who had visited Gandhi only an hour earlier that evening and had, in fact, left when Gandhi looked at his watch impatiently murmuring that he was getting late for the prayer meeting, too rushed back on hearing the news.
So did Maulana Azad, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and many others. In the crowd, which by now was swelling by the minute, could be seen people from every walk of life including many foreigners.
I could recognize in their midst, Edgar Snow, the celebrated American author whose Red Star Over China is a classic today, and Vincent Sheen, another well-known American journalist. Thousands of people had come inside Birla House and were straining for a last look at the Mahatma's body. Many more were milling against the gateposts outside, straining to make their way inside.
Even though everyone present seemed to know intuitively by now that the Mahatma was no more, no formal announcement was made. After minutes of waiting which to those in the crowd must have looked like hours, emerged Nehru from inside the room, grief-stricken and with his eyes moist with tears.
Striving to look composed, he slowly inched his way to the gatepost through the milling crowd. For a while, he stood speechless, and then from his lips emanated those famous words: 'The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we call him, the Father of the Nation, is no more. We will not run to him for advice and seek solace from him and it is a terrible blow not to me only but to millions in this country. And it is difficult to soften the blow by any advice that I or anyone can give.'
At this point, Nehru broke down and wept unabashedly and everyone around wept with him. After a few moments, Nehru looked up again, his face soaked in tears, which he made no attempt to wipe, and added: 'The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it would give solace to innumerable hearts.'
These words were carried live to the world by All India Radio. The horror of the slaying lay not in that someone had slain another, not even in the motives which lay behind the act, nor in the unholy alliance in which the killers had joined. The horror in this case lay simply in the fact that someone could look into the eyes of the gentlest of human beings and yet retain the strength and resolve to pull the trigger.
K D Madan (in the pic), 86, is a retired Indian civil servant and lives in New Delhi. He was 24 when he witnessed Mahatma Gandhi's assassination